2.2b(i) Summary of Ann O’Hear, “Elite Slaves in Ilorin in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 39, no. 2 (2006): 247-273.

(see at end for note on other items in this Archive that deal with the topic of elite slaves)


     This article deals with the elite slaves of Ilorin in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During this period, their roles and status went through various changes. In the nineteenth century they grew in power, wealth, and prestige through military and intermediary (baba kekere) activities. Elite slave families were able to inherit land, which lessened the emirs’ powers over them. Some continued to exercise power and influence in the early twentieth century. The fact that they now deny their former status is a reflection of their comprehensive loss of power in the 1930s.

     The Ilorin elite slaves reveal both commonalities and differences with regard to other privileged slave groups, including those in Kano, and some of these features are explored in the article. Also noted in the article are instances of elite slaves who belonged not to the emir but to major chiefs in the city: such slaves have generally been neglected in the literature and deserve further study.

The article identifies a number of elite slave titleholders in Ilorin. The titles they bore tended to become hereditary within specific families. Military and intermediary roles provided major opportunities for elite slave titleholders and their families to gain influence and wealth. They were also able to take advantage of opportunities connected with land ownership and settlement. Acceptance of elite slaves’ hereditary rights to land helped to reduce the emirs’ patronage power once Ilorin’s expansion had been checked, but it did not always lead to the loyalty of their elite slaves. Around the end of the nineteenth century, they made various choices, ranging from complete loyalty to the emir to independent activity and open resistance.

     Ilorin was defeated in 1897 by a Royal Niger Company force, and in 1900 a British Resident was assigned to Ilorin, marking the beginning of the colonial period. The British were opposed to the influence of elite palace slaves, but the weakness of successive emirs allowed these slaves various opportunities for manipulation and profit in what was, as the article demonstrates,  a sometimes chaotic first thirty or so years of British rule in the area. But while the baba kekere role continued to be profitable, the elite slaves did not in general find similar opportunities within the colonial bureaucracy, in which district headships were given largely to members of the royal family or families of the major city chiefs. However, it was not until 1936 that the palace slaves’ power was finally destroyed, in a situation which led to their condemnation by both colonial officials and major city chiefs. After this, the elite slaves disappear from the colonial reports, although various families of their descendants, some of which are title-holding, still reside in the city.

     As of the late twentieth century, most of these families denied that their ancestors had been slaves. Yet it is clear from nineteenth-century, colonial, and other records, and also from the functions they still perform, that they are indeed the descendants of elite slaves, and the article demonstrates this by detailing the evidence with regard to the Sarkin Dongari, Balogun Afin, Ajia Atikekere, Sarkin Baraje, Ajia Ijesha, Jimba, Magaji Lanwa (Adenlolu), and Are Ogele families. The general denial of slave origin results from the removal of the power and influence that had been attached to elite slave status until the events of 1936, while the admission of slave origin by Are Ogele family members appears to reflect their own particular circumstances.

     Note: Two unpublished works in this Archive  deal with the topic of elite slaves, and use much of the same material that is covered in this article.

     The first, 2.4b(v), is an early work, titled “Slave Roles in Nineteenth-Century Ilorin,” which was presented to the Tubman Seminar on Slavery, York University, Toronto, in March 1997. It consists of a detailed survey of the roles played by various types of slaves, including elite slaves, in the area.

The second, 2.4b(i), “Shifting Projects of Elite Royal Slaves in Ilorin and Divergence between the Projects of Ilorin and Kano Slaves,” was delivered at a conference on Landscapes, Sources and Intellectual Projects in African History, held at the University of Birmingham in 2015. This examines the material on elite slaves in accordance with the theme of the conference, and involves detailed comparisons with elite slaves in Kano.

     For another published item in the Archive that features elite slaves, see 2.2j, “Political and Commercial Clientage in Nineteenth-Century Ilorin, African Economic History, no. 15 (1986), 69-83.

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