Culture, Family, History

The King’s Shilling: One Colonial Officer’s Experience with West-African Slavery

The events recounted below are true, and took place in Sokoto, Northern Nigeria, in the Summer of 1947. The author was a young, newly arrived, civil servant in the British Colonial Service, recently separated from active duty in Italy and North Africa as a Major in the British Army. The gentleman in the photo to the right is a former slave, and the iron rings he is holding were his manacles. The term “The King’s Shilling” is used facetiously in this story: it is generally used to refer to the payment of one shilling to military recruits (and sometimes reluctant ones) in the United Kingdom between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

One morning, Mallam Muhammadu Azare presented himself and announced that a girl was outside urgently asking to see me, as she was anxious to be officially manumitted from slavery. I must confess that at first I thought he was pulling my leg! Recourse to the legal books on the office shelf and a somewhat more careful inquiry of my mentor, convinced me, however, that this was not the case.

In the early 1900s, when Sir Frederick Lugard, began the process of replacing Sir George Goldie’s loose administrative system in Northern Nigeria with a formal British Protectorate, the issue that loomed largest (almost to the exclusion of all else) was the question of what he called “domestic slavery,” that is, the fact that most (if not all) of the domestic retainers of the Sultan and his Emirs (as well as of minor chiefs and many office holders too) were either people who had been born into slavery or who had actually been enslaved by capture.

The burning question was how to resolve the dilemma posed by the existence of slavery, with the immense social dislocation and hostility that its precipitate, but necessary, abolition would engender. It was a dilemma that, try as the British might, was slow to resolve. (Lugard went at it through a process of “slow-walking” the abolition via a series of proclamations and laws, starting with a ban on the introduction of ‘new’ slaves, and continuing through the gradual emancipation of existing slaves and the unpicking of slavery from Sharia in terms of inheritance, concubinage, and dowry. Since the British worked through the traditional rulers and chiefs who were essential to the success of the ‘indirect rule’ British colonial strategy, it was a glacial and tedious process, but in 1936, Lugard’s successor published the Abolition of Slavery Proclamation, which, with the support of the traditional rulers and chiefs, legally recognized all remaining Nigerian slaves as emancipated from their owners.)

It is beyond question that annual slave raids against pagan tribes had taken place for centuries prior to British rule, and even for some years after, at least until well into the 1920s. I myself have spoken to many, now solid citizens, who had been taken in slave raids as children, and I have several times investigated and prosecuted suspicious reports of the sale of children and young persons eastward into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Before the British came, there can be no doubt that yearly slave-raiding was an accepted ‘dry-season occupation’ throughout the Fulani Empire, or that many hundreds (if not thousands) of ‘new’ slaves were taken annually, the main targets being boys and young girls, though anyone other than the very aged could be profited from by their captors in one way or another.

Lugard recorded that when, in 1902, he made it a condition for the reinstatement of the defeated Emir Ibrahim of Kontagora that he should forgo his yearly slave raids, the only reply that he got was, “Can you stop a cat from mousing? I die with a slave in my mouth.”

Most of the boys were destined for castration and for life as eunuchs (Hausa: marmata), mainly in Turkish or Arabian harems. (For some time, a village near Bazza, a few miles from Mubi in Cameroon Trust Territory, was renowned for the proficiency of its castrators, who had an unusually high recovery rate of their ‘patients’ from the operation.) Girls who were taken were intended for concubinage, whilst the other captives were utilized for labor.

In some local cases, however, slaves could, through proficiency and endeavor, earn their way to one of several exclusively ‘slave titles.’ The advantage of this system (to the bestower, at least), was that such offices were held solely at their free will, with not even a hint of any hereditary or other continuing right to their enjoyment on the part of the slave or his family, although, after slavery was abolished in 1936, many of the remaining slave title-holders proudly held on to theirs, unrecognized in law, but cherished by their persons in fact.

Still, even after Nigeria’s Independence (October 1960), there was evidence that the sale of children into slavery still flourished in pockets of West Africa, and recent indications are that the practices of slave-raiding and slave-trading are once again escalating and not diminishing. Indeed, the BBC ran at least one program in 2001 detailing an examination of the trade from Dahomey into Gabon and Nigeria, while the tragic case of little Victoria Climbié‚ at about the same time–at least to those with ears to hear–had suspicious overtones that should have been better investigated.

The case before me in 1947 however, was quite different. The girl, when escorted into the office by her duenna, explained (in perfectly good English) that she had just finished her education at the Girls’ School and was now deeply in love with a boy whom she wished to marry. Unfortunately, his family was not prepared to permit their son to marry a girl who bore the taint of slavery, her father being the holder of one of the slave titles already referred to.

She, for her part, had heard that if she paid the sum of one shilling (which she had brought with her, clutched tightly in her small hand) to the ‘Joji’ (Judge–District Officer), he would furnish her with a ‘paper’ to the effect that she was formally manumitted under the law and was not a slave but a free subject of His Majesty, the King.

After much discussion of her interesting case; after it became clear that my impassioned and strenuous arguments, to the effect that she most certainly was not a slave of any sort, were failing to impress; and as soon as courtesy allowed; she was ushered out whilst the law books were yet further consulted.

‘Slavery’–and the status of ‘slave’–had indeed been formally abolished in Nigeria in 1936. That was clear and incontrovertible. Others of the Proclamations regarding the gradual abolition of slavery, issued between 1903 and 1936, however, provided for the manumission of any slave, at any time, for the prescribed fee of one shilling, just as the girl had said. What none of them did, though, was set out the requirements, or the form, that such a certificate had to take.

I, therefore, concocted my own, which I cast as flamboyantly and ostentatiously as I could, ending with “God Save the King!” immediately following my signature “for Divisional Office in Charge, Sokoto Division.”

The girl was absolutely delighted with her florid certificate. She handed over the prescribed shilling and departed in haste to inform her lover. I felt a deep glow of satisfaction! Then the other shoe dropped.

What on earth was I to do with the shilling? If I paid it into the local Government Treasury, Mr. Thorpe (a delightful Sierra Leonean who had been sub-treasurer in Sokoto for years) would be hard put to accept it, and the book-work involved in getting it ‘laundered’ would be horrific. On the other hand, I certainly had to get rid of it without any question of its disappearance into my own pocket, and its existence in legitimate payment for a Government service rendered had to be made transparent as well.

As usual, Mallam Muhammadu came to the rescue. Summoning the local blacksmith, he bade him drive a hole through the middle of the shilling, and then had him nail it to the rafter above the District Officer’s desk. There, he said, no one would steal it, it would always be available to Government if needed, and nobody could doubt its existence. The District Officer approved of this solution, too, when I told him what I had done.

It was still there nailed to the rafter in 1966 when I last went to Sokoto and I suppose that it is there to this day.

I hope so!

I hope so too, Dad. It’s been almost thirteen years since you left us, and I still miss you every day. Hope you don’t mind if I share a bit more of your story with my friends.  It’s a story that needs to be told in these upside-down and inside-out times.


Your Girl

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