African Sacred Kings: Expectations and Performance in the Cameroon Grassfields

By Fowler, Ian | Ethnology, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

African Sacred Kings: Expectations and Performance in the Cameroon Grassfields


Fowler, Ian, Ethnology


In a paper published in 1962 Phyllis Kaberry drew attention to the elaborate nature of political organization in the Bamenda Grassfields of Cameroon and referred to the unique combination of sacred kingship and palace societies vested with retainer functions. The political institutions that she considered gave these kingdoms a distinctive, "Grassfields" character to African sacred kingship: social distinctions among royals, commoners, tributaries, and slaves; a constituted privy council; a closed regulatory association; and a princes' fraternity with only Limited political functions. In an age when anthropologists seem more eager to deconstruct the labels and categories of their forbears than to re-examine them through actually doing ethnography, her use of such apparently loaded terms as king,(1) prince, royal, and privy council would appear to undermine the enduring value of her work. But to do so would impute common meaning where none was intended.

The point is that while Kaberry's (1952, 1959, 1962) use of such terms may appear to beg very important questions as to what kind of king, what kind of royalty, and so on, the very rich and detailed ethnography that she produced (particularly in collaboration with the historian Sally Chilver) provides a wealth of material and potential answers to questions we have only just begun to formulate. In this light I propose to outline some features of the late nineteenth century development of the political and ritual aspects of kingship in the kingdom of Babungo in the Bamenda Grassfields in order to reappraise its tendencies towards absolutism and its qualities of sacredness.

Babungo, a long-established, highly centralized, and elaborate polity, was a kingdom with strong traditions in the plastic arts that developed innovative metallurgical processes linked to extraordinarily high levels of iron production in the course of the nineteenth century (Warnier and Fowler 1979; Fowler 1990). It resisted the forces of attraction and dissolution exerted by the expanding neighboring kingdoms of Bamum, Nso', and Kom, and provided refuge for groups displaced by them; it fought off the fearsome onslaughts of mounted slave raiders from the north; and it buffered the attempts of the intrusive Chamba kingdom of Bali Kumbat to carve out its own sphere of hegemony in the immediate region.

A number of technical, social, and economic factors had enabled Babungo to become a major and very prosperous center of iron production by the second half of the nineteenth century. At the same time Babungo was constricted by its logistical position in the region, one which inhibited expansion of its political and prestige system at the expense of its neighbors. This situation bore the seeds of internal conflict and potential schism which, in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, rose to the surface in the form of a dynastic succession dispute, following the death of the barren king Nywifon.

The succession dispute gravely threatened the integrity of the kingdom. It was only a fortuitous set of historical circumstances culminating in the arrival of Zintgraff (1895) and the brave and shrewd actions of die successful candidate Sangge, a sister's son (2) of Nywifon, that enabled Babungo to survive as an independent polity into the colonial period. An extraordinary event took place one fateful day early in the dry season of 1889 when the Babungo king, Sangge, set out furtively with one wife and one retainer against the wishes of his senior council, and crossed beyond the boundaries of the kingdom's defensive perimeter to personally entreat Eugen Zintgraff, himself beating a hasty retreat out of Kom, to come and take refuge. This was no mere act of submission to an agent in the vanguard of European colonialism. It was, rather, a shrewd, informed, and heroic ploy intended to bolster Sangge's own precarious position as king and also to safeguard the integrity of the kingdom in the face of hostile neighbors. …

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