Power, Honour and Shame: The Ideology of Royal Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate

By Stilwell, Sean | Africa, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Power, Honour and Shame: The Ideology of Royal Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate


Stilwell, Sean, Africa


One obedient slave is better than three hundred sons, for the latter desire their father's death, the foyer his master's glory.

Nisam al-Mulk, Siyasatnameh(1)

In 1893 Kano emirate was devastated by a civil war between two rival claimants for the throne: the rebel Yusufu and the newly appointed emir, Tukur. The war, known locally as basasa (the `pillaging') dramatically realigned local and regional politics after the rebel victory in 1894-95.(2) The victory of the rebel forces (the Yusufawa) was in part made possible by the astute leadership of a number of powerful royal slaves. All of these royal slaves used the opportunity provided by the civil war to accumulate power, influence and wealth. In particular, Shettima(3) Shekarau led a newly formed contingent of slave riflemen, while another royal slave, Dan Rimi(4) Nuhu, crowned Yusufu and his successor, Aliyu, as the new emirs of Kano. At the outset of the war the rebels left Kano for Takai a town in the south-eastern section of the emirate. Nuhu came to Takai after this initial exodus, presumably having made his own decision about which side to take in the coming conflict. Nuhu's arrival on horseback was met with great delight from Yusufu: `Yusufu saw the man on horseback and said, "Our trip is successful, our trip is successful! Nuhu has joined us. He has joined our camp!"'(5) Thereafter, Nuhu transformed Yusufu's military camp into the proper seat of a rival emir. He brought with him the royal regalia, which he gave to Yusufu, and insisted that Kano court protocol be followed. At one point Nuhu noticed that no trumpet had been blown to mark Yusufu's accession. He asked the assembled crowd, `Where is Sarkin Kakaki?'(6) The son of the trumpet master then brought out a trumpet (kakaki) and blew it, but strangely it produced no sound. In response, Nuhu opened his Arabic book, took out some paper, wrote a few sentences on the pages and tied them to the ceremonial trumpet. The kakaki wag blown again, and this time its sound could be heard `from afar up to the sea'.(7)

The sound of this trumpet did more than herald the succession of a new emir. It marked the assumption of `honour' by a slave. Nuhu was not simply a military figure but was associated with the legitimation of the Yusufawa cause. While this slave safeguarded the traditions of the court, a long-standing practice in Kano, he also came to represent and embody the ideology of the entire system (which was otherwise in disarray). The roles of these elite slaves in the Kano civil war points to the emergence and consolidation of a royal slave office-holding elite by the end of the nineteenth century. While the precise details of the above story are no doubt apocryphal, it nonetheless suggests that the royal slave, elite created codes of conduct--a system of honour--that gave them social claims to influence, offices and wealth. This article explores the limits of this honour and the many contradictions, and conjunctions between `slavery' and `honour' in the Sokoto Caliphate. Rather than assuming all slaves were permanently dishonoured individuals (Patterson, 1982), I focus on the historical process that allowed and encouraged the appropriation of honour by certain royal slaves. The creation of a `slave identity' is thus situated in a particular historical moment: the formation and development of elite slave communities in the Hausa emirates of the Sokoto Caliphate after the jihad (holy war) of 1804-09.(8)

Martin Klein has noted of French West Africa that honour `defined not only the boundary between slave and non-slave, but also the identity of the non-slave'.(9) The free were defined as free because they possessed honour. Klein argues that the social distinction between `those who are honorable and those, who are not was crucial to a hegemonic ideology which enabled ruling elites to control both agricultural slaves and the more privileged slave warriors'.(10) The ideology of Islam further reinforced the importance of honour and kinship in defining both who was slave and who was free.

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Power, Honour and Shame: The Ideology of Royal Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate
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