- The Man-Leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria
In 1946 the Annang district of eastern Nigeria was being plagued by murders linked to mysterious "man-leopards"—variously understood to be shape-shifting humans, murderers imitating leopard attacks to mask their crimes, or actual wild beasts altered in witnesses' imaginations. Colonial courts convicted ninety-six men and executed seventy-six after a concerted policing and prosecution effort. These gruesome acts aroused international attention, worked their way into colonial fiction, and kept people in the district from traveling freely. David Pratten hooks his readers on the mystique of the murders, but his true purpose is to build around these events an intricate historical ethnography. Most broadly, he asks "how life in colonial Nigeria, in its cultural, social, political and economic aspects, contributed to the murders, and in turn what the murders and their investigations say about life in colonial Nigeria" (20). Attuned to the state of the art in this field, Pratten moves well beyond any simple account to reveal multiple agents of change pursuing intersecting strategies of adaptation, long waves of transformation shaken by shorter storms of crisis, and hidden realms of disquiet. His account weaves "an ensemble of husbands and wives, chiefs and elites, church-goers and cult members, judges and litigants, nationalists and conservatives, criminals and policemen" into a story of interrelated conflict along lines of "gender, generation, religion, justice and relationships between society and state." A most valuable "paradox" of all this "is the way in which some of the most mysterious and secretive events" reveal "rarely glimpsed intimacies of everyday life" (25).
Pratten sets up his narrative with characteristic depth, highlighting the many avenues by which ambitious Annang men and women in the nineteenth century sought power. He then layers over this the material, cultural, and economic effects of the end of Atlantic slavery, the rise of colonial commodity production, and the advent of competing missions. In broad terms, Pratten traces how the new church- and school-based elites competed with lineage, chiefly, and other types of leaders in the terrain shaped by colonial systems of taxation, law, and administration and buffeted by the variations of commodity prices and exchange rates. Throughout the narrative, no lines of conflict are merely two-sided or unchanging. Each group's strategies, notably, borrow from their rivals as well as oppose them. The heart of the book is the close look at the murder investigations in 1946 and 1947 and the competing explanations produced. The Ibibio Union, led by new elites, campaigned against a police assertion that ritual sacrifice drove the murders and allied with later police convictions that actual leopards could be blamed. Other Annang, however, joined with the police to attack diviners and secret societies as the forces ultimately responsible. Both sides in this dispute deployed "colonial rationality" and Annang oathing to advance their cases—a valuable illustration of how the colonial order could take on unexpected shape. Pratten does not claim to solve the murders as he assesses the extant accounts. He argues that a multifaceted disruption of "Annang ways of seeing and doing things" created unresolved tension in, among other things, the spheres of "chieftaincy, taxation, justice and the palm oil economy." Annang and colonial judicial institutions could no longer effectively settle disputes, not only between competing elites, but also among Annang in general over "divorce, adultery, debt and land" (261). A breakdown in trust and a "moral panic" [End Page 148] ensued, in which the murders became signifiers of the broader conflicts of interest and crises of understanding generated by social breakdown.
The broad scope of the story is not unfamiliar: from a nineteenth-century departure point Annang combine familiar and outside elements to create a social order increasingly tied to the colonial state and shaped by wider forces, new elites take the lead in articulating grievances as they combine established elements of leadership with new ones, and (as the 1960 terminus of the story is reached) elites and commoners become...