Book Review — Emirs, Evangelicals and Empire by Ian Linden

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Yesterday night, I finished Ian Linden’s Emirs, Evangelicals and Empire. Not much is known about Prof Linden today but he taught at the history department of Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria in the early 1970s.

This book which is set between the late 1890s and early 1920s is a partial narration of the biography of the missionary, Dr. Walter Miller, and some of the extraordinary events that led to the creation of the first Christian community in Northern Nigeria; a result of the earliest Christian Mission to establish itself inside a Muslim walled city in Northern Nigeria in Zaria.

I spent some time in Zaria with a preacher’s family and have always been curious of the resilience of the Christian community in the midst of great persecution. Anyone who has stayed in the Zaria environment will understand what I mean. So why Zaria? And not as much in Kano? Sokoto? Katsina?

The book provides some answers. Zaria is especially important because it was at the intersection of the power and outreach of the two great northern Caliphates, Sokoto in the West and Bornu in the East. It was thus seen to offer a vantage position for the missionaries to launch out and capture the Northern region.

This was not to be. At this point in history, the objectives of the British administration were no longer aligned with that of the Missions. In fact, they were often at loggerheads with the party with the guns getting its way.

When the mission to Kano was bungled by an overzealous Bishop, Britain provided no support. In fact, Lord Lugard wrote, “This is not a favourable moment to thrust upon Mohammedan States religious propaganda.” That favourable time never came.

When ma’aji, the Emir’s treasurer, was fined 400,000 cowries by the Emir for being too accommodating to the missionaries, the administration looked the other way, thereby encouraging hostile attitude to the missionaries.

Perhaps for good reason. The British Empire was moving away from direct rule to indirect rule and saw the Fulani elites as the most capable to rule for them. Judging by the times, the Fulani dynasty was impressive. So impressed was the administration that Lugard said, “I am not an advocate of the expulsion or extinction of a race who have achieved such wonderful results in this country.” The Fulanis had proven they could hold the North together and Britain was ready to be pragmatic instead of re-inventing the wheel.

Imperial rule in Nigeria depended on a gamble that a minimum of manpower could dominate and control large numbers of people spread across huge tracts of land. The transformation sought by missionaries threatened the imperial existence whose goal was to control change in indigenous societies. The presence of Islam raised the stakes. Mission expansion could appear to government as a competitive desire to occupy new territory and usurp legitimate authority.

Both the British and the Fulanis had to compromise, surely. The proven military power of these invaders left them little choice. For a culture in which the penalty for military defeat was enslavement, founded on the principle that religious deviance had to be corrected by the Sword, the announcement by the British that large-scale slave-raiding has been banned was humiliating. Yet Britain had to make concessions if they intend to prevent bloodshed they are now opposed to, just as was being done in India and Malaysia. So Britain committed to the standing of the mosques and Lugard held firmly to his famous speech in Sokoto where he committed not to impose his religion on the defeated.

For this pragmatism, the missions would suffer. They were practically expelled from the main Emirates, Kano, Borno and Sokoto, and had to make do with activities in periphery Zaria.

Still the British administration would not let them be. Sir Herbert Palmer who became the Lieutenant-Governor of the Northern Provinces wrote, “It is a matter of extreme surprise to me that philanthropists, and old ladies in England –unable as they are to secure acceptance of missionary teaching among their own sons, nephews, cousins and brothers — think that they are justified in using their organized influence to force this same teaching on the poor native, Muslim, who wants it just as little, and is in his way quite capable of judging of its value to himself as an educated Englishman”.

But the Missions would not take No for an answer. Led by the radical Walter Miller, the fears of the Emirs turned out founded in the end. The deposition of the Emir of Zaria was orchestrated by Dr. Miller. He established schools which attracted some of the children of the elites, and became a rallying point for dissidents opposed to the Fulani rule.

And here was where the famous Banisra’ila sect, The Children of the Israelites, who adopted an anti-sufi stance came in. The sect had always acknowledged the pre-eminence of Jesus, nabi Isa, and the proselytization of the CMS simply confirmed what they had long believed. The Christianity of the CMS had brought something that chimed with the sect’s former beliefs and developed them to fulfill needs that their old religion had neglected.

They made up some of the first Christian believers in the North. Schools and dispensaries were set up with donations from the Missionary Society. The Wusasa community and the St. Bartholemew’s school set up in Zaria ended up producing many firsts in their professions in Northern Nigeria. The first qualified pharmacist, the first pediatrician, the first physician, the first Nigerian Vice-Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, the first female commissioner in the Northern Administration. In later years, prominent people like Theophilus Danjuma and Yakubu Gowon would come out of the school.

As those who read and are reading this book with me would attest to, it proved an informative yet sometimes difficult book to read. Prof Linden showed it an academic book with the reader introduced to new words. I had a dictionary closeby to check out the beautiful context in which words were used. It’s the most difficult book I’ve read this year. For the first time this year, I had to read and finish another book alongside this.

That aside, I’m delighted I read this book. When I introduced it to be read on Whatsapp, I remarked that books about Nigeria are the best. As I finished it I am glad I have not been made to eat my words.

And that’s why I wonder at people who live in Nigeria but are not interested in knowing about their history. It’s not too late though, you can learn about the history of the Christians in Northern Nigeria by reading this detailed and informative book.

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