- The Female King of Colonial Nigeria, Ahebi Ugbabe by Nwando Achebe
In my decades as a reviewer of books on African history, I’ve developed something of a hierarchy of books that deserve positive reviews. There’s the interesting-topic solid-research book. These are nice to read and easy to review. Then there’s the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? book. These are also nice, and also pretty easy to review, but they tend to make you feel a bit jealous, because it’s such a good idea and maybe you could have done a really great job on that book if you had only thought of it yourself. And then there’s the wow-I-couldn’t-have-written-that book. Achebe’s The Female King of Colonial Nigeria is an example of this last category. Such books are a great pleasure to read, but can be a bit daunting to review. After all, if you can’t imagine yourself having completed such a book, it makes it a bit tricky to critique it, even positively.
At first glance, Ahebi Ugbabe isn’t a surprising choice to be the subject of a biography. Here we have the case of a young girl who chose exile rather than face the demand of an oracle to become a wife to a deity. Years later she would not only return home, but would do so as the lone female Warrant Chief in Colonial Nigeria. From there she would defy both Igbo and British gender and political norms to install herself as a male king. Clearly Ahebi was an exceptional soul, and hers makes for an exceptional story. As Achebi rightly identifies in her introduction, Ahebi’s story not only helps to fill the yawning gap in the literature of African women’s biography, but also serves to complicate our understanding of female power and authority in the twentieth century. Achebe therefore organizes the book in a straightforward chronological manner, following Ahebi through her childhood, her exile and coming of age, her rise to chieftaincy, her creation of a male-gendered kingship and finally her political denouement.
Yet, even beyond Ahebi’s remarkable story, it is the way that Achebe researched and gives meaning to the tale that makes this book both such a pleasurable and humbling read. First, Achebe offers up a methodological tour-de-force in terms of her use of linguistic, oral and documentary sources. Individuals’ names and honorifics, for example, are parsed and examined as means of identifying links to lineages and figures from history and myth. Such analysis allows Achebe to place Ahebi not only in the context of time and place, but also into a sometimes dim but nonetheless compelling web of family, history, culture and place. Achebe’s extensive collection of oral interviews regarding Ahebe are also viewed not simply as a source of information, but deftly engaged so as to reveal, balance and sometimes juxtapose the tension and interplay between historical fact and memory. British documents, too, are used to provide insights into the colonial context of Ahebi’s rise and fall. Whenever possible, Achebe uses each type of evidence to test and inform the others. Such research is a testimony to the power of the scholarly insider—Achebe both understands the local meaning and context of the language and stories concerning Ahebi, but she is also able to give meaning to them in a way accessible to the wider academic audience.
Perhaps most impressive, however, is the way that Achebe uses Ahebi’s story to offer insight into much broader themes of twentieth-century Nigerian and Igbo history. Indeed, just as Harms used a single voyage of a slave ship to explore the worlds of the Atlantic slave trade in the nineteenth century in The Diligent, Achebe uses the life of Ahebi to explore the intersections of gender, power, authority, family and colonialism during the early twentieth century. The landscape, too, becomes part of crucial part of the story. This reviewer particularly appreciated the careful attention given to describing, visually...