Friday, 4 April 2014

Solomon Wouldn't Have Cut It In Nigeria

     It's obvious, of course, that government was simple in the early days of civilisation. They didn't have to worry about fiscal policy, for example, or social welfare, health, or education. Let's face it: the only reason people agreed to follow a king is because they needed someone to do two things: lead them in battle, and administer justice. Thus, we find that the King of Israel spent a lot of time at the city gates settling his subjects' quarrels. Fast forward twenty-nine centuries, and in the British Empire we find the King's representative, the District Commissioner spending a lot of time at the bench settling his subjects' quarrels. And that is how a certain Frank Hives almost came a cropper in a situation made famous by the most famous of Israel's kings.
     In the early years of last century, Mr Hives was District Commissioner in a district centring on the town of Bende, deep in the jungle of southeast Nigeria, where unspeakable cruelties, savagery, and superstitions still remained supreme. Our forefathers did not rule a quarter of the world by weight of numbers; he was the only white man in the area. However, he did have the assistance of four assessors, usually chiefs from neighbouring areas, to advise on native customs. There were also lower courts run completely by local chiefs. One day, Hives overturned the decision of one of those local courts on appeal. The defendant thereupon demanded a summons against the chief who had originally found in his favour, claiming a refund of twenty brass rods (the local currency). Why? asked the District Commissioner. Because, explained the defendant, that was the bribe he had originally paid to the chief, and now his decision had been overturned. Mr Hives took the name of the chief to be dealt with later.
     Next came two women, escorting a naked little boy of about six or seven. It appears that, at the time of a recent British punitive expedition, the inhabitants had fled into the bush, and not all had returned. One woman had lost a son in this manner, so when the boy turned up, she claimed to be his mother. At that point, up jumped another woman to lay claim to him, and the next thing, both women were fighting with nails and teeth and filthy language, and tearing each other's clothing. Next, the relatives on both sides threw themselves into the fray. A native constable stepped in, and managed to bring the child to the local court, "followed by a cursing, swearing, sweating mob of women, all of them in various stages of deshabille." When the turmoil settled down, both "mothers" (there was no mention of any husband) obtained summons for the return of their alleged son. This was the mess which District Commissioner Hives was required to sort out.
     The boy was clearly terrified as he was brought before the bench, probably thinking that he was being assessed as the next item of the menu. However, he eventually calmed down enough to give his own testimony. He could not remember the names of his parents. (Probably he had known them simply as "Mummy" and "Daddy". ) He could say only that he had been dwelling in a nearby town whose name also failed to register on him, where some people fed him in return for certain services. One day he followed some native traders, but when they arrive at Bende, he recognized it, and so promptly hid from the traders. Once he came out of hiding, the two women pounced on him. He did not recognize either of them, nor the section of town where they were living.
     You must understand that I am condensing a account which was much livelier in the original. The District Commissioner had to communicate through interpreters, and the chaos and hubbub of the court was unlike anything which would have been tolerated in his native country. When the women and their respective witnesses came to provide evidence, they did so loudly and at great length, but the only identifying mark they could point to was an obviously very recent wound. It was clear that both sides were lying.
     Just then, Mr Hives noticed a Bible, and he remembered hearing of an earlier, very similar case. This story is so well known, it should not be necessary to repeat it, but here goes. Two prostitutes had come before King Solomon. One of them had rolled over on her child in the night and it had died, so now both were claiming to be the mother of the survivor. After a bit of thought, Solomon took a sword and announced that he was going to divide the baby between them. One of the women thought that was a good idea, but the other shouted, in effect, "No, no! I'll let the other one keep it if you allow it to live."
     "That's the real mother!" said Solomon.
     Hives thereupon announced the same solution. What happened next was not according to plan.
     The interpreter had barely finished translating this when every man and woman in the court were on their feet shouting their approval, not excepting the two "mothers", who indeed were the loudest of all in their praise of the suggested method. Then, before I could realize what was happening, the two were out of their boxes, and had seized the screaming boy, whom they laid on the table.
     From somewhere or other there appeared a large, almost naked man who brandished a shining matchet [machete]. He might have been the town's Lord High Executioner in its unregenerate days.
     This apparition advanced, spitting on his hands, a look of pleasurable anticipation in his eyes.
     At this point, Mr Hives sprang from his seat, grasped the executioner's arm, and called on the constables to disarm him. Meanwhile, the two women had each seized a leg of their alleged son. Snatching the staff of office from one of the assessor, Hives began belabouring the two harridans. A general melée ensued. When it was over, one of the assessors asked why the decision hadn't been carried out, and
[He] felt very hurt when - my temper being short like my breath - I gave him a succinct account of his tree-dwelling ancestors.
     The upshot was that the would-be Solomon finally announced that, as the child's mother must be presumed dead, the Government would become both his mother and his father. He would be sent to the mission school in Calabar. The next morning, the boy, now named Solomon, was dispatched in the company of a native constable, and letter requesting that he be fed, clothed, and educated, with the cost to be borne by the grant to the Institute.
     It came as a great surprise to the inhabitants of Bende when, years later, the grown-up Solomon returned to pay his respects. They had all assumed that Hives had used his authority to sell him as a slave. Of course, this had not lowered him in their estimation, because they would have done the exactly same thing under the circumstances.

Reference: Frank Hives and Gascoigne Lumley, Ju-Ju and Justice in Nigeria, John Lane, 1930.

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