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2.4b(i) “Shifting Projects of Elite Royal Slaves in Ilorin and Divergence between the Projects of Ilorin and Kano Slaves.” Landscapes, Sources, and Intellectual Projects in African History: Symposium in Honour of Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias, University of Birmingham, Department of African Studies and Anthropology and Centre of West African Studies, 2015.

Shifting Projects of Elite Royal Slaves in Ilorin and Divergence between the Projects of Ilorin and Kano Slavesi

Ann O’Hear

     In this paper, I look at the projects, specifically, of the elite slaves of the emirship in Ilorin.ii These slaves were close to the emirs and held major positions in the 19th century, enjoying influence, wealth, and prestige. Under British rule, some continued to exercise influence, particularly as baba kekere, or intermediaries, controlling access to the emirs. So their overall project was to achieve political and economic self-aggrandisement by manipulating their position.

But, after a massive loss of influence in the 1930s, their slave status became an embarrassment, leading to a shift in their projects, to the manipulation of family histories in order to retain some prestige while hiding their former status.

The Ilorin slaves’ projects in the 19th and early 20th centuries were somewhat similar to those of royal slaves elsewhere, especially Kano. But later, one particular divergence between the projects of Ilorin and Kano ex-royal slaves becomes evident, and I will return to this at a later  point in the paper.

In this paper, therefore, I take a brief look at some of the Ilorin slaves and their 19th- and early-20th-century projects, then I focus on their shift to a historical project and on a comparison between Ilorin and Kano that reveals the divergence between them that is linked with this project.

      So, in the 19th century, the Ilorin royal slaves pursued self-aggrandisement through the often intertwined avenues of military service, baba kekere roles, and opportunities associated with land ownership, land agency, and land settlement. Among these slaves were the heads of the Jimba family; the Sarkin Dongari, Balogun Afin, Ajia Ijesha, Are Ogele, Ajia Atikekere, and Sarkin Baraje; and Adenlolu of Lanwa.

     A number of them profited from military service, with the Jimba chiefs providing  a good example. And it is reported that from the reign of Shita, the second emir, the emirs did not go to war in person, and that captured slaves and other booty went first to the warrior slaves and chiefs, who would siphon off a large share.

     Major opportunities for influence and wealth in the 19th century were also provided by baba kekere roles, in which elite slaves enabled people to gain access to the emir, to obtain land or justice. Many major slaves were involved. One example will suffice here: when Adenlolu was sent to settle north of the city and protect the trade route to the Niger, many men obtained farm lands from him as the emir’s land agent, “following him as their Baba Kekere.” He was said to be “a man of great influence,” as was his son.

     Other slaves also benefitted from opportunities associated with landholding, land agency, and land settlement. The Sarkin Dongari, the Balogun Afin, the Ajia Ijesha, and the Are Ogele were all sent by the emir to areas south of Ilorin, settling their followers on the land they were granted, which  became attached to their families (though the Are Ogele, unlike the other three, was a land agent rather than a landholder). They profited from opportunities related to tribute collection and access to the emir.

     Land grants made to royal slaves tended to be handed down in their families. All told, few land grants made by the emirs were recorded as being recalled and reassigned. Successive emirs may have accepted royal slaves’ hereditary rights to land in an effort to ensure their continuing loyalty, especially as the emirs began to face opposition from their free chiefs. But in the turbulence surrounding the period of the late 19th century and the British takeover, while some royal slaves did pursue their projects via loyalty to the reigning emir, others turned against him or asserted their independence.

     But since those who chose open resistance to the new colonial regime from 1900 onward were eventually defeated by the threat of British force, other royal slaves decided to stay in the service of the current emir and take advantage of  the power vacuum created by British policy (which reduced the power of the major chiefs and gave greater authority to the emirs) and the personal weakness of the early-20th-century emirs. They could still manipulate their positions, particularly through baba kekere roles and tax collection. Some were apprehended by the British, including the Ajia Atikekere, the Ajia “Omo” Ijesha (descendant of the original ajia), the Balogun Afin, and the Sarkin Baraje. Many others must have evaded the rather sporadic British efforts to bring them down.

     But although they continued to profit as baba kekere, they had less success in the colonial bureaucracy. The British were suspicious of them, and district headships were mostly given to royal family members or free chiefly families. However, some royal slaves did become village area heads. The title of magaji of Lanwa Village Area was given to Adenlolu’s descendants, but the district headship went to relatives of the emirs. In Afon, descendants of the Are Ogele were also appointed as village area heads. But these small-scale headships offered only limited opportunities for baba kekere or tax-related profit, as much was siphoned off by others.

In 1936, the power of the palace slaves was broken, as the result of a land dispute involving four palace baba kekere, whose behaviour and influence over the emir was condemned by many city chiefs and the colonial authorities. All this led to the general loss of the royal slaves’ power. And they disappeared from the colonial record.

     When their influence dwindled, their slave status became an embarrassment rather than an opportunity, and their projects now emphasised the massaging of their family histories, aiming to retain some prestige by highlighting their previous importance (and its ceremonial remnants),iii while mostly hiding or glossing over their former slave status. This project may also have included interference with colonial records.iv

The Historical Projects of the Elite Slave Families

     The families of the Sarkin Dongari, Balogun Afin, Ajia Atikekere, Sarkin Baraje, Ajia Ijesha, Jimba, Magaji Lanwa, and Are Ogele are all of slave heritage, as is clearly identified in various sources. But in 1989‒90, their family heads or representatives almost all claimed free origin. Five of them, in their “histories,” emphasise that their ancestors were “friends” (free followers) of the founders of the emirate, placing them right at the beginning of Islamic Ilorin. With respect to their lands and their activities, however, they agree with the sources that identify  their ancestors as slaves; and the functions they say they still perform in the palace are consistent with those of slave officials elsewhere.

The family of Adenlolu  denied its former slave status in a 1970s court case. The family was sued over a piece of land that its head, the magaji of Lanwa, had sold. The plaintiff claimed that the land had been given to his own ancestor and that Adenlolu was a slave and just a land agent. The defendants claimed that their ancestor was a warrior and denied that he was enslaved.v They won the case. Because the family had been accepted as tax collectors and harvested locust beans, the judge could not believe they had been slaves. Thus the family was confirmed in rights it had never been granted in the first place. This gave legitimacy to the family’s project, to claim ownership of the land and reject former slave

     Two families, however, present a different picture. The Jimba family could hardly deny its former status outright, since Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yorubas identifies the first Jimba as an emir’s slave. Thus, Safi Jimba, a member of the family, skates around the issue in his published History of Ilorin (1981), which details the 19th-century exploits of his family.

     A second family, that of the Are Ogele, is, to my knowledge, the only one that has publicly admitted its former status. In another 1970s court case, also involving a land dispute, a descendant of the first Are agreed that he was a slave of Emir Shita, who had sent him to Ogele where he built many villages. No military prowess or other distinction was claimed for him. But witnesses testified that tribute was given to the Are Ogele “as the owner of the land.” Again, the family won the case, the evidence about tribute-giving presumably outweighing the admission of previous slave status. In any case, the family’s project, to claim ownership of the land, met with success. The Are Ogele family seems to have been largely rooted in the rural area, lacking contacts and influence in the city. Perhaps its project has been, in general, to accept the limits of its situation and make the best of it.vii

A Comparison with Elite Slavery in Kano

     We can see a number of similarities between the elite royal slaves of Ilorin and those of Kano, who have been studied extensively by Sean Stilwell; I am basing my treatment of Kano on his research. In both cases, we see self-aggrandisement by manipulation and important military and policing functions. Both groups became powerful as intermediaries with the emirs, involved themselves in political disputes, and continued to pursue their projects in the early colonial period.

     But there were differences. For one thing, while titles given to slaves in Ilorin tended to become hereditary in certain families, emirs in Kano made strenuous and often successful efforts to block this.

     In addition, in Ilorin, land granted to royal slaves has tended to be handed down in their families, while in Kano, while royal slaves established and administered royal plantations for the emir, they did not themselves own land. And though some still supervised royal estates in 1975, by the 1990s they were no longer involved in (and thus no longer profiting from) this supervision.

     In Ilorin, elite royal slaves could acquire their own slaves through military service. In Kano, elite royal slaves were given slaves by the emir for their use but did not own them.

Although both groups suffered a major, permanent loss of much of their influence in the early 20th century, in Kano, even the slave titles were abolished for a while; in Ilorin, this does not seem to have happened.

     The most interesting difference between elite royal slaves in Ilorin and in Kano, however, arises in more recent times and lies in their differing attitudes to slave status, as illustrated by the Ilorin slave-descendant titleholders’ changing projects.

The Divergence in Attitude

     In Ilorin, in 1989‒90, titleholding families descended from elite royal slaves mostly emphasised free status while stressing their former prestige, military prowess, connections with the emir, and Islamic credentials. In Kano in the 1990s, however, Sean Stilwell found that titleholders and other descendants of royal slaves had no problem admitting their slave status: they were “very willing” to discuss royal slavery and their place in it.

     And even where Kano informants stressed the Islamic legitimacy of early elite slaves, they did so, in direct contrast to Ilorin informants, in conjunction with their slave status, as shown by Sean Stilwell in his discussion of Kano elite slaves Barka, Nasamu, and Hajjo.

     Up to at least the 1990s, then, Kano slave descendants found good reason to continue accepting royal slave origin. Sean Stilwell recently told me that, in the 1990s, “many were still associated with the palace in a variety of ways, and found both meaning and status in that service.”

     A number of questions arise from all this. Do the Kano informants accept slave origin because they still gain prestige by serving one of the most important figures in the caliphate? Is it because their slave origin is bound up with their Islamic identity? Does it stem from their strong royal slave culture? Could it be connected in some way with the restoration of their titles in 1956? Stilwell and coauthors note in “The Oral History of Royal Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate” that although the formal powers of the restored titleholders were limited, “some are known to have played very important informal and advisory roles.” How far does this continue, and how does it contribute to their prestige?

     And what about the descendants of elite royal slaves in Ilorin? Why is their attitude to slave origin so different from that in Kano? Certainly there has been sensitivity in Ilorin over slavery in general. Has the elite slaves’ desire to hide their origins contributed to this? Or vice versa? Is the difference between landholding in Ilorin and Kano a factor?viii Is the point in Ilorin that you now need to be accepted as free if you want to retain or claim land? That if you are challenged, you have to “prove” your free descent? While the experience of Adenlolu’s descendants supports this idea, the case of the Are Ogele family does not.

     This is as far as I have been able to go thus far with this exercise. I hope the questions it raises will encourage people to sharpen and individualise the experiences of royal slaves and highlight the complexity of royal slavery.


     Much of the material in this paper comes from an article I published in 2006, and I would like to express my gratitude to two people who helped greatly in the writing of that article: one is Professor Stefan Reichmuth, who generously provided information and insights; and the other was my friend and one-time colleague, the late Dr. E. B. (Dele) Bolaji, who conducted in-depth interviews with royal slaves’ descendants in the city of Ilorin on my behalf. I would also like to thank the organisers of “Landscapes, Sources, and Intellectual Projects in African History,” symposium in honour of Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias (Department of African Studies and Anthropology, University of Birmingham, November 2015), for prompting me to take a fresh approach to the material.

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