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Land and property in pre-colonial Africa: land ownership, land sales and the shortfalls of the "land abundant Africa" theories
A look at pre-colonial African land tenure systems from Senegal and Mali to Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia
Mainstream theories about land tenure and property rights in pre-colonial Africa suffer from an over-reliance on a few concepts to explain historical phenomena across diverse range of African societies and periods.
Many of these theories maintain that the very concept of land tenure was virtually non-existent in Africa and that, save for the exceptional case of Ethiopia, African states had little need for delineating land —and that it therefore featured little in African governance, social structure and commerce. Such theories are framed within the concepts of pre-colonial Africa as "land surplus" economy. This was first popularized by the economic historian Anthony G. Hopkins1 who wrote that Africa’s high “land-labour ratio encouraged extensive cultivation and dispersed settlement, reinforced tendencies toward self-sufficiency, and hampered the growth of the market; capital accumulation took the form of investment in labor, most evidently in slaves, rather than in land." It was later reiterated by John Thornton who, contrasting Africa with Europe, wrote that "people wishing to invest wealth in reproducing form could not buy land, for there was no landed property. hence, their only recourse was to purchase slaves, which as their personal property could be inherited and could generate wealth for them".2
While both theories may be applicable for the specific place and time that they are concerned with, they are often inaccurately considered “universal” for the entirety of Africa. But the interpretation of such theories often involves a "misplaced application of otherwise-useful theoretical concepts to situations at a level to which they are ill-suited"3 .In short, the theories of pre-colonial African land tenure should move from the (neo)liberal understanding of land where the monocausal interpretation of its use as a factor of production leads them to surmise that its purported abundance in Africa made it a free good and thus obviated the need for land tenure, private property or even a land market in Africa.
It should be also be noted that the understanding of modern land tenure is more contested than it would initially appear to be and that property rights today are far more relational and less exclusive than they are commonly understood; as anthropologist Chris Hann writes: "In all societies, the property rights of individuals are subject to political as well as legal regulations, the preeminence of private property an of the (neo)liberal paradigm of which it forms a central element has never been as complete as its proponents and critics like to claim. To a large extent, it is a myth".4
Even the theories of labour scarcity in Africa (which are central to the High Land/Low Labour ratio discussed above) have since been challenged by economic historians including Gareth Austin and Katharine Frederick. Gareth points out that labor, which was branded as perpetually scarce in Africa, was actually abundant during the agricultural “slack” season, and Katharine covers this excellently in her study of the pre-colonial cotton industry in eastern Africa, particularly in Malawi's lower shire valley during the 19th century.5
Leaving aside the exceptionalism paradigm wrongly ascribed to Ethiopia’s land tenure, lets look at land tenure systems across four African states; Makuria, Ethiopia, Darfur, Sokoto with some brief notes on land systems in the empires of Kanem-Bornu, Songhai and mentions on land systems in the states of Funj, Taqali, Asante, Futa Toro and Futa Jallon.
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Land in the kingdom of Makuria (Dotawo): 11th-15th century AD
The medieval Nubian kingdom of Dotawo (which in the 10th century combined the three Nubian kingdoms of Noubadia, Makuria and Alodia) was a Nubian state in Sudan that existed from the 6th to the 15th century.
While the origins of Dotawo’s land tenure system are obscure, the documentary evidence for the existence of a vibrant private land market in Dotawo is perhaps the most detailed in Africa during this period, Dotawo's land and private property was owned and sold by royals; by institutions (such as churches and monasteries); by the clergy; by state officers and private individuals.
Historiography on Nubian land tenure has been muddied by the misplaced application of theories and concepts irrelevant to Nubia, the most popular one being Karl Polanyi’s concept of Dahomey's redistributive economy and the other coming from al-Mas’ūdī limited knowledge on Nubia's legal traditions. Both of these theories claim there was no private property or land tenure in Nubia because the king owned all land and that all subjects were therefore essentially serfs. However, both of these theories were rendered untenable by the wealth of Nubian documentary evidence especially from the city of Qsar Ibrim and surrounding regions. These documents included private land sales, decrees about royal estates, claims of ownership and endowment of churches, documents on church lands and evidence of estate management.6
Land in Dotawo included; Crown land, Church land and Private/freehold land. Royal/King’s/Crown land was referred to as ouroun parre and it constituted estates that were placed the under management of high ranking court officials.7 Churches owned and purchased land that was placed under the care of the ecclesiastical authorities and was used to maintain the bishop and his church hierarchy, provide liturgical food and wine, etc. 8 Lastly and most ubiquitously was private land which constitute the bulk of the Nubian land sale documents made between the 11th and 15th century. Private land sales often described transactions between two named persons, a list of present witnesses, a detailed description of plot sizes and location, and a sale price in gold or silver coins.9
Nubian land tenure follows both Greco-Roman and Nubian land traditions, and the maintenance of this system also served other social-political purposes as nubiologist Giovanni Ruffini writes: "Land sales were not simply legal and economic transactions. The number and social status of the witnesses produced for a land sale served dual functions: they heightened the owner’s security in the validity of the sale, and they enhanced the social prestige of the seller."10 Nubian land traditions continue to the present day among modern Nubians in Sudan, as Nubian scholar Ali Osman writes ; "In present day Nubia land possession is of the utmost importance, Ownership of a piece of land, however small and seemingly insignificant, is in essence proof of Nubian citizenship"11
leather scroll of an Old nubian land sale from Qsar Ibrim written in 1463AD, on the sale of Eismalê’s land to Eionngoka and Kasla for 129 gold pieces
The Nubian Cathedral of st. Mary at Qasr Ibrim, this church owned several of the lands around it and was involved in a number of land sales in Dotawo both as a seller and buyer of land.
Land and property in the Sokoto empire, with brief notes on land grants in Songhai, Bornu, Futa Toro and Futa Jallon
Sokoto was a large 19th century state covering much of northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon and southern Niger in the 19th century. In Sokoto, the government controlled land allocation, land tenure divided lands into state lands and private estates, the former were attached to or delineated by political officials such the sultan, the emirs and other titled persons while the latter was owned by wealthy aristocrats such as merchants who owned large private estates, these lands were often given as grants from the government and such privately owned land could be sold and leased but state/royal land and estates couldn't be sold. Although majority of land owners choose to retain and develop their own lands rather than sale them, there are several documented land sales and leases from Sokoto from the mid 19th century to the years before its fall in 1904.12
The administration and structure of Sokoto’s land tenure systems was laid out in state laws such the treatise written by Abdullahi Fodio (d. 1828) (a governor of the western half of the Sokoto state) titled: Ta’alim al-radi where he explains that the right to land could be individual, as in the case of farms that were allowed tax exemptions such as private estates (this land could be sold, leased and subdivided); or the land could consist of official farms attached to political office (but unlike private farms, they could not be alienated or sold); or the land could be communal, as with grazing lands, cemeteries, forest reserves for fuel, and other common lands. The first two forms were arranged under hurumi or caffa tenure systems, lands under the hurumi system were tax exempt land grants, while for those under the caffa system, wealthy commoners paid annual rent on land granted to them by government officials and/or wealthy aristocrats.13
copy of Abdullahi Fodio’s “Ta’alim al-radi” at the Kaduna national archives that explains the Sokoto government’s law on land tenure.
Among the privately owned land were the large tracts of land that were granted to merchants, craftsmen and wealthy immigrants who were then encouraged to settle in the cities such as Kano, Katsina, Zamfara and the capital; Sokoto. Besides this was the land owned by aristocratic families which had been granted to them during the formation of the Sokoto state. The majority of such estates owned by the aristocrats were located just outside the cities and were essentially plantations worked on by both free and servile labour producing crops intended primarily for sale in the local markets or in the textile industries in the city most notably; cotton, tobacco, indigo, millet and sorghum.
Royals such as the emirs of Katsina and of Kano (which were provinces in the Sokoto empire) had substantial holdings, the emir of Kano for example had 1,053 acres of land in Gasgainu, 351 acres in Yokanna and 264 acres in Sawaina among other estates, wealthy merchants and aristocrats also owned large land holdings covering more than 100 acres, such that “one needed a horse to cover its length and breadth in a day”14 these private lands could be bought and sold, subdivided, inherited, and rented.
the city of Kano in the 1930s, many of Sokoto’s wealthy landowners lived in this city and owned estates both within and just outside the city’s walls.
Records of land sales in Sokoto reveal a vibrant land market. For example, the private landholder Malam Musa bought the estate of a wealthy merchant named Kassara in the city of Wurno for a price of one million cowries in 1850 (about £100 then / £12,700 today) and managed the property himself while appointing an agent to run two other estates he owned at Kuseil and Kalambana. Malam Musa’s son named Habibi, later inherited the property and sold part of it, both of these sales were witnessed and registered by an alkali (judge) afterwhich they were granted a land title. Habibi would also lease part of his property for 20,000 cowries per year before 1901 (three years before the fall of Sokoto.)15
A brief overview on West African land tenure systems
Sokoto’s land tenure system was only the high point of an old land tenure tradition that was practiced across west Africa, similar systems existed in the empires of Songhai and Kanem Bornu and the states of Futa Toro and Futa jallon16 These land tenure systems involved rulers granting a piece of land (and the rights attached to the land) to grant holders over the populations residing in the land (such as tribute and other forms of taxation or rent), such land grants also exempted the holders from taxation and military service. In Bornu, they were known as mahram and were often given to scholars and holymen (and later included elite families and prominent merchants) while in Songhai they were known as hurma.
The oldest of these grants can be traced back to the 11th century eg the land grants from the empire of Kanem Bornu; the first of such was made during the reign of Mai Hummay (r. 1085-1097AD) and two others were made in 1180AD and 1192AD, both of the latter were granted by Mai Abdallah Bikorom (r. 1176-1194AD)17, although the oldest extant manuscripts of Bornu grants/charters are from the 16th century. Other old west African land grants include a land grant made in 1507AD from the empire of Songhai that was made to the descendants of Mori Hawgawo by the emperor Askiya Mohammed (r. 1493-1528 AD) exempting the former’s property from taxes, and other obligations18, while in the 18th century, the states of Futa Jallon and Futa Toro, such grants proliferated during the reign of the Futa Toro ruler Abdul Kader (r. 1776-1806AD)19. Such land grants exempted soldiers, state officials, scholars, holymen and other notables from state obligations.
Grant holders could retain some or all of the taxes and tribute on these lands and most of the lands could be held in perpetuity, grant holders also established large settlements that eventually grew into towns.20 In Sudan’s 17th century kingdoms of Darfur and Funj these grants were called hakura (the Songhai land grant bears the most resemblance with these Sudanic land grants). It was also in Sudan (Darfur and Funj) that these land grants developed into an elaborate system of private estates granted as mulk (freehold property) as early as the 17th century and becoming the norm by 1800.
A charter of a mahram granted by Shehu Abd ar-Rahman (r.1853-1854) of the Kanem-Bornu empire to a scholar named Muhammad, written in 1854 in Bornu, Nigeria21
Land and property in the kingdom of Darfur from the 17th to the early 20th century.
The kingdoms of Darfur, Funj and Taqali were established in the 16th and 17th centuries by autochthonous groups in what is now the modern republic of Sudan. Land tenure systems in Darfur (and the kingdoms of Funj and Taqali) evolved from the land grants made in the 17th century, the earliest land grants were issued by the kings of Darfur Musa (r 1680-1700) Ahmad Bukr (r. 1700-20) and Muhammad Dawra (r.1720-30), and by the end of the 18th century, the establishment of a permanent capital at El-Fashir made the need to mobile resources to provide for the burgeoning elite population more acute.
Darfur’s land tenure was primarily divided into two forms; state lands and freehold lands. The first of these lands belonged to the royals, district chiefs and other officials and were granted to them by the king, Royal land was that which belonged to the ruler for example, the entire districts of jabal marra and dar fingoro were royal domain and the estates in these districts were held by the ruler, with all revenues going to the sustain the capital and the large large household including the personal guard. Such lands were called ro kuurirj. The second of these state lands were administrative lands which were granted to titled officials or such persons elevated by the king and the holders were granted the right to collect and retain the customary taxes from the populations living on that land and were expected to maintain a number of soldiers with horses arms and armor which the king would use during war.22
lastly, were the freehold land grants which constituted the bulk of the documented land tenure in Darfur. These were given to many people regardless of their status, they included merchants, scholars, holy men and other notables. Such lands could be subdivided, inherited, transferred from one owner to another and sold. The land was was held in perpetuity, with the holder granted full rights of possession, it was carefully delimited, the size and borders of these estates, the extent of the cultivable land they contained, the number of villages, their yield, etc. Boundaries were marked with drystone walls and with reference to local features such as rocky outcrops, hills and riverbeds23. Perhaps the best evidence for this coming from the land disputes presented in the kingdom's courts in the early 19th century.
A list of a typical Darfurian grantees’ rights on his land were listed as such: “...as an allodial estate, with full rights of possession and his confirmed property... namely rights of cultivation, causing to be cultivated, sale, donation, purchase, demolition and clearance."
There's written evidence the sale of land took place in Darfur, by the 1840s. The right to buy and sell land was itself written in some of the land grants, with examples made by the jallaba family living in shoba who sold their land in the early 19th century24. The sale of land in Darfur can also be inferred from other actions where the sultan was only witnessing and recording the transfer of a deed of land but wasn’t granting the land himself.
land charter of Nur al-Din, a nobleman from the zaghawa group originally issued by Darfur king Abd al-Rahman in 1801AD and renewed in 1803AD.
Court transcript of a land dispute in the Darfur kingdom written in 1805 AD, between Badawi and prince Aqrab over the latter trespassing on the former’s land, the judge ruled in favor of Badawi and ordered the prince off his land
The administrative building of king Ali Dinar of Darfur (R. 1898-1916 AD) in El-Fashir, Sudan which also served as the state chancery where land charters and similar official documents were written
Land and property in Ethiopia from the 13th century to 1974
The medieval state of Ethiopia was established in 1270AD by a dynasty claiming Solomonic origins. Its monarchs initially had a mobile court with the royal camp moving through the various provinces but they later established a permanent capital at Gondar in the 17th century.
Ethiopia's system of land tenure had its roots in the primarily agricultural character of its economy and its large social hierarchy that necessitated an extensive system of tribute, taxation and rent based on land. The Ethiopian emperor granted land in two ways; the first was by waiving his own rights of taxation in favor of local rulers, nobility, clergy, soldiers and other notables; and the second was by allocating the land itself rather than the taxes on it. The emperor also retained royal lands on which where large estates that were used to supply the court.25
The two most common land grants were known as rist/rest and gult. Historian Allan Hoben defines the gult as “fief-holding rights” over land and rist as “land-use rights”26. The former was given to churches, nobility, elites and merchants. while the latter was mostly held by peasant farmers.
Based on documentary evidence, the more privileged of the Ethiopian lands were under the gult grants, the prestige of the latter was derived from its importance in Ethiopian social-political structure, as historian Donald Crummey explains: “gult was the device which bound together the king, noble, and priest in common relationship to the agricultural producer"27, such grants were likely in place as early as the Aksumite era (1st-10th century) although evidence for the is much firmer during the Zagwe kingdom especially under Lalibela (r. 1181–1221 AD) and these grants proliferated with the establishment of the Solomonic empire in the 13th century, the gult grants would be fully developed during the “Gondar-ine era” (from the 17th to the late 18th century) with the growth of a land market that continued well into the modern era until the fall of the old empire in 1974.
The first of such gult grants were those given to Ethiopian churches and monasteries, these were called rim/samon, the church held land in the same way as a secular landlord, and was not expected to cultivate it, but to distribute among the clergy and laypeople who served it and the latter would in turn pay taxes to the church. Early grants to the church served to bring the institution under the Ethiopian monarch's control. The second of such grants were the secular grants made to individuals, such as government officials, merchants, soldiers and other notables. The oldest evidence for such comes from the 14th century, but they became more common place during and after the gondarine era with wealthy aristocrats owning vast expanses of land near the capital.28
In all both forms of gult land tenure, the lands had clearly defined boundaries and sizes known as gasha29, the written documentation (ie: charters) of these grants constituted a title which could be inherited by both sons and daughters, the land could also be sold and held rented out. all these rights were included in the wording of the charters and in the Ethiopian Law (Fetha Nagast).30 The enforcement of land rights could be seen in the land disputes that attimes arose between gult holders, sellers, inheritors and tenants.31
Land sales became more common during the gondarine era especially during the “era of Empress Mentewab” (between 1730-1769) who was the defacto ruler of the empire through this period, and also from the reign of Takla Haymanot (r. 1769-79 AD) to Iyyasu III (R. 1784-1788 AD). The primary currency used in these land sales was gold dust, with some of the highest figures involving as much as 25 ounces of gold.32Land sales required a writing office which was attached to churches, its from the archives of these offices that documentation of such land sales was kept. The documents of sale also recorded the land's demarcation (which was done by erecting boundary markers), and witnesses to the sales, such as the officials of the church.
Land charter of Ashänkera granted by emperor Sarsa Dengel (r. 1563–1597) <from british library Or. 650 ff 16v>
Folio from the 18th century land register at the church of Qwesqwam founded by empress Mentewab
the ruins of Empress Mentewab’s Qwesqwam complex in Gondar, Ethiopia, where some of the gondarine land documents and registers were held in the 18th century
Conclusion: The centrality of Land in Africa’s political and economic past
Its evident from the above examples of these pre-colonial African states that land was central to the administrative and social-economic fabric of African states. The importance of land in Africa is not only attested in Ethiopia, but across a wide geographical region of the continent from Senegal, through Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, and Eritrea. This diverse geographic region also happens to have the most written documentation in Africa thus indicating that our knowledge of African land tenure is only limited by the level of extant documentation and shouldn’t serve as evidence of the absence of Land tenure in African regions with less extant written accounts.
For example, in the 18th century Asante empire (in modern Ghana), there was an extensive and vibrant market in tracts of land which were often under the ownership of a single, titled individual, and involved substantial amounts of money; with one sale involving as much as 225 ounces of gold ($4,500 then/ $157,000 today). The rights of these titled holders in Asante often resembled those of the freehold land owners in Darfur.33 This should invite more scholars of African economic history to look into the land tenure systems of African states where written documents aren't as abundant.
As argued by historians Jay Spaulding and Lidwien Kapteijns34, land tenure in Africa was also not exclusively urban, nor was it exclusively dominated by the institutions of serfdom or slavery. This diversity in Africa's land tenure systems also makes it futile to categorize the political and economic systems of African states as Feudal --a eurocentric term which is contested even by scholars of European history. This should also help scholars avoid espousing embarrassing theories eg Daron Acemoglu’s claim that Ethiopia’s “feudal” institution of gult grants led to the decline of slavery, in contrast to the rest of Africa where such grants didn’t exist and slavery was pervasive35.
Lastly, the lands and estates covered in the above regions were primarily property and not simply forms of administration, this property was owned by individuals (besides institutions) and was clearly demarcated, it was also inheritable, it was transferrable among individuals in the form of sales, it was rented/leased out, and its ownership was defended in the state courts, and owners of this property often held it in perpetuity. All of this was done in ways that are very familiar to modern property holders.
African Land Tenure systems before colonialism defy the reductive theories that are often used in defining them, the rupture between the pre-colonial and the colonial administration of land has misled many into projecting backwards the colonial land tenures as being built upon pre-colonial land tenure systems. The popular understanding of communal land and crown land in Africa owes more to colonial administration and less to the pre-colonial administration from which the former claims its continuation36.
Theories of African Land Tenure should look beyond this deliberate conflation created during the colonial era, in order to understand the position of Land in the African past.
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An Economic History of West Africa by A.G.Hopkins, pg 9-11
Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World by J.K.Thornton pg 87
Land tenure and the state in the pre-colonial Sudan by J. Spaulding pg 34
Property Relations by C.M.Hann pg 1-2)
Twilight of an Industry in East Africa by Katharine Frederick, pg 17,57-59
Medieval Nubia by G.R.Ruffini pg 61-72
G.R.Ruffini pg 29, 205
G.R.Ruffini pg 186
G.R.Ruffini pg 22-32
G.R.Ruffini pg 21
G.R.Ruffini pg 74
Jihād in West Africa During the Age of Revolutions by P. Lovejoy, pg 123
P. Lovejoy pg 125
State and the Economy by Abdullahi Mahadi, pg 463.
P. Lovejoy pg 124-126
Studies in West African Islamic History by J. R. Willis, pg 28
The Cloth of Many Colored Silks by J. Hunwick pg341
Studies in the Taʾrīkh al-fattāsh ii by j Hunwick
The Islamic Revolution of Futa Toro by David Robinson, pg 199
African Urban Spaces in Historical Perspective by S. J. Salm, pg 246
The place of mahrams in the history of Kanem-Borno by Muhammadu Aminu
Land in Dar Fur by R. S. O'Fahey, pg 14-18
R. S. O'Fahey, pg 18-19
Land documents in Dār Fūr sultanate (Sudan, 1785–1875) by G. M. La Rue
State and land in Ethiopian history by R. Pankhurst, pg 29-30, 48
Land Rights and Expropriation in Ethiopia by D. W. Ambaye pg 39
Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia by D. Crummey, pg 23
D. Crummey pg 151
land tenure and social accumulation of wealth by D Crummey pg 247
R. Pankhurst, pg 30
Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia by D. Crummey pg 125
R. Pankhurst pg 55
Asante in the nineteenth century by by Ivor Wilks pg 106-109
Land Tenure and the State in the Precolonial Sudan by Jay Spaulding and Lidwien Kapteijns
Why nations fail by Daron Acemoglu pg 178
see “Inventing Land Tenure”, in “Farmers and the state in colonial Kano” by Steven Pierce, pg 79-107