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"May It Please Your Honor": Letters of Petition as Historical Evidence in an African Colonial Context

From: History in Africa
Volume 37, 2010
pp. 83-106 | 10.1353/hia.2010.0034

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I humbly lay my reputation on your verdict, and beg that your acute interest to help your subjects in this time of conflict mark you [as] an asset and real factor, helpful figure whose merciful eye would reflect upon my case which stands me a subject of compassion.

–Odili Ezeoke to the Authority Controlling Food Supply, Aba, 9 July 1943


Historians have relied on a variety of sources to analyze Africa's encounter with Europe and response to colonialism. Several scholars, who have published in the Heinemann African Social History Series, have relied on oral accounts to add an indigenous perspective to the history of colonialism in Africa. African history nevertheless suffers from a lack of other sources, such as diaries, journals, and personal narratives, which can enrich the historical narrative. Letters of petitions provide one of the very few opportunities to locate African men and women's voices as they confronted the new political, economic, judicial and social system that emerged in the colonial context. Petitions were widely used by every class of the African population in the colonial period and can help to re-evaluate African-European interactions and dialogues in a colonial context. Their existence challenges the notion of colonial authorities as a hegemonic force in the making of colonized societies in light of new forms of evidence that redefine this encounter. Petitions were used by individuals as well as groups as a means to seek remedy for grievance for a number of types of actions, ranging from taxation, court cases and a variety of other issues. Yet, African petitions despite the important functions they performed as means of negotiating African-European relations have not been significantly explored as a tool for understanding interactions within colonial settings or fully integrated into the colonial historiography.

This paper presents some preliminary conclusions drawn from an ongoing project which aims to collect and collate letters of petitions in colonial Nigeria as primary source for historians and other scholars. The goal is to show the potential use of petitions as a foundation for gauging African reactions and responses to colonialism focusing on the petitions that emerged during the Second World War in colonial Eastern Nigeria. The paper is based on the collection of petitions located at the National Archives of Nigeria at Enugu written by people living in the rural and urban areas in colonial Eastern Nigeria during the Second World War. Mainly addressed to District Officers in Colonial Eastern Nigeria from within the region, they reflect the concerns of individuals and groups as they relate to the crisis engendered by the Second World War and the policies and controls imposed by officials to bolster the British war effort.

The Eastern Region was one of the most important centers of palm oil production in the colonial period. The region was also an important source of foodstuffs, particularly gari (processed cassava flour), which had become an important staple in the region and a major item of trade between the region and the Northern Region of Nigeria. Gari, among other foodstuffs like yams, was also important in feeding the army during the war. The region was also characterized by significant out-migration in the colonial period, which accounts for the significant trade in staple foodstuffs between the region and Igbo migrant communities in northern Nigeria. In addition, from the late 1920s onwards this area witnessed major political agitations that were deeply rooted in the agrarian economy. So the link between the rural economy and forms of political consciousness deeply rooted in previous economic depressions, had existed before the depression ccaused by the Second World War. These unique conditions presented peculiar challenges to the population in the Eastern Region as well as to the colonial authority during the war. However, they also provide an opportunity to assess how local historical contexts informed the unique path taken by local farmers and traders. Hence, petitions relating to the war overwhelmingly concerned food control and the restrictions placed on local trade.

This is a long term project conceived in 2006 while I was working on my book The Land Has Changed: History, Society and Gender in Colonial Eastern Nigeria. Significant effort has been devoted to this...