Slavery and the Ngaoundere State

From “Raiders and Traders in Adamawa: Slavery as a Regional System” by Philip Burnham, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 46-48:

The Adamawa jihad was undertaken by small groups of Fulbe who were substantially outnumbered by the autochthonous ‘pagan’ groups of the region. Ngaoundere was certainly no exception in this regard, and the rapid integration of conquered Mbum and other peoples into the Fulbe state, which transformed large numbers of former enemies into effective elements of the state political and economic apparatus, is truly remarkable.

The limited information that we possess concerning the organisation of the Wolarbe Fulbe who first penetrated the Adamawa Plateau and attacked the Mbum of Ngaoundere suggests that they were a semi-nomadic pastoral group. Slaves definitely formed a part of Wolarbe society prior to the jihad, and it is possible that some of these slaves were settled in fixed farming villages which served as wet-season foci and political and ceremonial centres for the transhumant families of Fulbe pastoralists. At least a rudimentary system of political offices, with titles for both freemen and slaves, was in operation prior to the jihad and had probably been adopted by the Wolarbe during their earlier period of residence in Bornu.

On analogy between the pre-jihad Wolarbe and better-documented cases of similar semi-pastoral Fulbe groups composed of both free and slave elements, it is probable that the initial group of Wolarbe who took Ngaoundere did not exceed 5,000 in number, including women, children and slaves. But in the course of several decades of fighting against the indigenous peoples of the Ngaoundere region, the Fulbe were able to conquer and reduce to slavery or tributary status large groups of local populations who certainly outnumbered the Fulbe conquerors by several orders of magnitude. These conquests were assisted by alliances between Ngaoundere and other Fulbe states as well as by the progressive incorporation of ‘pagan’ elements into the Ngaoundere army. Conquered ‘pagan’ village populations located near Ngaoundere town were often allowed to remain on their traditional lands. Their chiefs were awarded titles, and the whole village unit was allocated to the tokkal (political following) of a titled Fulbe or slave official in the Ngaoundere court, who became responsible for collecting annual taxes and raising levies of soldiers for Fulbe war expeditions. In return, the ‘pagan’ group’s loyalty to Ngaoundere was rewarded principally by opportunities to secure booty in war, and this incentive was probably the primary factor which allowed the Fulbe to secure the allegiance of conquered groups so rapidly.

The tokke units (plural of tokkal) which formed the basis of the Ngaoundere administrative system, had their origins in the leadership patterns of mobile pastoral society and were not discrete territorial domains ruled by resident overlords. Rather, tokke were sets of followers, both Fulbe and members of vassal peoples, who were distributed in a scattering of different rural villages or residential quarters in town and who were allocated to individual office holders living at Ngaoundere at the whim of the Fulbe ruler (laamiido). Such a spatially dispersed administrative organisation lessened chances of secession by parts of the Ngaoundere state and yet was an effective means of mobilising and organising an army.

In addition to locally conquered ‘pagan’ peoples, the size of the servile population at Ngaoundere was further enlarged by slaves captured at distances of 200 to 500 kilometres from Ngaoundere town itself. These captives were brought back for resettlement at Ngaoundere either as domestic slaves or as farm slaves in slave villages (ruumde). This long-distance raiding, which was a regular occurrence from the 1850s up until the first decade of the twentieth century, was a large-scale phenomenon, and European observers at the end of the nineteenth century estimated that as many as 8,000 to 10,000 slaves might be taken on these raids annually (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1972:76, 204-205; Loefler 1907:225; Ponel 1896:205-207). Those captives who were not settled at Ngaoundere were sold to Hausa or Kanuri traders, and Adamawa soon gained the reputation as a slave traders’ Eldorado (Passarge 1895:480). By the second half of the nineteenth century, Adamawa had become the main source of supply for the Sokoto Caliphate (Lacroix 1952:34).

Summing up the demographic situation at Ngaoundere in the nineteenth century, we can say that at no time following the establishment of the Fulbe state did the proportion of slaves and vassals to freemen ever fall below a one-to-one ratio and that for most of the period, the ratio was probably more like two-to-one. Modern census figures, although they can be applied retrospectively with only the greatest of caution, tend to support this interpretation. Thus, in 1950, there were approximately 23,000 Fulbe living in the Ngaoundere state as compared with 35,000 non-Fulbe who were still identifiable as ex-slaves, vassals, or servants of the Fulbe (Froelich 1954:25). It goes without saying that in modern conditions, when all legal disabilities and constraints on movement have been removed, the proportion of servile to free would be expected to drop. But nonetheless, as late as 1950, we still encounter almost a three-to-two ratio.

Whatever the exact number and proportion of slaves in the pre-colonial period, they were not all of uniform social or legal status, and it is instructive to attempt a classification of the various forms of servitude in practice in nineteenth-century Ngaoundere. The Fulbe language makes a distinction between dimo and maccudo, meaning respectively ‘freeman’ and ‘slave’, a discrimination paralleling the basic one made in Koranic law. Membership in the legally free category was attainable through birth to two free parents, through birth to a slave concubine having relations with a freeman, or through manumission. A slave concubine herself, having borne a free child, would also become free on the death of her child’s father. Free offspring of slave concubines were not jurally disadvantaged and as the decades passed after the conquest, many of the Ngaoundere aristocracy and even several of the rules had such parentage.

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Filed under Cameroon, Central African Republic, Islam, language, migration, slavery, war

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