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2.2h(i) Summary of Ann O’Hear, “Pawning [of persons] in the Emirate of Ilorin,” in Pawnship in Africa, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy and Toyin Falola, 217‒243. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994. [Reprinted unchanged in Pawnship, Slavery, and Colonialism in Africa, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy and Toyin Falola. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003.]
Pawnship (pawnage) was important in the Emirate of Ilorin in the nineteenth century. Further north in the Sokoto Caliphate it was not so common, for Islamic reasons, except in the Nupe emirates. This chapter therefore takes a look at Nupe as well as Ilorin, and at Islamic ramifications of pawning. Ilorin was very largely Yoruba, and pawning there was similar to elsewhere in Yorubaland. It is difficult to write a chronological account of pawnage in Ilorin, but it was certainly an established institution there well before the beginning of the colonial period.
It was distinguished from slavery in its mode of recruitment, as elsewhere in Yorubaland. It involved a contract between a debtor and a creditor, and pawns were supposed to serve only while the debt remained unpaid (though this was not always honoured in practice). Despite the difference from slavery, a stigma might be attached to pawns.
Early Ilorin colonial records provide information on pawning contracts, for both adults and children. The debtor or the debtor’s child might serve as the pawn. Pawns were required to work for the creditor. Adults were given time to work for themselves, and even male children might be given such time. Usually, a guarantor was held responsible for payments. The pawn would work for the creditor until the loan was repaid. Generally, the work performed for the creditor was not regarded as repayment for the debt, but the pawn’s work might be seen as a form of non-monetary interest, not only in Ilorin but elsewhere in Yorubaland and in Nupe.
Both males and females became pawns in Ilorin. Mostly, males were given to male creditors, and females to female creditors. Females were used for household work, but males were more in demand, for “heavy farm work” (221). There appear to have been few married female pawns in Ilorin, and there were strong social sanctions against a man pawning his wife: such an act, informants say, would be “abhorrent” (222). These sanctions were probably influenced by Islam, as in Nupe, although such sanctions may also have existed in largely non-Muslim southern Yorubaland. In Ilorin, unlike southern Yorubaland, it was unacceptable for a married woman to put herself in pawn, apparently due to the influence of Islamic law. In Ilorin, the majority of pawns were healthy children and young people. There is evidence for child pawning in Nupe, especially in the later colonial period. Some slaves as well as free individuals became pawns in Ilorin, but this does not seem to have been very common.
Pawnage was an important way of obtaining a loan in Ilorin. Pawning of goods was also possible, in Ilorin and elsewhere, but was apparently rare. There is conflicting testimony about loans on interest, which may well mean that such loans were not always available, partly due to Islamic prohibitions but also to the advantages that both creditors and debtors saw in pawnage. Various circumstances involving heavy financial expense could result in pawnage, not only in Ilorin but elsewhere, including marriage and judicial expenses, and problems caused by war, including a dearth of cowries and the need to ransom enslaved relatives. There were also more positive reasons for pawnage, including the opportunity for children to receive training in a craft or trade. A pawnage agreement could lead to a useful clientage relationship. But there might be disadvantages, like ill-treatment or long periods in pawn for a child.
The creditor benefited from the work done by the debtor or the debtor’s child. Pawns were often used in strenuous or laborious tasks. They could also be used as carriers, and in a variety of other tasks, as they were elsewhere. But while creditors were motivated by economic advantages, they were also motivated by charitable reasons and the admiration that was enjoyed by individuals or families who were known for their generosity.
Pawning was common in the nineteenth century in southern Yorubaland, and further increased in importance there from the 1890s, especially as domestic slavery fell apart under British pressure. In Ilorin, slavery did not disintegrate, but numerous slaves left Ilorin in 1897, after the Royal Niger Company “broke” the city and in later years. Informants are in agreement that many slaves departed, enough to cause dislocation in the labour supply. But many other slaves remained in or around Ilorin, for a variety of reasons. They might have been well treated, females might have children fathered by their owners, and males might have wives and children in Ilorin. It is likely that Ilorin’s slave capturing opportunities were reduced as the nineteenth century wore on, so that many of its slaves would have been settled there a generation or more before 1900. “Many,” it is said, “could no longer locate their home areas” (231).
A number of Ilorin informants relate that there was an increase in pawning due to the departure of slaves. But in Ilorin, there may not have been as pressing a demand as there was further south, where export crop production developed on a large scale. However, there were other reasons why pawning remained useful. Informants of S.F. Nadel in Nupe told him that an “enormous” rise in pawning was due to “rising prices and rising cost of living” (A Black Byzantium, 1942, 311, 313). While Nadel’s informants may have been speaking mostly about problems during depressions, in Ilorin the problems would likely be ever present, due to the loss of its middleman position and inability to produce a profitable export crop.
Certainly, pawning in Ilorin continued during the colonial period, with some informants averring that it increased in the depression years of the 1930s. It is also clear that at some period numerous craft compounds used pawns, likely in the early colonial period. For example, the major lantana beadmaking families in Ilorin may well have used more pawns when their sources of slaves dried up. But other Ilorin compounds used apprentices, and pawns are not mentioned with regard to crafts in Bida.
British colonial officials issued various regulations intended to restrict pawnage. But for a long time, they were mostly ineffective, in Ilorin as also in southern Yorubaland, where the practice remained common beyond the 1930s. An attempt to suppress pawnage in 1933-1934 was enforced in Bida Emirate for a while, but this “suppression” is unlikely to have been permanent. As far as Ilorin is concerned, it is difficult to accurately date the decline in pawning. My very general overall impression from the varied reports of informants is that pawning is likely to have ebbed and flowed for several decades in the twentieth century, increasing during the 1930s depression, and lasting longer in the rural areas than in the city.
Ilorin informants’ perceptions of the reason for the eventual decline in pawning are varied. Yet, two points can be made with reasonable certainty. First, not all Ilorin people rejected the system of pawnage because it produced interest (in the form of labour), because they were prepared to accept the notion of monetary interest. Second, the system declined for a number of reasons linked to the social and economic changes brought about by the colonial period, as it did in the Yoruba areas further south. After what appears to have been a gradual process of decline, little trace of it remains in Ilorin today.
The chapter concludes that pawning was common in Ilorin, in southern Yorubaland, and in the Nupe emirates. The similarities between Ilorin and the south suggest that it came from a Yoruba tradition, but the similarities with Nupe show that it was more widespread. In both Ilorin and Nupe, Islam led to some adjustments to the tradition, in theory and to some extent in practice.