Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Royal Concubinage in Ngaoundere, Northern Cameroon, Ca. 1900-1960

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Royal Concubinage in Ngaoundere, Northern Cameroon, Ca. 1900-1960

Article excerpt

Concubines, in spite of their large numbers in Islamic royal settings in Africa, represent a neglected topic of research within the field of African historical studies. The reasons for this are many, the most important being the limits of the conventional sources, the difficulties for researchers of gaining access to secluded palace interiors, and perhaps above all, the assumption that royal women were of little importance to the power of the rulers they served.1

This article examines the circumstances, roles, and experiences of royal concubines in Ngaoundere in today's northern Cameroon in the period ca. 1900-1960. The study is informed by first-hand accounts from former royal concubines.2 Concubinage was a largescale phenomenon in Ngaoundere and the laamiido's3 palace probably contained one of the largest harems in Islamic West-Africa measured by the number of women it contained at the turn of the twentieth century. Approximately 300 concubines still resided inside the palace walls as recently as the mid-1950s.4 The institution of royal concubinage went into decline towards the end of the colonial period, but it has endured until this day.5 The fact that the royal harem system in Ngaoundere remained in operation throughout and beyond the colonial period has made it possible to collect first-hand accounts on the Ngaoundere palace harem. How did women become royal concubines in twentieth-century Ngaoundere? What was their legal and social position, and which activities did they carry out? And did royal concubines, as is often believed, live a life of ease and privilege?

The article is based on interviews with former concubines who had spent parts of their lives in the secluded palace interior, and is supplemented with written sources from colonial and missionary archives. The interviews were conducted in Ngaoundere in three phases between 1996 and 2002 .6 The majority of the twenty -five former concubines interviewed had lived in the Ngaoundere palace at various times during the reigns of laamiido Mohammadou Abbo (1929-1939 and 1948-1957), laamiido Aliou (1939-1948) and laamiido Baba Djelani (1957-1961). Having obtained the permission of the laamiido at the time, Issa Malgari Yaya (1973-1997), I began by doing interviews inside the palace with the concubines of his predecessors, who had been allowed to live at the palace during their old age. However, realizing that the women did not talk freely within the confines of the palace, I gradually came to concentrate on former royal concubines who lived on the outside, in the quarters surrounding the palace. These women were all members of the palace community, still spending much of their time at court partaking in the domestic activities of the palace household. This study is also informed by numerous conversations with other members of the palace community.

The harem is usually associated with Muslim society, but the practice of secluding women had its precursor in the pre-Islamic civilizations of the Middle East.7 In Subsanaran Africa, large harems existed in the households of powerful rulers in many different societies, both Islamic and non-Islamic.8 Melman has defined "harem system" as "the combination of the seclusion of females with polygamy and concubinage."9 I suggest broadening this definition by including non-concubine female slaves, as these normally constituted another important group in large harems.

The Muslim harem, typically conceived of as a place of sexual license in Western popular imagination, is undoubtedly a misinterpreted institution.10 The word "harem" is the Turkish form of the Arabic harim, derived from the root h-r-m, to make forbidden, sacrosanct.11 A harem is by definition a sanctuary or a sacred precinct, it is a space to which general access is forbidden or controlled.12 In its secular meaning, "harem" refers to the private quarters of the family, that is, the physical area of the house allocated to the women of the family. The term "harem" was not in use in Ngaoundere, the local denomination being làù kirà, literally "the heart of the compound. …

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