2.4c(i) With E. B. Bolaji. “Slavery in Ilorin, Nigeria.” Unpublished paper: extended interview with Ilorin informant, with background and commentary. It was originally intended as a contribution to a workbook for students.

Slavery in Ilorin, Nigeria (revised 2009)

Ann O’Hear

with E. B. Bolaji

      This features an extended interview conducted in 1988 with an elderly male Ilorin informant. It was one of a series of interviews conducted as part of a project on slavery and its aftermath in the city and environs of Ilorin (see Further Readings). At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ilorin became well known as the headquarters of the rebel Oyo general, Afonja. He was defeated by the Muslim reformers as part of the Fulani-led jihad that led to the foundation of the Sokoto Caliphate. Ilorin subsequently became the southwesternmost emirate of this caliphate, under a Fulani emir, and at the turn of the twentieth century it was taken over by the British. The population of Ilorin is made up largely of Fulani, Hausa, and Yoruba inhabitants, gathered under four balogun (ward heads, and, in the nineteenth century, major war chiefs): Balogun Fulani, Balogun Gambari (Hausa), and Baloguns Ajikobi and Alanamu, these last two representing the Yoruba population, which has always made up the vast majority.

      I embarked on the project in the mid-1980s, and I asked Dr. E. B. (Dele) Bolaji, a friend and former colleague at Kwara State College of Technology, Ilorin, to act as my research associate in conducting several series of interviews in the city of Ilorin. Dr. Bolaji was particularly suitable for this role, as he was both a native of Ilorin and a scholar of Yoruba oral literature. He died tragically young some years later, and I dedicate this article to him, in appreciation of his friendship, knowledge, sensitivity, and skill.

      The interview reproduced here was part of the first series of interviews conducted for the project. It was designed to gain a general overview of slavery in Ilorin and it drew on information gleaned from published works that could be read as primary sources, colonial records and other archival materials, previous interviews, and the previous work of scholars of slavery particularly in the Sokoto Caliphate and Yorubaland;i these provided a number of themes, questions, names, and locations (some examples of specific sources on which the interview drew are provided in the notes). I drew up the interview questions, which Dr. Bolaji then translated into Yoruba. He chose the informants and recruited assistants to help him with the interviews. All the informants in this first series of interviews were asked the same questions. In some cases they proffered information beyond that which was specifically requested. Dr. Bolaji and his assistants transcribed the informants’ responses, and Dr. Bolaji rendered these into English, with explanatory annotations and comments. The information (sometimes contradictory) obtained from this series of interviews provided ideas and topics for further interviews and other avenues of research. The areas in which the interviews were least informative posed particular challenges for the ongoing project.

Without the help of Dr. Bolaji and others who assisted me in the field, I would never have been able to bring the project to fruition, as Ilorin is known for its deep sensitivity on the subject of slavery, and extreme caution is required in making inquiries on the subject,ii especially for a complete outsider such as myself. I could not have undertaken the various series of interviews that were needed. My own contribution, in terms of oral research, largely (though not entirely) consisted of asking “incidental” questions on slavery-related subjects in the course of interviews with informants who had been helpful to me on the subject of Ilorin’s major “traditional” industries.

     The interview includes questions on the size of the slave population in the city of Ilorin and its hinterland, the use of slaves in the military and in agriculture, the organization of plantations, the work performed by slaves, the differences and similarities between slaves and poor free farmers, the lives of women slaves including concubines, specific members of the slave elite (slaves of the emir and balogun who achieved wealth, fame, and titles of their own),iii the trade in slaves and the markets and houses in which they were sold, the status of various types of slaves and children of slaves, the opportunities for slaves to achieve freedom, and the slave exodus at the time of the British arrival.


1. On what topics were the interviews most informative?

2. On what topics were the interviews least informative?

3. Why do you think they were more informative on some matters than others?

4. Looking at the interview and the notes giving information on comparisons with other interviews in the same series, on what subjects did the interviews provide variable, even contradictory information?

5.  What do you think these variations reflect?

6. In which cases do you think the informant’s answers may reflect social (including Islamic) norms, rather than actual practice?

7. Do you think the questions might have been worded differently, in order to elicit more, or more detailed, information? How might they have been modified?

7. What questions would you have included in future interviews?

Interview on Slavery in Ilorin, Nigeria, 1988

     The interviewers were Dr. E. B. Bolaji and Alhaji Tunde Elesin, and the interview took place on November 2, 1988. The informant was a man said to be over 75 years old at the time. Although he was completely cooperative and willing to share his information, he requested that his name should be withheld. All other details (the compound of the informant, the place where the  interview was held, and the names of others present at the interview) that could help to identify him have also been withheld.

The Nineteenth Century

Slave Population

Interviewer: About what proportion of the population of Ilorin and its hinterland were slaves, in the nineteenth century?

Informant: There were many slaves, but the predominating number of inhabitants were freeborn. Many of the slaves were captured in wars; many others were bought.

Slaves in the Army

Interviewer: Were many slaves used in the army?

Informant: Yes; all leaders had to deploy slaves to fight in wars.

Interviewer: What were they used for in the army?

Informant: The brave ones fought in wars; others carried loads; others provided food for the horses, built tents, and prepared food.

Slaves on the Farms; Size of Farms

Interviewer: Were many slaves used on the farms? Would it be true to say that the majority of the slaves were used on the farms?

Informant: Yes, slaves were used on farms, and the bigger the number of slaves, the bigger the farms.

Interviewer: Did some important people have large plantations worked by slaves?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: Can you give any examples?

Informant: They were the people considered as rich at that time. One of them was Jamurogo, the Balogun Ajikobi.

Interviewer: In the nineteenth century, did slaves working on the farms generally reside on the farms, or in town, or both?

Informant: Both.

Interviewer: Is it true to say that there were many large plantations around Ilorin, or were there mostly small scattered holdings?

Informant: There were some large farms, but not only slaves were employed on the farms.

Interviewer: Can you estimate how many plantations there were with more than 100 slaves working on them? With more than 30?

Informant: [in answer to both] About 50 farms.

Interviewer: About what proportion of farms had a few slaves, but less than five?

Informant: They were many; but some holdings had more iwofaiv than slaves.

Interviewer: It has been said that the nineteenth-century emirs tried to restrict the elite members to small scattered land holdings, so that they could not build up a consolidated power base outside the town. Is it true that they tried to do this?

Informant: No. The elite had many farms and the emirs did not interfere with them, since it was mandatory for them to give part of their harvest to the emir every year. They had large farms where they kept their slaves. All titled men had their own farms.

Slave Work on the Farms

Interviewer: Did slaves on the farms work in gangs under an overseer?

Informant: Yes, mostly according to seniority, but the children of their owners were in supervising authority.

Interviewer: Did slaves work half the day for the master, then half the day for themselves?

Informant: The slaves could not work for themselves. Only the iwofa could do that.

Interviewer: Could they sell the produce they grew in their own time?

Informant: They had no private time. The only thing they could sell was whatever they stole from their owners.v

Interviewer: Did slaves always work in gangs under an overseer? Or did they sometimes work on their own, and periodically bring/send in fixed amounts of produce for the master?

Informant: Slaves worked under leaders who were loyal to their masters. Slaves worked in gangs when necessary. They worked in gangs when owners needed them for specific assignments that necessitated grouping.

Interviewer: If a farmer had just a few slaves, would he and his family work in the fields alongside the slaves?

Informant: Yes. This would not mean any change in status, for “a slave knows himself as a slave and an iwofa knows himself as such.”

Difference between Slaves and Poor Free Cultivators

Interviewer: How much difference was there between slaves working on the farms and small-scale poor free farmers?

Informant: The difference between enslavement and freedom.

Interviewer: In what ways were they different?

Informant: A freeborn could sell the proceeds of his farm; a slave had no farm of his own.

Interviewer: In what ways were they similar?

Informant: Just as slaves worked the farms, so did the poor free farmers.

Women Slaves on the Farms

Interviewer: Were women slaves also used on the farms?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: What kinds of work did they do there?

Informant: Planting, harvesting, and carrying of harvests to town.

Interviewer: Was it only the women slaves who carried the produce into the town?

Informant: [It was] male and female slaves, and even members of the owner’s family.

The Balogun Gambari and His Agricultural Slaves

Interviewer: In the 1850s it was reported that Balogun Gambari Ali had “a village of 26,000 slaves of his own, all working in irons.”vi Did he have such a village?

Informant: Yes, but the slaves were not that many in number. Also they were not shackled. Only slaves who tried to escape, or did escape but were caught, were put in irons. It was not common to maltreat slaves.

Interviewer: Where was the village?

Informant: On the way to Osí.vii

Interviewer: About how many slaves were there?

Informant: They were many, but one could not be definite about numbers.

The Jimba Family and Slaves

Interviewer: In the late nineteenth century, it was reported that the war-chief Jimba was the owner of the small village Oko Jimba between Ilorin and Offa, where he had settled his slaves.viii Is this true?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: About how many slaves were there?

Informant: There were many slaves, but his relations also lived there.

Interviewer: Was Jimba Oja [Jimba’s Market] also in existence at that time?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: What was sold there? By whom and to whom?

Informant: Yams, maize, cotton, guinea corn, and so on.ix Slaves came to sell these items but were always followed by the owners’ people.

Slaves and Religion

Interviewer: Were slaves taught to be Muslims?

Informant: Yes. Most slaves adhered strictly to the teachings or injunctions of their owners, even on religious matters.x

Interviewer: In Ilorin, how many people were members of the borixi cult? Did many slaves become members? For example, women slaves?

Informant: It was a taboo for Muslims to join secret cults. The Yorubas who still practiced their ancient rites joined the Ogboni cult. The bori cult belonged to the Hausas. Slave women’s lives were conditioned by the instructions of their owners, so that if any of them joined the cult, it would not be to the knowledge of their owners.

Interviewer: Did many freeborn women become members?

Informant: Yes.

Trade in Slaves

Interviewer: Where did the slaves come from?

Informant: Many were captured in the various wars; many others were brought from Hausaland. Traders took their wares to the north for sale or barter. Often times, traders sold their goods and bought slaves for resale at home in Ilorin.

Interviewer: In what markets in Ilorin were slaves sold?

Informant: In the markets of Jimba or Balla.xii

Interviewer: In what houses in Ilorin were slaves sold?

Informant: Ile Eleni (Omoda area) and Ile Kannike (Gambari area).

Interviewer: Is there a house (or are there houses) called Ile Aluweru? Ile Aroworeru? Ile Arowoteru?xiii

[Informant indicated that there is a house called Ile Aroworeru]

Interviewer: Where?

Informant: Isale Gunniyan.

Interviewer: Is it true to say that the trade in slaves in Ilorin was especially important toward the end of the nineteenth century?

Informant: Yes it was, as it was the best means of labor on the farms.

Interviewer: What happened to the slave traders in Ilorin after the slave trade ended?

Informant: They lost their source of wealth.

Interviewer: Did they go into other kinds of business?

Informant: Yes. General trading, trade in cattle from the north, and so on.

Female Slaves in Comparison with Male Slaves

Interviewer: What proportion of slaves in and around Ilorin were women?

Informant: About one-third.

Interviewer: What tasks did women slaves perform?

Informant:  Planting of crops, cooking, spinning cotton, pounding yam flour, grinding corn, sweeping, washing of clothes.

Interviewer: Were slave women used for domestic tasks so that free wives could go into purdah?xiv

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: What were women slaves most valued for?

Informant: Domestic work.

Interviewer: Which cost more, a male slave or a female slave?

Informant: A male slave.

Interviewer: Which were more in demand, male slaves or female slaves?

Informant: Both.


Interviewer: Were concubines [called ore, or “friend,” in Ilorin] always slaves?

Informant: No.xv

Interviewer: What was the status of a slave concubine who had borne a child to her master?

Informant: She achieved a new status--that of a wife. She would cease to be a slave.xvi

Interviewer: What was the status of a concubine who did not give birth?

Informant: She would remain the same. The only possible change in status was to be discarded.

Interviewer: What was the status of the children of concubines?

Informant: They became proper children.xvii If the concubine was a slave, she became a free woman and the children would be free.

Interviewer: Was there any special name for such children?

Informant: Yes, such as Kabido, or Alheri [meaning, literally, “I have seen good”--“Mo ri ore”]

Interviewer: What was likely to happen to daughters of concubines?

Informant: They were still slaves. If they were not sold, they were usually given to favored male slaves as wife, to multiply.

Interviewer: In the nineteenth century, did concubinage increase or decrease over time?

Informant: Slavery and concubinage were two different social phenomena. Masters were always free to have sexual dealings with their slaves.

Interviewer: What happened to concubines in the twentieth century?

Informant: They were either retained or discarded.

Interviewer: Are there still concubines today?

Informant: Yes. In fact, it has increased, since there is no more fear of being beaten in public as was the practice in the past.

Interviewer: For what reasons do women become concubines today?

Informant: Greed, financial problems, and so on.

Status of Slaves; Freeing of Slaves

Interviewer: What was the attitude of a master to his slave?

Informant: He was king over them and could give orders with the expectation of instant obedience.

Interviewer: What was the attitude of a slave to his master?

Informant: The slave feared and obeyed the owner.

Interviewer: To whom would a master marry his male slave?

Informant: To another slave.

Interviewer: To whom would a master marry his female slave?

Informant: Anybody the owner preferred.

Interviewer: Were household slaves considered as of higher status than farm slaves?

Informant: They were of equal status.

Interviewer: Did slaves become junior members of the family of their owner?

Informant: No. Only a female slave who had children for the owner. An owner could free any of his slaves.

Interviewer: What was the status of the child of a slave, if that child was born in the master’s house? On the farm?

Informant: If the child belonged to [was fathered by] the owner, the child became free, whether born on the farm or in the master’s house.

Interviewer: In the nineteenth century, did many slaves gain freedom through murgu payments?xviii

Informant: No, money was scarce to come by.

Interviewer: Is murgu a Hausa word?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: What word is used in Ilorin for murgu?

[No answer provided by the informant]

Interviewer: What other ways were there in which a slave could be given or gain his or her freedom?

Informant: Good conduct; becoming the mother of the owner’s children. Or as a mark of religious piety, to gain God’s acceptance.


Interviewer: Were slaves owned by families, or by individuals, or both?

Informant: Both.

Interviewer: Did women as well as men own slaves?

Informant: Yes.

Distinguishing Features of Slaves

Interviewer: How could people tell the difference between a slave and a free person?

Informant: Slaves performed most of the chores.

Interviewer: Were slaves given any distinguishing marks?

Informant: Yes, several types [no examples given].

Interviewer: Did they have a different accent from free people?

Informant: Non-Yoruba, older slaves had a different accent.

Interviewer: Did they behave in any way differently from free people?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: Did they retain their old religion?

Informant: They were compelled to follow the religion of their owners.

Interviewer: Did they retain the customs of their home areas?

Informant: No.

Interviewer: Did they retain the dances of their home areas?

Informant: No. They had to adopt the customs of the people among whom they lived.

An Example of an Elite Slave

Interviewer: I have heard that there was a slave in Ilorin called Dada or Omo Dada, who became a great warrior.xix Is this true?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: Where did he live?

Informant: Ile Omodada in Itamerin area of Ilorin.

Interviewer: Did he serve under one of the major chiefs?

Informant: Yes.xx

Interviewer: Can you tell me anything about his career, for example, what wars did he fight in? Why is he remembered as a great warrior?

Informant: He fought in the following wars: Orimope, Ogun Offa, Ogun Ile Baruba.xxi He was very brave and had a lot of strength. During the wars, he had this special oriki:

Mo wole; too ba wole oo bale je

(Do not enter into the house; if you do, you will spoil the house)

Mo ku sile, too ba ku sile, o bale je

(Do not die at home; if you do, you will spoil the house)

Drummers today still greet his descendants with the above oriki.xxii

The Colonial Period

Interviewer: When the British arrived, it is said that in many places there was a large slave exodus--that many slaves departed. Was this true of Ilorin?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: What proportion of the slaves left Ilorin and its districts?

Informant:  They were very many.

Interviewer: What were the effects of this, in the town and in the districts?

Informant:  In both town and districts, iwofa became more numerous.

Interviewer: Did many of the slaves stay?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: Why did they stay?

Informant: Some had children for their owners and became part of the household; some were treated like offspring. These stayed behind.

Interviewer: What happened to the slaves who stayed?

Informant:  They fused with their owners’ families.

Interviewer: In what way did their situation or status change?

Informant: They were no longer subject to forced labor. They were treated with consideration.

Interviewer: It is said that in the nineteenth century, when elite families kept up large households, they wanted more work/produce out of the slaves, but after the colonial period began, they wanted more the recognition from their slaves.xxiii Is this true?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: Why?

Informant: Muslims normally kneel down, but it is always a sign of great respect and an acceptance or recognition of a person’s superiority.

Interviewer: Did the ex-slaves bring/send in less produce after the colonial period had begun?

Informant: It was never like when they were slaves.

Interviewer: Did many of the slaves enter into murgu arrangements with their masters after the colonial period had begun?

[No response recorded]

Interviewer: How did the ex-slaves gain access to farming land?

Informant: They were given lands for farming, and each year they paid isakole in recognition of the rights of the real owner.

Further Readings

Frobenius, Leo. The Voice of Africa, trans. Rudolf Blind, 2 vols. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1913).

Hermon-Hodge, H. B., Gazetteer of Ilorin Province. London: Allen and Unwin, 1929.

Johnson, Samuel. The History of the Yorubas. Lagos, Nigeria: C.S.S. Bookshops, 1976. First published 1921.

Lovejoy, Paul E. “Concubinage in the Sokoto Caliphate (1804–1903),” Slavery and Abolition 11 (1990).

———. “Murgu: The Wages of Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate,” Slavery and Abolition 14 (1993).

———. “Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate.” In The Ideology of Slavery, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1981.

———, ed. Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2004.

———. “Slavery, the Bilad al-Sudan and the Frontiers of the African Diaspora.” In Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2004.

Lovejoy, Paul E., and Jan S. Hogendorn. Slow Death for Slavery: The Course of Abolition in Northern Nigeria, 1897–1936. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lovejoy, Paul E., and Toyin Falola, eds. Pawnship, Slavery, and Colonialism in Africa. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003.

Mockler-Ferryman, Captain A. F. Up the Niger: Narrative of Major Claude Macdonald’s Mission to the Niger and Benue Rivers, West Africa. London: George Philip & Son, 1892.

O’Hear, Ann. “African Sources for the Study of Slavery and Its Aftermath in Ilorin, Nigeria.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association, New York, October 18–21, 2007.

———. “British Intervention and the Slaves and Peasant Farmers of Ilorin, c. 1890–c. 1906.” Paideuma (40) (1994).

———. “Elite Slaves in Ilorin in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 39, no. 2 (2006).

———. “The Enslavement of Yoruba.” In The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World, ed. T. Falola and M. Childs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

———. “Ilorin as a Slaving and Slave-Trading Emirate.” In Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam, ed. P. E. Lovejoy. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2004.

———, ed. Letters from Nigeria, 1899–1900: David Wynford Carnegie. Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison African Studies Program, 1992.

———. “Nigeria: Dependency Relationships in the Twentieth Century.” In Nigeria in the Twentieth Century, ed. T. Falola. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.

———. “Pawning [of persons] in the Emirate of Ilorin.” In Pawnship, Slavery, and Colonialism in Africa, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy and Toyin Falola. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003.

———. Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997.

Oroge, E. Adeniyi. “The Institution of Slavery in Yorubaland with Particular Reference to the Nineteenth Century.” PhD diss., University of Birmingham, UK, 1971.

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