This article focuses on the elite slaves of Ilorin, formerly a southern frontier emirate of the Sokoto Caliphate that is now part of Nigeria. I argue that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the roles and status of these slaves underwent various changes: that they increased their power (and their wealth and prestige) in the nineteenth century by means of their military activities and their role as intermediaries (baba kekere)1 providing access to Ilorin's emirs; that they became involved in and exploited competition between Ilorin's emirs and its four balogun (major military chiefs); and that the inheritance of land by elite slave families contributed to the emirs' loss of patronage power, and thus the weakening of central power in the emirate in the late nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth. Some of the elite slaves, I argue, continued to wield considerable influence in the first few decades of the colonial period, despite the distaste for them generally shown by British colonial officers. Eventually, however, they lost this influence, although some elite slaves retained a modicum of prestige. Today the families generally deny their former slave status, although this status is clearly demonstrated in the records. Their denial reflects the definitive loss, in the 1930s, of the power and influence that went along with elite slavery.
The elite slaves of Ilorin had much in common with the royal military slaves of the Middle East and those of Kano, a central emirate in the Sokoto Caliphate.2 However, the Ilorin slaves' ownership and inheritance of land represented a significant difference from, for example, the Kano case. While studies of elite slaves elsewhere have focused on royal slaves, a study of the elite slaves of Ilorin provides evidence that elite slaves of non-royal families have also played important roles in public affairs.
The city of Ilorin is situated in northernmost Yorubaland, in the western part of what is today the Middle Belt of Nigeria. Ilorin first gained prominence in the early nineteenth century when it became the headquarters of Afonja, the general who rebelled against the Old Oyo Empire. Afonja invited to Ilorin a Fulani religious leader who is often called Mallam Alimi. Later, the Fulani jihadists in Ilorin, supported by Hausa Muslims who had been slaves in Old Oyo and by Yoruba Muslims, overthrew Afonja and made Ilorin the center of an emirate on the southern frontier of the Sokoto Caliphate.
Two sons of Mallam Alimi, Abdusalami (c.!823-c. 1834/36) and Shita (C.1834/36-C. 1860/61), reigned in turn as emirs, and their descendants ascended the throne in rotatory succession, a practice that lasted through the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century.3 Zuberu, son of Abdusalami, ruled until 1867/69 and AHu, son of Shita, until 1891. The next emir, Moma, committed suicide in 1895.4 Under the emir were four balognns, major war chiefs and ward heads: Balogun Fulani heading the Fulani settlers, Balogun Gambari heading the Hausa and other northern elements in the population, and Baloguns Alanamu and Ajikobi heading the large Yoruba majority. The emirs were unable to consolidate their power against these powerful chiefs, and were weakened by rebellions in the 186Os and 187Os.5 At the end of the 187Os, Emir Aliu, who was interested in improving relations with the powerful Yoruba state of Ibadan, Ilorin's enemy to the south, was overruled by Balogun Gambari Karara, who insisted on the long siege of Ilorin's rebellious vassal town of Offa, a siege that exacerbated the Ilorin/Ibadan conflict. Aliu's successor, Moma, was also anxious to come to terms with Ibadan, and with the British in Lagos. However, he was opposed by his Balogun Alanamu and by Adamu, son and successor of Karara. Moma lost the power struggle so definitively that he was forced to commit suicide in September 1895 by blowing himself up in his own palace, together with his slave, Ogunkojole. …