Sunday, July 19, 2009

States and warrior kings

At the BNF (Bibliothèque nationale de France, for acronymophilic francophones) the other day I came across some fascinating books describing conquest models of state formation.

One account that particularly captured my attention was Janet Ewald's
(1990) Soldiers, Traders, and Slaves: State Formation and Economic Transformation in the Greater Nile Valley, 1700-1885. Ewald describes transformations in 18th-19th-century Taqali, a small place in Sudan's Nuba Mountains.

Permit me to include a few lengthy quotes, because they provide a good synopsis:

Soldiers, traders, and slaves are analytically valuable, for each figure embodies a particular way of gaining resources. Wielding the means of destruction, soldiers aggrandized themselves with the spoils of war. Traders gained wealth through their control over the means of exchange. Slaves linked soldiers and traders. Soldiers produced the slaves whom traders exchanged. Richard Roberts has elegantly argued that the dynamics of warrior states, especially the need for warriors to reproduce themselves by capturing and forcibly recruiting slaves, structured the performance of the regional economy in the Middle Niger. Reproduction, however, involves more than incorporating new soldiers. Everywhere soldiers, traders, and slaves had to eat; one way or another, they lived off the land and its produce. My book investigates how soldiers and traders in Taqali and other states of the greater Nile valley transformed, or failed to transform, their power over coercion and exchange into power over land and slave labor (p. 7).

Under this conquest regime, the roles of slaves, soldiers, and traders overlapped. Slaves became soldiers; soldiers traded; and traders commanded soldiers. The ability of traders to assume the resources previously claimed by the state, including soldiers, accounts for both the expansion of the slave-raiding frontier and the aggrandizement of traders behind that frontier. The chapter closes by suggesting that the increasing power of merchants led to the crisis which the Mahdiyya violently tried to resolve (p. 9).

The warrior-king, however, was a profoundly ambiguous figure, both predator and protector. Highlanders looked to him for defense against enemies and perhaps for the riches of booty. But they also feared his armed horsemen...The Taqali kingdom was built around two processes. Warrior-kings tried to transform their access to the means of destruction into access to the means of production and exchange. At the same time, their highland subjects sought to gain the benefits while avoiding the dangers of rule by warrior-kings. Confronting each other, kings and subjects continued to build their kingdom until Mahdist forces destroyed their still-unfinished work. The Taqali kingdom, to borrow the title of Willis's book about the Fipa, was a 'state in the making.' It became a completed structure only when descendants of the kings reconstructed it in their memories (182).

Richard Fardon (1988) describes a similar state of affairs in his book Raiders and Refugees: Trends in Chamba Political Development, 1750-1950. The Chamba live in present-day Cameroon and Nigeria, and their expansion in the late-18th to 19th century owed to their bellicose strategies: they would attack villages and destroy villages, taking the de facto control of the land and anyone still living. Once they ran out of space, they developed a more centralized, sedentary system of rule.

An aside:
We've become used to stories of bellicose Africans; the news is filled with stories of bloodshed. But one of the places today recognized as among the most peaceful on earth shares this warrior-king political background: Norway. (As a Norwegian citizen studying Central Africa, allow me a brief moment to enjoy my weird, quasi-karmic moment.) Norway was home not only to marauding seafarers, but also to raiding rulers (Ewald provides some citations).
In Norway, the ruling elite supported themselves by raiding for slaves and goods. That way, by targeting the zones just beyond the frontier, they were able to avoid getting their own population to support them. However, once they were no longer able to take slaves, and ran out of space, they had to subjugate their own peasant population. Northern Ireland, too, has a history of raiding, in a somewhat different form, such as represented in the epic poem Tain Bo Cuailnge, which is about a heroic cattle-raid in the Ulster area in the early Christian era. One of the leaders was the 17-year-old Cuchulainn, and object of such desire and power was the Dun Bull. "The Dun Bull of Cualnge, for whose sake Ailill and Medb, the king and queen of Connaught, undertook this expedition, was one of two bulls in whom two rival swineherds, belonging to the supernatural race known as the people of the Sid, or fairy-mounds, were re-incarnated, after passing through various other forms" (quote from David Nutt's introduction, p. b).

What do we learn from the conquest regimes and warrior-kings? For one thing, that the 19th century was a period of vast upheaval, widespread intensification of raiding, and political, economic and social transformation on the African continent. In some places, the 19th century developments may even have been more sweeping than, or at least on par with, those brought subsequently with European colonialism. Scholars (see, for instance, Crawford Young's book The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective) have illuminated the depravities and authoritarian legacies of colonial regimes. That scholarship teaches us that there's no such thing as a clean slate when it comes to politics; present structures always reflect the sedimentation of modes of rule over time. Work like Ewald's reinforces this point and also helps avoid colonial-blame-games. It doesn't necessarily make solving the problems of unaccountable governance any easier though.

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