- Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria: Firearms, Culture, and Public Order by Saheed Aderinto
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018; pp. 300, $35.00 paper.
Saheed Aderinto's Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria: Firearms, Culture, and Public Order offers an original account of the underappreciated place of fire-arms in colonial administration, commerce, and daily life in twentieth-century Nigeria. As readers have come to expect from his work, Aderinto writes from a position deep in the archival record—here predominantly the branches of the Nigerian National Archives. The book derives social history from administrative archives with precision and breadth, and it relates many small-scale encounters and relationships from across Nigeria over nearly a century. What all of them share is that they were mediated by firearms. His attention to archival detail is consistent and rigorous, and he also makes use of newspapers, oral tradition, and music. Aderinto further considers guns themselves as sources, reflecting on their uses and meanings as objects of material culture. Along the way, he revises many received ideas about the history of colonial rule in Africa.
The central story that Aderinto tells is how a "gun society" emerged in Nigeria under colonialism. In his account, this dynamic emerged not in the deeper past, for example out of the Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans, but under British rule, where twentieth-century transformations of politics, trade, and social life had the effect of liberalizing access to firearms and embedding them in civic and cultural life. Aderinto also argues that guns have a more complicated set of meanings than those that might first come to mind—especially as tools of violence. Firearms in Nigeria are not only, or even predominantly, instruments of destruction. Although guns' capacity to repress, create havoc, and do physical harm to people is undeniable, these are not their only uses. They are commodities and tools (especially of hunting), as they are in many places, but the Nigerian record shows [End Page 143] that they can also function as spiritual instruments, political symbols, and stores of value both economic and social.
Aderinto pays much attention to the technical aspects of firearms, but he is cautious to avoid technological determinism, and he never loses sight of their social embeddedness. The difference between a Dane gun and a shotgun, for example, is not only a distinction of type, but a difference of purpose, origin, and symbolic meaning. A gun's technical specifications may tell us about the class position of its owner, the circumstances of its production, and the political order that allows people to possess certain types of guns but not others. He is insistent on treating firearms as commodities, but his attention to guns as objects of culture—ones which may have meandering and unexpected "life histories"—pushes the argument beyond merely tracing guns as objects of trade. "A gun whose history started in a gunsmith's shop in Birmingham," he writes, "might spend years helping to prosecute a war and finish as a spiritual object and part of a cultural patrimony in the shrine dedicated to its owner" (6). In so doing, Aderinto combines a military historian's eye to the details of armaments as objects, with a social historian's attentiveness to what goes on around them.
The focus of the book is putatively narrow, but Aderinto uses guns to discuss many broader topics in colonial Nigeria's historiography. They include the history of technology, colonial violence, policing, economics, leisure, and crime. Subjects that have less obvious connections to the history of colonialism, like the study of sound, are also treated here with great originality. There is hardly a current debate in the historiography of colonial rule in Nigeria to which Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria does not speak. Aderinto draws fresh insights by looking at these debates from an original angle—through the scope of a gun, so to speak. The book begins with an introductory chapter on the use and circulation of firearms in the precolonial period, including their well-known place in the Atlantic trade. It then moves into...