On December 16th, 1929, thousands of Igbo women gathered outside the colonial government compound in Opobo. They were there to demand the end of British imperialism in Eastern Nigeria, though the British seemed oblivious to the intention and motivations of these women. What they saw were erratic, reactive women wielding sticks and stones, bearing down on the post office, Native Court, and dispensary. The women pressed against the bamboo fence surrounding the compound, demanding change. They believed the British wouldn’t fire on a group of women. In Igbo society, men did not attack women, and the women believed that the British operated under the same code of cultural conduct. But the British didn’t believe that women were capable of making war, of organizing sophisticated networks of protest, or that women could destroy government buildings with nothing more than their hands, sticks, and stones. When the women refused to back down, the lieutenant in charge ordered his soldiers to open fire. They shot 67 bullets into the crowd, and each found a victim. At least 31 women died that day from bullet wounds; perhaps eight more drowned when the crowd pushed them into the nearby river as they tried to escape the gunfire. Blood-splattered, women screamed and cried, and the smoking guns cleared. The Igbo Women’s War of 1929 came to a violent end.

Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD 

Transcript:

Averill: On December 16th, 1929, thousands of Igbo women gathered outside the colonial government compound in Opobo. They were there to demand the end of British imperialism in Eastern Nigeria, though the British seemed oblivious to the intention and motivations of these women. What they saw were erratic, reactive women wielding sticks and stones, bearing down on the post office, Native Court, and dispensary. The women pressed against the bamboo fence surrounding the compound, demanding change. They believed the British wouldn’t fire on a group of women. In Igbo society, men did not attack women, and the women believed that the British operated under the same code of cultural conduct. But the British didn’t believe that women were capable of making war, of organizing sophisticated networks of protest, or that women could destroy government buildings with nothing more than their hands, sticks, and stones. When the women refused to back down, the lieutenant in charge ordered his soldiers to open fire. They shot 67 bullets into the crowd, and each found a victim. At least 31 women died that day from bullet wounds; perhaps eight more drowned when the crowd pushed them into the nearby river as they tried to escape the gunfire. Blood-splattered, women screamed and cried, and the smoking guns cleared. The Igbo Women’s War of 1929 came to a violent end.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik.

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Elizabeth: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Hanna, Lauren, Colin, Edward, Iris, Susan, Denise, Agnes, Jessy, Karen, Maria, and Audrey! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Averill: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of historians and other scholars. The Nigerian Women’s War of 1929 in particular has a rich and deep historiography. It’s been the subject of several standalone monographs and dozens of book chapters and journal articles, dating all the way back to 1938. Indeed, the historiography of this four-week event demonstrates acutely just how important context is to studying history. In order to understand why, for example, we should refer to this event as a “war” instead of the “Aba riots” of 1929 requires a detailed understanding of the context that shaped Igbo and Ibibio women’s social, economic, and political power before and during British colonialism in Nigeria. To assemble that contextual material, I relied most heavily on the incredible synthesis and documentary reader created by Toyin Faola and Adam Paddock in The Women’s War of 1929: A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria, as well as the works of Nwando [wan-doo – the n is like a back of the throat sound] Achebe, Chima Korieh [kor-ee], David Pratten, and Judith Van Allen. The broader history of British imperialism in eastern Nigeria is similarly deep and rich, and I will post some suggested titles to get you started should you be interested in digging a little deeper.

Elizabeth: On November 23, 1929, Mark Emeruwa – an unemployed Igbo school teacher who lived on a Christian mission compound in the Eastern Nigerian village of Oloko [oh-loh-koh] – was hired by Warrant Chief Okugo to begin the tax reassessment of his territory. One of his stops was the compound of an Igbo woman, Nwanyeruwa and her family. Warrant Chief Okugo got the order from the British district officer, as the British believed that the tax assessment and counting performed between 1925-1927 had been done incorrectly, and the colonial state was missing out on potential taxes. In 1929, Captain John Cook, who was temporarily assigned as district officer of Bende, called together the warrant chiefs of the Oloko Native Courts. He’d decided that the tax records were in disarray, and he instructed all the Warrant Chiefs to count all men, women, children, and livestock, so that they could more accurately establish tax bills. He told the Chiefs that the rate itself would not change, nor would women be taxed, but the chiefs – and the women of Eastern Nigeria who learned of the counting – assumed otherwise.

Averill: The Igbo-dominated region of today’s Nigeria is in the southernmost part of the country. In the colonial period, this region was known as “Eastern Nigeria,” and included the provinces of Onitsha [oh-nih-cha], Warri, Owerri, Ogoja, and Calabar. Today, the Igbo make up the third largest ethnic group in Nigeria. Hausa-Fulani are #1 at 29%, Yoruba are #2 at 21%, and Igbo are 18%. So even when we say “third largest,” hopefully these smallish numbers are indicative of how many different ethnic and language groups have been smushed together by British imperialism.

Map of Nigeria’s linguistic groups

Elizabeth: The British employed ‘indirect rule’ in Nigeria, which required fewer actual British people, and relied on the administrative collaboration of locals. The highest positions in the colony – the District Officers – and commanding officers in the military and such – were always white British men, but the rest of the day-to-day administration was done by “Nigerians” – Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Ibibio, Andoni, Ogoni, etcetera. (There were LOTS of ethnic and language groups in Nigeria, and that’s still true today). In Hausa and Yoruba-dominated regions of Nigeria, there were centralized states that were largely familiar to the Europeans. In those places, the British used sneaky treaties to adapt the pre-existing governing system to establish colonial authority. That wasn’t really possible in the Igbo-dominated region.

Averill: The British did not really understand the Igbo. They made assumptions about the Igbo with little actual knowledge of the people or customs. They saw the ‘decentralized states’ of Eastern Nigeria as war-prone and at the mercy of internal slave-trading, and thus ‘unstable.’ The British wanted to control trade in and out of Nigeria, and to do so, they needed “stability” and peace in all regions. Since they assumed they couldn’t make treaties work for them in the “Eastern,” Igbo Provinces the way they had in the North, the British sent soldiers and then police in to “civilize” the Igbo and “pacify” the region. According to historians Toyin Faola and Adam Paddock, British ‘pacification’ meant “removing obstacles to trade, including toll fees, internal slave trading, and regional fights between ethnic groups.”[1] The tolls were an important source of income for a number of the ethnic groups the British sought to pacify, and unsurprisingly, there was much resistance to British attempts to end that practice in the early 20th century. As historian Chima Korieh notes, the British conquest of eastern Nigeria was “a spasmodic struggle for control of Igbo societies.” The Ekumeku, for example, were powerful toll collectors in Eastern Nigeria, and mobilized military resistance to the British for over a decade. The British sent their military in to put the Ekumeku movement down three times, in 1902, 1904, and 1909. Some historians date Ekumeku resistance to 1914 or 1918. Other British colonial military expeditions included those to Orokpo (1901), Uzere (1903), Etua (1904), Ezionum (1905), Ahiara (1905), Ezza (1905), and Achara (1905).[2]

Elizabeth: WW1 was a turning point for the British, as they realized they needed both the bodies and the resources of Eastern Nigeria to help them win the war against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. After the war, the British implemented the Warrant Chief system in an effort to bring the Eastern provinces under indirect British colonial administration.

Averill: The Warrant Chiefs were the British solution to colonial administration in eastern Nigeria. The British used existing structures of administration in Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba regions to lay a colonial system on top of, but the Igbo “decentralized” state made tapping into existing systems challenging. “Decentralized” in this context meant that each town and rural village basically had their own governing system – they might be hereditary monarchies, direct democracies, gerontocracies (councils of elders), or any number of other systems. And often those villages and ethnic groups were in competition or skirmishes with one another. So for colonizing in the indirect rule model, there was no one-size-fits all solution. And yet, the Warrant Chiefs were modeled on what the British had done in the Hausa lands to the north. The British set up Native Courts, from which Warrant Chiefs – locals – would adjudicate legal disputes and crimes for their region. The Warrant Chiefs were sometimes drawn from traditional/hereditary leaders from these regions, but more often were the early Igbo collaborators – who were considered traitors by many of their kin and neighbors. The Warrant Chief system was wildly corrupt; Chiefs took bribes, forced locals to pay unauthorized “taxes,” forced women into marriages by claiming the “District Officer” demanded it, and all sorts of other abuses. They were almost universally hated.  The system really went unchecked until the 1929 Women’s War.

Elizabeth: And this is notable because the Warrant Chief system took power from the traditional political structures of the Igbo region, and without any input from the Igbo people themselves.

Averill: Taxation was an important part of Britain’s “civilizing” mission in Nigeria. It allowed the British to expand their influence in the region through mass transportation systems (which were first built via forced local labor), and to fund the administrative system that would, theoretically, make the Nigerians capable of self-governance, eventually. Direct taxation was introduced first in Eastern Nigeria in 1927-8. Taxation was already underway everywhere west of the Niger River – mostly Yoruba territory – by 1916, but the British were reluctant to introduce taxation to the Igbo without significant military occupation to back up the system. The Warrant Chief network was meant, in part, to help facilitate taxation in the 1920s, and did. In 1928, the British sent W.E. Hunt to educate the Igbo on how taxation worked, and to deliver the good news – that direct taxation would replace the Roads and Rivers Ordinance, which had been the primary source of forced labor up to that point. Hunt reported that the villagers and the Warrant Chiefs he visited were quite outspoken against taxation, but he remained convinced that it would be fine.[3]

Elizabeth: The Igbo did not cooperate when the Warrant Chiefs came in 1927 to assess them for taxation, so ultimately the tax rates for 1928 were based on estimates. Still, all men were taxed in 1928 without any protest. As Faola and Paddock note, “British administrators were emboldened by the early success of taxation in 1928.”[4]

Averill: When Captain James Cook issued the re-counting of Oloko human and animal assets, he started a chain reaction. Cook’s predecessor had lied to the Oloko Native Court two years prior, and practically sprung taxation on the people of the region. So the Warrant Chiefs believed Cook was deceiving them, as his predecessor had before, which in turn started the rumor mill churning.

This is the best map of the colonial Nigerian Provinces that I could find that explains why Calabar and Owerri were classified as “Eastern Provinces” even though they are in what is definitely the southernmost region of Nigeria. But as you can see, the Northern, Eastern, and Western Provinces are in relation to each other, the the vast majority of the districts being in the “Northern” provinces, where the Hausa-Fulani dominated (and where the British tapped into pre existing centralized state apparatuses for extending colonial rule.) But as you can see from the image, I pilfered this from the Cambridge University Press website, and it is copyright protected; hopefully they don’t get mad and ask us to take it down.

Elizabeth: By the time Mark Emeruwa got to Nwanyeruwa’s compound, she was expecting something like this. All the women under the Oloko Native Court jurisdiction expected colonial men to come a-counting. According to Nwanyoji, a Christian woman who took part in the protest at Okugo’s home, she heard Nwanyeruwa shouting for the women of the village to come to her. Nwanyoji was coming out of Church when she heard the shouting, and when she and her companions got to Nwanyeruwa, “We asked her, ‘What are you shouting for?’ She replied, ‘Emeruwa  has said that I should count my goats and my fowls, I told him, I am only a woman; what have I to count in the way of goats and fowls? Emeruwa then held me by the throat. With oil on my hands – I was preparing oil then – I held his hands and his clothes were soiled with oil. He ran and reported this to his father, and Okugo sent for me. Okugo questioned me. He asked me my reason for daubing his messenger with oil, and said that the matter would be reported to the District Officer.’”[5]

Averill: Upon hearing about Nwanyeruwa’s confrontation with Emeruwa, the women – including Nwanyoji – mobilized. They descended on Emeruwa’s house. Nwanyoji recalled that “‘We sang and danced for Emeruwa and shouted…’Tell us why we should be counted. Tell us why we should be counted.’”[6] Emeruwa broke under their pressure, and insisted that he was just doing the bidding of Okugo, and that it was Okugo who wanted to count the women and who said that the women should pay taxes. The assembled women demanded that Emeruwa take them to Okugo, so that he could admit to this offense himself.

Elizabeth: The gathered women used traditional forms of social control to shame Emeruwa and force him to take them to Okugo, which he did. Though British colonialism had been chipping away at the traditional social and political structures that governed Igbo society since their invasion in the 1890s, key institutions and shared rules persisted. Igbo systems of governance and social organization in the precolonial period were highly complex, intertwined with religious beliefs and divided between men and women.

Averill: As summarized by Faola and Paddock, Igbo society was made up of a complex system of “titles, age grades, and secret societies, with separate institutions for men and women.”[7] Nwando Achebe has argued that Igbo governance and authority was first divided between the Spiritual realm and the Human realm, and then, within each of those realms, there were branches of governance that were divided between men and women. The Spiritual realm was always slightly more powerful than the Human, so that when a message came from a female Masked spirit, for example, that would trump a human village elder’s proclamation. We discuss the Spiritual side of things a bit more in detail in my episode on Ahebi Ugbabe, but I think the best place to get a clear sense of this system is in Nwando Achebe’s book Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings.

Elizabeth: In the human realm, the state was divided into male and female branches of government. Nwando Achebe notes that in the Nsukka region, the male side consisted of the onyishi and his council of titled executives.[8] The women’s branch of government was divided into two institutions – the Assembly of Daughters, and the Assembly of Wives. Sometimes those two branches combined into a larger Women’s Assembly. The Assembly of Daughters included “all married, unmarried, divorced, and widowed daughters of a lineage or community.”[9] The Daughters held regular meetings at the home of the oldest daughter in the community, and they sent representatives to the men’s assembly to deliver information and decisions made by the Daughters.

Averill: The Daughters held considerable authority in their communities. Nwando Achebe asserts that they were the “supreme court of appeal” and the “custodians of religious morality.”[10] The Daughters dealt with quarrels between women, accusations of poisoning or witchcraft, performed purification rituals, and intervened when necessary in the proceedings of the men’s assembly. To ignore the authority and ruling of the Daughters was to risk banishment and the wrath of all the dead daughters and wives of the community.

Elizabeth: The Assembly of Wives was less powerful than the Daughters, and was headed by the eldest wife in the community, who “regulated the behavior of women, advised and admonished wives, and generally mothered everyone.”[11] The Wives served as the lower court, where issues between women were taken first. Though again their authority existed mostly in dealing with women, in cases involving husbands who mistreated their wives or adulterous husbands, the Assembly of Wives could pronounce punishments for men.

Averill: Both assemblies performed a range of additional functions – religious and practical – in the community, and served as an important check on the power and authority of the men’s assembly. As Achebe notes, in some Nsukka communities, the two assemblies were one – the Women’s Assembly – and performed all the duties above. Nwayneruwua was an older member of her community in Oloko, and may have held a leadership position in one of the Assemblies. Protests, boycotts, and strikes were one of the first tools that the various female Assemblies employed for social control and punishment in Igbo communities, and those kinds of actions were organized by community elders like Nwanyeruwa.

Elizabeth: Nwanyeruwa and the other elder women in the region were aware that a tax reassessment was coming – rumors had been circulating since 1928 that the British wanted to start counting and taxing women. According to Ikodia, one of the participants of the Women’s War, “ “About four months ago, we heard that women were being counted by their chiefs. Women became annoyed at this and decided to ask who gave the order, as they did not wish to accept it. As we went to various markets we asked other women whether they, too, had heard the rumor about the counting of women.[12]

Averill: Prior to the confrontation between Nwanyeruwa and Mark Emeruwa, representatives from these women’s councils had asked several Warrant Chiefs about the rumors that they were counting women. Each chief they visited confirmed that the District Officer had ordered them to count women, and that women would be taxed. “They replied,” reports Ikodia, “that they had heard it. We heard also that Oloko Chiefs had counted their respective women. …Okugo was the last man to count.[13]” According to Nwakaji, another participant in the war, the women demanded “How could women, who have no means themselves to buy food or clothing, afford to pay tax?”[14] The women decided that they would wait until someone “dared to come to us and say, ‘Pay your tax” before they launched official action. As Ikodia put it, “We, women… held a large meeting, at which we decided to wait until we heard definitely from the person that women were to be taxed, in which case we would make trouble, as we did not mind being killed for doing so.” Together, they made a plan for how to handle attempted tax assessments – Nwanyeruwa followed that blueprint in her encounter with Mark Emeruwa.

Elizabeth: For Igbo women like Nwanyeruwa, British colonialism upset the political and economic stability of the region. On the political end, the Native Courts and Warrant Chiefs undermined the authority of the Women’s assemblies, because the very purpose of the Native Courts was to adjudicate  disputes in villages and between villages. Before 1929, nearly all the Warrant Chiefs were men. (Achebe notes that Ahebe Ugbabe was made warrant chief in her home region in 1918, but she was the exception to the rule.)[15] So authority to deal with a range of disputes was yanked out of the women-controlled assemblies and placed under the jurisdiction of male-controlled colonial Native Courts.

Averill: What’s more, the way the British set up the Warrant Chiefs and Native Courts were, at their inception, offensive to Igbo society. As Faola and Paddock note, the Igbo sent outcasts to initial meetings with British officials, because they feared that the British meant to hold captive whomever they sent. The Igbo highly valued their elders as decision-makers. But the British assumed the Igbo were sending their leaders and best men – so they appointed those individuals (which included at least one murderer, societal misfits, and generally just young, unseasoned men) as the Warrant Chiefs. To the British, having eager, fit young men in the roles gelled well with their ideals of Victorian masculinity. The dissonance between the two perspectives could not have been more off-putting.[16]

Elizabeth: In the decade before the Women’s War, many of the Warrant Chiefs were notoriously bad actors. They extorted, abused their power, and generally behaved badly by Igbo customs. The district officers, British men, mostly from military background, might have held the Warrant Chiefs in check in the early years of the system, but by the end of the 1920s the Native Courts had expanded, and the British pulled back on their own manpower in the country, so that the district officers who remained either ignored or did not know the extent of the corruption until the 1929 Women’s War.

Averill: Economic disruption started well before the British invaded and set up a formal colony. The Igbo region had been changed demographically and economically by the Atlantic Slave Trade. Historians David Eltis and David Richardson estimate that about one in seven Africans shipped to the New World during the whole era of the transatlantic slave trade originated from the Bight of Biafra. Historians estimate that 80 percent of the people shipped from the Bight of Biafra were Igbo-speaking.[17] Slavers bought yams to feed enslaved people on the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. They were instructed to buy at least 100,000 yams per 500 slaves, though, in their profit-seeking, they often only bought half that. But still, the demand for both yams and enslaved people created a market for these products that irreparably shifted the productive and social systems of West Africa.

Elizabeth: After the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, these regions were left with entire economies that relied on the slave trade, and as a result, tons of enslaved people were then circulated within West/Central Africa. While yam production had long been part of Igbo measures of masculinity, the market for yams had expanded the significance of yams to Igbo men by the nineteenth century.

Averill: Yam production was inextricably linked in Igbo culture to masculinity.  Men were expected to be able to do the work to farm yams themselves. If they had to buy yams from the market, they were considered failures by their community members. We see this communicated quite starkly in the fiction of Chinua Achebe. In Things Fall Apart, the main character Okonkwo’s uber masculinity is tied to his yam production, and significantly Okonkwo’s father is perceived by the village as unmanly, because he is a lazy yam farmer. Instead of clearing new land to grow yams, Okonkwo’s father uses already cleared land – which is already stripped of nutrients, and so produces a low yield. Half of Okonkwo’s choices in the novel seem to revolve around proving to everyone that he is not like his bad-yam-farming dad. 

Elizabeth: According to historian Chima Korieh, by the 1860s, the trade in palm oil replaced the trade in slaves. Korieh writes that “The export of palm oil to Liverpool from the Bight of Biafra in 1806 was 150 tons, and by 1829 it had reached over 8,000 tons…By the 1830s, Britain was importing about 10,000 tons of palm oil a year. Between 1855 and 1856, the entire African production of palm oil was about 40,000–42,000 tons. Out of this figure, 26,000 tons were exported through the Bight of Biafra.”[18] Historian Susan Martin argues that by the end of the nineteenth century, the markets for palm oil created ideologically-driven divisions of labor among the Igbo. Korieh disagrees somewhat with this, asserting that “women remained important in both production and marketing from the late nineteenth century onward. They were not only entitled to some of the palm oil; they were entitled to the kernels, which became quite important in the export market.”[19]

Photograph of Igbo women in 1921. From the New York Public Library.

Averill: Though perhaps not belonging in a rigid gendered labor division, the production of palm oil and yams were traditionally men’s products. Both, however, relied on the labor of women and children. Wealthy men took multiple wives, because it gave them a larger labor force. But the division of labor was not strict either. Men typically plowed and built the mounds, but women also did this as needed. Yams required 7 to 8 months of cultivation, and during that time women and children weeded and tended the crops. The crop yield itself, however, was attributed to the male head of household, who “owned” the labor of his extended family.

Elizabeth: Not many women became large-scale traders of palm oil, but they controlled much of the buying and selling of palm kernels, which they processed by hand, smashing the kernels between rocks. Until the advent of mechanized nut processing, women were able to set prices and hold on to their little corner of the market in palm oil. After WW2, that would change – but that’s a story for another day.

Averill: Significantly, as several historians have argued, the British invasion actually created rigid gendered divisions of labor, all while denying women many of the traditional forms of social, religious, political, and economic power they’d held before colonial interference.[20] The British always directed resources and training at boys and men, effectively cutting Igbo women off from these opportunities. As Korieh notes, “Colonial programs were male driven, regardless of obvious female participation in agriculture and the difference women farmers could have made to agricultural productivity. …The Girls’ Cottages offered the practical training useful for homemaking”:

The girls learn how to be good homemakers by doing just that in their own cottages. They do their own marketing and food preparation, cooking on a smokeless Indian stove, built chiefly of mud. They eat together in family style, and have their own living room. They learn to sew, not only by hand, but on the Centre’s sewing machines…. The girls operate their own kitchen near their cottages. They also have some work with poultry, and will later have their own flock of chickens…. Improved diets, a more hygienic mode of living and wiser motherhood are emphasized in the course.[21]

So in addition to marginalizing traditional forms of women’s political power, the British reinforcement of rigid Victorian gender roles disrupted the traditional forms of the balance of gendered power in Igbo society.

Elizabeth: By relegating women to the domestic sphere expected of proper British society, the British denied women access to their traditional forms of power – and obliterated the careful system of checks and balances that made Igbo society work. Though Igbo society was patriarchal, women’s assemblies, and women who served in various essential religious functions – as gods, as the girlfriends and daughters of gods, as the female masked spirits – ensured that the men’s branches of government were kept in balance and prevented from corruption. The British took much of that away through their colonial institutions like the Native Courts and education systems that socialized girls into homemaking.

Averill: Traditionally, when dealing with women’s issues or supporting women, there was a process in the women’s assemblies. A woman in need of help consults an elder. The elder would decide if intervention was necessary. The Assembly would approach the offending man and insist that he modify his behavior. If he persisted in incorrect behavior, the assemblies would ramp up the consequences.

Elizabeth: When necessary, women’s assemblies used a range of tools at their disposal to shape behaviors and enforce social norms. They’d start with entry-level confrontation: they might organize a sit-in at an offenders house, where they’d sing, dance, or chant outside of the house until the offender acquiesced to their demands. If necessary, the women would organize a widespread strike, in which women would not have sex with their husbands or would not do housework or cooking until change was achieved. If and when these measures did not work, or if a more drastic approach was necessary, the women would make war: they would assemble for a “sleep-in” – where they’d stay at the man’s house all night, continuing their verbal abuses and maybe start to destroy his property. To have assembled women stay at your house overnight was considered a death curse in traditional Igbo beliefs.[22] The most powerful weapon that women yielded in these instances was to “sit on a man,” during which they would expose their genitals to the offender, and sometimes even hold him down and press their exposed buttocks onto him. Exposing genitals was powerful – it was akin to a sexual assault. If a man behaved so badly that he required sitting on, the community’s male councils would have to acknowledge the severity of the situation, and might enforce either a death penalty or banishment. For some men, being sat upon produced a shame so great that they committed suicide.

Averill: It’s important to reiterate here that among Igbo women, to ramp up to the level of sitting on a man was to “make war.” They might tear apart a man’s house in the process, or loot his belongings, because both tactics were culturally appropriate when the Igbo made war with  other groups. Sitting on a man or flashing their genitals at him were powerful attacks, which would bring immense shame upon him, and potentially also pain, as he would be held down, beaten, and then sat upon by dozens of women.

Elizabeth: When Emeruwa told the women that he was only acting on Warrant Chief Okugo’s orders, the women dispatched messengers to neighboring villages with palm leaves to mobilize collective action against the offending Warrant Chief. That evening, November 23rd, the women followed Emeruwa to Okugo’s compound. They danced and shouted at Okugo, demanding to know why they should be counted. Okugo used violence to drive the women away – he sent his servants out to beat the women until they left.[23] This attack was jarring to the women – in Igbo society, it was taboo to attack women. But Okugo was apparently uninterested in conforming to these norms.

Averill: By the next night, women from Aba, Owerri, Ikot-Ekpene, and other neighboring villages arrived in Oloko. They dressed for war: faces smeared with charcoal, heads bound with young ferns; they wore short loincloths and carried sticks wreathed in young palms.[24] Then they marched on Okugo’s compound. Fearful, Okugo sent a messenger to Bende, where the district office was, requesting police to stop the protesters. The assembled women sent their own representatives to Bende, and learned that Okugo was trying to spread lies to get the district office to send more reinforcements. On the 26th, with hundreds of women in their entourage, the Oloko women’s assemblies descended on Okugo’s house again. This time Okugo could not repel the women’s advances. They made war on Okugo.

Elizabeth: The women tore at his compound, destroying fences and buildings. They dragged Okugo out of his hiding place, beat him, and then held him down. Hundreds of women took turns sitting on Okugo, placing their bare buttocks on his arms, chest, legs, and face. They humiliated him, shouted at him, and drove their point home: they would not be taxed, and they would not put up with his corruption as Warrant Chief any longer.

Averill: The next day, November 27, Captain Cook – the District Officer – got to Oloko and found over 1,000 women waiting for him in the market. Rather than engaging the women in yet more violence, Cook assured the women – in writing – that no women would be taxed. The women demand that Okugo be punished for his proxy attack on Nwanyeruwa and his abuses of the office – they want him removed from position. Cook saw his work as done in Oloko, expecting that his promise that no women would be taxed had solved the problem, but he did arrest Okugo at the women’s insistence. Cook took Okugo back to the district office in Bende to stand trial. Significantly, Cook also took Okugo’s cap – to the women, the symbol of his position as Warrant Chief – and tossed it into the crowd of women. A great cheer went up, and the women celebrated their victory.

Elizabeth: Cook assumed that he’d put an end to the women’s protests. But he – like so many of his countrymen – underestimated the root of the women’s mobilization. The economic strain of taxation was certainly a pressing issue. But the women who made war on Okugo were also seeking a way to regain some of their political power in this British colony. When he tossed that Warrant Chief cap into the crowd, Cook handed the women a victory – not just a victory over Okugo and his abuses, but a victory over the British colonialism that had been eroding women’s power and place in Eastern Nigeria for a decade. Okugo’s removal from office communicated to the women that their form of protest had worked to modify the British colonial system – which meant that it could work again, elsewhere.

Averill: On December 3rd, the British affirmed the women’s conclusions. Okugo was put on trial, and found guilty of spreading information that would cause a riot, and injuring women at the first protest at his house. This fueled the women of Oloko and their allies from neighboring villages, instead of quelling them – they saw this as a victory, and felt empowered that their actions had pressured the colonial government to make administrative changes.[25]

Elizabeth: The 1929 Women’s War was not the first, nor the last, collective action of Igbo women mobilized against colonialism. Women made war against colonial officials and, later, warrant chiefs, for a range of issues. In one instance, the British attempted to institute what they considered modern sanitation systems in places like Enugu-Ezike. Colonial representatives destroyed women’s rainwater-collection vessels in the name of “sanitation”, until the women marched on the district office and he agreed to build a water borehole so that the conflict between the “sanitation officers” and the women would be moot.[26] In 1925, women in Atta launched a “Dance Movement” protest that simply called for Europeans to leave Owerri Province. According to Chima Korieh, “The protest started in Atta, in the Okigwe Division of Owerri Province, as a result of a message said to have been received from God. The message included forbidding men from growing cassava, regarded as the women’s prerogative. Parts of the demand included banning the use of European coins, fixing prices of foodstuffs in the markets, and regulating the cloth that women and girls wore.”[27] And after the 1929 Women’s War, despite its tragic end, with as many as 50 women killed in violent clashes with Europeans, women continued to collectively act and “make war” against European colonialism and administrative corruption. Nwando Achebe outlines the Oso Soja Women’s War, a response to the local elites’ complicity in the disappearance of Obukpa sons during World War 2; and in 1952, the Itikpo Ite Women’s War, launched against the corrupt practices of colonial sanitation inspectors.[28]

Averill: And as we suggested at the top of the episode, people in Nigeria resisted British imperialism in a variety of ways throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, including through military action, strikes, and, when possible, manipulation of the system to their advantage.[29] These moments of collective action, typically organized by women, could range in goals from trying to fix an immediate and regional problem, like a pipe water fee, to bigger, national goals, like demanding the white men leave all together. Even if these women’s movements were not successful in overthrowing the colonial system all together, they were successful in pushing for and renegotiating the terms of colonialism.

Elizabeth: Though Nwanyeruwa was heralded as the hero of the war on Okugo, the Oloko women were organized by the leaders of the women’s assemblies in Oloko: Ikonnia, Nwannedie, and Nwugo. These women orchestrated the mobilization of women in Oloko, and then facilitated the spread of (sometimes false) information and tales of Nwanyeruwa’s heroism to the surrounding villages to encourage other women to action.

Averill: News of Nwanyeruwa’s victory spread throughout Owerri Province, and inspired women throughout the region to action. Many visited Nwayeruwa, bringing her tributes of 10p or 15p, which she used to pay the expenses so that women from Oloko could travel to Bende to watch Okugo’s trial.

Elizabeth: In the week following Okugo’s sentencing, women across Owerri met and planned. According to Nwugo, one of the Oloko leaders, “These women…argued for all the warrant chiefs’ caps to be removed and for no one to take grievances to the Native Courts, [that] all these buildings should be burned.”[30] Taxes were not the only issues that the women were mobilizing against. They insisted that the clerks and Warrant Chiefs were responsible for a range of cultural violations and injustices.  Enyeremaka, an Igbo woman, said that “We also insisted that prices of produce such as palm oil and ground nuts were to be settled at once.”[31] Further, as historians like Faola, Paddock, Achebe, and Korieh have all demonstrated, the women were opposed fundamentally to European imperialism, which had clearly disrupted the balance of power in Eastern Nigeria.

Averill: On December 9th, women from the Owerrinta Native Court area decided to protest as the Oloko women had. The Owerrinta women hadn’t been threatened with taxation – as Faola and Paddock note, it was clear that their intentions were to overthrow the colonial administration.[32] They protested at Owerrinta, then Okpala, beating the colonial buildings with sticks, attempting to break into the building to steal colonial records, and chase Warrant Chiefs out of town. Colonial administrators, like Mr. Ferguson, the district officer of Owerri, tried to appease the women, reporting after that “they all produced one request or another, which I answered to the best of my ability.”[33]

Elizabeth: The groups of women who converged on places like Okpala and Owerrinta numbered in the thousands. The leaders of the mobilization coordinated across towns, messengers running decisions and plans for when to attack and when to hold position. Attacks intensified on December 9th and 10th, with coordinated convergences on colonial structures in Nguru and Ngor. Women released prisoners in the Native Courts, destroyed court records, and tore down the buildings on the Native Court compound.[34] On December 11, all the women from the Owerrinta protests traveled to Amorji, expecting Nwanyeruwa to show up at the market there. She did not – and after Okugo’s sentencing, it’s not clear if she continued to participate in the war at all.[35]

Averill: In Aba, instead of focusing on colonial buildings and indigenous collaborators, the women attacked Europeans and their factories. Women attacked British officials, and then the Niger Company factories. They looted European stores, throwing stones and sticks to break the windows, then taking “cases of soap, stockfish, and other articles.”[36] One European, a Dr. Hunter, was driving to breakfast, and drove into a crowd of women. He claimed to “swerved to avoid one” and instead hit two others, then drove off without stopping to help. Women hit his car with sticks and threw stones. To try to curb the advance of the women, the Aba police set up pickets at strategic locations to stop women from getting to certain areas. The women were forced to turn back, but not until after they’d inflicted a good deal of property damage.

Elizabeth: Between Dec 12-14, women continued to meet and submit complaints to British officials, and launch attacks throughout Owerri province. On Dec 15th, a group of approximately 2,500 women tried to get into Owerri. British police stopped them outside town, chasing them away. The next day they returned with 4000 women, while another 2000 tried to enter from a different road. All were met with baton-wielding police.

Averill: The biggest battle was at Opobo on December 15th & 16th. Women attacked the colonial government buildings, including the dispensary, Native Court, and post office. When they met him on the street in the course of their attacks, the women told a shop owner, Mr. Bowron, that they were going to loot his store the next day. He believed them, and prepared barricades against their incursions. He asked them why – as he recognized two women who were the wives of colonial agents – and they told him that they “Will go to the meeting, white people do such bad things to black men and women and tax them.”[37] The next morning, as the women were attempting to breach Bowron’s store, British military officer Lieutenant Hill arrived with 30 soldiers. The district officer, Whitman, met with the women, and asked what they wanted. They provided a list of demands:

  1. The government will not tax women
  2. No personal property, such as boxes, is to be counted
  3. Any one woman who is a known prostitute is to be arrested
  4. Women are not to be charged rent for the use of the common market shed
  5. They ask that licenses for holding plays should not be paid for
  6. They do not want Chief Mark Pepple Jaja to be head chief of Opobo town
  7. The women do not want any man to pay tax[38]

Elizabeth: Whitman reiterated that the women would not be taxed, but told them he’d have to take the other issues to the government. He continued to talk with them, and they lodged their concerns – women from Owerri were angry that the markets had been moved, women from Opobo didn’t want to pay fees for use of trading stalls, and they all issued their annoyance that European firms were taking their business. Whitman considered most of their complaints frivolous, but he continued to talk with them in an effort to diffuse the situation. But women continued to assemble, their numbers growing. The women ridiculed Lieutenant Hill’s soldiers, and they advanced on the government compound. The women believed that the soldiers would not shoot at them. They were wrong.


Averill: At the Opobo confrontation, the British soldiers opened fire on the crowd of advancing women, killing at least 31 and wounding many others. Across the province, the British only dispersed the protestors with lots of police, soldiers, and even some armed Boy Scouts. Though resistance and mobilization continued at a smaller scale in the region for another week, the mass collective action was ended with gun violence. According to Judith Van Allen, the British followed up the final confrontations with  “Punitive expeditions [in which they] burned or demolished compounds, confiscated property to enforce fines levied arbitrarily against villages to pay for damages from the disturbances, and took provisions from the villages for troops.”[39] Under the Collective Punishment Ordinance, the British colonial government had district officers determine which regions were “most guilty” and then fined entire villages.

Elizabeth: As Faola and Paddock note, the British underestimated the Igbo and Ibibio women from the start, and continued to underestimate them in the weeks following, during the Commission Inquiry and summative reports. At every turn, the British expected the Igbo women to behave like Victorian women, not organized, armed warriors. So too, the Igbo women expected the Euroepans to bend to and behave in culturally appropriate ways.

Some historians have categorized the women’s war as a failure, because the women lost the final violent confrontations and their villages were forced to pay for the damages they wrought across Owerri and Calabar provinces. But as Faola and Paddock note, the Commission of Inquiry, which interviewed dozens of participants and witnesses, also listened to the concerns that the women raised about the corrupt Warrant Chiefs. The women’s demands that white men should leave Nigeria were ignored. Their secondary demands – that women should serve on the Native Courts and that a woman should be appointed to a District Officer position – “were regarded by the British as irrational and ridiculous.” But the British colonial office did eventually diffuse the Warrant Chiefs power, when reforms in 1933 replaced the Chiefs with  ‘massed benches’, where several judges convened to make decisions.[40]

60th Anniversary re-enactment of Women’s Protest during Women’s War of 1929, Aba
Courtesy National Museum Uyo, Fair use image

Averill: Despite this tiny victory, British colonialism continued to chip away at traditional modes of women’s collective action. “Sitting on a man” was outlawed after 1933. And Christian missionary work prevented women from gathering as they had in the past if they wanted to pursue education (which they did – education was universally prized in Igbo culture). Participation in “pagan rituals” were forbidden by the missionaries, and women were not supposed to participate in the gatherings of women that were traditionally spaces for both planning important indigenous religious rites and festivals, and for dealing with community issues like abusive husbands or errant wives.

Elizabeth: For fifty years, British colonial reports and historians referred to the 1929 events as the “Aba Riots.” British authorities thought that men were secretly directing and organizing this mobilization of women, though there was never any evidence to suggest that. Even the first dedicated monograph – The Road to Aba by Harry Gailey, published in 1970 – referred to it as a riot. Judith Van Allen, a political scientist, was the first to argue that this was not a riot – scholars and colonial officials had designated this a “riot” because they saw it as an emotional, reactionary movement responding to possible taxation. Judith Van Allen made the argument that this was a war – when placed into the specific context of the Igbo culture, and Igbo women’s social, political, and religious positionality in particular, it is clear that this was an example of the ways that women “made war” in Igbo society. Van Allen also argued that the Women’s War was collective action of women, planned and deployed, in response to the years of British colonialism which had denied women their traditional assertion of political and collective action. Van Allen wrote her first essay on the “Igbo Women’s War” in 1972. Among the Igbo, the events were called Ogu Umunwanyi – the closest translation to English is “women’s war.” Now most Nigerian scholars either say Ogu Umunwanyi or Women’s War.

Averill: Yet the debate over what to call these four weeks in 1929 has persisted to today, and the language of “riot” continues, particularly in British-originating sources – a 2020 BBC video, for example, refers to it as the “Aba riots.” Language matters, of course, particularly when we think about the colonial intent of particular phrasing. In this case, there are two issues of context at play: on the one hand, if we place this collective action of Igbo and Ibibio women into the proper cultural context of Igbo society, it is clear that we should acknowledge the movement and its impact as an anti-colonial war waged by Igbo and Ibibio women; on the other hand, if we want to understand why there might still, in 2020, be a division in what to call the 1929 protests, we need only look at the sources: among some Nigerian scholars and activists, the Women’s War of 1929 represented a significant moment of nationalist anti-colonial resistance; among some British institutions, the events took place during British colonial rule, which make the protests unlawful and destructive “riots” – which is how British colonial sources reported the events back to the Home Office, and how British scholars framed the events for decades afterwards, without much consultation of the people who were most affected.

Bibliography

Nwando Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900-1960, (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 2005).

Gloria Chuku, Igbo Women and Economic Transformation in Southeastern Nigeria, 1900-1960 (New York: Routledge, 2005).

Ekwere Otu Akpan and V. I. Ekpo, The Women’s War of 1929: Preliminary Study (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

Toyin Faola and Adam Paddock, editors, The Women’s War of 1929: A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria (Carolina Academic Press, 2011)

Chima Korieh, The Land Has Changed: History, Society and Gender in Colonial Eastern Nigeria (University of Calgary Press, 2010).

Sylvia Leith-Roth, African Women: A Study of the Ibo of Nigeria (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1965).

Susan Martin, Palm Oil and Protest: An Economic History of the Ngwa Region, Southeastern Nigeria, 1800-1980, (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Margery Perham, Native Administration in Nigeria (Oxford University Press, 1937).

David Pratten, The Man-leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria (Edinburgh University Press, 2007)

Ronald Robinson, John Gallagher, and Alice Denny, Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism (Palgrave Macmillan, 1978).

Judith Van Allen, “Aba Riots or the Igbo Women’s War? – Ideology, Stratification and the

Invisibility of Women,” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 6(1) (1975)

Judith Van Allen, “‘Sitting on a Man:’ Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women,” Canadian Journal of African Studies, 6:2, (1972) 165-181.

Notes


[1] Toyin Faola and Adam Paddock, editors, The Women’s War of 1929: A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria (Carolina Academic Press, 2011) 33.

[2] Chima Korieh, The Land Has Changed: History, Society and Gender in Colonial Eastern Nigeria (University of Calgary Press, 2010) 63

[3] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 45.

[4] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 46.

[5] Testimony of Nwanyoji, in Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 280.

[6] Testimony of Nwanyoji, in Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 280.

[7] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 20.

[8] Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings, 166.

[9] Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings, 167.

[10] Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings, 168.

[11] Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings, 169.

[12] “Proceedings before the Commission of Inquiry into Disturbances in the Calabar and Owerri Provinces: Part I: Enquiries COnvened at Umdike,” qtd. in Toyin Faola and Adam Paddock, editors, The Women’s War of 1929: A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria (Carolina Academic Press, 2011) 269.

[13] “Proceedings before the Commission of Inquiry into Disturbances in the Calabar and Owerri Provinces,” The Women’s War of 1929, 269.

[14] Toyin Faola and Adam Paddock, editors, The Women’s War of 1929: A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria (Carolina Academic Press, 2011) 275.

[15] Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings, 207.

[16] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 37.

[17] Korieh, The Land Has Changed, (49)

[18] Korieh, The Land Has Changed, 52.

[19] Korieh, The Land Has Changed, 56.

[20] See Korieh, The Land Has Changed; as well as Nwando Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900-1960 (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 2005), Toyin Faola and Adam Paddock, editors, The Women’s War of 1929: A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria (Carolina Academic Press, 2011), and David Pratten, The Man-leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria (Edinburgh University Press, 2007).

[21] Qtd. in Korieh, The Land Has Changed, 107.

[22] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 27.

[23] Toyin Faola and Adam Paddock, editors, The Women’s War of 1929: A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria (Carolina Academic Press, 2011) 30.

[24] Van Allen, “‘Sitting on a Man:’ 165-181; and Judith Van Allen, “Aba Riots or the Igbo Women’s War? – Ideology, Stratification and the Invisibility of Women,” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 6:1, (1975).

[25] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 42-48.

[26] Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings, 181-83.

[27] Korieh, The Land Has Changed, 155.

[28] Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings, 185.

[29] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 35.

[30] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 50.

[31] Qtd. in Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 50.

[32] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 51.

[33] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 51.

[34] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 54.

[35] Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 54-5.

[36] Qtd. in Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 60.

[37] Qtd. in Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 66.

[38] Qtd. in Faola and Paddock, The Women’s War of 1929, 67.

[39] Judith Van Allen, “‘Sitting on a Man:’ Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women,” Canadian Journal of African Studies, 6:2, (1972) 165-181;

[40] Van Allen, “‘Sitting on a Man.”


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