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2.2e(i) Summary of Ann O’Hear, “Ilorin as a Slaving and Slave-Trading Emirate,” in Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy, 55-68. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2004.
This chapter is largely based on a paper presented at the SSHRC/UNESCO Summer Institute, “Identifying Enslaved Africans; The ‘Nigerian’ Hinterland and the African Diaspora,” held at York University, Toronto, in July 1997.
It details the activities of Ilorin in capturing and trading in slaves, and it provides some anecdotal but contemporary information on the origins and journeys of the slave population involved. In the early years of the nineteenth century, Ilorin was the headquarters of Afonja, a general who rebelled against the Oyo empire. He invited to Ilorin a Fulani scholar, Salih (Alimi), who was joined there by other Muslims. Afonja was eventually defeated by the Fulani and their allies, and in the 1820s, Ilorin became an emirate on the southern frontier of the Sokoto/Gwandu Caliphate. Afonja had begun an expansionist policy that continued under the early Fulani emirs, who were aiming, it is said, to “dip the Koran in the sea” (55, quoting Samuel Johnson, History of the Yorubas).
However, Ilorin’s advance to the south was curtailed by Ibadan and by the difficulties presented by the terrain. But the emirate continued to pursue its expansion, initially by moving to the northeast, and then in alliance with other powers. Its policy eventually became more defensive, concentrating on the retention of its influence in the savanna.
Ilorin took over some of Oyo’s role in capturing and re-exporting slaves. It became a major entrepôt, a middleman city between the north and the south. The slaves sold in Ilorin included both those captured by Ilorin itself and those who were brought from further north, via Rabba, on the Niger. Kano was an important source of slaves brought south to and through Ilorin, while Ilorin’s own campaigns also brought many slaves into the market in the city. As time went on, Ilorin joined both Ibadan and the Nupe-Fulani in campaigns to capture slaves. But it also waged war against Ibadan, as seen in the long siege of Offa, which provided many opportunities for slave capture.
Ilorin’s slave capture may have declined over time. For example, its alliance with the Ekitiparapo may have brought losses as well as gains, since it could no longer raid the Ekiti areas as it had done before. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Ilorin’s forces were mainly occupied fairly close to home, around Offa and the Ibadan camp, although it also raided far to the east.
The final destinations of the slaves who were marketed in Ilorin were varied. Many remained in Ilorin or its surrounding rural areas, while some were sent north as tribute. Sources suggest that very large numbers were settled in and around the city, working in agriculture and various other occupations. Male slaves were generally preferred over females, due to their physical strength.
Many slaves were also sent south to the major Yoruba city-states, or to join the Atlantic trade. The freed slaves who were Sigismund Koelle’s informants in Sierra Leone in mid-century provided evidence of Ilorin’s role in the slave trade and the origins and journeys of the slaves who passed through the city. Further information was provided by Francis de Castelnau, who interviewed slaves in Bahia in the late 1840s.
The city-states of southern Yorubaland engaged in large-scale agricultural production to support themselves and to profit from “legitimate” trade, all of this activity depending on slave labour. Thus, the trade in slaves through Ilorin continued through the nineteenth century and even for some years into the twentieth. Ilorin played a major role in both slaving and slave-trading, notably in the movement of slaves to southern Yorubaland and beyond.