Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The King’s Shilling

 

The events recounted below are true, and took place in Sokoto, Northern Nigeria, in the Summer of 1947. The author was a young, newly arrived, civil servant in the British Colonial Service, recently separated from active duty in Italy and North Africa as a Major in the British Army. The gentleman in the photo to the right is a former slave, and the iron rings he is holding were his manacles. The term “The King’s Shilling” is used facetiously in this story: it is generally used to refer to the payment of one shilling to military recruits (and sometimes reluctant ones) in the United Kingdom between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

One morning Mallam Muhammadu Azare presented himself and announced that a girl was outside urgently asking to see me, as she was anxious to be officially manumitted from slavery. I must confess that at first I thought he was pulling my leg! Recourse to the legal books on the office shelf and a somewhat more careful inquiry of my mentor, convinced me, however, that this was not the case.

In the early 1900s, when Sir Frederick Lugard, began the process of replacing Sir George Goldie’s loose administrative system in Northern Nigeria with a formal British Protectorate, the issue that loomed largest (almost to the exclusion of all else) was the question of what he called “domestic slavery,” that is, the fact that most (if not all) of the domestic retainers of the Sultan and his Emirs (as well as of minor chiefs and many office holders too) were either people who had been born into slavery or who had actually been enslaved by capture.

The burning question was how to resolve the dilemma posed by the existence of slavery, with the immense social dislocation and hostility that its precipitate, but necessary, abolition would engender. It was a dilemma that, try as the British might, was slow to resolve. (Lugard went at it through a process of “slow-walking” the abolition via a series of proclamations and laws, starting with a ban on the introduction of ‘new’ slaves, and continuing through the gradual emancipation of existing slaves and the unpicking of slavery from Sharia in terms of inheritance, concubinage, and dowry. Since the British worked through the traditional rulers and chiefs who were essential to the success of the ‘indirect rule’ British colonial strategy, it was a glacial and tedious process, but in 1936, Lugard’s successor published the Abolition of Slavery Proclamation, which, with the support of the traditional rulers and chiefs, legally recognized all remaining Nigerian slaves as emancipated from their owners.)

It is beyond question that annual slave raids against pagan tribes had taken place for centuries prior to British rule, and even for some years after, at least until well into the 1920s. I myself have spoken to many, now solid citizens, who had been taken in slave raids as children, and I have several times investigated and prosecuted suspicious reports of the sale of children and young persons eastward into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Before the British came, there can be no doubt that yearly slave-raiding was an accepted ‘dry-season occupation’ throughout the Fulani Empire, or that many hundreds (if not thousands) of ‘new’ slaves were taken annually, the main targets being boys and young girls, though anyone other than the very aged could be profited from by their captors in one way or another.

Lugard recorded that when, in 1902, he made it a condition for the reinstatement of the defeated Emir Ibrahim of Kontagora that he should forgo his yearly slave raids, the only reply that he got was, “Can you stop a cat from mousing? I die with a slave in my mouth.”

Most of the boys were destined for castration and for life as eunuchs (Hausa: marmata), mainly in Turkish or Arabian harems. (For some time, a village near Bazza, a few miles from Mubi in Cameroon Trust Territory, was renowned for the proficiency of its castrators, who had an unusually high recovery rate of their ‘patients’ from the operation.) Girls who were taken were intended for concubinage, whilst the other captives were utilized for labor.

In some local cases, however, slaves could, through proficiency and endeavor, earn their way to one of several exclusively ‘slave titles.’ The advantage of this system (to the bestower, at least), was that such offices were held solely at their free will, with not even a hint of any hereditary or other continuing right to their enjoyment on the part of the slave or his family, although, after slavery was abolished in 1936, many of the remaining slave title-holders proudly held on to theirs, unrecognized in law, but cherished by their persons in fact.

Still, even after Nigeria’s Independence (October 1960), there was evidence that the sale of children into slavery still flourished in pockets of West Africa, and recent indications are that the practices of slave-raiding and slave-trading are once again escalating and not diminishing. Indeed, the BBC ran at least one program in 2001 detailing an examination of the trade from Dahomey into Gabon and Nigeria, while the tragic case of little Victoria Climbié‚ at about the same time–at least to those with ears to hear–had suspicious overtones that should have been better investigated.

The case before me in 1947 however, was quite different. The girl, when escorted into the office by her duenna, explained (in perfectly good English) that she had just finished her education at the Girls’ School and was now deeply in love with a boy whom she wished to marry. Unfortunately, his family was not prepared to permit their son to marry a girl who bore the taint of slavery, her father being the holder of one of the slave titles already referred to.

She, for her part, had heard that if she paid the sum of one shilling (which she had brought with her, clutched tightly in her small hand) to the ‘Joji’ (Judge–District Officer), he would furnish her with a ‘paper’ to the effect that she was formally manumitted under the law and was not a slave but a free subject of His Majesty, the King.

After much discussion of her interesting case; after it became clear that my impassioned and strenuous arguments, to the effect that she most certainly was not a slave of any sort, were failing to impress; and as soon as courtesy allowed; she was ushered out whilst the law books were yet further consulted.

‘Slavery’–and the status of ‘slave’–had indeed been formally abolished in Nigeria in 1936. That was clear and incontrovertible. Others of the Proclamations regarding the gradual abolition of slavery, issued between 1903 and 1936, however, provided for the manumission of any slave, at any time, for the prescribed fee of one shilling, just as the girl had said. What none of them did, though, was set out the requirements, or the form, that such a certificate had to take.

I, therefore, concocted my own, which I cast as flamboyantly and ostentatiously as I could, ending with “God Save the King!” immediately following my signature “for Divisional Office in Charge, Sokoto Division.”

The girl was absolutely delighted with her florid certificate. She handed over the prescribed shilling and departed in haste to inform her lover. I felt a deep glow of satisfaction! Then the other shoe dropped.

What on earth was I to do with the shilling? If I paid it into the local Government Treasury, Mr. Thorpe (a delightful Sierra Leonean who had been sub-treasurer in Sokoto for years) would be hard put to accept it, and the book-work involved in getting it ‘laundered’ would be horrific. On the other hand, I certainly had to get rid of it without any question of its disappearance into my own pocket, and its existence in legitimate payment for a Government service rendered had to be made transparent as well.

As usual, Mallam Muhammadu came to the rescue. Summoning the local blacksmith, he bade him drive a hole through the middle of the shilling, and then had him nail it to the rafter above the District Officer’s desk. There, he said, no one would steal it, it would always be available to Government if needed, and nobody could doubt its existence. The District Officer approved of this solution, too, when I told him what I had done.

It was still there nailed to the rafter in 1966 when I last went to Sokoto and I suppose that it is there to this day.

I hope so!

I hope so too, Dad. It’s been eleven years since you left us, and I still miss you every day. Hope you don’t mind if I share a bit more of your story with my friends.

Love, 

Your Girl

There are 23 comments.

  1. Arahant Member

    Love it!

    • #1
    • September 30, 2018, at 2:45 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  2. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member

    Thank goodness for Mullam Muhammadu.

    • #2
    • September 30, 2018, at 3:00 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  3. Sandy Member

    Beautifully told. It isn’t often one reads something true, heartrending, horrifying, and also funny.

    • #3
    • September 30, 2018, at 4:14 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  4. Percival Thatcher

    Gummint money. Indisputably. 

    The Gagara Yasin strikes again!

    • #4
    • September 30, 2018, at 4:26 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. Randy Webster Member

    She: United Kingdom between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries:

    During the 19th century, it was mostly the queen’s shilling.

    • #5
    • September 30, 2018, at 5:26 AM PST
    • 1 like
  6. Jules PA Member

    Wonderful story. 

    • #6
    • September 30, 2018, at 5:28 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    She: United Kingdom between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries:

    During the 19th century, it was mostly the queen’s shilling.

    Yes, and it was referred to as such during those times. Just like the national anthem.

    The British have been nothing if not politically correct, for centuries. The mind boggles, though, when the day comes that the Royal Family embraces Facebook’s 71 gender options:

    God Bless our Androgyne
    Long live our Androgyne
    God Bless our Bi
    May ey defend our laws
    And ever give us cause
    To sing with might and main
    God Bless our Bi.

    God Bless our Gender Queer
    Long live our Gender Queer
    God Bless our Queer
    May sie defend our laws
    And ever give us cause
    To sing with might and main
    God Bless our Queer.

    On second thoughts, maybe it won’t be as difficult as I feared. Cagey folk, those Brits.

    • #7
    • September 30, 2018, at 5:51 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor

    What an amazing story! Thanks, @she! I love the opportunity to “see” a little more of your honorable father, and also appreciate your shining a light on slavery which exists to this day.

    • #8
    • September 30, 2018, at 7:36 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  9. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    What an amazing story! Thanks, @she! I love the opportunity to “see” a little more of your honorable father, and also appreciate your shining a light on slavery which exists to this day.

    Thanks, Susan. Dad was one of a kind, that’s for sure.

    The subject of modern-day slavery is one that gets swept under the rug a lot, as it’s not considered polite or politically correct to mention it (because of where most of it originates and/or takes place). But yes, it still exists. And while the nabobs are nattering about what happened (or didn’t happen, we’re not sure) thirty-six years ago (give or take, we’re not sure) in a well-to-do Maryland suburb between two young people, both of whom have achieved lives of success and wealth beyond the wildest dreams of billions of their fellows on this earth, millions across the globe, most of them women, suffer horrific indignities daily with no rescue or release in sight.

    Don’t get me started. I am, for better or worse, my father’s daughter.

    Is there any word in the English language today that has been rendered more meaningless than the word “victim?” I think not.

    • #9
    • September 30, 2018, at 8:03 AM PST
    • 11 likes
  10. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Coolidge

    A marvelous Sunday treat! And a reminder of the need for prayerful vigilance.

    • #10
    • September 30, 2018, at 9:20 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. Full Size Tabby Member

    The British pursued an interesting mixture of British concepts and local customs and history everywhere they colonized. I imagine maintaining the right balance was a constant struggle for the local governors.

    • #11
    • September 30, 2018, at 9:52 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  12. Randy Webster Member

    She (View Comment):
    Yes, and it was referred to as such during those times. Just like the national anthem.

    I have a volume on my bookshelf entitled Queen Victoria’s Little Wars.  There were a lot of them. I think Kipling wrote Fuzzy Wuzzy about one of them.

    • #12
    • September 30, 2018, at 11:31 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  13. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Yes, and it was referred to as such during those times. Just like the national anthem.

    I have a volume on my bookshelf entitled Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. There were a lot of them. I think Kipling wrote Fuzzy Wuzzy about one of them.

    I think you are right, although I always have a bit of cognitive dissonance for a moment at the juxtaposition of “Fuzzy Wuzzy” and “Kipling,” having suffered through some variant of this with my brother in the very early 1970s.

    https://youtu.be/uaIoA3-5vaw

    It always takes me a moment to re-center.

    • #13
    • September 30, 2018, at 11:47 AM PST
    • 1 like
  14. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    The British pursued an interesting mixture of British concepts and local customs and history everywhere they colonized. I imagine maintaining the right balance was a constant struggle for the local governors.

    Thank you for this comment.

    Yes they did, and yes it was. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up in the version of British Colonialism espoused by men like my dad, and I hope you can see that balance in this story (which really is written in his words, probably from about 15 years ago, with only a few small alterations for clarity by me). He loved Nigeria. He loved the Nigerians. Both the train wreck that the country has become, and the disrespect and disrepute in which his hard work, and that of the countless men who worked with him, many of whom I knew and loved, breaks my heart.

    • #14
    • September 30, 2018, at 11:52 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  15. Hang On Member

    When I lived in Cameroun and traveled to the north, I would see both men and women with terrible scars on their faces. It wasn’t everyone, but it was enough so that it was noticeable. I finally asked and was told that they were markings given to children so that if they were taken into slavery, they could be identified and perhaps reunified with family.

    Here’s an article.

     

    • #15
    • September 30, 2018, at 12:08 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  16. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Hang On (View Comment):

    When I lived in Cameroun and traveled to the north, I would see both men and women with terrible scars on their faces. It wasn’t everyone, but it was enough so that it was noticeable. I finally asked and was told that they were markings given to children so that if they were taken into slavery, they could be identified and perhaps reunified with family.

    Here’s an article.

    Yes, a more horrifying version of the women of the Scottish Isles, who used to knit family patterns into their menfolk’s ganseys, so that if they drowned and washed up on the shore, they could be identified and returned home.

    Just painful to think about.

    • #16
    • September 30, 2018, at 12:11 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  17. Randy Webster Member

    She (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Yes, and it was referred to as such during those times. Just like the national anthem.

    I have a volume on my bookshelf entitled Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. There were a lot of them. I think Kipling wrote Fuzzy Wuzzy about one of them.

    I think you are right, although I always have a bit of cognitive dissonance for a moment at the juxtaposition of “Fuzzy Wuzzy” and “Kipling,” having suffered through some variant of this with my brother in the very early 1970s.

    https://youtu.be/uaIoA3-5vaw

    It always takes me a moment to re-center.

    Reminds me of:

    Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear

    Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair

    Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy was he?

    • #17
    • September 30, 2018, at 12:39 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Yes, and it was referred to as such during those times. Just like the national anthem.

    I have a volume on my bookshelf entitled Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. There were a lot of them. I think Kipling wrote Fuzzy Wuzzy about one of them.

    I think you are right, although I always have a bit of cognitive dissonance for a moment at the juxtaposition of “Fuzzy Wuzzy” and “Kipling,” having suffered through some variant of this with my brother in the very early 1970s.

    https://youtu.be/uaIoA3-5vaw

    It always takes me a moment to re-center.

    Reminds me of:

    Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear

    Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair

    Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy was he?

    Yeah, that’s what it wuzz, akshully . . .

    • #18
    • September 30, 2018, at 12:51 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  19. JoelB Member

    Thank you for this bit of historical perspective and humor, @she . This kind of story reminds us that historical issues are not the cut-and-dried summaries that we get in the history books. Life has always been complicated and we need to extend some grace to the memory of historical figures as they dealt with the issues of their day and not get too caught up in the”first-world problems” of today. It’s also always great to hear of a creative solution to the tangled web of bureaucracy and legalism.

    • #19
    • September 30, 2018, at 4:30 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  20. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Thank you for this bit of historical perspective and humor, @she . This kind of story reminds us that historical issues are not the cut-and-dried summaries that we get in the history books. Life has always been complicated and we need to extend some grace to the memory of historical figures as they dealt with the issues of their day and not get too caught up in the”first-world problems” of today. It’s also always great to hear of a creative solution to the tangled web of bureaucracy and legalism.

    Thanks. You’ve perfectly expressed what I was trying to convey.

    • #20
    • September 30, 2018, at 4:31 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  21. Mister Dog Coolidge

    I remember reading that a common tactic of Royal Navy impression gangs during the Napoleonic Wars was to inconspicuously drop a coin into the tankard of a victim and then claim as he finished his drink that he was now in the service, by virtue of his having taken possession of the “King’s shilling.”

    • #21
    • September 30, 2018, at 5:23 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  22. She Thatcher
    She Post author

    Mister Dog (View Comment):

    I remember reading that a common tactic of Royal Navy impression gangs during the Napoleonic Wars was to inconspicuously drop a coin into the tankard of a victim and then claim as he finished his drink that he was now in the service, by virtue of his having taken possession of the “King’s shilling.”

    Yes. There were many ways to impress the King’s (or Queen’s) shilling upon unsuspecting folks. That doesn’t surprise me at all.

    • #22
    • September 30, 2018, at 5:24 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  23. Hank Rhody, Missing, Inaction Contributor

    If you go to the CIA world factbook way down at the bottom of each countries’ listing you’ll find a section on human trafficking. Enlightening reading.

    Sauron has slipped back into Mordor, if indeed we ever truly drove him out.

    • #23
    • October 1, 2018, at 1:49 PM PST
    • 2 likes