Deep insight on an African despot

The Diary of Hamman Yaji
September 20, 1996

The diary of Hamman Yaji is unique: a precious historical source, a fascinating social document. From September 1912 until the day before his arrest in August 19, an insider voice tells us of life in the early colonial period, on the furthest margin of European authority.

Madagali, in present-day northeastern Nigeria, was a tiny principality within the Adamawa emirate, itself a province of the Sokoto caliphate: all three were conquest states, ruled by Muslim Fulani. Hamman Yaji became ruler of Madagali in 1902, appointed by the Germans the day after they had killed the previous ruler, his father. He survived the change to French rule in 1916, to British in 1922. The British deposed him in August 19, allegedly for past slaving, but probably more for his Mahdist sympathies. From September 1912 until the day before his arrest, Hamman Yaji chronicled his activities, sometimes almost daily. Entries are generally sparse, but, read carefully, and with the helpful editorial material in this book, the ensemble is remarkable. The book is dedicated to all people of the Madagali district, with the hope that their future will be one of harmony and mutual cooperation.

A worthy hope, but sitting a little uneasily here, since Hamman Yaji was adedicated slave raider. The recurrent litany makes chilling reading: May 12, 1913: "...I sent my soldiers to Sukur and they destroyed thehouse of the Arnado [village head] and took a horse and seven slave girls and burnt their houses." May 21: "I captured 20 slave girls." June 11th: "I captured six slave girls and ten cattle, and killed threemen." June 25: "I captured 48 slave girls and 26 cattle and I killed five persons." July 6: "I captured 30 cattle and six slave girls." All this (and more) on a single page. Exactly what such raids involved the diary itself does not say: traditions gathered later amongst the victimised populations are ghoulish indeed, comparable with another unique document, the eye-witness account of Bagirmi slaving a little further east and 40 years earlier, recorded by the German traveller Gustav Nachtigal in thethird volume of his Sahara and Sudan.

Hamman Yaji's editors suggest, a little speculatively, that a word from a British officer in March 1924 sufficed to stop the raiding. The raiding did stop, and even the most tender liberal conscience, reflecting on colonialism, may take somecomfort that a line was drawn under such entries as: "II sent Fadhl al Nar with his men to raid Sukur and they captured 80 slaves, of whom I gave away 40. We killed men and women and 17 children." The troops were evidently out of control here: women and children weretoo valuable to be killed. The exploitation, often sexual, of women is clear: female slaves circulated as gifts, or in exchange (three for ahorse, for instance). Hamman Yaji swapped female slaves with one of hismen, even with his son, who objected that "he did not want a girl, hewanted a boy slave".

Even in such circumstances, a defiant female voiceis audible: "I found that my slave girl in the absence of her fellow-slaves had said that she would not prepare my food for me. Whyshe would not cook my food I do not know, but anyway the result was thatI got no food from her and was obliged to buy it."

Or again: "I mywife Umm Asta Belel said that in respect of her being a Muslim she wastired of it, and in respect of her being a pagan it would be better forher." Some passages are enigmatic, such as: "I fixed the penalty for every slave wholeaves me without cause at four slave girls and if he is a poor man 200 lashes."

Is the implication here that slaves with cause could leave? How many slaves were rich enough to be able to pay a fine of four slave girls? What where the chances of surviving 200 lashes? Slavery is by far the most prominent single theme, but there are many others, such as local politics and power structures, the local practice of Islam, and the advance of colonialism. The diary ends on a homely note: "On the same day Sarkin Lifida ruined the onions."

Humphrey J. Fisher is reader in African history, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The Diary of Hamman Yaji: Chronicle of a West African Muslim Ruler

Editor - James H. Vaughan and Anthony H. M. Kirk-Greene
ISBN - 0 253 36206 7
Publisher - Indiana University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 162

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