Flora Louise Shaw Lugard.

A tropical dependency : an outline of the ancient history of the western Sudan with an account of the modern settlement of northern Nigeria online

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comic kind.

Poets wearing masks and dressed like birds were
allowed to speak their opinion to the monarch. Ibn
Batuta states that this practice was of great antiquity,
long anterior to the introduction of Islam amongst these
people. The description which he gives in some detail
can hardly fail to recall similar practices inherited from
the Tezcucans by the Aztecs, who in nearly the same
latitude on the American continent were at this very
moment, in the middle of the fourteenth century, making
good their position upon the Mexican plateau.^ Ibn

^ See likeness to Aztec performance at contemporary date. Prescott, in his
account of Aztec literature and civilisation previous to the conquest of Mexico
by the Spaniards, says : " They are said to have had also something like
theatrical exhibitions of a pantomimic sort, in which the faces of the per-
formers were covered with masks, and the figures of birds or animals were
frequently represented." — Conquest of Mexico^ vol. i. p. 98.

For a fuller account of these mummeries Prescott refers his readers to
Acosta, lib. 5, cap. 30 ; and also Clavigero, Stor-del-Messico. See also for Aztec
customs, Toribio, Hist, de los Indios, MS., parte 3, cap. 7.


Batuta also notices with censure the extreme servility which
the Sultan of Melle exacted from the nobles and others
by whom he was surrounded, and here, too, there is a
resemblance to Aztec manners which is striking. "When
the Sultan, seated in the Hall of Audience, calls any
one before him," says Ibn Batuta, "the person sum-
moned immediately divests himself of his fine clothes,
puts on shabby garments, and, taking off his turban,
covers his head with a dirty cap. He then enters the
presence barefooted, with his trousers rolled half-way
up his legs, listens with an air of profound submission
to what the Sultan has to say, and covers his head and
shoulders with dust, exactly as one might do who was
performing his ablutions with water." Ibn Batuta's com-
mentator, Ibn Djozay, adds to this passage a note to the
effect that the Secretary of State, who was present when
Mansa Musa's ambassadors were received at Fez by
Abou el Ha9en, told him that on all state occasions,
when the ambassador had audience of the Moorish
Sultan, he was accompanied by an attendant carrying
a basket of dust, and every time that the Sultan said
something gracious to him he covered himself with dust.
Prescott, in describing the ceremonial of the court of
Montezuma, the Aztec Emperor of Mexico, at the time of
the Spanish conquest, says that when ambassadors from
foreign states were introduced, "whatever their rank,
unless they were of blood royal, they were obliged to
submit to the humiliation of shrouding their rich dress
under the coarse mantle of nequen, and entering barefoot,
with downcast eyes, into the presence." This custom of
taking off the sandals and covering fine clothes with a
mantle of the coarsest stuff which was made in Mexico,
was imposed equally on all the nobility of Montezuma's
capital. The Mexican's mode of obeisance was not to
throw dust upon the head, but, bowing to the earth, to
touch it with the right hand. The Aztecs were, it will
be remembered, though not negroes, a dusky or copper-


coloured race, apparently of the tint which Earth describes
as that of the "red races" of the Soudan. They had
other customs which correspond to those of the Soudanese.
The Aztec crown was transmitted, like that of Melle, in
collateral descent, though in both kingdoms exceptions to
the rule occurred. The practice of keeping the sons of
subject princes as a sort of honourable hostage at the
court of the monarch was perhaps too general to be
worthy of special note, though it also was common to
the two peoples. The more terrible custom of propitiating
the gods with human sacrifice which was so extensively
practised by the Aztecs, was, it will be remembered, only
the other day brought to an end under British rule in
Benin, and is probably still practised in less accessible
portions of the pagan belt. Such heathen rites were, of
course, unknown in the Mohammedan Melle of the thir-
teenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. The custom
of wearing the heads of animals as a head-dress, which
was also common to the Aztecs, was preserved amongst
the pagans of the West African coast at the time of
the first occupation of the Gold Coast by the Portuguese
in 1 48 1.

On festive occasions the servants of the rich at Melle
would seem to have worn livery. The royal herald
Dougha's thirty servants are mentioned as being all
dressed in red cloth, with white caps. Music evidently
formed a prominent part of every entertainment. The
women are described as wearing pretty clothes, and
having their hair dressed with bands of gold and

We get an indication of social etiquette from the
experience of Batuta. The treatment which he had re-
ceived from the Sultan was not considered by his friends
to be sufficiently honourable, and about two months after
his arrival in Melle he was presented a second time.
This was done on the advice of the herald, Dougha, who
told the traveller that he must rise and call attention to


himself at one of the public audiences, and promised when
he did so to explain matters.

Accordingly, Ibn Batuta rose at the audience and said :
" Surely I have travelled in the different countries of the
world, and I have known their kings ; but I have been
in your country four months, and you have not treated
me as a guest. What shall I say of you to the other
kings ? "

The Sultan replied : ''I have not seen you, nor
known you." Then the judge and other important
persons rose and said : " He has already saluted you,
and you have sent him food ! " After this the Sultan
ordered him to be lodged at his expense, and on the
distribution of gifts at the end of Ramadan did not
forget him.

The customs of the town were very devout. Prayer
was regularly said in private houses. There was a
cathedral mo.sque to which all fashionable people went
on Fridays, and it was habitually so crowded that the
worshipper who was late could find no place. The prac-
tice of the rich was to send their slaves in good time to
spread their seat in the place to which they considered
themselves to have a right, and the slaves kept the place
till the master arrived.

At this mosque one Friday Ibn Batuta had the
pleasure of seeing vengeance fall on the head of one of
the black officials of Aivvalatin, who had so offended
him on his first crossing the frontier of Melle. " I was,"
he said, " taking part in the prayers, when a Berber
merchant, also a student and a man of letters, rose and
cried : ' Oh, you who are present in this mosque, be
my witnesses that I accuse Mansa Suleiman ' (the Sultan),
'and I cite him before the tribunal of God's envoy,
Mohammed.' Immediately there came from the Sultan's
grated gallery messengers who approached the com-
plainant, and asked : ' Who has committed an injustice ?
Who has taken anything from you.-*' He replied:
' Mancha Djou, the governor of Aiwalatin, has taken from


me goods worth 600 ducats and he has given me in com-
pensation only 100 ducats.'"

The result of the incident was the arrest of the
governor of Aiwalatin, who was brought to the capital,
and having been tried before the regular tribunal, was
found guilty. The merchant recovered his money, and
the governor was deprived of his functions.



I HAVE lingered, perhaps, too long over the personal
experiences of Ibn Batuta in Melle, but they serve to
illustrate, as a drier chronicle of historic events might fail
to do, the actual life of the town and the degree of
civilisation which had been reached.

Politically, as we have seen, the Empire of Melle was
divided into Melle proper and the Protectorate, which
extended into the desert until it met the boundaries of
the civilised states of the north and west. The empire
would appear to have been further divided into provinces,
each ruled by a " Ferba " or viceroy of the sovereign,
while each town had its "Mochrif" or inspector, who
was responsible to the viceroy for the maintenance of
order, the suppression of crime, and, presumably, for the
collection of the taxes.

The "Ferba" is spoken of by Ibn Batuta as the
viceroy of the Sultan, but there existed another dignitary,
known as the " Koi," who was apparently a native and
subject king, not dispossessed, but holding his possessions
as tributary to Melle. In some instances, he would seem
to have been confirmed by Melle in the occupation of an
old position ; in others, he was apparently appointed by the
Sult^in. In speaking of the Timbuctoo Koi, a little later,
at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the author of
the Tarikh-es-Soudan says that it was customary for the
Koi to receive one-third of the total taxes, and that in Tim-
buctoo he had all administrative and financial powers in his
hands. It is evident that if the Kols were petty native
kings, who, on submission to the Sultan of Melle, were by


him confirmed during good behaviour in certain powers,
and on occasion superseded by his appointment, it would
be necessary to make some fairly ample provision for their
revenues. A certain semi-independence on their part
would seem to be argued by the fact that when the
Tuaregs took Timbuctoo from Melle in 1434, they con-
firmed the existing Timbuctoo Koi in his powers. At
one time there were thirty-six Kois in the empire of
Melle. As the empire extended it is probable that their
number may have increased, and, at a later period, as the
central government weakened, the power and self-assertion
of the Kois grew, and contributed, doubtless, to the dis-
ruption of the empire.

Unfortunately, though the finances of the country in
the middle of the fourteenth century would appear to have
been flourishing, no special accounts have been left to
us of the revenue or system of taxation. We can only
assume from incidental allusions that taxation continued
to be based, as in the kingdom of Ghana, on a system
of royalties on minerals and taxes on foreign merchandise.
We hear of the great wealth of the country and of the
kings, but we get no hint from Batuta of taxation which
was felt to be oppressive by the people. He mentions
that Mansa Suleiman was unpopular because of his avarice,
but this would appear to apply rather to his personal
thriftiness than to any system of government. A narrative
which abounds in anecdote, and is not animated by any
sentiment of friendliness for the government, would have
been likely to incorporate any instance of oppression which
reached the author's ears. But, after a residence of several
months in the country, Ibn Batuta not only brings forward
none ; his evidence is given in a contrary direction.

The judicial system of the country, though not de-
scribed in detail, would seem to have been carefully and
fully organised. The frequent reference which is made
in all chronicles to judges, black and white, to lawyers
and jurisconsults, indicates that men of this profession
occupied a very prominent position in the social organisa-


tion of the country. The fact that it was the custom of
the Suhan to send cases in which he was appealed to
for justice, to be tried at the " proper tribunal," would
seem also to indicate a severance of the executive and
judicial powers which it is the habit of civilisation to
regard as one of the guarantees of justice. But the con-
dition of the country itself is, perhaps, the best testimony
which can be borne to the efficacy of the system by which
crime was punished and repressed. Amongst the admirable
things which Ibn Batuta feels it to be his duty to praise,
when, at the end of his visit, he summarises his opinion of
the people of Melle, is, he says, the rare occurrence of acts
of injustice in the country. " Of all people," he thinks
that " the blacks are those who most detest injustice.
Their Sultan never forgives any one who has been guilty
of it." He also praises the "complete and general safety
which is enjoyed in the country. Neither those who travel
nor those who remain at home have anything to fear from
brigands, thieves, or violent persons." " The blacks do
not," he says, " confiscate the goods of white men who die
in the country, even though it may be a question of
immense treasure. On the contrary, their goods are
always placed in charge of some white man, trusted by the
community, until those who have a right to them can apply
and take possession of them."

The organisation of the Church was orthodox, every
town having its mosque or mosques with salaried readers
and teachers ; and in the principal towns, such as Melle,
Timbuctoo, and Gago, mention is made of a "Cathedral
Mosque." Schools are mentioned in many towns, and
some, as in Zaghah, are specially spoken of as centres of
distinguished learning. Ibn Batuta mentions with praise
the religious assiduity of the people — the custom of cele-
brating regular prayer, not only in the public mosques, but
in private meetings of the faithful — and the care with
which children were brought up to observe similar practices.
All educated children were expected to learn the Koran,
and were either whipped or had fetters placed upon their


feet when they were negligent in doing so. In the house
of the principal judge he one day saw all the children
chained up, and was told that it was a punishment for not
having learned their Koran. On another occasion he
saw a magnificent young black, superbly dressed, who
had shackles on his feet, and on inquiring whether he had
committed a crime, was told laughingly that he was only
being forced to learn his Koran. The principal preacher
of the cathedral mosque and the principal judge of the
town of Melle were constantly in the presence of the
sovereign, and would seem to have occupied a recognised
position as ministers and the heads of their respective

The army, which is spoken of as very large, was an
organised military force, composed partly of cavalry and
partly of infantry, armed with bows and arrows, swords,
and long and short spears. It was divided into units, each
commanded by a captain or commandant, and it is interest-
ing to note in relation to the appointment of these com-
mandants that it was the custom, on the occasion of their
selection for command, for the viceroy or governor of the
town to cause the new commandant to be placed upon a
shield and raised above the heads of the soldiers in exactly
the same manner as was common in Northern Europe.
It will be remembered that the Merovingian and Carlo-
vingian kings were always raised on a shield as part of
the ceremony of their enthronement, and as late as the
Latin Conquest of Constantinople in 1204, when Baldwin
of Flanders was elected Emperor of the East, he was, we
are told, raised upon the buckler by the hands of his rival
candidate. The smaller military units led by the com-
mandants were apparently grouped into a larger formation,
which in its turn was commanded by a military chief or
general, and these larger formations were again united into
two divisions, one forming the army of the south, and the
other of the north. The two generals-in-chief command-
ing these divisions were very high personages, who occa-
sionally gave to the reigning sovereign all that he could do



to keep them in order. The strength of the army of Melle
receives indirect testimony from the fact that Jenne, a
territory which, though lying within the Hmits of the
Mellestine and paying tribute to Melle, had its own king,
and was never conquered until 1468, thought it necessary,
in order to preserve the much-cherished independence of
its town, to keep no less than twelve army corps always
on foot charged solely with the duty of watching the
military movements of Melle and of guarding against any
approach of the Melle troops which was not authorised
by the king.

Beyond the general indication that the country was
fertile, cultivated, and very populous, Ibn Batuta gives
no satisfactory account of its agriculture nor of the num-
bers of its population. Other writers dwell, however,
on the fact that it was rich in cattle, corn, and cotton,
which last was exchanged freely in its markets for the
woollen cloth of Europe. That it was very populous
may be inferred from a fact mentioned by the author of
the Tarikh-es-Soudan in relation to Jenne, through whose
territory Ibn Batuta travelled without mentioning that
it was more populous than any other portion of the
country. The territory of Jenne extended for a journey
of several days. If the king, it is said, desired to send
a message, though it might be to the farthest limits of
the territory, the royal messenger simply mounted upon
the rampart near one of the gates of the town and called
aloud the message with which he was charged. The people
from village to village repeated the call, and it was delivered
in the farthest village to the individual to whom it was
addressed. This custom not only illustrates the density
of population in a country in which it could be practised,
but it also suggests an explanation of the extraordinary
rapidity with which news is even now sometimes trans-
mitted among natives in countries where no mechanical
means for the purpose exist. A message so delivered
from voice to voice might pass with almost the rapidity
of a telegram, and doubtless the calling of royal messages


was not left to the chance of any hearer. There must
have been an organised system of pubHc criers to make
the practice effective. Of this, however, no indication
appears to exist, and it would be interesting if light could
be thrown upon the subject.

Ibn Batuta is equally unsatisfactory on the subject of
the trade of Melle. Though he travelled with a caravan
of merchants, he tells us nothing that is interesting upon
the subject, and we are left to learn from other sources
the great importance which it had assumed. All European
goods, it would seem, were welcomed in the markets of
the Mellestine, and were paid for apparently in gold,
cotton, slaves, ivory, skins, and kola-nuts. A good deal
of corn would seem to have been exported to the frontier,
but presumably this was destined rather for the towns
of the desert than for Europe. At a somewhat later
period the trade in "written books" from Barbary was
said to be one of the most profitable. Ibn Batuta men-
tions an interesting copy of a book called "The Mar-
vellous," ^ which was lent to him by one of his many hosts,
in a place of which he had forgotten the name, and there
must already in his day have existed a very considerable
demand to satisfy the needs of the many schools which
are mentioned. When the King of Jenne, somewhat
later, at the end of the twelfth century, adopted Islam,
and desired that all the Ulemas of his territory should
be present at his abjuration of the gods of paganism,
they assembled to the number of 4200. If the relatively
small territory of Jenne produced so large a number, it is
evident persons of some degree of Mohammedan learning
must have been numerous in the countries of the Soudan.
There can be no doubt that gold abounded with which
to pay for all desired luxuries. In the market of Gago
it is said that the inhabitants frequently brought in more
gold than they could exchange for commodities. All
travellers allude to the golden arms and utensils frequently

^ Perhaps " The Choice of Marvels," composed at Mossul by a writer of
Granada in 1160, a copy of which FeHx Dubois found at Timbuctoo.


used by persons of importance. This perpetual testimony
to the quantity of gold in the country begins, it may be
remembered, in the eighth century, when, according
to Abd el Hakem, the first military expedition of the
Arabs brought back " all the gold it wanted," and con-
tinues through the testimony of El Bekri in the eleventh
century, El Idrisi in the twelfth, and all subsequent writers
of the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth
centuries, up to the moment of the overthrow of native
independence by the Moors in the conquest of 1591.
Allusions to the cotton trade are scarcely less constant,
though less prominent and less important, and there must
have been a considerable local consumption. Ibn Batuta
mentions amongst the good qualities which he ascribes
to the blacks of Melle, that they never failed to dress
in fine white robes on Friday, and the dressing of many
millions of persons must have needed a large supply.

The other never-failing supply of wealth which would
seem to have persisted throughout the history of the
Soudan was the slave labour raided from the pagan belt
to the south. The attitude of the Mohammedan black
towards those people seems to have been almost identical
with that of the Spaniards towards the natives of the
New World, They were idolatrous, and had no rights.
Probably the occupation of raiding the little known and
unhealthy regions of the pagan belt gave occupation in
times of peace for the immense armies which were kept
on foot. But, beyond the actual cruelty of the raid, the
slave does not appear to have been badly treated. He
served in the armies of the conquerors and performed
the duties of the house and farm. He seems to have
received little more consideration than a domestic animal,
but he does not appear to have been persecuted. All
rich people in Melle were proud of possessing a very
large number of slaves. Ibn Batuta mentions that he
gave twenty-five ducats for a good woman slave, but the
price of the ordinary slave was much less. In the sixteenth
century Leo Africanus mentions that the price of a Barbary


horse in Bornu was fifteen slaves. In Ibn Batuta's day a
Barbary horse cost one hundred ducats at Melle ; but no
deductions can be legitimately drawn from these two facts
as to the money value of the ordinary slave.

The vast body of slaves no doubt represented the
labour power of the country, and that they existed within
its boundaries without disturbance and without the multi-
plication of crime, if it says much for the organisation
and the administration of justice, says also something for
the manner in which they were treated.

After a stay of several months in the capital of Melle,
Ibn Batuta visited some of the minor towns, in most of
which he mentions the black governor with respect, and
in nearly all of them received hospitality from " persons
of merit " who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Amongst these minor towns he mentions Timbuctoo,
which was still far from the height of its fame. He
disposes of it in a sentence, as a town situated at a dis-
tance of four leagues from the Niger, and occupied chiefly
by Berbers. It was here that he witnessed, on the occa-
sion of the appointment of the captain of a troop, the
ceremony of lifting him on a shield above the heads
of his men. He mentions incidentally that this captain
was a Berber. Berbers and blacks seemed to enjoy at
the time perfect equality throughout the kingdom — all
being alike Mohammedan. The only class distinction
seemed to be idolater or orthodox, slave or free. He
does not mention either the mosque or palace of Tim-
buctoo, though as they were at the time of his visit only
fifteen years old, and as we know from previous and sub-
sequent descriptions that they were handsome buildings
of cut stone, they might have been expected to attract
his attention. He does, however, mention the tombs of
several distinguished persons, amongst them that of the
young poet and architect from Granada who designed the
mosque, and who had not lived long to enjoy the favour
of his black patrons, the monarchs of Melle.

From Timbuctoo Ibn Batuta, having evidently resolved



to see the whole of the Mellestine, travelled eastward by
water to Gago. On the way, amongst other incidents of
travel, he made the acquaintance of the black governor,
who lent him the book already alluded to, who spoke
Arabic fluently, who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca,
and who impressed him as "one of the best and most
generous of men." In the cordial expression of the
respect and sympathy awakened in his mind by friendly
intercourse with this and other black dignitaries of the

Online LibraryFlora Louise Shaw LugardA tropical dependency : an outline of the ancient history of the western Sudan with an account of the modern settlement of northern Nigeria → online text (page 12 of 41)