The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study and Conference Center
From Slave to Man: Gendered Emancipation Struggles and Colonialism in Southeastern Nigeria 1922-1935
Carolyn A. Brown, Ph. D. - Rutgers University
In 1922-23 slaves (Ohu) in the Igbo- speaking areas of southeastern Nigeria rose up against slavery and the restrictions it placed on their communities and men. In the leadership of this protest, which convulsed the area into a violent civil war, were a group of slave men who were either very wealthy or who hailed from communities in which slaves lived in relative autonomy, often in the majority. What brought the conflict to a head was a series of transformation initiated by the conquest, the new system of colonial law, urbanization and wage labor. Slave men were among those conscripted as forced labor for the Enugu Government Colliery and construction of the rail linking it to the coast. The context for the unrest was the government’s use of the ‘Indian Model’ of emancipation in which the slavery was simply removed from the categories supported by law but the state did not inform the slaves for fear of social and economic disruption. Thus, there was no public manumission and it was left up to the slave to figure out that they could no longer be held in slavery. In India the model worked reasonably well and the institution died a ‘slow death’. However, much to the chagrin of these administrators, at sometime during the early 1920’s some groups of Ohu men realized that slavery was no longer legal and began to campaign that all slave men should act as freeborn men, and violate all the conventions of the slave system as it existed in the village. This impudence provoked the free men to defend, and in some cases, increase there restrictions because , ‘Slavery was forever!’.1
Elsewhere2 I have examined the role of wage labor and the colonial legal system in encouraging Ohu men to revolt. This current paper extends this analysis by further gendering this protest and examining how the practices and restrictions of slavery prevented slave men from fulfilling masculine norms associated with seniority (based on fatherhood) and elite status.
The Nkanu revolt was a case of violent renegotiation in which slave men, led by their most privileged sector, seized the openings created by the conquest and colonial emancipation, to lift off the restrictions that prevented them from being co-equal with free men. Inspired by Lindsay and Meischer’s seminal introduction 3to Men and Masculinities in Africa, it argues that masculinity reveals new insight into the dialectic of colonial transformation and the ways that men’s ideas and practices of gender impact on the ‘course and receptions of these transformations’.4 Recently masculinity has revealed interesting new interpretations of the history of Africa, most especially in the revision of the historiography of the colonial period where the dialectic between indigenous masculinity and colonial transformation is extremely dynamic.5 The paper outlines how urbanization, the coercive establishment of wage labor, missionary Christianity and the colonial political system impact on the changes and continuities of male gender status. These changes and continuities reveal’ how inequalities develop, are sustained and challenged and how power is wielded’.6
The grievances that informed the revolt and moved slave men into militant action was their attempts to expand a truncated masculinity socially permitted to Ohu fathers and wealthy men to equal the fully recognized masculinity of free men, called Amadi, with its economic, social and political all its cultural elements. The demands were for unconditional access to village farm land without labor obligations for the freeborn, to marry freeborn women, to prevent the seizure, sale and sometimes sacrifice of slave wives and children, the right to pass on personal property to their sons and to retain all of their wages earned in conscripted government projects.
The protests in the 1920’s were a watershed moment for the many slave men and communities scattered throughout the Udi area. They established a new associational form that violated the lineage/kin-based affinities of freeborn affiliations and by linking slave men and communities across different villages into a political movement. With the strength of this cross village alliance they attacked the local government institutions that constituted ‘indirect rule’. In the last resort they made the survival of local government contingent upon the state’s success in having the most abhorrent aspect of slavery outlawed and their participation in the local institutions of the colonial state.
This paper begins with the system of slavery as it operated on the eve of colonial rule and delineates the complex forms of masculinity that intersected, in often contradictory ways, with the divisions of class and economic status of men. These inherent contradictions, particularly the existence of a group of wealthy slave-holding slaves, play an important role in the conflicts to follow. We then outline those colonial labor policies and political institutions that transformed many slave men into industrial workers and encouraged their development of a working class consciousness that destabilized slavery. The inability of slave-workers and wealthy slave men to assume the responsibilities of senior and elite men over their families led them to attack both slavery and the fragile institutions of local government. By highlighting aspects of the 1922-23 insurrection we can detail the new forms of collective consciousness and models of masculinity that were produced by the militant agency of the slaves.
Free and slave fathers and elite men: The complexity of indigenous masculinity on the eve of conquest, 1908-1912
The site of this conflict was the Igbo- speaking areas of southeastern Nigeria. The Udi district was in Northern Igboland north of the lush palm belt and south of the savanna regions of northern Nigeria. It was composed of two ecological zones both of whom brough men into the labor force for the Enugu Government Colliery opened during World War I. Both had communities whose social structure reflected centuries of engagement with the Atlantic slave trade. Oral history indicates that one clan, the Agbaja, had settled on an eroded and overcrowded escarpment to which Coal mining jobs replaced slavery and the out-migration of young men to work on farms elsewhere they had fled to escape slave raiders. The migration of young men was an admission that land was in too short supply for the sustenance of the community.7 In the past Agbaja communities were forced by hunger to sell relatives into slavery and were a key source of slaves for their neighbors to the South. The other clan group, the more prosperous Nkanu, were settled on a fertile plateau of rich farmlands. For them mine work would compete with farming made especially lucrative with the development of Enugu. The area’s fertility and proximity to the palm belt of Central Igboland made it a rich farming area in which slave labor augmented that of the family unit, which itself could include many wives and dependants.
There were slave communities within most of Udi, but the largest slave settlements were in the south Nkanu’s a twelve village-groups8 - Akpugo, Agbani, Ihuokpara, Amagunze, Akegbe, Ozalla, Ugbawka, Nomeh, Nara, Amurri, Nkerefi and Mburubu. These village groups were of different sizes with some, such as Akpugo, having 22,000 inhabitants. The highest concentrations of slaves were in Akpugo-Agbani and Ugbawka where they exceeded fifty percent.9
Horton has argued that this area became the breadbasket of the palm belt, permitting those villages to focus on that export crop. Owners secured slaves from several sources: commercial manipulation of important oracles, specifically
Map of the Niger Delta Showing Slave Source Areas of Igboland
(Ebinokpabi or Aro Chukwu) kidnapping by professional slavers,10 warfare and village sale of community undesirables. All these methods had a class dimension and seldom did the wealthy fall victim to slavers.11 Agbaja slave communities were often forced by hunger to sell vulnerable children and adults into the supply routes of the export slave markets.12
Villages in both regions were organized in autonomous kin-based settlements, without chiefs or political collaboration above the village-group, i.e. a cluster of villages claiming descent to a common ancestor. Senior free men exercised political power through councils which made crucial decisions, such as the allocation of usufruct rights to particular parcels of land. Slave men could not participate in this process and were dependent on the charity of their owners for access to portions of his land in return for their service.
[Note: See Masculinity Chart as Appendix I]
In all these both free and slave men strove to attain masculine roles based on elite status as well as fatherhood and age. The area’s historic role in the trans Atlantic slave trade and palm trade created a tense coexistence of “ a dominant masculinity based on fatherhood and one based on elite status” 13 For subordinate men, both free and slave, the challenge was how to fulfill these norms while meeting the incessant labor demands of elite men. Thus, these masculine norms formed a baseline against which slave men shaped their ideas of what was tolerable and intolerable under the new conditions created by colonial rule. On the eve of colonial rule this context of rapid change opened new opportunities proper male behavior and influenced their aspirations. 14 We will briefly outline the contours of these models below.
Most men aspired to senior masculinity based on fatherhood. As patriarchs they appropriated the labor-power of their wives, children and other dependants or slaves. A ‘boy’s‘ 15 ability to become a man was therefore dependent upon his father’s capacity (and willingness) to finance the series of rituals and obligations accompanying his initiation into manhood and to help him pay the bride price to create his own homestead.16 Thus secure access to arable land was critical to assist in this transition. It was especially difficult for slave fathers and sons to fulfill these functions.
Masculinity based on father hood and seniority coexisted precariously with elite masculinity of wealthy merchant-farmers whose class originated in both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and palm oil trade. This elite masculinity, had specific characteristics drawing on access to commodities which they employed to fulfill indigenous notions of leadership. By the turn of the century a silent struggle was occurring between the ‘old’ and ‘new’.
The ‘Big Man’ or Ogaranyan was a conspicuous ( and enduring)presence in both Nkanu and Agbadja. The Ogaranyan wore special clothes, danced exclusive dances,17 were buried with more ceremony and expense, and dressed in symbolic ways (clothing, wearing symbols, etc.).
They headed a ‘Big Compound’, an exaggerated polygamous household of many wives,18 children, clients and slaves. The were often cosmopolitan and conspicuous consumers of foreign commodities (i.e. bicycles, cars, western clothes). Ogaranyan integrated masculine social status with the market in ways that privileged those gender ideologies exemplified by the wealth. Some wealthy slave men held this elite status in certain villages but were prevented from exercising their full privileges. This will be discussed below.
By the turn of the century these men had challenged the political influence and power of senior men by establishing prestigious ‘title' societies the most prominent being the Ozo19 title. The struggle between these two forms of masculinity was expressed politically in the council and is described in 1973 by one elder Noo Udala:
As time went on, this gradation of authority right from the town(village group) to the family unit, depending on age as the criterion, gave way to the authority of the wealthy….In fact a rift developed, so that it became a common feature for some ndi ishi ani (elders) to be forced to take titles.20
The labor obligations fell heavily on slave families who were forced to work on their masters’ fields from one to three days in the four-day Igbo week21 and to give him a proportion of what they produced on fields allocated for their families sustenance. Ohu families produced yam surpluses exported to the palm belt in the south and enabled their owners to acquire the prestigious “Yam King” title.22 However, Ohu men were themselves forbidden to acquire these titles. Nkanu slaves also processed 23 and transported palm goods to trade posts where they themselves were often sold as well.24
They were collateral for loans and slave women were given as bride-price to the bride’s father in freeborn marriages, 25 a curious though appropriate expression of the spirit of bride price - the replacement of a daughter given in marriage with a slave woman who could perform her tasks.
In some cases their ‘service’ extended to the spiritual realm. In South Nkanu’s most populated village groups, Akpugo-Agbani, they were often custodians of Ani or earth shrines, which were used to resolve potentially disruptive community conflicts.26 Being politically marginal they were a ‘safe’ group to exercise this important function because they could not convert this spiritual role into secular power.
The subordinate status of Ohu men was performed in degrading rituals. They had to give masters’ the first and largest portion of any animal sacrifice. They were forbidden to join the highest ranks of title societies to which most influential men in the village belonged. They could not dance the prestigious Ubo dance of Egede dance27 which prominent men performed at funerals. These prohibitions were especially intolerable for slave men who acquired wealth from trade or wage labor, because they prevented them from being validated as men of wealth within their community.
Nkanu slavery exhibited the fundamental contradiction of all slavery systems: slaves were both property and human beings. The free community incorporated them into the corporate ideology of kinship that created a constituent community. Thus they were 28 ‘fictive kin’, but kin with few rights.
The contingent status of senior slave masculinity was most graphically expressed in the vulnerable and ambivalent standing of the slave family. As Meillassoux noted, “the only institutional relationship relevant to the slave which is recognized by law is his relationship with his master.”29 A slave father’s right to create and protect his family and to use their labor power on his fields was always subordinate to the owner’s property rights over the slave and his family. With free born men the payment of the bride price established a set of responsibilities and obligations between the two families. However, the families of slaves were not socially recognized. Thus slave men were prevented30 from paying bride price by the practice of the master purchasing a wife. In the absence of bride price the children belonged to the person who purchased the woman i.e. the master. As creator of slave family life the master could violate it31 as owners often did when they seized slave children for domestic work in their own homes or for sale and occasionally seized slave women and children for funeral sacrifice. 32
At death slave fathers could not pass property to sons, thus making it difficult for the upper echelon of the slave community to reproduce itself. Nkanu masters claimed half a slave’s property at death.33 Slave sons could at best inherit only the use of the farmland from their fathers.34 When the owner died the entire slave family was transferred as was other property to their owner’s heirs.
All of these restrictions frustrated and angered slave men in ways that made the institution of local slavery a site of intense struggle. Among those most predisposed to challenge these restrictions were two especially restive groups of slave men: wealthy Ohu men and those who had some measure of local autonomy by living in segregated slave villages or predominately slave areas of mixed villages. While these men attempted to reproduce the institutions, rituals and practices signifying elite masculinity and had cultivated a strong sense of solidarity and collective identity, they were prevented by Amadi men from participating equally in the village-group.35 Among the most militant protesters were the Ohu men in both Agbani-Akpugo and Ugbawka, where slave settlements were on farmland far from their owners’ compounds. But the spark that ignited the protest was made by the most elite group of slaves, the Ohu Ogaranyan of Ihuokpara.
The Ohu ‘Ogaranyan’: The contradictions of elite slave masculinity
Since the distinction between slave and free men was not expressed only by labor obligations in some cases slaves like freeborn had considerable wealth and the same occupations. In Ihuokpara where both were itinerant native doctors, a lucrative 36 occupation. Ohu doctors displayed their wealth in culturally recognized ways: owning slave surrogates who worked on masters’ farms while they traveled as well as marrying many wives.37 Their travels made acquainted them with the variations in slave systems throughout Igboland. Their skill in native medicine gained them prestige and income. While wealthy slaves could imitate their Amadi counterparts and be polygynous they could neither marry freeborn women, the only women who could be authentically married (i.e. payment of brideprice) nor could they protect their wives, mothers or daughters from sale or sacrifice in funerary rights.38
Not surprisingly in Ihuokpara, the epicenter of the revolt, the spark would be Ohu attempts to violate the ritualistic indicators of slave status.39One Ohu gave this account of an Ohu chief’s experience when he realized that slavery was illegal:40
When he returned the Chief counseled the Ohu that since slavery was over they could bury a wealthy slave, Igweshi Nwagene, with the full rites of a freeborn. This meant sacrificing one of Igweshi’s largest cows in the burial rites. The funeral arrangements were challenged by Igweshi’s master who rejected the plan and wondered that if such a cow was used in the burial rites of his servant what then would be used in his own burial rites. The attitude... irritated Chief Agwu who also instructed the Ihus (Ohu) to start searching about for a cow to be used in the burial rites. The Amadu [sic] were irritated...they looked for the Chief’s head relentlessly.
The chief escaped with his life to a government rest house.41 But it was clear that a new spirit had grasped the Ohu community and created a consciousness that their common oppression was legally untenable. The Amadi tried, in desperation to terrorize the community. However, they picked on those areas with the largest, most autonomous Ohu populations.
The Corrosive Impact of Colonial Transformation: Forced Labor and the Colonial Workplace, Enugu 1914-1920
Within four years of the conquest in 1910 South Nkanu the entire clan area rebelled while the British were preoccupied with World War I.42 Many of the most unsettled villages were also those with large, restive slave populations. Sensing that colonial armies were preoccupied with the eastern border with German Kamerun, they rose up and overthrew unpopular colonial chiefs, burned railway survey posts and attacked local administrators.43 Although defeated the area remained unsettled and Nkerifi, Mburubu, Nomeh and Nara, the southernmost village-groups were considered barely under government control.
The coming of Udi colonial rule was a trauma. The brutality of the conquest, the imposition of autocratic chiefs, the insatiable demand for labor for the railway, mines and construction of Enugu was followed by a series of epidemics, both small pox and influenza, after the war. Local institutions collapsed under the weight of these radical transformations. Neither slavery or masculine norms could escape the corrosive impact of such disruptive conditions. Moreover many of the traditions of slave control were now illegal under colonial law. The seizure of slave children was now kidnapping. The sacrifice of slave women was murder and men engaged in wage labor had the right to retain their own pay. The slaves, sensing that elites were loosing power, seized the opportunity to challenge their position within South Nkanu society.An empowered slave community coalesced across village and lineage linking formerly segmented. This coalition was a new type of affinity, a new way of practicing politics and led by a new social category. This movement caught the colonial state by surprise and shook rural government at it roots, making the entire south Nkanu area ungovernable. The spark that ignited the insurrection was the state’s use of slave owners to recruit forced labor.
As Miers argues44 the state did everything to delay effective emancipation. After the conquest the original abolitionist zeal waned and officials confined themselves to the redress of individual cases of hardship or wrongdoing, let it be known as widely as possible that the status of slavery was abolished and trusted to time to solve the problem.45 Despite official opposition to slavery the officials commissioned wealthy slaveholding elites to supply workers for the railroad and the mines. As slave owners they demanded compensation from the slaves for the loss of their services. As labor recruiters they demanded recruitment fees from the state and a portion of their mens’ wages as a form of tribute. Either way the slave/worker was ensnarled in a deepening quagmire of exploitation just as the new economy offered opportunities for yet unknown degrees of economic autonomy.46 The context was set for an explosion.
The general thrust of these laws was the “Indian model”, which outlawed slave dealing and withdrew legal recognition of slavery, but basically left it to the slaves themselves to claim their freedom.47 While this policy worked in effecting a relatively smooth and gradual emancipation process in the Niger Delta where it was first applied, in Nkanu it had the effect of encouraging the Ohu to assert their freedom and to lobby for equality with the slave born.
Officials, such as Lugard, promoted ‘free labor’ as a morally superior civilizing force to the ‘endemic’ slavery of Africa. But labor was far from ‘free’. While colonial armies bludgeoned them into submission local men and women were conscripted, in defeat, to become ‘free labor’ for a myriad of colonial projects including the Enugu Government Colliery and its connecting railway that linked it to the coast.
Under ‘indirect rule’ prominent Ogaranyan and slaveholders became chiefs who ruled with corrupt impunity under the protection of the colonial army. Udi’s two most prominent chiefs, Chukwuani of Nkanu and Onyeama of Agbadja, both former slave dealers became labor recruiters. The impact of these new labor systems on local society will be discussed below.
Initially slaves were confused by their recruitment and assumed that railway and colliery work were actually unpaid labor for the chief. Anyionovo Nwodo, of Ugbawka, an Ohu, described his own confusion and the gradual realization that he should have been paid for forced labor on the first phase of the railway, (1914-1919) from Pt. Harcourt to Enugu:
I was among those sent by the chief to work in the construction of railway line from Otakpa, now in Imo State ... Chief Agunweru Mba was our chief and via his agents, he appointed those both Amadu (sic) and Awbia were to be sent out to work either at the coal mine or at the railway construction. All payment ... was directed to the chief. We were left with nothing but at a later date, the chief started giving us small amount of what each of us realized. This was after we had realized from the Europeans that we were paid for the job we had been doing for long.48
Despite the coercive method of labor recruitment and the harshness of the labor process itself, the colonial workplace introduced new, more powerful masculine norms. Pay and the acquisition of skill, further encouraged the men to confront the restrictions on their masculinity posed by their masters. In effect, these ‘slaves’ were becoming workers. Additionally, they were exposed to other men for whom industrial labor had become a critical site of masculinity. Although Ohu men, and free men were initially unfamiliar with the capitalist workplace they encountered other workers who exhibited masculine norms rooted in the capitalist workplace. The skilled artisans in the mines and on the railway, most of whom were foreigners, exemplified a masculinity based on their skilled work which was encouraged in the missionary technical schools where they were trained. They were rational, self improving men whose pride in performing a skilled task resonated with some aspects of local masculinity facilitating a synthesis of ‘foreign’ and local norms. This group demonstrated the accepted ways of worker protest and organized the Colliery’s first strike in 1920. It could not have been a coincidence that the slave uprising began the next year.
But the colonial workplace was also a site of a racialized masculinity, that of the white boss, called ‘imperial masculinity’.49 Nonetheless, despite the bad work conditions, white supervisor’s use of racist epithets and corporeal punishment, minework in Enugu nonetheless encouraged the same type of working class male identity found among North American and British coal miners. The core of this identity was the ability to endure work in the dark, mysterious and dangerous mines, the possession of crucial knowledge to detect unsafe work conditions, the unique skill miners used to produce marketable coal, and, above all, their awareness of their industry’s critical role in West Africa’s political economy These factors positioned wage labor to play a central role in the construction of the men’s identities.
Mine wages encouraged Ohu men to aspire to fulfill models of elite rural masculinity as exhibited by the Ogaranyan. Amadi men in the Colliery found expression and masculine validation in their home villages. Thus while treated as ‘boys’ in the colonial workplace they were validated as ‘men’ in their village.50 They absented themselves fro the mines to participate in the planting and harvesting seasons in their villages, and to fulfill social obligations to their families and communities. The fulfillment of these obligations was crucial to insuring that they remained politically active men in their villages. Self improvement and commitment to uplift the village were two dynamic norms of Igbo masculinity that influenced the men’s behavior in the industry and shaped the role that mine workers played in village politics. They drew upon an urban political culture which erupted into protest after World War I. The nature of these protests and their implications for coal miners will be examined below.
Slave men also felt these compulsions to fulfill masculine rolls of influential senior men in their villages. The colonial workplace was a formative site for new forms of masculinity. In the workplace local men encountered the racist construction of ‘imperial masculinity’51 of the white boss and were subjected to sub-standard conditions and emasculating labor practices, However, the masculine ethos of coal mining, with its celebration of danger, endurance and skill, fostered a new type of masculine identity, one based on work. This was initially exemplified by the skilled artisan who came to the industry from more westernized areas of Nigeria. This was the group who led the industry’s first strikes when the inexperienced local workers protested by desertion. But within several short years all the industry’s workers had joined industrial associations, Nzuko Ifunanya, modeled on urban mens’ associations not unlike European friendly societies and mutual aid organizations.
Emasculating workplace practices led workers to seek solace in more ‘traditional’ categories of masculinity. For them wages were not just important for material subsistence but for their ability to fulfill rural gender norms. He could become an Ogaranyan, with his large household and prestigious titles. These men, whose origins lay in the slave trade exemplified an elite masculinity which, while beyond the reach of most men, nonetheless set a standard upon which all men measured their worth. The colliery presented these men with opportunities to emulate the model whilst they simultaneously contested their existence. However, because they used wage labor as a vehicle to acquire these symbols they also transformed them into new ideologies. So ‘coal men’ supported modern projects – village schools, maternity clinics, road construction, etc. These all both reflected and modernized older types of elite masculinity.
The Corrosive Impact of Colonial Transformation: ‘Freedom’ in the city of Enugu
The violent consolidation of chiefly rule made Enugu into a refuge for dissidents fleeing the exactions of autocratic chiefs, and slaves deserting their masters. By 1920 the city had become a site of anti-chief sentiments that were being consolidated by a new group of Africans, the westernized elite. They introduced rural men to a new form of Black masculinity, more cosmopolitan and ‘modern’ than that of the rural areas. The impact would be liberating for the slaves.
While work in the coal mines and on the railway eroded the masters control over their slaves, the rapid growth of Enugu during World War I challenged slavery in a contradictory way. On the one hand the growing urban market encouraged slave owners to intensify the use of slaves to grow produce while on the other hand Enugu encouraged slaves to become independent farmers. For slaves to fully participate in new opportunities for commercial agriculture they needed secure access to land, exemption from masters’ service demands and control over their income. Barring these conditions they could escape to Enugu, as did many disaffected freeborn, crowd into the defiant shanty towns and become part of a growing pool of casual labor. This was the experience of one Anyionovo Nwodo, when he realized the chief was withholding his money:
I and Edenwede Ogbu of Isigwe were pace setters sort of, to the Ihus or Obias. We were the first set of people to enlist personally to the Europeans without the consent of the chief for their personal betterment . . . I was among those sent by the chief to work in the construction of the railway line from Otakpa, now in Imo State. Otakpa was where the Nkanu people under Chief Chukwuani of Ozalla joined in the railway construction . . . All payment for those that were sent out by the chief whether or the coal mine or railway construction was directed to the chief. We were left with nothing but at a later date the chief started giving us small amount of what each of us realized. This was after we had realized from the Europeans that we were paid for the job we had been doing for long. Because of the chief’s action we deemed it unnecessary not to be obligatory to the chief. In the circumstance, we started looking for our own greener pastures for personally paid jobs and the most possible area to look for jobs is Enugu.52
In Enugu slaves saw new masculine identities of British missionaries, merchants and officials as well as Black men serving as clerks and skilled workers. These men were part of a vibrant ‘westernized’ African community that originated in mid 19th century Lagos and was rooted in the abolition of the slave trade and the expansion of evangelical Christianity out of 19th century England. Linked to communities through the West African coast in Freetown, Lome, Accra, Porto Novo, they saw Lagos as their economic and cultural capital. They were a transnational group from black communities throughout Britain’s Atlantic empire: a sprinkling of West Indians, Creoles from Sierra Leone, Yoruba men from Lagos53 and Igbos from the more ‘civilized’ areas on the coast and the cosmopolitan market town of Onitsha on the Niger River. They coalesced around the commonalities of British rule and missionary education which encouraged a shared belief in Christianity, personal and group improvement, independence, ‘progress’, self-reliance, ‘civilization’, and the supremacy of British culture as the pinnacle of civilization. They reflected a Victorian masculinity as filtered through a defensive racial consciousness in response to the racism of the state.
It was there that they had been able to fulfill the goals of ‘respectable’ manhood, to establish Christian families and independent businesses, to reach the upper ranks of the colonial service, and to become well established in the professions of law, journalism and medicine. 54In Lagos the Saro, the Sierra Leoneans joined returned Brazilians (called Aguda in Dahomey and Amaro in Lagos), a sprinkling of West Indians and recent Yoruba converts is creating a unique coastal society whose men drew upon a number of cultural forms to create the
The first contingent of clerks and artisans in Enugu were seconded from the Nigerian Railway. They saw themselves as custodians of western democratic traditions. By the late 19th century there were tensions between them and the colonial officials and merchant houses that they served arising from the ideas of racial superiority that accompanied the conquest. When they arrived in Enugu they were adjusting to the cruel realities of a new racism which removed them from their privileged positions in government and commerce and replaced them with Europeans. They were therefore predisposed to develop a critical position on the conquest even as they themselves filled positions in the colonial administration. The clerks took the lead in articulating a challenge to rural authoritarianism of ‘traditional chiefs’ and the excesses of the state.
In Enugu clerks presented an unusual picture to local men. They were black but they were not exactly African. They had skills that enabled them to be incorporated within commercial and government jobs. And they were extremely concerned not to be confused with rural, illiterate and ‘uncivilized’ ‘natives’. These men They coalesced around the commonalities of British rule and missionary education which encouraged a shared belief in Christianity, personal and group improvement, independence, ‘progress’, self-reliance, ‘civilization’, and the supremacy of British culture as the pinnacle of civilization. They reflected a Victorian masculinity as filtered through a racial consciousness now, more than ever, on the defensive.
When they arrived at the coal mines early in the war the city of Enugu did not formally exist. There was only a military outpost in the adjacent hills, a railway station and a cluster of labor camps with ‘bush houses’ near the first mine at Udi, and the second, in 1917 at Iva Valley. The opportunity to ‘tame’ the countryside, to carve this modern industry out of the forest, fulfilled an aspect of Victorian manhood the mastery over self and environment. In the 1930’s officials noted that that these men identified as ‘pioneers’ who had carved the mines and city out of the ‘bush’ at a time when the locals were still ‘cannibals’.55 Their aspirations to create monogamous companionate marriages was exemplified in 1916 by a group of artisans who requested female teachers to educate African women that they could marry.56
For young unmarried Amadi men and most Ohu, the new labor requirements presented new possibilities and challenges. On the one hand, they had to develop strategies to evade the demands of corrupt chiefs . On the other, if astute they could position themselves to benefit from new opportunities for personal autonomy made possible by the new political order and market economy. This would reduce their dependence on their fathers or village elders for resources necessary to be come socially mature men – to finance initiation rites into manhood, to pay bride price for marriage, to acquire cash to pay entrance fees for exclusive and powerful societies.
Over time subordinate men – the young, slaves and the indigent – became adept at evading the exploitation of their superiors (i.e. senior men, Ogaranyan, slave owners) in the village. Unsuccessful revolts during World War I indicated that it was prudent to make a judicious accommodation to the new conditions. The problem was how to manipulate this new system of authority while avoiding a conflict with the state, most notably the chiefs. Both the city of Enugu, established as the headquarters of the mines, and the Colliery itself offered new possibilities which were fully exploited by these men.
By 1920 Enugu had the basic structure of a fully segregated colonial town with a ‘native’ and European area, several trading firms, mission schools and labor camps for the railway, police, prisons and other government agencies. Like most colonial cities, residential segregation was an important representation of imperial power and a showcase of the ‘superiority’ of European civilization.57 In 1927 the city had grown to 10,000 inhabitants, 7,000 of whom worked in various government departments.58 In 1929 this number increased further when Enugu became the administrative capital of southeastern Nigeria. Enugu was very much a government town with complex social structure of consequence for the construction of new urban masculinities. Two hundred African staff and over 700 skilled workers and artisans (carpenters, bricklayers, fitters) had annual incomes of £40.
Rural systems of masculine validation proved especially resilient in the context of experimentation made possible by the ‘freedom’ of the city. These incomes financed an experimentation with new masculinities and family models. Although the church and government officials promoted the nuclear family model many men struggled to reconcile this ideal with ‘traditional’ responsibilities of men over extended families. By the thirties, many government employees had become ‘Big Men’ and the families of government workers were an urban expression of the rural extended family, a factor that contributed to urban overcrowding, to the dismay of colonial officials.
These men also created new types of associations in which they ‘performed’ masculinity and demonstrated their familiarity with English, Western organizational forms and their position as consumers of European goods. Called Nzuko, or ‘meetings’, these associations were organized by home village and enabled the elites’ values, political expectations and gender ideologies filtered into the discourse of illiterate workers. Importantly, they became a context in which clerks and artisans demonstrated new ideas about the expectations, role and responsibilities of ‘modern’ African men. When rural men joined their respective village Nzuko they were brought into close contact with the ideas, discourse and performance of ‘respectable’ masculinity. Nzuko’s relationship with colonial officials was ambivalent for, while they saw themselves as assisting in preserving urban order, a function appreciated by the state, they became an organizational platform through which ‘westernised’ Africans could leveraged their power in the transformation of the colony.59
For the Ohu the general opposition to the chiefs converged with their own specific grievances against the slave-holding elite. Colonial officers noted that once they had tally numbers from the Colliery they refused any work for the chiefs and “told the chief straight to his face that they were as good as he is and will not be interfered with.”60
In the second decade the basic foundations of village society had been shaken by the conquest, urbanization, the imposition of a new administration and a radical questioning of the basis of rural life. Nkanu entered the second decade of British occupation with the unpopular colonial chieftaincies further shaken by popular revulsion to forced labor, corruption and the contradictions of a decaying slave system. Within one decade the people had witnessed the collapse of their political and social institutions and their replacement with a corrupt and foreign political system. As soon as the war ended the cracks in the slavery system became fatal.
The Violence of Negotiation: The Slave Insurrection of 1922/23
The end of the war marked the sharpening crisis of slavery. The pressure points were those villages with the most productive fields, weathiest merchant/farmers and largest slave populations. To the north these were Ugbawka, especially the Isigwe area, and the sister villages of Akpugo and Agbani. To the South they were Ihuokpara, Nara, Nomeh and Mburubu. The severity of clashes escalated between 1920 and 1921. But the spark was ignited by Ihuokpara’s Ohu Ogaranyan.
From Ihuokpara, the rebellion spread to Agbani-Akpugo and Ugbawka where Ohu refused to work for their owners, demanded to participate in all community rituals, blocked the seizure of their children by Amadi and boycotted the Native Courts. The freeborn retaliated by evicting slaves from their land.61
The conflict in these towns followed the fault lines of wealth and privilege in some cases pitting coalitions of freeborn poor and slaves against the powerful merchant/farmer elites. The abuses of wealthy men, child stealing, forced labor, unauthorized wage deductions in the mines and railway, and expropriation of their crops, blurred the boundary between slave and poor freeborn. A “populist” alliance of Ohu and poor Amadi threatened merchant elites in at least two of the towns - Ugbawka and Agbani-Akpugo. These two areas had a rich, diverse agricultural economy which fostered considerable social stratification. Both Ugbawka and Agbani-Akpugo were near the railroad, the region’s artery to the export economy. As soon as the area was opened by the railway missionaries arrived to establish posts. When Rev. Richardson (PMMS) came to Agbani in 1916 the slave freeborn conflict was a major source of instability.62
In Agbani Ohu seized a moment of weakness in the façade of Amadi control when a fight emerged between two prominent Amadi fighting for chieftancy appointments. Slaves were courted by both, not as voting members but as “enforcers” to intimidate freeborn voters. This unrest, which plagued the Agbani court for many years, opened space for the slaves to push their agenda.
In August 1920 three Isigwe slaves were killed and seventeen were sold to the Aro.63 The slaves responded with raids on freeborn homes and the expulsion of all freeborn from Isigwe. The insurrection then spread to the sister villages of Agbani-Akpugo, where slaves were a majority of the 25,000 inhabitants. 64 There was a celebrated case in which a freeborn man from Akpugo and his mother were murdered by a prominent Ogaranyan’s family for their sympathy with the slaves.65
As the fighting spread the demands revealed a strategy by Ohu men to enlist support from the state to negotiate for their freedom and equality with Amadi men throughout all South Nkanu. Skillfully using violence to evict Amadi and to protect their families, they rejected all local instruments of state power, including the local chiefs and their courts. Arguing that the courts run by slave-holding chiefs were being used to enforce and intensify slavery, they initiated a boycott to underscore a demand for Ohu chiefs.
The key demand reached into fundamental definition of ‘Amadi’ – a man’s relationship to the land. Amadi were ‘sons of the soil’, men descended from the original inhabitants or settlers. They were the only men with unconditional access to land. Strangers and enslaved Ohu men only had access to land through the allocations of their owners and on condition that they pay in labor service. Ohu men rejected this conditionality and argued that even if their ancestors had come “from the Aro,” (i.e. were bought as slaves) their five to six generations of servitude had earned for them the same rights to land as the original inhabitants. Other Ohu went even further and claimed their ancestors were original occupants of the land whose servitude followed a period of hardship.66
Additionally, now land was even more than the embodiment of a community’s corporate existence. The new economy with the market of Enugu residents and wage laborers gave land a commercial value as well. For Ohu men in wage labor working one or two full days for their owners and/or sharing their wages reduced earnings and conflicted with worker strategies to mix farming and wage labor. The possibilities of using wages to acquire the status of prominent men loomed large and the Ohu were determined to destroy all vestiges of slavery.
The second most important demand – the slave family – also exemplified the shaping of a new masculinity. There is some evidence that slaves challenged these incursions into their family life even before conquest and attempted to establish their own lineages with some success. Many slaves in Akegbe claimed to have won the right to pay bride price before the 1922 uprising. Since slavery was no longer legal they would not accept the incursions into the sanctity of the slave family and the father’s control. They refused to tolerate the customary seizure of children for service in the master’s home or the the seizure of slave women for sacrifice at funerals. To strengthen the integrity of their families Ohu men demanded the right to marry freeborn wives as did their counterparts in central Igboland. Unlike slave wives free wives were not “purchased” but obtained by payment of bride price and the offspring of such unions should belong to the husband’s lineage. These marriages linked the families through mutual obligations and responsibilities and protected the power of fathers over the labor-power and other resources of his family. Despite his own status as property if Ohu men contracted such marriages it would strengthen their ability to contest his owners’ rights to violate his household. Thus these marriages could not secure full freedom for the slave, but could enhance his ability to manipulate customary law.
Other demands attacked the ritual representations of Ohu men’s subordination. The stopped giving masters the first portion of a sacrifice. They resented the emasculation of their patriarchs, symbolized in part by the master’s inheritance rights over a deceased slave’s heirs and. With few options to control their slaves owners tried, in desperation, to terrorize and intimidate their slaves, in the process violating the moral economy of slavery.67 They increased the number of working days for the slaves on their farms, stepped up the abduction and sale of slave women and children, and violently evicted intractable slaves from the land. But a new spirit had seized the Ohu and they confronted the owners, defended their families, and made vast areas of Nkanu ungovernable.
As violence increased colonial officials struggled with conflicting imperatives. While slavery was considered an archaic system British power relied on the support of “big men” with a vested interest in slavery. From 1920 to 1922 district officers debated with the Secretary Southern Provinces and the Lieutenant Governor over the most appropriate resolution. The policy that emerged was disjointed, improvised and inappropriate for the complex realities of slavery in South Nkanu. Moreover, officials could not understand the depth of conflict coming from men in a system that they considered ‘relatively mild’. In fact some officials refused to use the word ‘slave’ in describing their status preferring to use ‘serf’ instead. It was the Ohu men themselves who repeatedly used the word ‘ slave’ in petitions demanding relief.
Officials saw slavery only as a labor system and they underestimated the Ohu’s opposition to its social and political restrictions. In Igbo villages a ‘free man’ participated in the full range of spiritual and political practices that reproduce the community. Because belief systems, governing processes and political institutions were intertwined a man’s participation in community rituals were an important part of masculinity. Deprecating the importance of these practices officials authorized the slaves’ contribution to the funerals of their owners and refused to endorse their marriage to freeborn women. Incredulously they also gave Ohu the option of paying rent through labor service, which legalized the very conditions – labor rent- which had sparked the revolt. To both slaves and owners the state appeared to legalize many aspects of slavery.
From 1922 to 1924 officials assumed that a nominal rent would resolve the conflict and campaigned in the area to publicize the solution. But the ‘solutions’ were so unpopular that political officers had to tour the area from December 1922 to early February1923 with a 50 man police escort. By mid February the Nkanu Escort was upgraded to a patrol with to platoons of 57 men each. Charged with restoring order they were to reinstate the Native Court, punish insurgents and promote the rent proposal. 68
But both slave and free communities remained defiant even in the face of the troops. Some of the villages who had been involved in the earlier anti-government protest in 1914 now responded with passive resistance. They boycotted meetings, refused to victual chiefs and vacated their villages.69
In Mburubu to the south, the patrol could not even negotiate the return of slaves evicted by freeborn. In Agbani-Akpugo In Agbani slaves killed a horse and flaunted tradition by refusing to share the first meat with their owner. 70they burned the homes of the family implicated in the murder of the freeborn sympathizer killed in 1920.71 In Ugbawka, slaves refused to consider the government’s proposals until they aired complaints against the freeborn who had shot several men and razed many houses.72 Unsatisfied with state proposal Ohu men raided Amadi houses, abducted several men and expelled the entire freeborn community from town. By April the Isigwe quarter of Ugbawka was an exclusively slave village.73
While the patrol stopped the most disruptive violence it was unsuccessful in resolving the rent issue. The rent policy shifted the conflict to issues of social and political discrimination against Ohu. Most slave owners would not relinquish their claims on their slaves’ labor and refused to set a fixed rental rate. Similarly some Ohu refused to pay rent because it tacitly acknowledged Amadi land rights and implied that they were outsiders. Despite the persistence of tension the patrol was downgraded to a police department in the summer of 1923, with a permanent station established in Agbani.74
In 1923 officials had recognized the emergence of a new consciousness:
The slaveborn who have become sophisticated enough to assert their freedom, will probably soon usurp the landowners rights entirely as in fact they are now doing at Ugbawka. Knowing that they can never be as one of the freeborn, and that they are all, so to speak, in the same boat, they are inclined to act “en masse” and are consequently a source of trouble to government. There was of course a class-consciousness before the rent system was started, but I submit that the indefinite payment of rent by one class to another is more likely to perpetuate this feeling than otherwise”.
In 1925 violence continued around Ohu men’s contestation of the payment of rent and, in many cases, the Amadi refusal to accept it. Finally, officials proposed another solution – the payment of a one-time redemption fee to exempt slave men from labor obligations and to insure access to land. Neither was effective in stemming civil war.
As the war progressed it was clear that the state could scarcely manage the contradictions of this dying slave system. This was graphically illustrated by the reaction of both communities to the composition of the local courts. Arguing that the courts were being used by slave holding chiefs to enforce slavery the Ohu demanded positions on the courts as a precondition for ending their boycott of local government.75 The problem was how to comply with this request with out incurring a similar boycott of the Amadi community. Perhaps attempting to reflect the large slave majorities in the villages officials initially appointed a majority - seven slaves to two freeborn - to the Agbani-Akpugo Native Court. This led to a Amadi boycott of the courts. Confronted with the difficult choice of canceling the slave warrants, a tacit endorsement of masters’ rights and a guaranteed Ohu boycott, or retaining the slave majority and facing a freeborn boycott officials ingeniously drafted a monthly rotating sitting schedule on which slave chiefs would always be a minority. To many in the freeborn community the appointment of even a single slave chief was an abomination76 and the courts became the new locus of the struggle. But the presence of Ohu chiefs did prevent the use of the courts to punish rebellious slaves and they became the venue to redress historic grievances.77
Despite their strength and the problems they created for officials the Ohu only succeeded in forcing the state to remove many of the controls of slavery exercised by their masters. However, full equality with the freeborn men proved illusive and ultimately unattainable. Their recognition as free men was dependent on social recognized norms and the freeborn community refused to acknowledge this status despite the collapse of many of the controls formerly at their disposal to contain the slave. Full equality was so nuanced and dependent of social consensus that slave men were only able to secure limited acceptance through the creation of a new subordinate status. They succeeded in getting the state to criminalize the use of the term ‘Ohu’ and to replace it with the term, Awbia, or strangers. This attempt to fashion a new identity while rejecting the subordinate status of the old only transferred the depredations of the old ‘Ohu’ identity to the new.
During the thirties conflicts over land or labor service erupted frequently. In 1934 the Awbia of Nara, a tranquil area in the earlier conflict, were evicted from their village. In the face of this intransigence Awbia men conceded defeat, and forced the state to establish separate villages where they could at least function as free men. By 1938 there were three official villages of ex-slaves - Uma Amechi, Ugwu Aji and Akwuke - and several all- Awbia quarters in others, as the Isigwe area of Ugbawka. Although only a minority moved to these villages they became symbols of Awbia resistance and political power. However, they were an admission that social acceptance as free men was the one thing that neither they nor the state could secure. As Awbia men they could create a new identity in their segregated villages, which was the only place where they could fulfill the masculine models based on fatherhood and wealth. But they have never secured acceptance of their rights. To this day, descendants of the free born mimic and ridicule the office of Awbia chiefs, their acquisition of titles, and even their claim to village lands. These communities continue to be ‘marked’ by the stigma of slave origin. Predictably, the existence of these settlements was often contested. Their boundaries were violated by freeborn neighbors. In Nara and Akwuke,in 1941 and the mid-1970’s several Awbia were killed in boundary disputes.78 Never given sufficient household and farming lands these villages were plagued with land shortages and soil erosion as their population expanded.79
By fighting for a place in colonial Nkanu society the Ohu merged a redefined Western notion of emancipation and liberal political and economic conceptions of “freedom” with Igbo ideas of individual and corporate rights, political participation, and responsibilities. As against this understanding of emancipation was that of the colonial state which did not appreciate the nuanced cultural and political elements of slave marginality, and saw emancipation as the conversion of property rights in persons to rights to land. This collapsing slave of grievances into access to land with money rent insured that the conflict would continue into subsequent decades. For Ohu themselves “freedom” was conceptualized with social, cultural, political as well as economic dimensions. Owners could no longer count on “tradition” to maintain their control after the conquest shattered indigenous legal institutions. Nor would the state be able to ignore their manipulation of local government to enforce slavery.
These protests were also a watershed in exposing the inherent contradictions of the state’s policy towards emancipation. Ohu militance forced officials to intervene in enforcing a level of emancipation that the state assumed it could avoid and exposed British confusion about the nature of African slavery and the policies necessary to prevent its contradictions from derailing the colonial state. The protests revealed a flaw in what Miers had named ‘the Indian model’80 of colonial emancipation. In this model the slave trade, not slavery, was outlawed,81 slavery was no longer a legal category, no one could seize a slave’s property just because of their status and any actions deemed penal offences against free persons would also be considered an offence if done to slaves.82 In this case, its great advantage, as Temperly noted, of requiring ‘no enforcement’,83 proved to be its greatest weakness. It left it up to the slaves to declare their own freedom. It only applied if the slaves were ignorant of their new status. In India the system worked because slaves were either ignorant of emancipation or lacked the resources to use the courts, themselves controlled by slaveholders, to enforce their freedom. But in the Nkanu area Africans proved more aware of colonial law and alert to weaknesses that colonial rule opened in slave holder’s ability to enforce the system. By risking their lives in confronting, the slave-owning population openly violated the cultural and ritual restrictions that circumscribed their status as senior and elite men and contested the labor demands of their owners that so frustrated their attempts to function as fathers and elite men.
Among those factors connoting colonial transformation the system of local labor recruitment appears to have been the most fatal to Nkanu slavery. Colonial officials tried to delay the impact of abolition84 while experimenting with strategies to recruit labor while preserving older labor systems, such as slavery. They tried to graft wage labor onto base of slavery by using slave-holding elites to supply labor, forced labor, for early colonial projects. They adapted the Indian model to African conditions and while owners could not sue to reclaim runaway slaves any slave who managed to discover that they were emancipated, despite the fact that this was never publicly announced, could, in effect, chose to free him/her self. 85 The ‘downside’ of the model was that it left it to the slave to assert his own freedom.
In many respects they introduced a new definition of male ‘freedom’ conceptualized with social, cultural, political as well as economic dimensions of an evolving Igbo society in the early 20th century. The fluidity of early colonialism was an especially opportune moment in which to form, test and present new ideas of what it meant to be a man within the village and, with the establishment of Enugu, in the colonial city. Their ideas combined several models of masculinity including elite Igbo masculine authority, fatherhood and with the norms of working class men. By situating the specific goals and grievances voiced in their protest within an evolving historical pastiche of masculine norms, we can determine how ‘African men consciously grappled with different forms of masculinity, engaging with, adopting, and discarding various expectations and images of proper male behavior’ both foreign and local.86 In these ways they demonstrated how colonial freedom was gendered.