Winston Churchill’s famous WW II speech, “We shall fight on the beaches…we shall fight in the fields and in the streets…” was often quoted by the Igbo-speaking people of Eastern Nigeria at the beginning of the civil war in Nigeria in 1967 (also known as the Biafran War). We secessionist Igbos had just been invaded by the Federal Nigerian Army, and there was a lot of talk about “fighting to the last man.” I remember my father driving from the village of Amokwe, where we had gone to escape the war, to the town of Awka to buy a locally-made gun, perhaps inspired by that stirring speech. Awka is the home of artisan firearm manufacturing in Igboland.
My father came home with an “Igbo-made” handgun produced by Awka gunsmiths in their home-based forges. I remember the gun as being quite beautiful—it was shiny and new and had a silvery barrel with a polished brown wooden handle. It was a single shot weapon that used shotgun cartridges.
As soon as he came home with it, my father went with a friend into the nearby bushes to test the gun. We heard a number of loud reports, and they both came back and declared themselves very satisfied with its performance. This is not surprising: Awka gunsmiths have a long history of sturdy gun making and repairing that goes back to pre-colonial times. Today, one study reports that they can produce on demand bolt-action rifles with silencers, “Baretta-style revolver shotguns,” and replica Colt pistols. Many of these illegal guns are used by criminals and political thugs.
Awka is not the only place in West Africa that produced such weapons before the age of colonization. Ghana and Dahomey are reported to have been sources of guns, gunpowder and other munitions, especially the “Dane” guns or muskets associated with pre-industrial Denmark. In a letter King Agaja Trudo of Dahomey sent to King George I of England in 1726, he wrote that he hoped to begin to manufacture guns soon, and there is some anecdotal evidence that his successors were able to do this.
In my last post, I spoke of the possibility that some West African kingdoms and states could have organized themselves to study European industrial methods to increase output; that they could develop the ability to compete with Europe, and thus resist the European wars of colonization of the later 19th century.
I can imagine someone saying “Yeah, right,” and wondering what technological and production platform West Africans could have used as a launching pad to make the weapons and goods to do this. This post is devoted to looking at a few of the precolonial production capabilities of West Africa. While the rudimentary cottage industries that these enterprises represent were nowhere near the powerful industrial capabilities of Europe, they are proof that the skill and knowledge base was there to begin a major transformation. Of course, it would not have been easy—it never is. But it was possible in principle in some parts of West Africa.
West Africans had been making metal implements for over 2000 years. According to Blessing Onyima and Kingsley Anigbogu of the Department of Sociology/Anthropology at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka, in pre-colonial times, local miners sold metallic ore to Awka blacksmiths who used it to make farming implements, fishing tools, wood carving tools, household utensils and “military equipment.” They report that “the blacksmithing industry permeated most sectors of society and….its relevance and significance to pre-colonial Africans was not in doubt.”
A few hundred miles to the west, the country Ghana today is a center of local metal works in West Africa, and has an even bigger artisan gun industry than Nigeria. This is not new: gun manufacturing in Ghana goes back hundreds of years, according to Emmanuel Kwesi Aning, Clinical Professor of Peacekeeping Practice at Kennesaw State University, Atlanta. In the book Armed and Aimless: Armed groups, guns and human security in the ECOWAS region, he writes that such guns were often used in the slave trade. As in Awka, gun manufacture began with the repair of imported muskets and flintlocks early in the slave trade. Today, Ghana’s craft gun manufacturers make AK-47 replicas that are said to be very “effective”. Aning estimates that there are about 200,000 artisanal guns in Ghana.
While the guns made by local artisans can be quite sophisticated, some may still argue that making guns is only one of the easier technological tools humans make. So then, what about other useful items such as textiles, one of the consumer products that drove the early industrial revolution in England? Did West Africans produce textiles in any appreciable quantities? Yes, they did.
The Sokoto Caliphate, an Islamic empire once situated mainly in today’s Northern Nigeria, was in the early 19th century, one of largest slave societies in the world with an estimated 2.5 million slaves, second only to the slave society of the US with 4 million.
The Kano emirate of the Caliphate had several slave-operated plantations. These plantations grew cotton for cloth making, and manufactured textiles for internal use and export. According to some accounts, the city of Kano in the Caliphate met half of the clothing needs of the West Africa region, and Kano-manufactured textiles could be found as far north as Tripoli, Tunis, and Alexandria. “In manufacturing,” writes Nigerian historian Mohammed Bashir Salau, “the Kano Emirate unquestionably had the highest concentration of industries in the caliphate.”
The Caliphate was also renowned for the tanning of leather and production of leather products like bags, shoes and slippers. For hundreds of years, Kano’s leather goods makers supplied the region that became the Sokoto empire, and other regions including the north of Africa as far as Cairo.
While all this was not exactly the machine production of the industrial revolution which increased productivity by stupendous proportions, it should be clear that a basic understanding of the techniques for various forms of production existed in pre-colonial West Africa. What may have been lacking then was the political will and the social reorganization necessary for Africans to borrow or emulate industrial methods and techniques from Europe.
The West African Slave Plantation by Mohammed Bashir Salau.
Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850, by David Northrup.
Armed and Aimless: Armed groups, guns and human security in the ECOWAS region by Nicolas Florquin and Eric G. Berman