1. How did you first become interested in this testimony?
When I found this testimony, I was looking for information on the Womens War to teach in a class on resistance movements because I wanted an example of womens action. I approach it both within the context of what legal records can tell us about African history, these moments where Europeans and Africans get together, Europeans question Africans and Africans answer in a very structured environment. But they are also using this platform as a way to promote their own agenda and you can see that happening here. It happens in other court records as well.
So much of this is about what gender relations are, what it means to be a woman in this society. This is clearly a revolt about a series of economic and political grievances, but its also a grievance of identity. Women feel that their identity as women is not being respected in some way. So I think that its very interesting to look at this as a gender historian and look at the way that women, and men as well, are in the process of this trying to construct what gender relations arewhat it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man in this society, which is changing fairly rapidly at this time.
This testimony from southeastern Nigeria came about as a result of a Commission of Inquiry into something that the colonial officials called the Aba riots which took place in 1929 and 1930, but which the Nigerians who participated in it called the Womens War. It was a revolt that came about as a result of a rumor that women in southeastern Nigeria were going to be taxed. Taxation had been imposed on men a couple of years before this and the Great Depression had hit in 1929. This area relied on palm oil as its major export commodity, its major cash-producing product, and when the price of palm oil plummeted as a result of the Depression, households had a harder time paying the tax that had been imposed on men.
Then the colonial government decided to do a census, to recount everybody in the area. Come into a household, count the wives, count the goats, count the men, count the children. And this led women to believe that they were going to be taxed next. The last time the government had done a census, it was a ruse to begin a taxation policy.
The women all turned out in force at the colonial courthouses around the area. To colonial officials, it looked like, overnight 20,000 women suddenly appeared from villages across a 100-mile radius to protest this taxation policy, ostensible taxation policy. It frightened colonial officials. It astonished them. They had never seen women behave this way. They didnt understand what it was about. The officials, when it was all over, said weve got to find out whats going on. Plainly things are not moving as smoothly here as we thought they were. There are issues. We dont want a repeat of this.
So the Commission of Inquiry was to find out what the real grievances of the women were, ostensibly, so that they could make necessary reforms to prevent such disturbances from happening again. It was also an attempt to find out who led this movement so that those people could be punished.
The other grievance that women have that makes sense to colonial officials at some level is when colonial officials come into the area, they basically ask people, Whos the leader, whos in charge here? This is how Europeans ruled. European officials ran into a real problem in Igbo society because there wasnt one person in charge. So what they essentially had to do was find somebody that could be in charge, a single individual with whom they could interact. And they created that position basically out of nothing. They created something called a Warrant Chief and he was given a warrant by the colonial officials to rule. He was given a cap of office, his insignia of office. And they were almost always men. But these chiefs tended not even to be drawn from the more respected elders in the society. They tended to be drawn from ambitious young men who had been the first ones to curry favor with European officials and so they were not at all popular in the community. They were in charge of enforcing colonial orders, collecting taxes. They were seen as very corrupt and completely illegitimate.