In the early 1900s, in the small town of Umunze in Eastern Nigeria, a giant ekwe the size of a small hut occupied prominent space in the town square. An ekwe is a wooden percussion instrument that is usually the size of a rolled up sleeping bag, or a small toolbox. Ekwes are used for both music and conveying messages over distance. In clichéd colonial stories about Africa, their characteristic hollow rattling drumbeat is often portrayed as the feverish and interminable beat of “tom-toms.“
At the time of its construction—an unknown date, perhaps a century or two before Igbo colonial conquest was completed in 1910—the giant ekwe of Umunze was the largest in Igboland. Umunze tradition has it that the people of the town had contracted an ekwe builder from the town of Amawbia, some 30 kilometers away, to construct one for the Umunze town square. A highly skilled and innovative craftsman, the Amawbia drum maker had a reputation for creating large artfully constructed ekwes, and the Umunze people asked him to build the largest that ever existed.
This he did, and was paid handsomely for the completed task, which sat ponderously in the town square, a behemoth ten feet long, eight feet in diameter and eight and a half feet high. He then left for his home of Amawbia.
As he departed, an anxious discussion broke out among the elders and people of Umunze: “What if he goes home, and later builds an even bigger one for another town?” Some argued that Umunze would then lose the prestige of having the largest ekwe in the world. This was clearly untenable, so fast-running young warriors were sent after the Amawbia man, and they caught him before he had gotten very far. They dragged him back to his creation where they slit his throat, his blood used to consecrate the giant tom-tom to the local gods.
This story was originally told by the British anthropologist and missionary Reverend Dr. George T. Basden—who lived in the Igbo region for some 35 years beginning in 1900—in the book Among the Ibos of Nigeria. He reported that it was customary for most towns with a large ekwe in their town square to sacrifice a human to the gods before the ekwe was deemed ready and fit for use.
This bit of horror pornography has a more serious aim: to draw attention to other possible reasons why a primitive society may fail to develop innovators or communities of innovators that can help in sustained development and societal transformation. These reasons have nothing to do with European intervention.
“Innovation of any kind,” writes Joel Mokyr, eminent historian of technological growth, in The Lever of Riches, “is unlikely in a society that is malnourished, superstitious, or extremely traditional….economic and social institutions have to encourage potential innovators by presenting them with the right incentive structure.” A world in which an innovator can be killed without repercussion for creating something unique is certainly not one in which innovations can thrive and spread. A society that murders innovators to keep their creations out of the hands of others is employing the highest form of disincentive.
It is obviously difficult for science and technology to develop in societies where human sacrifice is practiced. Such societies surrender the control and manipulation of nature to the hidden and inscrutable entities they believe control it. Their efforts to propitiate those entities are wasteful—besides the general waste of human life, we cannot know how many men and women of talent and ability were slaughtered for religious beliefs we know today to be false.
For example, the Aztecs, who engaged in industrial scale human sacrifice, believed that they were protecting the world from disaster by cutting open the chests of victims and offering their still beating hearts to the sun god. If the sun god was not to stop his motion across the sky, ever more victims’ hearts had to be offered to make him happy.
The idea of sacrificing living things to the gods to win their favour is very old. Animals were often used, but the ultimate sacrifice, the one believed to really get the attention of the gods, was the sacrifice of a human being.
The ancient Carthaginians are said to have sacrificed their children to Saturn, and made a din with trumpets to drown out the children’s cries as they were tossed into the fire.
The Roman historian Livy writes that after the great Carthaginian general Hannibal crushed the Roman legions at the famous battle of Cannae (216 BC), the panicked Romans reverted to the abandoned practice of human sacrifice and “bur[ied] alive in the cattle market, a pair of Gauls, male and female, and a pair of Greeks.” (Livy, History of Rome, Book XXII, 57)
In some parts of Igboland in Eastern Nigeria, a victim was annually sacrificed to the local deity to take away the sins of the community. The event was typically horrific. Reverend John Christopher Taylor, a native of Sierra Leone of Igbo parentage, captures one such scene at Onitsha in 1857: “We found…a poor young woman, about nineteen or twenty years of age, with her hands tied behind her back, and her legs fastened together with a rope, decorated with young palm-leaves. In this position she was drawn, [dragged along the ground] with her face to the earth, from the king’s house to the river, a distance of two miles….The young woman was dying through the suffocation of dust and sand in the streets. The motley groups who attended her premature funeral cried, as they drew along the unfortunate creature, victimized for the sins of their land, Alu o! Alu! Alu! i.e., Sin! Sin! Wickedness…The…sacrifice was to take away the iniquities of the land.”
War-making and raiding to find sacrificial victims is economically and socially disruptive to a region. The Aztecs obviously could not use their own populations for their huge sacrifices. So what did they do? They made ceaseless war on neighbors and tried as much as possible to capture rather than kill enemies, instead bringing them back for their lavish sacrificial ceremonies and feasts.
The Aztec practice of raiding neighbors for sacrificial victims was also found in many of the animist tribes and states of West Africa, such as Ashanti and Dahomey. As Ashantihene (king) Osei Bonsu told British envoy Joseph Dupuis when he visited Kumasi in 1818, “…my fetische made me strong like my ancestors, and I killed Dinkera [king of the Gaman people], and took his gold, and brought more than 20,000 slaves to Coomassy. Some of these people being bad men, I washed my stool in their blood for the fetische.” (the Ashantihene sits on a golden stool instead of a throne)
In 18th century Dahomey, all prisoners of war belonged to the king, and he would sacrifice some of them to his personal gods as thanks for a war victory. According to Archibald Dalzel, one time governor of Cape Coast Castle, when the army of King Agaja Trudo of Dahomey captured Whydah in 1727, the king sacrificed 4,000 war captives to the gods and ancestors.
From Yorubaland in the West of Nigeria, we get a somewhat unexpected story of conflict and disruption arising from the threat of funerary human sacrifice. When the Lisa, or warlord, of the kingdom of Ondo died in 1880, his farms were attacked by warriors from the nearby town of Okeigbo. The town was a refuge for runaway slaves, and when they heard that the Lisa gave instructions for 45 people to be sacrificed at his funeral, they considered themselves logical targets for the sacrificial kidnapping that happens when a big chief dies. To make matters worse, the Lisa’s own slaves were able to arm themselves after his death, and fighting broke out between them and the kingdom’s chiefs over the demand to use the slaves as sacrificial victims. As a compromise, the number to be sacrificed was reduced to 20, but that did not help: the Lisa’s slaves broke into factions over whom should be sacrificed, and began to fight amongst themselves. In the end, 300 of them escaped to the slave refuge of Okeigbo.
From Igbo missionary J C Taylor, we learn of the running wars and raids between the Onitsha and the Ogidi people in the mid-19th century: “The children did not make their appearance today at school. About noon I heard frantic cries of women and children running here and there about the streets on account of war. The neighbouring tribe, especially the Ogidi people, are a pest…repeatedly do they come in their skirmishing way of fighting with the Onitsha people. I am sorry to hear that three persons were killed, among whom was a girl about twelve or thirteen years old. Her head was severed from her body, and carried away as a trophy to their deities.”
How can anything be accomplished in such circumstances? Works like Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa maintain a deafening silence about such activities. It is extremely doubtful that if left alone by the colonialists, modern developed societies could have automatically arisen where such things were practiced.
It is important to note that it took European intervention to stamp these things out. First the internalization of Christian values—where all the human sacrifice needed for all of humanity had already been done thousands of years ago by the Deity himself—went a long way in curbing the practice. Second, colonial police power made it clear that anyone caught doing such things would be punished to the full extent of the law. It is clear to me that these two arms of European intervention represented progress, though such an idea is anathema to many educated Africans and even educated Westerners.
SELECT SOURCES AND BOOKS YOU MIGHT WANT TO READ.
Among the Ibos of Nigeria by GT Basden
The Gospel on the Banks of the Niger by Samuel Ajayi Crowther and John Christopher Taylor
The History of Dahomey: An inland kingdom of Africa by Archibald Dalzel
Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba by J.D.Y. Peel