London. Ibadan. Nairobi: Oxford University Press. 1967. 312 p.
Thanks to the inquiring mind and observant eye of the explorer Barth we have a very clear picture of the Empire in the middle of the century. Between the beginning of 1851 and the end of 1854 he spent many months within its borders, and in the course of his travels visited Air, Katsina, Kano, Adamawa, Sokoto, and Gwandu. Though an emissary of the British Government, he was a German by birth and training and he recorded all that he saw with extraordinary fidelity and attention to detail.
Some of the scenes of urban and rural life which Barth depicted are not unlike those of today. Here is his description of a corner of Kano city:
In another part were to be seen all the necessaries of life, the wealthy buying the most palatable things for his table, the poor stopping and looking greedily at a handful of grain; here a rich governor dressed in silk and gaudy clothes, mounted upon a spirited and richly caparisoned horse, and followed by a host of idle, insolent slaves, there a poor blind man groping his way through the multitude, and fearing at every step to be trodden down; here a yard neatly fenced with mats of reed, and provided with all the comforts which the country affords a clean, snug-looking cottage, the clay walls nicely polished, a shutter of reeds placed against the low, well-rounded door, and forbidding intrusion on the privacy of life, a cool shed for the daily household work-a fine spreading alleluba tree offering a pleasant shade during the hottest hours of the day ... the matron in a clean black cotton gown wound round her waist ... busy preparing the meal for her absent husband, or spinning cotton, and at the same time urging the female slaves to pound the corn, the children naked and merry, playing about in the sand ... or chasing a struggling stubborn goat; earthenware pots and wooden bowls, all cleanly washed, standing in order .... 1
Slavery (which, it must be remembered, had still not been abolished in the United States) was accepted everywhere as a perfectly natural phenomenon and slaves formed a high proportion of the population of the Emirates. In Kano city Barth found that, while the wealthy owned many slaves, the poor had few or none. His conclusion, on balance, was that in numbers the slaves might equal but certainly did not exceed the free men. Taking the Emirate of Kano as a whole, he reckoned that the numbers of bond and free were also about equal 2.
What the proportions in other Emirates were we do not know. Katsina, however, being basically similar to Kano, probably had a comparable ratio. In Zaria, Bauchi, and Adamawa the proportion of slaves may well have been even higher. In Adamawa, for example, Barth heard of many wealthy men who were said to own 1,000 or more 3, while in Zaria the Emir Mamman Sani, when he died in 1860, was reputed to have left 9,000, to be divided with his estate 4. As for Sokoto and Gwandu, since they received tribute from all the others, much of which was paid in slaves, they were unlikely to have had fewer slaves, relatively or absolutely, than their vassals.
In what he described as the quiet course of domestic slavery, Barth saw very little to offend or distress him. The Fulani and Hausa owners he found to be much more humane than the Arabs. Slaves were seldom overworked, but on the contrary were usually well treated and often accepted almost as members of the family. In Adamawa, for example, Barth saw slave girls on their way to work on their master's farm who were neatly dressed in white aprons and adorned with strings of glass beads.
The population of Kano city was estimated by Barth to be 30,000 and that of the Emirate at 500,000. All the towns, he said, were protected by mud walls, pierced by narrow fortified gates, and the larger villages by wooden stockades. Unprotected villages were usually sited within easy reach of walled towns so that the inhabitants could take refuge whenever danger threatened. The villagers earned their right to sanctuary by helping the towns folk in the arduous task of building and maintaining these immense walls.
To accommodate such refugees, and to enclose farmland which could be cultivated in the event of a long siege, the town walls normally enclosed an area two or three times as large as the town itself and, consequently, were often five or seven miles in circumference. The walls of Kano, the greatest of them all, had a perimeter of eleven miles with thirteen gates 5. To protect farmers working in the fields outside the walls some towns also had an outer earthwork known as a tara mahara encircling the whole cultivated area. These outer defences were not intended to keep raiders out altogether but simply to delay them enough to give the farmers time to run to safety. Similarly, the purpose of the tall silk-cotton trees which Barth noticed growing near every town gate was to provide a look-out point from which the watch could give the alarm as soon as raiders appeared upon the scene 6.
In Kano, Barth found that in the richer quarters the majority of the houses were built in the Nubian or North African style, being flat-roofed, laid out round a courtyard, and entirely constructed of sun-baked clay. He described them as being inferior to those of Agades and Timbuctoo in that their courtyards were very cramped and privacy, rather than light and air, seemed to be the prime consideration. On the other hand, the architecture of the Emir's palace impressed him very favourably. The audience chamber, also built of sun-baked clay and reinforced internally with the termite-resistant timber of the fan-palm, had a very high ceiling supported on two lofty and neatly ornamented arches 7.
Barth found the Fulani Empire a land of plenty compared with most of the other countries through which he travelled. Indeed, water was scarce more often than food. Wells, for example, were often forty fathoms deep and in Wurno, though the wells were shallow, water was so hard to get that it fetched five cowries a pot. Only in Gwandu, where the war with Kebbi had made it impossible for the people to plant their crops, was there any real shortage of food. Almost everywhere else Barth found a thriving agriculture and a good variety of all kinds of produce. Guinea-corn and millet he saw everywhere, rice wherever conditions permitted of its being grown, and milk and meat in plenty except in certain parts of Adamawa.
Among vegetables and tubers, onions seem to have been the cheapest and most plentiful, but beans, ground-nuts, sweet-potatoes cassava, yams, and coco-yarns were also fairly common. Irrigation was practised in the dry season, the water being raised by shadoofs, and in this way a little wheat was grown, though the main crop was onions. Sugar-cane was also cultivated and Barth was informed that the owner of a farm he saw near Sokoto knew how to make jaggery, or coarse sugar 8.
Garden fruits were less plentiful than vegetables, but then, as now, pawpaw trees were to be seen in many compounds. Dates and bananas were also grown where the conditions suited them. In addition trees such as the locust-bean and the shea-butter tree were prized for their fruits. Honey, too, was collected wherever found 9.
The main cash crops were cotton and indigo. They must have been grown in substantial quantities, for they not only sufficed for most local needs but also, as we shall see, supported a profitable trade in dyed cloth. Tobacco, too, was widely cultivated for sale as well as consumption.
The crafts of the country Barth found very unevenly distributed. The most important of them were spinning, weaving, dyeing, tailoring, smithing, pottery, and leather-working. The women did the spinning and some of the pottery, but the rest of the work was performed by the men.
The cloth trade, which was mainly centred upon Kano but whose ramifications spread far and wide, was very highly developed. Locally woven materials, particularly when dyed and embroidered, were in great demand all over the central and western Sudan, the Sahara, and even parts of North Africa. Indeed, the skill of the Kano, craftsmen was so highly prized that a re-export trade developed, coarse European cloth being imported across the Sahara and then, after being prepared for the African market, sent on to new destinations 10.
The smiths were also skilled craftsmen and worked silver, copper, and alloys, as well as iron. Apart from agricultural implements, there was a brisk demand all over the Sudan for weapons, bits, stirrups, and women's ornaments.
For smelting there was plenty of iron-bearing rock to be found in Hausaland, but the quality varied appreciably. Barth reported, for example, that the iron smelted round Kano was much inferior to that of Sokoto. No doubt that is why many sword blades were imported from Europe. Even so, the Kano blacksmiths retained a share in the trade, for they set the blades and re-exported them at a profit 11.
On the other hand, there were no deposits of copper and metal had to be imported from Darfur 12. As for tin, though Northern Nigeria is now one of the leading producers in the world, there seems to have been little trade in it during the nineteenth century, probably because the Plateau where it is found was then still dominated by suspicious and intractable pagan tribes.
Of the other towns in the Empire, only Bida in Nupe could rival Kano for the skill of its craftsmen. In the cloth trade, though the Bida weavers could not equal the glossy navy turbans produced in Kano, their men's gowns and women's wraps were held in equal esteem and were indeed exported through Kano, Katsina, and Jega to the other great markets of the Sudan 13. In addition to cloth, Bida was famous for its silver, brass, glass, and beads 14.
The main products of the brass and silver smiths of Bida were sword and dagger hilts, horse trappings, bowls, jugs, dishes, ladles, anklets, bangles, necklaces, and rings. Artistic decoration, as well as superior workmanship, helped to give these articles their special value. For the manufacture of some of them a form of cire perdue casting was employed which was probably introduced from Benin 15.
The glass-workers of Bida, who always seem to have been a self-contained group, cherish a tradition that they came originally from Egypt. They passed through many cities in the course of their travels, but did not stop until they found a spot where the soil was suitable for the pursuit of their craft. The place, they say, was Nupe and the time the reign of the first Chief Tsoede 16. Whatever their origins, they brought to Bida a craft which was practised nowhere else in the central Sudan. Their main products, bangles and beads, were consequently in great demand.
Sokoto, the capital of the Empire, was a centre of religious learning rather than crafts. Apart from its superior iron, it was noted only for its leather-work. In this, however, it was pre-eminent. The red goats of Sokoto yield a soft leather which has no superior anywhere and for which there has long existed a world-wide demand. Even in medieval times it was exported to North Africa and from thence, under the name of Morocco leather, much of it went on to Europe.
Barth described it as being soft and beautifully dressed and noted that the principal goods displayed for sale were cushions, bags, and the ornamental horse trappings which were famous throughout Hausaland 17.
Of the other centres of the Empire, Gwandu was renowned for nothing but its cloth. This, though only indifferently dyed, nevertheless commanded a market extending far to the west. Yola, on the other hand, relied so heavily on the trade in slaves that it had no legitimate crafts at all 18.
The pattern of continental, as distinct from regional, trade was of course determined more by the basic facts of geography and the gradual improvement of communications than by any combination of local factors. Until the Portuguese had pioneered the sea-route round Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Sudan had had no other links with the outer world than the caravan routes which crossed or skirted the Sahara. By the fifteenth century these had therefore been built up into a fairly close network which served not only the Sudan but the rest of West Africa as well. The opening of the sea routes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had revolutionized the external communications of the whole coastal belt, but had not yet had very much effect on the hinterland. In the first half of the nineteenth century, therefore, as the experiences of Clapperton and Lander showed, the desert passage was still a safer and easier route to the Fulani Emirates than the approach from the coast. The only exceptions to this rule were Nupe and Ilorin which, with the development of navigation on the Niger, were being brought within the ambit of maritime trade. But all the other Emirates still faced towards the north and had their backs firmly turned on the sea.
In the Sahara, however, a significant change in the relative importance of the main caravan routes took place during the first half of the nineteenth century. The oldest route from North Africa to the central Sudan was the one which ran from Tripolitania through the Fezzan to Lake Chad. For centuries it had retained its primacy and as late as the 1820s it was the one preferred by the Oudney-Clapperton-Denham expedition. But in the following decades it became increasingly unsafe for caravans, with the result that by the middle of the century it had been eclipsed by the more westerly route that ran through Ghadames, Ghat, and Zinder to Kano 19. This change probably reflected the waning of the authority of Bornu, which was no longer capable of controlling the desert tribes along its route and the corresponding rise in the power of the Hausa States now that they had been welded together by the Fulani. Whatever the cause, the change certainly had the effect of enhancing the prosperity of Hausaland, and particularly that of Kano, now unquestionably the commerciaI and industrial centre of the Empire, at the expense of Bornu's.
From Kano a web of trade routes spread out in all directions. To the north the caravan trail to Agades led on, by various branches, to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Tripolitania, and Cyrenaica. To the cast another route, which had been closed during the two Bornu wars but which was now open again, led to Bornu and thence to Wadai, Darfur, the Nile, and finally Egypt. To the south-cast a third route led to Bauchi and Adamawa, the two main sources of slaves. To the south a fourth route led to Bida, Ilorin, and Yorubaland. To the south-west a fifth route led to Ashanti. To the north-west a sixth route led to Gao and Timbuctoo. Important as they undoubtedly were, however, it must not be imagined that these trade routes were in any sense highways. On the contrary, Barth observed with some surprise that the one which led from Kano to Bornu was little more than a path leading from one town to another 20.
At this time the main imports from Europe and North Africa were cottons and calicoes from Lancashire, cottons and sugar-loaves from France, red cloth from Saxony, beads from Venice, needles, mirrors, and paper from Nuremberg, sword-blades from Solingen, razors from Styria, fine silks from Lyons, coarse silks from Trieste and Tripoli, red fezzes from Leghorn, and all kinds of Arab dress from North Africa 21.
Other vital imports from the north and north-east were salt and natron. These did not have to be brought from so far, however, as they were found in ample quantities in the Sahara at Bilma, north of Lake Chad 22. Barth actually arrived in Hausaland in the company of the salt caravan from Bilma which he estimated as consisting of three thousand camel loads. The annual imports of natron he put at not less than 20,000 loads. Much of this went on to Bida where it was used in the process of glass-making 23.
From the south-east, Bauchi and Adamawa, came slaves and a little ivory. Such were the workings of the law of supply and demand and the difficulties of transport that the material for four women's gowns, which in Kano was worth no more than four dollars in all, would suffice in Yola to purchase either a slave or four elephant's tusks of tolerable size 24.
From the south there came to Kano, partly for local use and partly for distribution through Kano's superior mercantile network, the manufactures of Bida-cottons, brass vessels, silver ornaments, and glass bangles and beads.
From the south-west, along the very important Ashanti-Kano caravan trail which features in many Hausa folk tales and proverbs, came two most important commodities, gold and cola-nuts. Much of the gold went on, through Bornu and Wadai, to the Nile Valley and Cairo, but Barth reported that it was always on sale in Kano market and that one hundred mithqals could easily he bought at any time. As for colas, the demand for them seems to have been even keener than it is today and Barth reported that, while an onion or a needle could often be bought for as little as one cowry, a cola-nut from the new season's crop had been known to fetch as much as 120 cowries 25.
The main commodities which the Empire exported to balance its trade with the outside world were cottons, goatskins, leather goods, and slaves. There was also a small trade in ivory, but it was of much less importance.
The heavy cotton cloth that was woven and dyed in the Hausa States was exported along all the trade routes radiating from Kano. It went to Bornu in the east, to Igbirra and Iboland in the south, to Timbuctoo and Senegal in the west, and in the north to all the oases of the Sahara and even as far as the Mediterranean seaboard. In Barth's day the demand was so great in the west that, even though the direct route was closed by the revolt of Kebbi, Kano cloth was carried as far north as Ghat and Ghadames so that it could be switched back from there to Timbuctoo 26.
After his visit to Timbuctoo, Barth pointed out that the bulk of the fine cotton cloth which earlier explorers had noticed and praised was not manufactured locally but imported from Kano. The same point might well have been made about the so-called Morocco leather. As already mentioned, most of it originated not in Morocco but in Hausaland, from where it was exported by way of Agades and Tuat to Fez and the Moroccan ports.
Finally, there was the slave-trade. Barth estimated that the number of slaves exported annually from Kano did not exceed 5,000 and he reckoned that the value of this traffic was slightly less than that derived from the cloth trade 27.
Throughout the greater part of the Empire the main currency for all commercial transactions was cowry shells (Cyproea moneta). These are found in the Indian Ocean and for many centuries they served the people of the Sudan as a coinage. In Barth's day the rate of exchange was 2,500 cowries to the Spanish or Austrian silver dollar and 12,500 to the English gold sovereign 28.
The value of all money, including the pound sterling, has changed so much in the interval that it is difficult to translate these values into modem terms. The simplest and most realistic way of illustrating the purchasing power of cowries in the middle of the nineteenth century, therefore, is to quote some of the prices which Barth mentions in his narrative.
|1 needle||1 cowry|
|1 small onion||1 cowry|
|1 good razor||1,000 cowries|
|1 sword blade||1,000 cowry|
|1 bull||7,000 cowries|
|1 pack-ox||9,000 cowries|
|1 pony||30,000 cowries|
|1 slave-lad||33,000 cowries|
As a currency, cowries had the disadvantage that they were bulky and only 100,000 of them went to the load of a normal camel. Consequently, they were ill-suited to major transactions and payments for big deals were usually made in slaves rather than in shells. This was a source of strength as well as weakness, however, for it meant that there was little profit to be made from importing them. Over the centuries, it is true, their value gradually declined in relation to gold, but the process was such a gradual one that it can have caused no dislocation and on the whole they provided the Sudan with a remarkably stable currency 29.
In Kano, Barth reported that, while cowries were the normal currency, most tradesmen were ready to accept payment in dollars. In Wurno, on the other hand, he was grateful for the present of 100,000 cowries from the Sultan because he found the people unwilling to take dollars. In parts of Adamawa neither cowries nor dollars were accepted and woven strips of cloth served as the medium of exchange 30.
In the big towns the merchants were prosperous and the use of credit was well understood. The Islamic ban on usury was circumvented by the expedient of bargains which stipulated that the amount to be repaid should be much greater than the amount to be advanced. Indeed, according to Barth the normal profit on such transactions was too per cent 31, a rate so high that it not only indicates the hazards of the times but also suggests that there was a chronic shortage of capital and credit.
Markets have always been a greater feature of life in West Africa than in other parts of the continent. In the mid-nineteenth century, despite the troubled times, it is clear from Barth's narrative what an important part they played in promoting the trade and wealth of the country. According to his estimate, for example, the market of Badarawa, a Zamfara town of no particular importance, was attended by 10,000 people even though the Gobir moss-troopers were known to be in the field. Similarly, in Gumel, near the Kano-Bornu border, he counted about 300 stalls and saw at least 1,000 loads of natron 32.
The market of Sokoto was in decline at this time, not only because of the Gobir and Kebbi wars but equally because the Sultan Aliyu had removed the Court to Wurno. Nevertheless, when Barth visited it he saw displayed for sale 30 horses, 300 cattle, 50 pack-oxen, a good many slaves, and a great quantity of ironware and leather goods, including over 100 bridles. Evidently this was nothing out of the ordinary, for he described the market as being only tolerably well attended and supplied 33.
The pattern of trade under the Fulani was much the same as it had been under the Hausa dynasties. The two Bornu wars had, of course, cut communications between Kano and Lake Chad. For a time this interruption no doubt pushed up the price of salt, natron, and the manufactured goods of North Africa, but before long the merchants probably found alternative routes for their caravans. The troubles in Nupe, on the other hand, seem to have caused little interruption in the trade between Bida and the northern Emirates 34.
The most radical change which took place in the nineteenth century was the decline of Katsina as a trading centre. Katsina had certain natural advantages 35 and in 1740 the Arab merchants, frightened off by high taxation, had actually abandoned Kano, and moved to Katsina. It had seemed then that Katsina might one day eclipse Kano. Early in the Fulani era, however, the advantage had swung right back to Kano. The reason was that Katsina, lying farther to the north, was much more exposed to the raids of the Hausa exiles. These raids sometimes reached Kano Emirate, it is true, but they never threatened Kano city. Katsina, on the other hand, was so menaced that the Emir at one time contemplated abandoning it and building a new capital farther to the south. The Sultan prevented him from doing so, but the danger remained and Katsina never recovered its former commercial importance.
After the revolt of Kebbi, Sokoto and Gwandu suffered the same kind of commercial eclipse as Katsina. The Arabs, for example, whom Clapperton had found living in Sokoto, had all departed by the time that Barth arrived a generation later 36.
By and large, however, despite the many troubles which beset it, the Fulani Empire, particularly the former Hausa States, was busy and prosperous compared with the rest of the Sudan. There is no mistaking the relief which Barth felt when he returned to the well stocked markets of Hausaland and found himself once more among its friendly, tolerant people 37.
1. Barth, op. cit. vol. II, pp. 108-9.
2. Ibid. vol. II, pp. 124-5 and 143-4.
3. Ibid. vol. II, pp. 502-3.
4. M. G. Smith, op. cit. p. 158.
5. Annual Reports, Northern Nigeria, 1900-11, plan opposite p. 165.
6. Information confirmed by Alhaji Junaidu.
7. Barth, op. cit. vol. II, p. 105.
8. Oral tradition in Sokoto, endorsed by Alhaji Junaidu, asserts that sugar-cane was first introduced by Sultan Bello,
9. Barth, op. cit.
10. Ibid. vol. II, p. 136.
11. Barth, op. cit. vol. II, pp, 138-9.
12 Ibid. vol. II, p. 141.
13. Ibid. vol. II, p. 128.
14. Nadel, op. cit. pp. 269-85.
15. Ibid. p. 271.
16. Ibid. p. 274.
17. Barth, op. cit. vol. II, p. 180.
18. Ibid. vol. II, p. 501.
19. Ibid. vol. IV, p. 79.
20. Barth, op. cit. vol. II, pp. 182-3.
21. Ibid. p. 135.
22. Mauny, op. cit. p. 322.
23. Barth, op. cit. vol. II, p. 132.
24. Barth, op. cit. vol. II, p. 502.
25. Ibid. vol. IV, p. 162.
26. Ibid. vol. II, pp. 126-7.
27. Barth, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 131-2.
28. Ibid, vol. II, pp. 28 and 142-3.
29. See Note 13 in Appendix I.
30. Barth, op. cit. vol. II, p. 446.
31. Ibid. vol. V, pp. 367-8.
32. Ibid. vol. II, p. 99.
33. See, for example, Barth, vol. IV, p. 99.
34. Ibid, vol. TV, pp. 179-80.
35. See Note 14 in Appendix I.
36. Barth, op. cit. vol. IV, p. 174.
37. Ibid. vol. V, p. 280.