Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria: Firearms, Culture, and Public Order

Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria: Firearms, Culture, and Public Order

by Saheed Aderinto


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, November 29


Guns are an enduring symbol of imperialism, whether they are used to impose social order, create ceremonial spectacle, incite panic, or to inspire confidence. In Guns and Society, Saheed Aderinto considers the social, political, and economic history of these weapons in colonial Nigeria. As he transcends traditional notions of warfare and militarization, Aderinto reveals surprising insights into how colonialism changed access to firearms after the 19th century. In doing so, he explores the unusual ways in which guns were used in response to changes in the Nigerian cultural landscape. More Nigerians used firearms for pastime and professional hunting in the colonial period than at any other time. The boom and smoke of gunfire even became necessary elements in ceremonies and political events. Aderinto argues that firearms in the Nigerian context are not simply commodities but are also objects of material culture. Considering guns in this larger context provides a clearer understanding of the ways in which they transformed a colonized society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253031617
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/25/2018
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Saheed Aderinto is Associate Professor of History at Western Carolina University and the author of When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism, and Politics in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1958.

Read an Excerpt



Firearms, the Atlantic World, and Technology Transfer in Precolonial Nigeria


This chapter lays the foundation of twentieth-century colonial Nigerian gun society. It engages the introduction of firearms to what is now Nigeria during the precolonial period, drawing on secondary literature on African economic, military, and political history. I supplement these sources with published primary documents such as the journals of European travelers and explorers like John Barbot, Richard Lander, Hugh Clapperton, and Henry Barth, the latter of whom described firearms as "this Destructive Implement of European Ingenuity" in his narrative of the impact of guns on slave raiding in Bornu, among other parts of West and North Africa, in the mid-nineteenth century. The first firearms arrived in "Nigeria" as one of the numerous items of trade between Europeans and Arabs as well as Africans along both the Atlantic coast and across the Sahara. Africans, especially members of the ruling oligarchy, sought firearms not only because they proved effective in prosecuting conflict but also because they were an exotic good, possession of which accorded respect. A portion of this chapter dwells on the firearms trade during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. It reviews the arguments about the relationship between firearms and political stability espoused by scholars and notes that the advent of firearms in Africa was a component of a much larger history of technology transfer and innovation, even what we might now call globalization, in the Atlantic world. Nigerians not only adopted this European technology; they began to domesticate and incorporate it into their religious, cultural, and social experience. Thus, the social history of firearms in precolonial Nigeria presented in this chapter serves as a corrective to the conventional narrative that treats guns narrowly as mere instruments of violence.

Political, Economic, and Military History of Firearms in Precolonial Nigeria

The Portuguese are believed to have brought the first firearms to the West African coast during their explorations in the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, the Benin kingdom, early writers reported, tried to acquire the foreign weapons for military expansion, probably because they offered significant advantages over bows and arrows as assault and defense weapons. The earliest muskets could probably fire up to two hundred yards, three times the range of a bow and arrow. Muskets were inaccurate probably beyond fifty yards. The exoticism, noise, and potential psychological effect of the weapons offered a military advantage over enemies, especially those who lacked them. Before the end of the nineteenth century, when breech-loading rifles with cartridges were introduced to Africa, the following three classes of smooth-bore muzzle loaders found their way to the continent from Europe: the matchlock, the earliest type (probably the ones represented in the Benin bronze statutory); the wheel lock, which was produced in small quantities; and the flintlock, the most popular firearm imported from the 1630s to the first half of the twentieth century. Africa was thus part of the network of technology transfer in the Atlantic world. Indeed, its military needs shaped the course of firearms technology between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Writers do not agree on the extent of trade in firearms between the Portuguese and the Benin kingdom, or on the role that guns played in the latter's military success. Contemporary observers noted that the Portuguese forbade the selling of firearms to non-Christians, which included the people of the Benin kingdom. Moreover, many of the guns the Portuguese used during this period came from other parts of Europe — hence they did not themselves produce enough firearms to expend in foreign trade. Writing in the late seventeenth century, Barbot stated that "the Blacks of Benin" were "no great lovers of firearms, and consequently not well skilled in the use of them." His other observation that the people occasionally killed wild boars with their javelins, and dared not try to kill lions and tigers, which were in abundance, suggests that firearms played no role in hunting. Drawing on other sources produced during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, R. A. Kea has argued that the "role of guns in sixteenth-century Benin military history has been overestimated." He contends that the Benin "troops did not possess the new weapon" and that their military success during this period "owed nothing to the use of firearms."

However, other evidence suggests the opposite. Benin historians, including Jacob Egharevba, affirm that firearms began to play a significant role in the empire's military expansion during the reign of Oba Esigie (ca. 1504–55). When the people of Benin employed some Portuguese harquebusiers in their expeditions and seized some cannon on a Portuguese ship in 1514, it was because they believed in the efficacy of firearms. They may have learned to use firearms while working with their foreign machineries. The French ships that traded with Benin in 1533 and in the 1690s, according to Alan Ryder, were "selling guns to Benin in the normal course of trade." Written evidence clearly indicates that by the 1720s, the Portuguese were selling firearms to the oba (king) and that notable Benin chiefs had enough ammunition to wage constant skirmishes against their Itsekiri neighbors. After a temporary trade dispute over the Dutch request for a monopoly of trade in Benin, the Europeans resumed trade relations in 1717. They supplied the local chiefs with twenty-four guns and six hundred pounds of gunpowder. Two years earlier, the Dutch ship Commany arrived at the Benin River with six hundred pounds of gunpowder, among an assortment of other goods to exchange for gums, redwoods, and other local products. During the same decade, the Dutch director-general presented a Benin chief with a flintlock gun of which he (the chief) was said to be "very fond." By this period Europeans' firearms trade in the Benin River area had become a significant factor in the coastal economy, shaping the contours of domestic and international relations.

It is safe to say that the role of firearms in Benin's military history evolved: like most Africans encountering guns for the first time, the people struggled with the new technology, only to become highly skilled with it over time. During the late sixteenth century and much of the seventeenth, they probably did not have as much access to firearms as they wanted, but their possession of lethal weapons increased (and kept fluctuating) as trade relations between West Africa and Europe intensified. In addition, the technological transformation of firearms must have shaped attitudes toward their use, as well as toward their effects and outcomes, at different stages of the evolution and consolidation of military culture. Hence, learning and unlearning different types of firearms imported to Benin, as elsewhere in West Africa, must have produced divergent and shifting outcome from one century to another. Barbot's observation that the Benin people would not kill a lion or tiger with a firearm was probably true in the context of the hunting culture of the period. The earliest firearms were single-shot guns, which required frequent reloading and could pose greater danger to a user who missed his target. Benin hunters probably preferred arrows to hunt wild animals because they offered the opportunity of firing multiple shots more quickly than a flintlock gun. Moreover, as chapter 2 demonstrates, firearms did not play a significant role in hunting until the first half of the twentieth century in Nigeria. Rather, up to the end of the nineteenth century, they were monopolized by the military aristocrats and warriors, and deployed predominantly for warfare.

Even so, the advent of firearms in West Africa initiated a phase of long sociocultural and economic relations, and technological exchange, in the Atlantic world. By the seventeenth century, Danes, English, Brandenburgers, and Dutch were selling muskets to West Africans. With time, the Dutch sales would overtake those of other Europeans. Although the Danes gave their name to the flintlock musket, which after the mid-eighteenth century was West Africa's principal weapon, most of the so-called Dane guns in fact came from Holland. Although firearms did not overtake cloth in the list of items imported from Europe, the gun did remain a significant item of international trade from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Guns represented probably one-fifth of the value of cargo shipped from England to West Africa in the eighteenth century.

Historians will never know the exact number of firearms exported to West Africa; varying estimates have been given, however. West Africa received an average of 283,000 to 394,000 guns from English suppliers and manufacturers on an annual basis in the second half of the eighteenth century up to 1807. Between 1750 and 1807, yearly importation of gunpowder from Britain to West Africa varied from as low as 148,216 pounds (in 1778) to as high as 2,056,350 pounds (in 1790). In all, the subcontinent received about fifty million pounds of gunpowder during the period. Joseph Inikori, relying on the records of gunmaker and British government's legislation, has revealed that guns and gunpowder were important commodities in eighteenth-century trade between Britain and West Africa. "These dangerous commodities," Inikori states, "formed the backbone" of British trade with West Africa during the period. Indeed, firearms were valuable goods — a pound sterling's worth of guns had a greater purchasing power than other commodities of exchange. So valuable were guns in the West African trade that British gunmakers were constantly under pressure to produce more guns for the region. To maximize their profits, gun manufacturers shipped poorly made and finished guns to the coast of West Africa (the so-called slave guns). Indeed, the growth of Birmingham's arms industry was closely linked to the rise of guns, among other items produced in Britain for the West African trade. With time, specific types of muskets acquired the names of the parts of Africa to which they were mostly shipped. In this category were the Bonny musket and Calabar gun of the second half of the eighteenth century.

The most controversial topic of debate concerning the advent of guns into West Africa is not how many firearms were imported into the region from Europe; rather, it is over the role that firearms played in the heinous trade in humans. Did the importation of firearms intensify slave raiding in West Africa? Historians have demonstrated that the firearms imported into Africa were used for nonmilitary purposes such as self-defense against wild animals, hunting, and ceremonial salutes, as well as status symbols. However, with particular reference to Nigeria, the use of firearms for nonmilitary purposes such as ceremonial shooting did not become entrenched until the colonial period. In Senegambia, Philip Curtin did not find any correlation between firearms and slave gathering in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The military culture of the area depended more on spears, javelins, and bows and arrows than on firearms. Yet strong evidence, including the record of commercial transactions of a select British vessel, supports the "slave-gun cycle theory" that contends that firearm importation promoted wars and civil unrest to carry out slave gathering. A vessel belonging to James Rogers and Co. of Bristol, which traded in Bonny between 1791 and 1792, exchanged a total of 1,906 guns, among other assorted goods with 334 slaves. Another vessel belonging to the same company that traded in Old Cameroons and Calabar between 1789 and 1790 exchanged 259 slaves (valued at 26,835 copper bars) for 684 guns, among other goods. Regional variation in the quantity of slaves exchanged for guns and gunpowder should be expected. For one thing, the supply and demand for slaves and firearms were never static; rather, they continued to shift in accordance with the transformation of the core political and economic structures of various African locations and of international forces. By the end of the nineteenth century, the pressure to end the infamous trade probably reduced the quantity of firearms exchanged for slaves. For instance, the Aro in 1884 were exchanging four slaves for one musket, and one hundred slaves for one barrel of gunpowder and a shipload of print and handkerchiefs.

Inikori and W. A. Richards have made some of the most articulate arguments about the relationship between firearms and the intensification of slave gathering. They argue that firearms acquired through the sale of slaves were not used principally for gathering more slaves and that slave gatherers could have deployed their private resources to fight the battles of defense, retaliation, and aggression that were not directly related to slaving. However, Inikori posits that "where slave gathering was a state affair, the slave-gathering state may not only have waged offensive wars calculated for the capture of slaves. Its slave-gathering activities would of necessity provoke attack by its neighbors and so be forced to defend itself." Inikori further contends that the violent nature of slave gathering worsened territorial and political conflict. His conclusion seems convincing — the most important slave-exporting part of West Africa, namely the Bonny area, was also one of the largest importers of firearms. The region also imported more guns for every slave exported than any other part of the West African coast. Some detailed military histories of precolonial Nigerian societies validate the slave-gun cycle theory. According to Benson Osadolor, "The conditions of exchange of European firearms for slaves gave Benin warriors the opportunity to make wars successfully, and captives became the means of exchange, this completing the gun-slave cycle, which made Benin a more vigorous state, and placed it in the position of subduing her neighbors." Yet, to ignore other means by which guns were acquired in large quantity is to underestimate the dynamism of precolonial political economies. When Ogunmola, an Ibadan warrior, detained Edward Roper of the Church Missionary Society in the early 1860s, he demanded the following items as ransom: two hundred kegs of gunpowder, two hundred guns, and two hundred bags of cowries (equivalent then to £200).

The Yoruba wars of the 1800s best elucidate the role that firearms played in precolonial African military and political history. Although firearms were already significant in Yoruba warfare from the eighteenth century — the Oyo army that defeated the Dahomeans in 1726 was said to have made use of muskets — it was not until the next century that firearms became popular in warfare. The immense devastation of the Owu War (ca. 1817), the first major nineteenth-century Yoruba conflict, owed largely to the use of firearms. In the early nineteenth century, the Egba army predominantly carried swords (about three feet long), bows and arrows, and other arms. By 1861, all the defenders of the Egba town of Abeokuta had long Dane guns, which according to Captain Arthur Jones cost 21s. 6d. each. By this era, muskets had become the major weapon among all the Yoruba groups. The impact of the Dane gun of the nineteenth century went beyond its ability to work mayhem at a relatively short distance; its noise created a terrifying atmosphere that was a significant element in the military tactics of the period. Thus, the widespread use of firearms radically transformed not only war fatalities, but military culture and warfare tactics as well. It reduced hand-to-hand battle, changing how conflict was prosecuted. The wounds inflicted by copper and iron bullets during the Ijaiye War in the 1860s, according to the Baptist missionary R. H. Stone, "tended to become gangrenous." A. Mann, an Anglican missionary, also described as an "amateur surgeon," was treating between forty and sixty wounded soldiers daily in his dispensary in Ijaiye.

As they did with other technologies adopted from Europe and America, the Yoruba spent several decades mastering the firing of Dane guns in order to reduce accidents and enhance marksmanship. The musket used by Yoruba soldiers in the first half of the nineteenth century constituted more serious danger to the user, if improperly handled, than to the enemy. After describing the techniques for firing arrows, Richard Lander, writing in the early 1820s, mentioned that the firearms imported from the coast "are of comparatively little use" to the Yoruba, who "know not how to handle them with effect." Shortage of ammunition intensified the burden of carrying firearms on the battlefield. In response to this, the soldiers, "to accelerate their speed," tossed their guns aside, "and their enemies eagerly lay hold of the empty muskets for their own use." During the course of the nineteenth century, the Yoruba would perfect the use of firearms. For their part, soldiers did receive occasional training in marksmanship from European explorers and missionaries. With time, the Yoruba would learn to improvise gun parts and ammunition, especially when the patterns of international and domestic supply did not favor them. By the mid-nineteenth century, local blacksmiths were producing bullets or bolts of bar irons of different sizes. The stocks, or butts, on which the gun barrels were fitted were also locally manufactured. On occasion, gun barrels were imported separately; in this way, the rise of the local manufacture of firearms was enhanced by the practice of importing parts, not whole guns.


Excerpted from "Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Saheed Aderinto.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Firearms in Twentieth-Century Colonial Africa
1. "This Destructive Implement of European Ingenuity": Firearms, the Atlantic World, and Technology Transfer in Precolonial Nigeria
2. All Firearms Are Not Made Equal: Colonialism, Social Class, and the Emergence of a Nigerian Gun Society
3. "A Dane Gun Is Useless without Gunpowder": The Political Economy of Nigeria’s Most Popular Explosive
4. "All Europeans in This Country Should Be Able to Fire a Rifle": Race, Leisure Shooting, and the Lethal Symbol of Imperial Domination
5: "Bread and Bullet": Guns, Imperial Atrocity, and Public Disorder
6: A Fearful Weapon: Violent Crime and Gun Accidents in Everyday Nigeria
7: "You Are to Be Robbed of Your Guns": Firearms Regulation and the Politics of Rights and Privilege
Epilogue: Guns and the Crisis of Development in Postcolonial Nigeria

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews