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  • In Her Own WordsFunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Auto/biography of an Archive
  • Judith A. Byfield (bio)

I am not a biographer, neither am I writing a biography of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (FRK). However, I am writing about a women’s tax revolt in her hometown, Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1947, in which she was a central figure. Ransome-Kuti presided over the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU), the organization that led the revolt and later grew into a national women’s organization.1 The tax revolt occurred shortly after World War II, a period when vast segments of the Nigerian population experienced severe economic distress as a result of the interwar depression and severe inflation during the war. It was sandwiched between a pair of strikes that many contemporaries and scholars credit with galvanizing the nationalist struggle in Nigeria—the Lagos general strike in 1945 and the coal miners’ strike at the Enugu Government Colliery in 1949. Most studies of this period provide a general picture of the economic stress men and women across the country faced, but they are most revealing about the conditions of urban, working-class men.2 Therefore an analysis of a revolt conceived and led by women enhances the picture substantially, for it reveals the shared and distinctive ways in which the continued economic crisis affected women across the socioeconomic spectrum.

An analysis of the tax revolt also refines our understanding of the colonial state and the gendered dimensions of colonial policy. Since the most immediate cause of the tax revolt was the tax increase, the study explores the origin of the tax structure in colonial Nigeria. From its inception, Nigeria’s tax system was not uniform. When colonial officials created the tax structure they incorporated [End Page 107] local tax systems or fee structures that resembled a tax.3 Typically, women did not pay an income tax or poll tax. In many instances, the colonial state used women as a measure of men’s wealth, for the number of wives a man had determined his tax rate. However, when colonial officials imposed taxes in Abeokuta in 1918, they taxed women independently of men because officials perceived Egba women as wealthy traders.4 The Abeokuta tax revolt exposes the patchwork nature of colonial policy and illuminates the need to examine colonial policies at multiple levels. Gendered inconsistencies in colonial policies had implications for anti-colonial action. In Abeokuta, women’s anomalous position as independent taxpayers helps to explain why women featured so prominently in anticolonial, nationalist politics in this town.

Finally, the tax revolt helps us to better understand the relationship between gender and nationalism in Nigeria. Women used taxation as a platform from which to challenge their political marginalization. Their combined demands for economic amelioration and political participation resonated with the demands of nationalists and wage earners. These demands also reflected Ransome-Kuti’s direct and indirect engagement with labor unionists and nationalists. Together, Ransome-Kuti and the AWU illuminate ways in which gender informed nationalist strategies, actions, and thought as well as the ways in which women helped to construct the nation.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was also a prolific writer and very aware of the historical significance of their (Ransome-Kuti and the AWU) individual and collective actions in that moment in history. Therefore, she kept a large volume of her letters, speeches, photographs, diaries, clippings, and other assorted materials. We benefited from her children’s understanding of her historical significance, for after her death in 1978 her papers were donated to the Kenneth Dike Library, University of Ibadan.

My interest in auto/biography is largely shaped by the dilemma of relying heavily on one individual’s archive to write a history of a collective endeavor. The study of the Abeokuta tax revolt, A Great Upheaval: Women, Taxes and Nationalist Politics in Nigeria, 1945–1951, draws on oral testimonies, colonial government records, newspapers, autobiographies, and several private papers. By far, the largest cache is composed of materials from the Ransome-Kuti Papers. This exercise affords me the opportunity to explore multiple sides of this dilemma as I consider the challenges as well as the value of having the wealth of materials at...