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When African Royalty Went Dog Racing

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Written by Barnaby Crowcroft

Barnaby Crowcroft reviews the new book by Moses E. Ochonu, Emirs in London. Subaltern Travel and Nigeria’s Modernity (2022) which looks at the subtle relationships between the various emirs of Muslim kingdoms in northern Nigeria and the British empire. The emirs had warm relations with many people in Britain, enjoyed their trips to London, and were treated well by a British governing class that respected them as leaders of their own societies. This review first appeared in The Literary Review and is reproduced by kind permission.

Moses. E. Ochonu, Emirs in London: Subaltern Travel and Nigerian Modernity (Indiana University Press, 2022, 390 pp.)

In August 1937, the emir of Katsina – an ancient state in the far north of Nigeria – passed the afternoon taking tea with Lord Lugard, the famous British imperialist who had conquered his country thirty-five years before. By this point, Lugard’s country house in Surrey had become an established place of ‘ritualistic pilgrimage’ for the Muslim royals of British Northern Nigeria, and Emir Muhammadu Dikko spent this fourth visit (as he recorded in his diary) with ‘my old friend Governor Lugard’, reminiscing about former times and joking affably about how much better it was that they had not decided to fight and kill one another in their first historic encounter. Indeed, in Katsina the following year, the emir celebrated the Islamic festival of Eid by unveiling a bronze plaque next to the gate through which British forces had entered on 28 March 1903. He wrote to Lugard, enclosing a photograph, saying that while he personally would always remember that happy day in the history of his emirate, he had erected this memorial ‘lest future generations of my people should forget’.

It is some twenty years since David Cannadine published his seminal reinterpretation of British imperialism, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, yet its insights remain little taken up by historians. The first – that the British Empire should be understood as an essentially conservative system of alliance between Britain and other similarly aristocratic non-Western societies – because everyone remains so stubbornly preoccupied with the idea that the British (whether for good or for ill) spread liberalism around the world. And the second – that social class, rather than race, was the overriding principle structuring the imperial social order – perhaps because the lucrative Diversity, Equity, Inclusion industry would collapse if the truth of it were widely known. Yet in what is one of the most original academic studies of empire in years, Moses Ochonu, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, brings out both of these features, and especially the second. He does so while focusing on a part of Britain’s empire that has itself been neglected and deserves to be better known

The emirs of the title were rulers of the around forty states of the Northern Provinces of colonial Nigeria, which provided practically all of the day-to-day government in that vast and populous province. They were men of considerable wealth and authority – some of their emirates were larger than many European nations. We would more readily associate their travels to the imperial metropolis with Indian maharajas than African Muslim potentates, in their extravagance and in the pageantry of the British welcome.

Docking at Liverpool or Portsmouth in the 1920s and 1930s, Nigerian royals were greeted by official firework displays and entertained by lord mayors and local naval commanders before being whisked by special trains to London. In itineraries stretching over weeks or more, the emirs  – chauffeured in limousines and lodged in luxury Hyde Park hotels – attended debates in Parliament and had tea with government ministers; they broadcast on the BBC, toured the Bank or England and the Royal Mint; they visited factories and agricultural fairs, attended horse races and polo matches, lunched with country grandees – and went shopping. On each visit, they were received by the king at Buckingham Palace or Windsor, sometimes more than once. Immaculately dressed in flowing robes, turbans and traditional royal regalia, they were mobbed by journalists and ‘marvelled at’ by the public. The emir of Katsina proved such a success when he attended the White City greyhound races that he was asked to hand out the trophies and received a ‘great ovation’ when he led the procession of dogs onto the track.

Katsina was not a mighty state like Sokoto or Kano, but its ruler is the runaway hero of the book. Dikko (reigned 1906-1944) made five visits to England – in 1921, 1924, 1933, 1937 and 1939 – and was both an avid Anglophile and (unlike his peers) a moderniser. The first emir to own a car, fly in an aeroplane and open a girls school, he was also the driving force behind the adoption of polo in Nigeria: his son and heir, Usman Nagogo (reigned 1944-1981), went on to become the finest player in Africa. He remodelled the facade of his 14th-century mud-brick palace on that of Buckingham Palace; he even introduced a bagpipe regiment into the Katsina state police. Yet, as Ochonu points out, there was a serious side to all this as well. From a sleepy walled-town in the pre-colonial era, Dikko turned Katsina into a prosperous and important centre of colonial business – and in establishing himself as a fixture in British Establishment circles, he bolstered the claims of his family to its throne.

Alongside all the colourful detail, Emirs in London is also a valuable reminder of the many other things that the British “Empire-Commonwealth” was, besides (as we are increasingly required to believe) some global engine of ‘limitless violence’. One of these things was what Ochonu describes as ‘a platform for forging cross-racial fraternities’ – or, in layman’s terms, friendship. Whenever one of the impending royal visits became known, the Colonial Office was inundated with letters from former colonial servants in Nigeria offering to host the emirs at their homes, in their London clubs or on the polo field. In turn, the emirs (and in the postwar era, a much more democratic collection of Nigerian visitors) seemed genuinely delighted to see them. In one case from 1934, the emir of Gwandu, not feeling like leaving his hotel suite but keen not to miss out on the shopping, had his British friend, a retired district officer (once a power in the land), dash back and forth to Harrods to bring selections of products for the emir to rummage through and pick out what he wanted from the comfort of his bed. In another, the sultan of Sokoto, the most eminent of all Nigeria’s Islamic rulers, after winning a series of bets at the greyhound races, turns affectionately to his Colonial Office helper and tips him half a crown.

Ochonu’s account is a mix of archival excavation and modern-day oral history, and in this the book is also a reminder of how much more mature the public conversation over empire is in Nigeria than it is in Britain. He tells us how, in interviews carried out over many years, he never encountered anything but philosophical acceptance of the role played by someone like Dikko as a ‘collaborator’ with British imperialism or sensed any feeling that the ‘beneficial friendship’ of the emirs with the colonial powers sullied their image as devout and upright Muslims. Wandering around royal palaces in places like Katsina and Kano, still home to powerful Nigerian monarchs, Ochonu finds trophy cabinets stuffed with British imperial medals alongside Nigerian national awards, and polo trophies, in rooms still named after some long-gone British connection. In one rather moving case, the author tracks down a set of commemorative dishes presented to the emir of Katsina by the United Africa Company to a house in a rural village, their images – showing the emir and his sons playing polo with a white colonial officer – worn down from decades of use serving food on festive occasions.

How can we explain this difference in national approaches to the past? In his gentle and often humorous way, Ochonu supplies some hints. There is, for example, an entire academic cottage industry dedicated to telling us that museums are one of the most dastardly forms of racist ‘Orientalism’ and colonial oppression – and there is no greater offender in this field than the Wembley British Empire Exhibition of 1924. Yet Emir Dikko attended that exhibition, carefully explored the West Africa section, wrote about it in his diary, and departed surprised and thrilled to have seen in London what he regarded as an ‘accurate architectural depiction of a Kano and Katsina village setting’.

True, attitudes did change after the war, and disaster might really have struck in 1952 when Muhammadu Ndayako, ruler of a great emirate in central Nigeria, while on an official tour of a London museum discovered a photograph of himself displayed in an exhibition on ‘West African peoples’. Only it didn’t. In fact, Ndayako – author of the bestselling Hausa-language travelogue, Etsu Nupe’s Travel to England (1954) – was so delighted that he presented his traditional handwoven cloak to the museum’s director to be included in the exhibition too.

This review first appeared in The Literary Review and is reproduced by kind permission.

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Barnaby Crowcroft