2.4b(iii) “African Sources for the Study of Slavery and Its Aftermath in Ilorin, Nigeria.” African Studies Association Annual Meeting (USA), 2007.

Paper presented at African Studies Association Annual Meeting (USA), 2007

African Sources for the Study of Slavery and Its Aftermath in Ilorin, Nigeria

Ann O’Hear

     Ilorin, as you know, is a city in northern Yorubaland, and it was formerly the southwesternmost emirate of the Sokoto Caliphate. Slavery was clearly an important institution in the city and its environs, and the descendants of slaves, together with other people of dependent status, still inhabit much of what the colonial officers called the “Metropolitan Districts” around the city. In addition, descendants of elite slaves (that is, major slaves of the emirs and aristocrats) still live in and around the city. I propose to examine sources for the nineteenth century but also sources for the period after the official emancipation of the slaves, when freed slaves and their descendants still lived (and to an extent they still do) in conditions of servitude. In contrast to the rest of the slaves, for much of the first four decades of the twentieth century, various elite slaves and their descendants continued to exercise considerable influence in the city.

     I have been looking at slavery and its aftermath in the Ilorin area, on and off, for twenty-five years or more. In that time, I have used a wide variety of sources. There’s no hard and fast line between “European” and “African” sources--colonial records, for example, and European and American travelers’ accounts contain a lot of interview material and collected histories--but in this paper I will try to focus on three types of what may be called local sources:

  • oral testimonies, including interviews conducted by my representatives or myself or for other researchers; this type of sources also includes records of oral testimonies contained in student dissertations;

  • written local histories and similar sources, such as autobiographies, both published and unpublished; and

  • Nigerian newspaper reports, especially those including eyewitness accounts of events, statements from participants, and details of local election results.

      In general terms, I will be looking at the difficulties involved in obtaining information, the advantages and problems associated with the sources, the kinds of material that can usefully be found in them, and what this information is useful for. With regard to the difficulties involved in obtaining information, I should point out that anyone studying slavery in the Ilorin area is working in the context of a city and environs in which the subject is still one of extreme sensitivity up to the present day. The sources help to reveal this sensitivity, by their silences as much as their statements. For me, one of the most interesting questions of all, and one that still awaits a complete answer, is: Why are some centers, like Ilorin, so secretive about slavery, while in others it seems to be much more freely discussed?--with regard to elite slaves, for example, I see a distinct contrast between Sean Stilwell’s informants in Kano and mine in Ilorin.

     I’d like, first, to provide a very brief sketch of some background information on the city and its slaves. Ilorin began to grow in population in the early nineteenth century, first under Afonja, and then under Fulani rule. Although its rulers were Fulani, however, the city was populated by a variety of groups, including Hausa and especially Yoruba, who have always provided the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants.i Of the city’s four baloguns, or major warlords, two represent the Yoruba population, one the Hausa, and one the Fulani. Slave raiding, slave trading, and the use of slaves were all prominent features of nineteenth-century Ilorin. Slaves were always extensively used in agriculture, but in the early colonial period, many of the city’s aristocrats and others settled large numbers of their slaves and poor clients permanently in the agricultural hinterland. For most of the colonial period, the descendants of the slaves and other dependent farmers were tightly controlled by the urban elite, who controlled access to land, provided district heads and other Native Authority personnel, and acted as intermediaries, who in Ilorin went by the name of baba kekere. The dependent farmers were forced to pay tribute in produce and labor, bribes, high taxes, and market and other fees. They provided wives for city men. They failed to share in migration to wealthier areas, no doubt due to their isolation and ignorance of opportunities, but also, I believe, due to the close control over them. They failed to share in even the very limited educational opportunities that were offered. For several decades, their opportunities to resist their dependent status were limited to covert, “diffident” (to use Michael Watts’ term)ii acts of resistance. But the period of rapid political change in the 1950s provided an opportunity for them to fight against their dependent status, through a commoners’ party, the Ilorin Talaka Parapo, which allied with the Action Group to fight against the NPC, the party of the aristocratic elite. The elite managed to regain its control, however, and ironically, by the time of national independence, the farmers had been returned fully to their state of dependence. In May 1959, as an Action Group newspaper reported, a gang of armed men invaded the farms of members of the ITP/AG Alliance, saying “We are now self-governing. He who fails to accept the Emir will suffer until he dies.”iii In later years, some new opportunities presented themselves, through local government reforms, the Land Use Decree, and the political campaigns of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nevertheless, even as recently as 1991, a research assistant of mine, in conversation with the remaining inhabitants of a relatively remote hamlet, discovered that their conditions of dependency had hardly changed.iv

     The difficulties in obtaining information on a sensitive subject like slavery are particularly associated with oral sources--though they are also illustrated by colonial and other sources, such as a list of titles that I found in the national archives in Kaduna, only to discover that the portion of the list that dealt with slave titles, as promised on the title page, had simply been removedv--no doubt the local files had been very carefully examined (and culled) before they were transferred to Kaduna.

The problem of getting information from interviews was compounded for me by the fact that I was, personally, rather highly visible. Let me give you an example. On one occasion, I was able to go out into the districts with the help of an Ilorin chief (much of the time I was trying to keep under the radar of the chiefs, for obvious reasons, but this particular chief was a highly unusual individual, and also occupied a somewhat unusual structural position). I had been looking for information on agriculture in the districts--in the end, I was able to confirm the hypothesis that the poor dependent farmers would have been the last people to be considered in the provision of extension services, etc.--and I had amassed a lot of material from the colonial records. The only problem was that it was all from the point of view of the colonialists; I had nothing from the farmers themselves. So I explained to my friend that I was looking for information on extension services and agricultural “development” in general, and he introduced me to the bale of a village in which his family had formerly owned land, and off we went to interview the villagers. The next day I went back to my friend’s compound, to thank him, and I found him roaring with laughter. Not half an hour after I had departed with the bale, he had been visited by the emir’s messengers, with a message from the emir, demanding to know why he had sent a white woman into the emir’s districts.

     So for much of the time, both because I was so conspicuous and because I needed the assistance of fluent Yoruba speakers, I relied on research associates and assistants. I was very fortunate in these. One of my major associates was a colleague at the college where I taught, and a very good friend. He was a native of Ilorin, and a member of a family with some traditional prestige. He had been sent away to school and had converted to Christianity, later even founding his own church, but he kept in close touch with his family. Also, he did his PhD research on part of the corpus of  Yoruba oral literature. So he was familiar with the city but to an extent distanced from it, and he also had a great deal of experience with oral interviews, and with translating responses into English. I provided him with detailed lists of very specific questions, asking for concrete bits of information, not generalizations, we discussed them, and he translated them into Yoruba. I left it to him to find suitable informants and to decide on how to approach them, to find assistants to help him in conducting interviews, and to transcribe the responses and translate them into English. He organized a major series of interviews for me on slavery in general, another on elite slaves specifically, and also a series on pawnage. He was particularly helpful in his glosses on the information--discussing the terminology that his informants had used, and describing the circumstances of the interviews and any specifics of the interviewees that might have influenced their testimony.  I should perhaps point out that given the sensitivity of the subject, he asked all the potential informants whether they would allow the information they gave to be published, and if they would, whether or not they wanted their names to be used.

This sensitivity is graphically illustrated by the experience of another assistant of mine, whom I mentioned above. I had known him as a student and he had also worked for another researcher. For a while he taught at a secondary school in a difficult-of-access part of the districts--not far from the city, but very badly served by roads. I asked him to go and talk to people in a number of small nearby hamlets that were pretty clearly of slave origin, but warned him to be extremely careful in his approach. He took a local student with him, and he did manage to come up with some very useful information from one small hamlet. Its inhabitants were still paying tribute and still regarded the Ilorin landowners as their masters. The landowners in the area had highlighted their status by putting up signs saying “This village belongs to X,” “This village belongs to Y.” However, the inhabitants of the hamlet in question were largely elderly, and many younger people were said to have gone off to Lagos to work, indicating that although the city elite continued to assert its dominance, the migrants at least had gained a measure of independence. Even those villagers who did agree to talk to the researcher were reluctant and nervous, however, and in the end he was threatened by inhabitants of other hamlets and run out of the area.vi The incident did provide very clear evidence of the state of dependency today, at least in such small isolated pockets, and equally clear evidence of the continued touchiness of the subject. I’ve never asked anyone to do any similar research since then.

     My own interviewing was done largely in connection with the major industries of Ilorin, including weaving, pottery making, and lantana bead making, and I found that in these interviews, I was sometimes able to ask questions on slavery incidentally, as it were, to my research on the industries. A number of useful vignettes or anecdotes were the result. For example, slaves were used to dig clay to be sold to the Ilorin potters, and a weaver/warrior took his slaves to the warfront where he made them weave (no doubt this work was carried out in the periods of inactivity that characterized the lengthy siege of Offa in the later nineteenth century).vii Wealthy beadmakers captured and bought slaves for use in their work, and gave out female slaves in marriage (or concubinage) to important customers. On the other hand, slaves might not be used in secret processes, such as the harvesting and processing of the elu leaf, which is used in blue dye production and is also used in magic.viii

     Oral testimony often supplements, fleshes out, complements, or confirms information found in other sources. This is clearly illustrated by testimony from elite slave families, whose members in almost all cases deny their slave origin, but with regard to their lands, activities, and functions, they are in general agreement with other sources that identify their ancestors as slaves. Even the functions they say they perform in the palace today are consistent with those performed by slave palace officials elsewhere.ix

     On occasion, however, oral testimony comes up with something completely new, or at least new to me. For example, it provided me with my first information on a certain Dada, a major military slave of the Balogun Ajikobi, a slave who had his own oriki, or praise-poem, which is still remembered today. This information extends our knowledge of elite slaves of major chiefs other than rulers, a group that has so far largely been neglected.x It’s only very recently that I have come across a brief mention of this slave elsewhere, in a published local history.xi

In some cases, oral testimony raises doubts about other sources. It supports the suggestion that some accounts of slavery in the caliphate and in Yorubaland have presented an idealized, ideological rather than actual, picture of slave treatment.xii It is evident from Ilorin informants’ responses to questions on whether agricultural slaves were allowed to work part of the day for themselves and sell the produce from their personal farms that the situation was not so simple as might seem from other accounts; not only were caliphate and Yoruba norms not necessarily followed in Ilorin, but Ilorin people didn’t always even pay lip service to these norms.xiii To further complicate matters, informants’ testimony on concubines suggests that in some cases there were competing norms at work. Ilorin practice with regard to the status of concubines, as reported by informants, seems in some cases to have been more lenient than was laid down by Islamic law. The assertions made by some informants that a concubine who had given birth would become a free wife suggest that some Ilorin practice was more akin to Yoruba custom, while statements by others sound closer to the legal position of the caliphate, in which the concubine remained a slave, although her status improved.xiv

      A missionary account from the 1850s refers to an Ilorin balogun as having had a plantation of “26,000 slaves of his own, all working in irons.” While this is obviously to be taken as a wild exaggeration, even if there were other information available, a useful corrective is offered by Ilorin informants, whose accounts suggest very strongly that small-scale holdings were common, either because most slaveholders had just a few slaves or because a wealthy master might divide his slaves among several scattered pieces of land. The warrior Ojibara, said to have had “about four” plantations with “not less than ten slaves” working on each, perhaps represents the middle rank of owner. On a larger scale, Jamurogo Balogun Ajikobi is said to have had “many” plantations, with “at least twenty-five slaves working on each.”xv

     In this instance, informants were able to provide some reasonably precise numbers. In other cases, however, oral testimony may not be able to provide specific numbers or dates. Oral information cannot, for example, provide any specifics on the overall numbers of slaves in Ilorin in the nineteenth century. Informants do agree that slaves were numerous, but they do not agree as to whether the slaves formed a majority of the population or not.xvi A certain amount of evidence on the size of the slave exodus from Ilorin after the arrival of the British is available from informants’ testimonies, but these provide neither quantifiable data nor any precise time frame. Informants agree that many slaves departed, and several assert that a majority of them left. The exodus was serious enough to create a well-remembered problem of labor supply and an increase in pawning of persons.xvii

     Informants who gave testimony on pawnage also provided a further example of the difficulty of pinpointing the time to which their testimony applies. I was trying to pinpoint informants’ testimony in time in order to provide some sort of answer to the question of when pawning declined in Ilorin, but in order to do this, I had to have some rough idea of the informants’ ages. One alhaja said she was 133 years old (in 1991), but she also claimed to have been born in the reign of the “terrible emir,” that is, Emir Moma, who reigned in the 1890s and so comprehensively lost his struggle with his baloguns that he was forced to blow himself up in his palace with his chief slave. However, an alhaji said he was about 60 years old, but he also claimed to have been born in the reign of Moma.xviii The memory of this emir was and is so powerful that many events have come to be clustered around, or conflated into, his reign.

     This is a good point at which to switch to an examination of written local histories and similar sources, as I’d like to look at another couple of examples of clustering or conflation, but this time they’re to be found in the Short History of Ilorin  published in 1981 by an Ilorin lawyer called Safi Jimba, in which the author identifies the first head of the Jimba family, who was a major elite slave warrior in the early nineteenth century, as in charge of  “a vast portion of Ilorin’s great arsenal, gun powder and heavy weaponry.” However, the reference to the munitions suggests a much later period in the century and a later head of the Jimba family. Thus, Safi Jimba is apparently conflating the first Jimba with a later family head. In another conflation, the author states that the title of daodu was conferred on the first head of the family in the early years of the emirate; yet the incumbent daodu in the 1980s told another researcher that the title was conferred on the second family head, after his victory over a balogun in a revolt that can be dated to the 1870s.xix

Now, the Jimbas are an interesting family, and one that can’t very well claim non-slave origin. This is because the first Jimba is mentioned on several occasions by Samuel Johnson in his well-known and widely read History of the Yoruba, and identified clearly by him as “one of the head slaves” of the emir. Johnson credits Jimba with plundering the city of Old Oyo.xx The Ta’lif, a short early-twentieth-century Arabic history of Ilorin, also identifies Jimba as a slave, as does the unpublished “History of Ilorin,” dating to the 1950s and written by one Mallam Sulu, Native Courts Registrar, which also identifies him as the man who conquered Old Oyo and left it “desolate.” It’s quite possible that Mallam Sulu used Johnson, but the mallam was the son of the incumbent emir (and was himself soon to become Emir Sulu Gambari), so he was already well aware of the Jimbas’ status.xxi In the Short History, Safi Jimba skates very delicately around the issue. Although he makes extensive use of Johnson, he doesn’t quote the passages in which Johnson calls the first Jimba a slave. Indeed, he hardly refers to slaves at all throughout his book. He describes the Balogun Afin as a warlord and chief, like Jimba, again without mentioning that Balogun Afin was (and is) a slave title in Ilorin.xxii The only possible hint that Safi Jimba doesn’t manage to erase is contained in his dedication of the book to his grandfather, “Ilari Ogun.” I wonder if the word ilari here has a slave connotation, as in the slave officials of that name in Old Oyo?xxiii

      One problem with regard to local histories and similar sources is interference from previously published or circulated works, which may or may not be acknowledged by later authors. Mallam Sulu may have used Johnson to flesh out his account. A later author, Adisa-Onikoko, in turn, uses Mallam Sulu’s history, as well as the Gazetteer of Ilorin Province that an Ilorin Resident, H. B. Hermon-Hodge, had published in 1929 (this is a favorite source for later chroniclers), and a variety of other sources, written and oral. Sometimes he provides specific acknowledgments in the text, sometimes not.xxiv The problems here are, first, that a version given in a respected written source may be accepted in preference to other versions, which may then gradually be forgotten. And second, where the source of an item remains unspecified, it’s impossible to judge the biases that feed into it. One strength of Adisa-Onikoko’s book, however, is his detailed section on the ITP/Action Group resistance of the 1950s; in this case he is speaking from close first-hand acquaintance with the period: as a free-lance journalist, he reported for four of the major journalists based in Ilorin at the time.xxv

     All the authors of local histories have their own particular axes to grind, and this, together with the general reticence on the subject of slavery, means there’s often not much attention given to the subject. Occasionally, however, you get a surprise. For example, from the Political Reminiscences published in 1993 by J. S. Olawoyin, a well-known politician from the town of Offa, who was an Action Group leader and closely involved in the struggles of the 1950s and later, I found that the author’s father and associates of his father had been captured in the Offa/Ilorin war of the late nineteenth century by Ilorin soldiers and sold to Abeokuta and Lagos, where they were converted to Christianity and trained as carpenters. The author’s father “became a Christian through the influence of his master, . . . a . . . leader of the Anglican Mission at Abeokuta,” and he and his associates later founded the CMS church in Offa. Female relatives of the author were captured and sold to Ikirun.xxvi Aside from providing insight into the genesis of J. S. Olawoyin’s attitude toward Ilorin, this also provides an almost unique example of the individual experiences of those enslaved by Ilorin. This is the kind of discovery that makes it worth sifting through all the local accounts that can be found.

     A further type of local source, as mentioned above, is provided by newspapers. In the case of Ilorin, these are most useful on the continuance of dependency relationships into the middle of the twentieth century and beyond, the resistance of dependent farmers in the 1950s and the struggle of their overlords to regain control, and the resistance and accommodation of the 1970s and later. The newspaper accounts provide plenty of specific cases, details of events, interviews or statements, and local election results. There are, of course, some problems associated with the newspaper accounts themselves. For example, in their reporting of the 1950s events, they are not always accurate (I was able to demonstrate this for one Daily Times report), and the numbers given for participants in demonstrations may well be exaggerated. At least one Times reporter may be accused of bias toward the aristocratic elite, while the Nigerian Tribune was an Action Group broadsheet and the Daily Service also supported the Action Group. Nevertheless, these latter two newspapers provide a great deal of detail in their reports and frequently quote statements from involved Metropolitan District individuals. Their accounts of events are often confirmed by the Daily Times. And the newspaper correspondents or at least their stringers were eyewitnesses of events.xxvii

     There are many examples, but I’ll give just one here It’s taken from the Daily Service, and written in May 1959, by which time a campaign to crush the resistance movement was in full swing. In one incident,

tragedy struck Arnigari village in Molete District . . . as a gang of armed men from Paku village and Molete invaded the farms of members of the Ilorin Talaka Parapo Action Group Alliance and destroyed their yams and other farm products.

     The invaders who travelled to the village at noon are believed to be members of the Northern Peoples Congress.

Most of the villagers who arrived . . . to protest to the NA Police alleged that the invaders beat drums and sang war songs on arrival at the village.

     “We were startled and became helpless,” the villagers said.

They alleged that as the invaders continued to uproot their yams, they were heard saying [this quotation is first given in Yoruba, then in English]: We are now self-governing. He who fails to accept the Emir will suffer until he dies.xxviii

     Note (1) that this quotation gives evidence of both resistant and accommodationist behavior; and (2) that, despite the effort to intimidate them, the resistant villagers were still prepared to complain openly when they were attacked.xxix

     Newspaper reports are also important sources for the story of resistance and accommodation in the political climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s. They document, for example, new strategies employed by the dependent population of the districts, especially the demand for “independence” from Ilorin, which involved a movement to remove their district heads, who were nominated from elite city families, and  a campaign to have their “traditional rulers” graded--which included the publicizing of “historical” narratives claiming independent origins for their settlements.xxx After the 1983 elections, the Nigerian Herald reported, a delegation from the Asa local government area complained to the state governor that the area had no graded chiefs. The delegation included “traditional rulers,” the “Ologbondoroko” of Olobondoroko, “Alaboto” of Aboto, “Olu-Ode” of Odo Ode, “Dado” of Okeso, “Onireke” of  Reke, “Olosin” of Osin, and “Are” of Ogele. Some of these chiefs were from settlements that could make no historically valid claim to non-dependent origin. The petitioners even included the Are Ogele, descendant of “one of [the] head slaves” of Emir Shita, sent to the area by the emir “to look after the farms and other slaves.”xxxi

    Just to bring things together in conclusion. There are difficulties in obtaining local sources, and problems associated with the use of these sources. For example, like all sources, we need to be aware of their biases, and we need to be aware of the extent of interference from other sources. They may be vague or confusing with regard to chronology. They need to be used in conjunction with other sources. But they can supplement, expand, confirm, or contradict what is found in other sources, or provide information that is completely new. They can answer questions, test hypotheses (for instance, on matters of resistance and accommodation), or even suggest new questions (such as what is behind the secrecy in Ilorin). So it’s absolutely necessary, at least, to conserve them and make them available. I’ll end with a few questions: Where can we deposit collections of oral interviews, without which no one will ever be able to check our work? Is any person or any institution collecting ephemerally published histories? Is anyone scanning such works, to make them more widely available? Is it possible, at the very least, to set up internet bibliographies that would direct researchers to people and institutions that can help them find these sources?

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