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Mile End Institute

Historicising ‘Black Lives Matter’: the Women’s War of 1929 - Emma Davies

What can historians of Black Lives Matter learn from women’s anti-colonial protest in Nigeria?

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Photograph showing a protest during the Women's War of 1929

Courtesy of National Museum Uyo (Fair use image)

What are the scenes and events that form the essence of history? Many historians write it merely as the political bargaining of well-fed white men in gowns and crowns. Sometimes, to great excitement, a white woman is introduced to us.

But what about the history that occurs on the roads between towns and villages, in forests and bush? A passing conversation, a wisp of information-turned-rumour, a snatch of song hummed or whistled; moments that are often considered too weak and transitory to be classed as history. Yet this, too, is history, of an equal and deserving kind. It is these flighty yet autonomous points of contact that can change a person’s mind; that invite them to collaborate or rebel; and that feed like tributaries into the oceanic strength of ordinary people’s movements.

The market women’s war against British colonial government in South-Eastern Nigeria is an excellent example of this.

In November and December 1929, tens of thousands of African women in South-Eastern Nigeria danced, sang, and marched in protest against an enforced and exploitative British colonial policy of taxation, and against oppressive and patriarchal legal structures. Their war was not fought with guns or cannons; the women’s weapons were bricks, stones, and their own voices and bodies.

These physical sacrifices were not merely resorted to in desperation. The women’s methods were organised and planned, rooted in a long history of Igbo methods of communal protest and complaint. Known as ‘sitting on a man’, the chanting, sexual insults, and naked dances through which the women expressed themselves were deeply discomforting and distressing to the Victorian colonial officers and soldiers sent to dispel the protestors.

In a response well-practiced by the British in their colonies, the soldiers were ordered to fire upon the crowds of women, and approximately 70 women were killed. Many more died from their injuries. The protests continued into early 1930, when a Commission of Inquiry answered the women’s grievances with successful reforms, many of which paved the way for Nigerian nationalists in their later fight for independence.

So what is the historical importance of the Women’s War in our current political climate? Its significance is twofold: firstly, the methods of the Women’s War of 1929 are mirrored by the current Black Lives Matter movement in the United States; and secondly, these historical events offer an opportunity to expand upon the historical framework of Subaltern Studies.

The BLM movement began after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in 2013, and gained traction in 2014 after the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Although the movement’s most vocal point of protest is against racially motivated violence against black people, supporters have also expressed demands to ‘defund the police’ and reform oppressive economic systems.

Like those who participated in the Women’s War, those who march for BLM very rarely carry firearms, and they use their bodies and voices to express anger and demand change. The main point of stimulus for both the Women’s War and the BLM movement was one of oppressive colonial economic structures. Linking the economic systems of today’s United States and 1920s Nigeria invites scholars to examine the colonial legacies of the Western world. The women involved in the Women’s War knew that an end to colonial rule meant an end to their economic exploitation, in the same way as the people marching for BLM know that freedom from racial violence and exploitation is rooted in the dismantling of the colonial economic system that perpetuates racialised and gendered structures of power.

These similarities make both the BLM movement and the Women’s War excellent subjects for the historical framework known as Subaltern Studies. The Subaltern framework builds on the works of essayist Antonio Gramsci, in which the term ‘subaltern’ refers to the non-elites in society. In 1982, Ranajit Guha founded the South Asian Subaltern Studies School, in order to push back against a top-down focus that was developing amongst Indian historians. The Subaltern framework is invaluable to African history, as a way to combat histories that fixate on the white male dominated corridors of ‘power’.

In using a lens that redefines ‘power’, the voices of the Igbo and Ibibio market women push to the front, demanding that they be listened to. The women’s far-reaching economic, social and political demands reflect their influence both in the marketplace, and 1920’s Nigerian society as a whole. Furthermore, just because the women operated in crowds did not mean homogenous agreement. Disputes between different religious and class groupings amongst the women are also brought into sharper focus by use of the Subaltern framework. By understanding the women through this lens, their actions became less homogenised, more complex, and more human.

This is what many historians are missing from their work. When we write about a people’s movement, we are writing about flawed individuals. To depict history as an endless stream of mythologised and muscled heroes who always save the day is misleading and exclusionary. My intention is to continue to write about women’s protest in West Africa, and my hope is that, one day, histories of the BLM movement and its protesters will be written within a Subaltern framework.

Emma Davies is a graduate from the School of History at Queen Mary University of London and winner of the Mile End Institute Research Prize.