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2.2g(i) Summary of Ann O’Hear, “British Intervention and the Slaves and Peasant Farmers of Ilorin, c. 1890‒c. 1906,” Paideuma, vol. 40 (1994): 129-148. Also correction to the printed text.

Correction to the text of the printed article, page 146:

     The paragraph beginning “The peasant farmers around Ilorin” up to the note number 132 was mangled in the printing process. The following is the correct version:

“The peasant farmers around Ilorin seem to have gained a reduction in the amount of tribute they paid to their landlords. But this improvement in their conditions was offset by the imposition of government taxation. As early as 1907, taxation was high enough to stimulate a sizeable migration across the border to Southern Nigeria, where there was no such tax to pay.”


     Events in the years leading up to, during, and subsequent to the British takeover of Ilorin were complex and confusing. The British presence in what would become Nigeria exerted considerable influence on the emirate of Ilorin, via pressure f:rom the British in the south, the Royal Niger Company’s actions, and the activities of British forces and groups in 1897-1900. In 1900, the city and emirate became part of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria. This article looks  specifically at the effects of these interventions on the slaves and poor free farmers in and around the city and to the west and north.

     The period of turmoil in Ilorin in the 1890s was closely connected with British pressure from the south. Emir Momo of Ilorin wanted peace with the British, but his major war leaders were adamantly against this. Ultimately, Momo suffered a catastrophic loss of power culminating in his suicide in 1895 and his replacement by the war leaders’ puppet, Suleiman. Both sides in the dispute involved themselves in seizing slaves. In 1897, following pressure from the British Foreign Office, Royal Niger Company (RNC) forces led by George Goldie embarked on an expedition against Ilorin. The city was defeated, and the emir and war leaders surrendered. As a result, numerous slaves fled from the city, many of them Hausa and other northerners. Emir Suleiman begged for Goldie’s help in retrieving them, without success. Numerous Hausa escaped slaves settled around Jebba, and others chose to be taken to Lokoja. Still other Hausa and other northerners left for more distant destinations. Those around Jebba may well have become “maroon” colonies, which would have encouraged further slaves to run away from Ilorin and its surrounding area.

     Goldie left no garrison at Ilorin, and relations with Lagos soon worsened. A West African Frontier Force (WAFF) detachment was met with hostility. The years 1897-1900 were characterised by slave seizures, closely related to British pressure and resulting fears among the city elite that their days of slave capture were numbered.  Poor free farmers around Ilorin suffered greatly from the depredations of the city elite and the overall insecurity of the years up to 1900, which left them prey to slave raiding, seizure, and other brigandage. Enslavement in Ilorin and its surrounding area continued at least until the end of 1900, even after a British presence was established in the city.

     In January 1900, Ilorin became part of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria. The first two British Residents (officials in charge) in Ilorin, David Carnegie and Pierce Dwyer, both expressed the opinion that slavery was reasonably mild in Ilorin, though Carnegie noted that he had “had to . . . settle many slavery questions” (136).  But by no means all slaves were happy to stay, and recurring turmoil in Ilorin in 1902 and 1907, when major city chiefs were deported, may well have provided more opportunities of escape (although some chose to go into exile with their masters, probably as their only means of subsistence).

     The accounts of Carnegie and Dwyer likely reflect the arguments of the slave-owning elite; besides this, as Dwyer noted, he was “not in a position to take up a strong line on . . . slavery” (136), and he also shared the view of Frederick Lugard that mass departures of slaves would lead to great economic insecurity.

     There is little evidence in colonial reports on the departure of slaves from Ilorin in the early years of the colonial period.  Some evidence has been provided by informants, though they cannot supply numerical data or precise dates. They do, however, agree that many slaves did leave around the period of the British arrival. They recount that this caused a serious problem of labour supply, and several claim that debt pawnage became more widespread, reflecting the extent of the departures.

     But many slaves and their descendants remained in or around the city for the long term, as is confirmed by various twentieth-century reports and testimonies. In the early years of the twentieth century, several factors may have encouraged them to stay. For example, they may well have had nowhere else to go: their own towns or villages might well have been destroyed; and if they had been born in slavery they might no longer know their origins. Some had incentives to stay. Those in privileged positions, especially, could still find avenues of profit.

     Many slaves settled on the farms, as part of a renewed “outflow” from Ilorin of both slave and free farmers, which continued long after the period we are dealing with here. Much of this was encouraged or directed by local elite members, who, with the eventual establishment of the pax Britannica, lost their opportunities for large-scale slave “accumulation” and sale, and could no longer feed their large followings. The pax Britannica also encouraged farmers to leave “the shelter of the town” (141), and land exhaustion around the city was another factor in the movement.

Although elite members no longer needed large military forces, they still needed the services and deference of their slaves, and dependents in agricultural production were still needed by both elite and other families. Owners must have been concerned to retain those slaves who remained, as were the British administration. The question of how far any such concern resulted in an amelioration of conditions for slaves is an interesting one.

     One form of amelioration was to offer slaves the chance to become legally free, by self-redemption. The evidence as to whether opportunities for self-redemption increased in Ilorin in the early colonial period is inconclusive, but seems to suggest that any increase may have been limited. Very few slaves appear to have been freed in Ilorin through the courts, and informants cast some doubt on the extent of self-redemption even outside the courts.

     Certainly, conditions for slaves improved with the fairly rapid cessation of large-scale slave dealing. But in 1904 it was reported that there was still “bartering in domestic” slaves” (142), which must have taken place outside the market place. A statement by Dwyer, quoted by Lugard (1906), that the sale of children had ceased, seems to indicate that the sale of second-generation slaves had ceased. By 1911, slave parents were accepted as custodians of their children.

     The conditions of labour also changed. Payument of tribute tended to replace plantation labour, though this was probably a very gradual process. Dwyer’s account of slaves’ agricultural work in 1904 suggests that plantation labour was still common at that time. Informants recount that slaves managed to gain access to land, but on conditions. “They were given land to farm, but most of the time on a temporary basis.” Access to land depended on their “good conduct” or “cordial relationship” with their former owner, and they also had to pay tribute to the man on whose land they farmed, whether or not he was their former owner.

     Other conditions improved. Some slaves had been able to achieve some measure of absorption into their owners’ families in the nineteenth century. After British rule began, it is said that absorption into the families of owners was further promoted: slaves were called “children of the house” and they were said to be “no longer subject to forced labour [but] treated with consideration” (144) However, this claim is called into question by reports of the ill-treatment of slaves in the records of the first few years of the twentieth century.

For female slaves, specifically, avenues of of resistance and amelioration alike seem to have been limited. Although elsewhere in the Caliphate, many concubines took the opportunity of the British conquest to escape, there is no evidence as to the numbers who did so in Ilorin. Information on concubines after 1900 in Ilorin is sparse, but suggests that there were only limited opportunities for amelioration of their condition, although the evidence from 1906 of a girl “in the Emir’s harem” (144) who refused to be redeemed and taken away to Lagos by her grandmother indicates that concubinage might have its advantages.

     While slave trading in general exerienced a massive decline, transfers of female slaves continued. In 1906, a girl complained that she had been sold by two men to a third. The British Resident complained that “It is always a difficult thing to differentiate between dowry money and slave dealing” (145), but he found the men guilty and fined them. This is just one case, but it does provide evidence that female slaves did not always accept their situation without protesting, though it is likely that opportunities for protest were few and far between.

     Thus, the situation for slaves at the turn of the twentieth century was mixed, with regard to both amelioration and opportunities for resistance. The situation for free peasants was also an uncertain one. They did benefit from a more peaceful environment once the British took over. When in 1904 it was rumoured that the British were withdrawing, “consternation among the poor class” in the town was reported. Resident Dwyer believed that the chiefs would “gladly  . . . welcome the old days when they lived on plundering the poor” (147).  The lead-up to the near-revolt of 1907 included robberies, attacks on villages, and murders. The free farmers around Ilorin seem to have gained a reduction in the tribute they paid to their landlords, but now they were made to pay government taxation as well.

British activities, therefore, had led to some improvements in the conditions of life for both slaves and poor free farmers. But taxation was an extra burden on both, and in the years to come, the city elite was able to strengthen its control. In doing so, however, in the very long run it created a resentful and finally resistant underclass.

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