Academic journal article African Studies Review

Land, Power, and Dependency along the Gambia River, Late Eighteenth to Early Nineteenth Centuries

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Land, Power, and Dependency along the Gambia River, Late Eighteenth to Early Nineteenth Centuries

Article excerpt

Abstract:

The role of power over people and over land is an important issue in West Africa, with important implications for relationships between commoners and elites. Along with conquest, slave raiding, marriage, and procreation, control over land has enhanced the ability of chiefs and other elites to gain control over people, thus increasing their production and reinforcing social hierarchy and centralization of power. This article utilizes oral evidence and European documentary sources to examine the importance of the concept of "wealth-in-people" for understanding the significance of land in African societies. By focusing on the Gambia region, where both paddy and upland rice farming were practiced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the article contributes empirical observations to support the argument that control over both land and people played a central role in the accumulation of wealth in many African societies.

Résumé: Le rôle du pouvoir sur les gens et sur la terre est une question importante en Afrique de l'ouest, ayant des implications décisives pour les relations entre les roturiers et les élites. Avec la conquête coloniale, les raids d'esclaves, les traditions du mariage, la procréation, le contrôle des terres a renforcé la capacité des chefs et des autres élites à prendre le contrôle sur les gens, augmentant ainsi leur production et renforçant la hiérarchie sociale existante et la centralisation du pouvoir. Cet article utilise des preuves provenant de la tradition orale et des sources de documentaires européens pour examiner l'importance de la notion de "richesse en peuple" afin de comprendre la signification du rôle joué par le contrôle des terres dans les sociétés africaines. En se concentrant sur la région de la Gambie, où la culture du riz en

paddy et en élévation était pratiquée à la fin du 18ième et au début du 19ième siècle, l'article contribue des observations empiriques pour soutenir l'argument selon lequel le contrôle des terres et des gens a joué un rôle central dans l'accumulation de la richesse dans de nombreuses sociétés africaines.

Key Words: Aristocratie rule; dependency; land control; Muslim clerics; wealthin-people

Introduction

A story narrated by the Scottish traveler Mungo Park states that in the Gambia, in 1795, a man named Karfa rented "huts for the accommodation" of his slaves and a piece of land on which to use them to cultivate maize and other crops for their maintenance (1858:330). Karfa rented the land from the chief of Jindey-a settlement located somewhere along the banks of the Gambia River. While it is not clear in Park's writing how many people depended on this chief for access to land, other sources suggest that across the Gambia River region chiefs and members of prominent lineages controlled access to land because political and social power rested with them. They also indicate that controlling access to land provided a means through which lineage or personal wealth was augmented, and that not all Africans enjoyed equal access or rights to land.

Karfa's story is an early example of a well-studied phenomenon: the ability of landowners in many parts of Africa to collect rents from strangers seeking land favorably located in relation to export markets. The story highlights the broader significance of land in creating a system of dependency that gave elite families their privileged lifestyles. Before British authority began altering African customs, land in the Mandinka-dominated states of the Gambia, as in other parts of the Senegambia, could not be acquired as a simple commodity; nor could it be traded in such a way as to divorce it from the social and political context that gave it value (see Barry 1998). As in other African societies, land ownership was tied to the production and reproduction of social and political relationships, which social scientists have called landlord-stranger relationships. Such relationships were one "of dependence and protection [and] involved power [which] was durable and regular" (Beedle 1980; interview with Fafa Jobe, Kumbija Village, Sabach-Sanjal, Dec. …

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