In the days past, in parts of “Western Sudan”, a female slave was worth two male slaves. In the slave markets of Kano, the worth of a female slave was measured by her breasts. Girls with developing breasts could be sold for 100,000 cowries. Women with firm, fully developed breasts cost 80,000 cowries. If their breasts were not firm, women were sold for 20,000 cowries. The cheapest woman to be bought was the old one for 10,000 cowries or less*. Find this fact disturbing? You’re not alone, but it helps put in focus the kind of sexual exploitation that was deeply embedded in the institution of slavery that existed (and still exists) in what is now Nigeria.
Concubines are often overlooked, especially with regards to the region. Before embarking on this topic, I was only marginally aware that the institution of concubinage was practiced in Nigeria in such a wide scale. Concubine to me brought me back to the tension of The Legend of Zhen Huan and the Imperial Palace. The women who became concubines in places like the Sokoto Caliphate and Kano could find themselves in the palace, homes of the elite but just as likely with soldiers or farmers. Concubinage here was apparently condoned by Islam which supporters of the practice say allows a man four wives and unlimited concubines according to his wealth. This is not to say that non-Muslims weren’t also capturing women as “war booty” and distributing the young beautiful ones among themselves. Among non-Muslims, women who would have been concubines just became junior wives.
Concubinage is thought to have been a major way of recruiting women into the Sokoto Caliphate. In fact, Paul Lovejoy states that the institution had a “strong impact on the emergence of modern Hausa (sometimes Hausa/Fulani) society”. There are many names for concubines in Hausa, sad’aha, k’wark’wara, makulliya, wahayiya, geru, culado. They were women bought or given to men and were prized for their sexual and reproductive capabilities. Once a woman was enslaved, she became her “master’s” property, regardless of whether she had been married before.
It is often stated that the slavery practiced in West Africa is different than that of the Americas. Slaves lived with the people that claimed to own them, they could marry free women and men, they could engage in business and keep any profit to themselves, there was little distinction between slave children and free children, children born of slaves could grow up to occupy elite positions, slaves could and did often own slaves…still it’s human beings buying, selling, gifting and owning other human beings.
In the Sokoto Caliphate, apparently 60 percent of the population were slaves. Many people were enslaved during the jihad of 1804 to 1808 and in the Caliphate’s expansion campaigns. Women were the majority of the slave population and they always cost higher than men even despite high supply. Enslaved women could be handmaidens, caretakers, farmers and concubines. Sometimes a man would appoint a slave woman to take care of the concubines, wives and dependents in his harem. There were court messengers who relayed messages for the Caliph. Some households had enslaved girls or women who were, had been or would become concubines.
The institution of concubinage was multifaceted. Concubines in what is now Northern Nigeria in the 19th century spoke Hausa, Yoruba, Zarma and Nupe among others. They were also not always enslaved, in some Kano concubines were of free origin. Others were given away by their politically aspirational families who wanted power. Concubines were lifelong sexual companions to the men that “owned” them. They were punished if they tried to escape. It was only upon the master’s death could a concubine be free to marry again. Acquiescence seemed have been the preferred choice for most women. “If there is no milk, I shall have to drink water” said Katamble, wife of Gobir Chief Yunfa resigning to her enslaved fate.
Free Muslim wives could divorce their husbands and had a right to their children, they could own property and inherit, but concubines had no rights. They were to satisfy the sexual needs of men while serving their wives in household chores. They performed tasks like sweeping the compounding, taking care of the children in the harem, painstakingly grinding grain for tuwo while the wives prepared soup and fura. Wives had a rota where they shared nights with their husband but concubines were approached during the day. This may have been why concubines were deeply involved with bori, they were free to at night. Apparently any sexual restrictions governing marriages did not apply to relations with a concubine.
The children of concubines belonged to the fathers, there was supposed to be no distinction between them and other children. Sons of concubines went on to be chiefs, emirs and royalty but not much is known about the daughters of concubines although they likely married into aristocracy. While they were not attending to the needs of their masters, they were supposed to serve as servants to their master’s wives. Childless concubines were likely to be sold or be gifted to other men, while concubines who had children could be sold if they committed adultery or were suspected of theft. Usually once a concubine gave birth she was considered to have “broken the shackles”. She then assumed a somewhat special status and may even work less.
Some concubines pushed back against the institution. The nameless female slaves who killed their Libyan master may have been concubines. Common memory is not kind to them however. Lovejoy quotes a poem about a concubine Abinda who was apparently so filthy, she did not wash or sweep the house, she did not apply perfume and cooked unsavory food. In the midst of this, there were apparently love stories where men freed their concubines so as to marry them despite society discouraging it.
What I read
Paul E. Lovejoy (1990), “Concubinage in the Sokoto caliphate (1804–1903), Slavery & Abolition”, 11:2, 159-189
Vereecke Catherine (1994), “The Slave Experience in Adamawa : Past and Present Perspectives from Yola (Nigeria)”, Cahiers d’études africaines, vol. 34, n°133-135, 1994. L’archipel peul. pp. 23-53
*By contrast, young men cost 10,000-20,000 cowries. (If only Google could convert cowries into modern day currency we would have a clearer idea of these amounts.)
La caravane haoussa en marche, Memoire Vive