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

  • Igala's Royal MasksBorrowed, Invented, or Stolen?
  • All photos by the author except where otherwise noted.

In contrast to the numerous small-scale gerontocracies found in the area we now know as eastern Nigeria, a strong centralized kingship grew up (or was imposed) sometime before the sixteenth century near the Niger-Benue Confluence, nexus of north-south and east-west riverine trade. Its present identity as "the Igala kingdom" glosses over a complex historical entity that has shifting claims of origin among several regional powers over the centuries (Fig. 1). Spatially, it is contiguous with Igbo/Ibaji settlements to the south and western Idoma settlements to the east. Both of these connections are highly visible in Igala masquerade culture. Beyond that, Igala oral histories allege important historical ties to Yoruba, Benin, and Apá/Kwararafa political formations that also figure in Igala political and visual culture (Clifford 1936, Murray 1949, Boston 1969, Miachi 2012). And the oldest, founding tradition is that the first atta appeared in the form of a leopard with transformative powers. With such a complicated past, it is hardly surprising that Igala lacks a unified canonical version of its mask history.

On the early British exploratory trading expeditions, such as Dr. William Baikie's 1854 voyage of the Pleiad up the Niger ("Kwora") and Benue, only the narrow coastal strip along the east bank of the Niger south and north of the Idda capital is identified as "Igara" (Baikie 1856). All the rest of what we consider Igalaland today is bundled together on John Arrowsmith's map with what is now known as Idoma, both under the general rubric "Akpoto," a vague term usually interpreted as "indigenous people" (Fig. 2). In the past I have spent many words discussing the "Akpoto question" as it was applied by the British explorers, traders, and administrators to people who think of themselves as Idoma (Kasfir 1979, 2011: 37-39). Here I will cut that argument short and simply state that, despite all the cultural similarities, there is an Igala language (which is more closely cognate with Yoruba than Idoma), there is an Idoma language (also cognate with Igala), and there is no Akpoto language, suggesting that the label applied to the entire region, "Akpoto," is another name for "unknown territory" on the part of nineteenth century writers. Later, the British administration came to realize that nearly all of the Idoma-speaking lands (aje) demonstrated close historical ties with the Jukun and the federation of early states known as Apá or the Hausa term Kwararafa. The term "Akpoto came to represent the "indigenous people" who predated the arrival of newcomers following the breakup of the Apá federation in the early seventeenth century and the population shifts it caused among the twenty-odd Idoma-speaking lands. In neighboring Igala, these "owners of the land" (i.e., those who were the first to live there) are the Igala Mela, the nine indigenous clans.

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Nigeria's main ethnic groups. Tiv and Idoma are actually on both sides of the Benue. Map: Luna Digital Images

Map: Luna Digital Images

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Arrowsmith's map from the 1854 journey of the Pleiad.

Source: Baikie 1856.

The other major component of Igala politics and culture comes from the Igbo, who are among the earliest migrant settlers occupying the Ibaji area directly south of Idah. They share much of the same masquerade culture although they are not a part of the palace retinue.

Economically, the Igbo controlled the lower Niger River trade south of Idah, at which point Igala traders transshipped it northward. The level of trade on the Niger, all carried by canoes, was a source of wonder to the early British explorers (Laird and Oldfield 1837, 1: 165): "I was surprised to learn from Dr. Briggs that there appeared to be twice as much traffic going forward here as in the upper parts of the Rhine The Igala kingdom, until the mid-nineteenth century when Europeans took control of much of the trade, therefore based its wealth and power on transshipment of all manner of goods, from slaves to...


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