“Clapperton reached Sokoto on October 20, 1826, where he was escorted to the same house he occupied on his first visit. He was cordially received by Sultan Bello, whom he found reading an Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements.”
-Frank T. Kryza, “The Race for Timbuktu” published in 2006 by HarperCollins
I am often intrigued by the life and times of pre-colonial rulers in Nigeria and Africa. I found most of them cruel, inhuman and blood thirsty. Sometime ago at the popular Nigeria soccer board-Cybereagles, I posted a comment about how disgusted I felt learning about the ignoble deeds of pre-colonial rulers in Nigeria. I detest the forceful subjugation of the culture and peoples of north and central Nigeria by the crusading Fulani Islamic war lords. I detest the reign of terror of the Arochukwu in Eastern Nigeria. I loathe the blood thirsty war mongers of the Ijaiye and Ibadan warriors in the West. I argued that the savageries of the wars, the pillage and the inhuman treatment of pre-colonial kingdoms and society made it convenient for the enslavement of Africa, first through the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade and then through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Colonialism itself started with the greediness of these rulers who sold out to colonialist for glass ware, mirrors, umbrellas and alcoholic drinks. They signed treaties they could not understand and give away their lands to the colonialist. Every history books I have read hitherto paints gloomy and horrible pictures of these rulers. They are constantly depicted as ignorant, chauvinistic simpletons. It was therefore a huge relief for me to unearth the heroics and intellectual sagacity of Sultan Mohammed Bello in all his dealings with European explorers.
I also found out that the problem with my thesis, before now is that I have been looking through distorted lens, or at best half truths of the writers of these books. The true picture as I found out recently depends on who is writing the history book. Whether you look at the history of Old Oyo empire, the Borgu Kingdom or the kingdom/Emirate of Kano, Zaria, Borno and/or the Arochukwu of Eastern Nigeria, you will surely found large swath of heroics laden with brutal and barbaric attitudes prevalent in any part of the world at that time in history. Barbarism is widely prevalent in every culture and peoples. It is not peculiar to Africa alone! War is barbaric and no empire/kingdom has ever risen to prominence without fighting just and unjust wars!
But then that is not necessarily the focus of my piece here, in late November I was wandering through the cavernous labyrinth of our local regional library when I found this book, “The Race for Timbuktu-In search of Africa’s City of Gold,” authored by Frank T. Kryza, a twenty year veteran of the energy industry and former Connecticut newspaper reporter and editor. Mr. Kryza spends 11 years in Africa before he researched and wrote the book. He provided a narrative history of the first phase of colonization of Africa and the struggles of Africa’s immediate pre-colonial rulers to come to terms with the changing dynamics in the world around. I found his writings on Sultan Mohammed Bello quite revealing and engaging. It completely changed my perception of this illustrious son of Africa.
Frank T. Kryza, got majority of the materials he used for his book, published in 2006, from research he conducted into books written by early explorers such as Captain G. F. Lyon, Oudney, Dixon Denham, Hugh Clapperton, Richard Lander, Cillie and Connel de Mezeieres, supplemented by commentaries and analysis of Bovill and Hallett, “two of the greatest twentieth-century historians of Africa.”
At page 125 he painted this salubrious encounter between Hugh Clapperton and Sultan Bello:
“Clapperton found Sultan Mohammed Bello sitting on a carpet in a thatch-roofed cottage dressed in a blue cotton robe with a white muslin turban worn like a Tuareg, concealing the lower part of his face. He was reading alone. The sultan, a youthful forty-four, looking “noble,” just under six feet tall, with a “short curling black beard, a small mouth, a Grecian nose, and large black eyes,” had a wide reputation as a man of learning. He began a theological discussion with Clapperton, who demurred, saying that he was “a Protestant . . . who having protested more than two centuries ago against the suggestions, absurdities and abuses practiced in those days, had ever since professed to follow simply what was written in the book of Our Lord Jesus.”
Here I found the Amir-al Mumini of the whole of black Africa, discussing freely theology with a Christian so called “kafir.” We need to remember that this encounter took place in 1824, during the apogee of the sultanate. At this time the territorial of the sultanate of Sokoto stretched from Bornu in the East to Timbuktu in the West and beyond; a vast land that currently consist of more than 7 countries in West Africa.
His intellectual mien and understanding of foreign cultures over-awed the British explorers so much so that they all appreciated his position as leader of the faithful, even though they are not Moslem. We can contrast that to our modern day charlatans masquerading as sharia war lords. I believe if Clapperton had walked to modern day Zamfara and goes to the mosque to argue with the Imam, he would have been instantly beheaded. Herein lies the problem with modern day politicians who hide under religion, be it a so-called born again who almost got away with amending the constitution in a bid to install himself as dictator for life, or the governor facing a tough re-election who readily used religion to mislead his people into voting for him even though he had stole the treasuries blind!
There is more insight to Sultan’s Bello’s mind at page 125, where we learnt that Clapperton’s co-explorer (Denham) who had joined the Sheik of Borno in raiding the Caliphate’s towns for slaves was not only spared but his books and personal effect were returned to him:
“The sultan returned books belonging to Denham that his agents had retrieved in Mandara during the failed slave raid, including a copy of Sir Francis Bacon’s essays and Denham’s journal. Bello ingeniously wondered aloud why his old friend the Sheikh of Bornu had sent an army into his territory and why an English explorer had joined it. Clapperton replied lamely …Dropping this awkward subject, the sultan asked what each book contained. He wanted Clapperton to read aloud to him, saying that he found the spoken sound of English quite beautiful.”
Now contrast that to the pitiful apathy the education system in the modern day northern Nigeria had turned to. Here is a sultan willing to learn from any books, albeit a book written by an infidel. If the present crop of northern Nigerian Islamic fundamentalist had their way, Arabic will be the only language taught in Northern schools. Any knowledge outside Islamic teachings will be forbidden. Where do they get their rabid hatred from learning from, definitely not from Sultan Bello.
There is more at page 125:
“Although Clapperton was the first European to come to his court, Sultan Bello was well informed about the civilizations north of the Mediterranean. Clapperton, for his part, had to admit that Europeans knew nothing about the kingdoms of Africa. He stated that “my people had hitherto supposed yours devoid of all religion and not far removed from the condition of wild beast, whereas I now find them to be civilized learned, humane, and pious.”
I often wondered why Europeans think Mungo Park discovered River Niger, when Africans had swam, drank, fish and boat on the Niger for centuries before them. The truth is that Africans knew more about Europe, than European knew about Africa before their explorers came to Africa.
Perhaps the most sagacious portrait of Sultan Bello can be found in page 126:
“Clapperton presented the Sultan with presents from George IV, including ornamented pistols, razors, gun powder, a spyglass, a silver tea tray, a sextant, and a compass. He showed Bello a planisphere of the heavenly bodies, discovering that the Sultan knew the signs of the Zodiac, some of the constellations, and many of the stars.”
Usually when Europeans explorers presented these things to African rulers the next thing African rulers, does is sign treaties with the king of England and gives up their land. The Sultan however was impressed but not swayed. He is after all widely a man of knowledge, he had attended at a very early age Sankore University in Timbuktu. He had studied the signs of the Zodiac, he had read ancient Greek books. This to me lays the difference between him and other rulers in the pre-colonial days. Knowledge. The key to saving Africa from misery is knowledge, education and the pursuit of good. Fanaticism brooks no knowledge; it is diametrically opposed to reason. Nigeria’s religious fanatics, be it the Islamo-fascist type or the rabid ethnic parochialism thrives solely on ignorance. This is why they killed with reckless abandon.
The following exchange between Clapperton and the Sultan further typifies the latter’s sagacity. The Sultan had a detailed grasp of international affairs. He knew that the English navy had sunk the Algerian fleet in 1816 and that England had begun to colonize India:
“You were at war with Algiers,” he told Clapperton, “and you killed a number of the Algerines.”
Clapperton replied that they were “a ferocious race,” who made slaves of Europeans.
“You are the strongest of Christian nations,” the sultan said, “you have subjugated all of India.”
Clapperton replied that England had simply given India “good laws and protection.”
Kryza concluded at page 127 that it was no accident that Bello raised the concern, shared by Arabs, of England’s intentions in India, as well as the British attack on Algiers. In the case of India, Bello’s advisers believed that England had sent smooth-talking emissaries first, followed by hard-hitting merchants, completing the job of annexation with an armed force. “This was the model they feared the English would now use in Africa. (They were right.) To Bello, England had conquered India by trickery.” Here is an African pre-colonial ruler who clearly sees through the ruse of the English so-called exploration.
We learn more about his knowledge of Africa’s topography at page 128:
“The Sultan drew on the sand the course of the River Quorra [the Niger] which he also informed me [Clapperton] entered the sea at Fundah [250 miles north of the Niger-Benue confluence]. By his account, the river ran parallel to the coast for several days’ journey, being in some places only a few hours, in others a day’s journey from it. Two or three years ago, the Sea, he said, closed up the mouth of the river and its mouth was at present a day or two further south; but during the rains, when the river was high, it still ran into the Sea by the old channel.”
As we know today, this information is right on the money, but the Europeans of that era thought “the people of the dark continent” don’t know anything happening in the next village. This information as Kryza noted more or less shook Clapperton’s (nay all Europe’s) belief that the river terminated in a lake. He asked Sultan Bello to have the map drawn on paper but the map he got simply confirmed the erroneous ideas of England’s leading geographers. A very smart move by the Sultan as he didn’t want further reconnaissance to provide the English with more accurate geographical information something they eventually got from another misguided pre-colonial ruler.
Clapperton on his second trip to Sokoto, arrived on October 20, 1826, where he was escorted to the same house he occupied on his first visit. This time around, the sultan as usual was ready to forestall any attempt to colonized Africa. According to Kryza, “Bello correctly (and presciently) understood that the explorers were the thin end of the wedge, the vanguard of the scramble for colonization that was, in fact, about to begin.” Sultan Bello refused to allow Clapperton proceed any further, and in the words of Clapperton himself “He was desired to say that I was a spy, and that he would not allow me to go beyond Sokoto; hinting at the same time, that it would be better I should die as the English had taken possession of India by first going there by ones and twos, until we got strong enough to seize upon the whole country.” How prescient can anyone be! This and many others made me proud to be an African. We at least know one African ruler tried his best to resist colonialism. We know unlike many others did not dance jig upon the sight of a mere umbrella and sell his people out to the European.
What lessons can we draw from the Sultan for the present crop of leadership in Nigeria and Africa in general? Our leaders need to be well informed of events happening all over the world and not just their neck of the wood. Can we point to any Nigerian president in recent memories that can boast of having read any book at all, not to mention Euclid’s Elements? (“Euclid's Elements (Greek: Στοιχεῖα) is a mathematical and geometric treatise consisting of 13 books written by the Greek mathematician Euclid in Alexandria circa 300 BC. It comprises a collection of definitions, postulates (axioms), propositions (theorems and constructions), and mathematical proofs of the propositions. The thirteen books cover Euclidean geometry and the ancient Greek version of elementary number theory. With the exception of Autolycus' On the Moving Sphere, the Elements is one of the oldest extant Greek mathematical treatises and it is the oldest extant axiomatic deductive treatment of mathematics. It has proven instrumental in the development of logic and modern science.” Excerpted from Wikipedia).
We have had in Nigeria semi-educated half illiterate leading the most populous countries in black Africa. A country that has produced Nobel laureates and outstanding scholars from all works of life but could only succeed in producing his first university graduate president in 2007! I know many will say education has nothing to do with our crisis, but the problem with Nigeria as Chinua Achebe put it is that of leadership. Just look at the haphazard decision making of our immediate past president, ignoring countless advisers and our constitutions in pursuit of a failed third term agenda. We need for instance to thoroughly discussed the issue of United States Africa’s command in Africa. Should we allow the command to be situated in Nigeria or any other place on the continent? What do we gain and what do we lose by the presence of sole superpower army on the continent. Any parochial leader without foresight will surely sell out his people to perpetual slavery. The oil boom we are experiencing now, has pushed many oil producing countries like Dubai to invest their surplus foreign exchange earnings in their countries as well as invest in near comatose U.S banks. They are taking advantage of the housing crisis to take over American banks like Citibank et al. Iran is investing it’s oil surplus is uranium extractions for nuclear power, whilst our power grid are collapsing everyday. And today we learnt Libya entered into a nuclear energy power production pact with France. Our leaders once again are busy doing “siddon look.” There is definitely a problem of leadership in Nigeria and the earlier we learn from the sagacity of Sultan Bello the better for us.