- The Man-Leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria
David Pratten has succeeded in the difficult task of producing a finely tuned work of anthropological/historical scholarship that retains the inherent drama of its subject, a spate of more than two hundred mysterious murders variously attributed to “leopard men” in Southern Nigeria during the 1940s. Implicitly taking off from Richard Rathbone’s assertion that records surrounding a seemingly localized murder case can offer a sharp lens into wider political and cultural worlds, Pratten ably elucidates what “life in colonial Nigeria, in its cultural, social, and political and economic aspects, contributed to the murders, and in turn what the murders and their investigations say about life in colonial Nigeria” (21).
The skill and imagination with which Pratten establishes the deep context necessary for the reader to register the significance of each element of the investigations into the “man-leopard murders” is remarkable. He develops a careful ethnography of Annang society, paying particular attention to [End Page 173] the institutions and ideas of personhood that formed a central component of the backdrop to the murders and the investigations. However, the goal of the book is not simply to trace the local underpinnings of the murders, but also to analyze the “encounter” between Annang and imperial cultures; as such, Pratten produces an equally rigorous ethnography of empire. Dealing with both institutions and individual actors, the book takes great pains to articulate the mores and mentalities, and the policies and procedures that the British brought to bear on their investigation of the murders.
Pratten does an excellent job of situating administrative approaches to-and understandings of—the murders within a matrix of broader colonial anxieties about the persistence of supernatural beliefs and practices in the African empire, and he attends to concomitant colonial attempts to criminalize anything that could be construed as occult. A major strength of the book is its subtle treatment of the more far-reaching issue of the emergence of colonial networks of “anthropological” knowledge for policymaking. This focus would render the book useful to scholars of areas outside of Nigeria, or even outside of Africa, who work with the same genres of evidence as Pratten.
Overall, Pratten’s archival research is superlative. It would be hard to imagine an archival avenue that he has neglected, and he reads his archival evidence in close conversation with ethnographic data. At particular moments, however, this wealth of contextual detail and analysis can obscure the book’s narrative thread. The reader craves earlier and more explicit reminders of how the ethnographies of society and state link up directly with the stories of the murders.
The skillful presentation of the murders and the investigations of them renders the reader eager to know what “really” happened and who (or what) was “really” responsible for the murders. But they will need to resist the sentiment, for the analysis in this work has other objectives. A key goal of the book is to highlight the fluidity of notions of “truth” and to underscore how deeper historical knowledge can be gained by analyzing contingencies rather than by searching for absolutes. As Pratten explains, “A paradox of the murders, therefore, is the way in which some of the most mysterious and secretive events in colonial Nigerian history reveal rarely glimpsed intimacies of everyday life.” (25)