African Kings: Portraits of a Disappearing Era by Daniel Lane
From 1988 to 1991, French photographer Daniel Laine photographed 70 African monarchs, “whose dynasties marked the history of Africa until the middle of the twentieth century.” With hundreds of monarchs to choose from, Laine focused on those who continued to “retain a traditional and spiritual authority that is difficult for the Western mind to comprehend.”
Laine recalls the difficulties of getting permission for the photographs, the sensitive diplomatic negotiations involved in many cases. A war in Sudan prevented Laine from photographing the king of Shiluk, a descendant of black dynasties that ruled Egypt. Others, including the king of Swaziland, declined to be photographed. With each striking photograph, Laine provides a brief biography and historical notes about the tribe and its rituals. Among those photographed are Chukumela Nnam Obi II, the Oba of Ogba, Nigeria; El Hadj Sheehu Idris, emir of Zaria, Nigeria; and Goodwill Zwelethini, king of the Zulu, South Africa. The book includes historical background by Pierre Alexandre on the origins and significance of African kingdoms.
The hardcover book (no longer in print) is 160 pages. It was published in 2000 by Ten Speed Press (ISBN-10: 1580082246, ISBN-13: 978-1580082242). For some reviews and additional information, you can check out the book’s page on Amazon. There you can also find links to online stores selling copies of the book (both new and used).
Please keep in mind the pictures and descriptions are from over 20 years ago. It is likely much has changed and some of these Kings may no longer be alive. I attempted to find some recent information on some of these individuals but updates were sparse and it was difficult to validate any of the information I did find. If any history buffs have more details, please let us know in the comments below!
1. Joseph Langanfin (Benin)
Representing the Abomey dynasty, Joseph Langanfin is the president of CAFRA, the council of Abomey’s royal families. With this title, he is considered as the official representative of the kings of Abomey. He presided at the centenary ceremonies for the death of King Glele, who was his great granfather.
2. Oni of Ife (Nigeria)
In 1980, Sijuwade became the fiftieth Oni (King) of Ife, one of the most ancient African Dynasties. Formerly, during his coronation, an Oni had to embrace the sword of justice, and enter into his palace on a cloth stiffened by the dry blood of sacrificed men and women. Today the Oni is a rich businessman, with several vaste properties in Nigeria and England.
3. Ngie Kamga Joseph – Fon of Bandjun (Cameroon)
The Fon (King) is the brother of courageous and powerful animals. At night, he has the power to transform himself into a panther, where he haunts the forest, runs through the savana and drinks from torrents. When a panther is killed by a hunter, the Fon from Bamileke region are afraid. Will one of them not perish from the death of his double.
Formerly a chief administator and cabinet chief for the finance Minister of Cameroun in 1964, Kamga Joseph is the thirteenth Fon of Bandjun. On the day of his predecessor’s funeral, he was stopped in the Bandjun market by two Bamileke chiefs, “the hangmen”, in the middle of the nobles and princes who wept the deceased King. Wearing a head dress made of sisal as a sign of humility, he was taken to the noblemen, the “tafo meru”, where he learned during nine weeks how to be a King.
4. Halidou Sali – Lamido of Bibemi (Cameroon)
Halidou Sali, the twelfth Lamido (king) of Bibemi, received his kingdom in 1958. He is a descendant of Aido Samba, one of the 42 Kings of Adamawa, who during the eighteenth century carried the flag for the Jihad (holy war) of Ousman Dan Fodio.
5. Oseadeeyo Addo Dankwa III – King of Akropong-Akuapem (Ghana)
A graduate from the University of London and an economic advisor for the Ghanaian administration, The King of Akropong holds for the last sixteen years the “sacred seat” of the Akuapem-Asona, one of the seven major Akan clans. To his right, his “spokesman” carries the royal emblem, the elephant, a remembrance that his kingdom was founded by force.
6. Abubakar Sidiq – Sultan of Sokoto (Nigeria)
This photo was taken fifteen days before the death of the Sultan of Sokoto. He had reigned for more than fifty years. At the time of his successor’s coronation, who was chosen by a council of “king makers”, a conflict erupted. Two royal families disputed the choice; the consequence: one hundred deaths.
According to “news watch”, a large daily Nigerian newspaper, the power of the Sultan of Sokoto is such, that most of the Nigerians questioned would rather be Sultan than President of Nigeria. Abubakar Sidiq was not as rich as other sovereigns of this country. He earned annually about 1 million naira ($200 000). But with this income, the Sultan had to support his suite of eighty-six people, and feed one hundred and fifty grand children.
7. Hapi IV – King of Bana (Cameroon)
The kingdom of Bana finds its origins in a tragedy. In the middle of the twelfth century, several Bamileke groups, settled in small villages around what is actually Bana. Legend says that one of the village chiefs, Mfenge was accused of sorcery by the others. In order to exonerate himself, he cut off his mother’s head and had the cadaver examined by specialists.
The belief in sorcery, that it is transmitted through the “maternal womb”, was not proven. Mfenge then demanded that mothers in others families be beheaded. His four sons went from house to house, sending wives and mothers to the palace, in order to be examined. The recalcitrants were decapited on the spot. Taken by panic, chiefs and nobles fled, and Mfenge became King of Bana.
8. Nyimi Kok Mabiintsh III – King of Kuba (D.R. Congo)
The Nyimi Mabiintsh III is fifty years old. He acquired the throne at the age of twenty. As a descendant of god the creator, the king is attributed with supernatural powers. Due to his top position he is restricted by several contraints: he does not have the right to sit on the ground, and he cannot cross a cultivated field. Apart from his cook, no one has seen him eat. Moreover he never travels without him, and his personal cooking ustensils.
It took Laine three weeks to photograph the Nyimi (king) of the Kuba in his royal apparel, the “bwantshy”. The outfit made out of material stitched with beads and “cauris” (small shells used as money in Africa), weighs 160 lb. It takes more than two hours to dress the King, and two days of spiritual preparation to be sufficiently purified in order to wear the outfit. The weight and the heat of the bwantshy is such, that it is impossible to wear it more than one hour. The preceeding King had only worn it three time during his entire life.
9. Igwe Kenneth Nnaji Onyemaeke Orizu III – Obi of Nnewi Nigeria
When Kenneth Nnaji became King of Nnewi in 1963, he was a farmer, and his ten wives had already blessed him with thirty children. Located to the east of the Niger river, in Ibo country, Nnewi is a rich town with several millionaires. This kingdom, founded in the fourteenth century, is composed of four large villages. When the Portugueses arrived in the region in the fifteenth century, a multitude of city-states appeared. As with Nnewi, these cities were built on the basis of a thriving slave trade. Born with the trade, they lived only for trade, and did not look favorably upon the creation of a state uniting under the same Nigerian flag, the Ibo, the Yoruba and the Hausa. Ethnic and religious clashs erupted, starting the Biafra War.
10. Isienwenro James Iyoha Inneh – Ekegbian of Bénin (Nigeria)
James Inneh, seventy nine years old, was formerly a business man. In 1962, he was named commander of the royal guards, “isienwenro”, by the king Akenzua. “Asako no s’oghionba” (ants sting the King’s enemies), was how the royal guards responsible for the King’s security, were called. During some rituals, they glide around the soverain, completely envelopping him like an army of ants.
11. El Hadj Seidou Njimoluh Njoya – Sultan of Fumban and Mfon of the Bamun (Cameroon)
Eighty years old, the sultan Njoya has been on the throne for more than fifty years. At the age of twenty nine, he inherited the famous Bamun throne, founded in the sixteenth century. He was chosen, by the kingdom’s council of wisemen, among one hundred and seventy seven of his father’s children, the famous Sultan Njoya.
His father, an enlightened sovereign, spent twelve years to invent his own alphabet, made of eighty symbols. He wanted to be able to write in the Bamun language the kingdom’s history. At this time, the oral tradition dominated. In 1913, while Cameroon was still a German colony, Sultan Njoya equiped himself with his own printing house.
12. Agboli-Agbo Dedjlani – King of Abomey (Benin)
Dedjlani, a former policeman, waited six years to retire, and then proceeded with his secret coronation ceremonies. “Officially”, there is no longer a king in Benin. But on september 30, 1989, Dedjlani put on his royal shoes, and at the age of fifty four became King of Abomey. Being monogamous, he was obliged to marry two more wives to take care of his royal household.
When he goes out, tradition requires that he be sheltered under an umbrella with his emblem. One of wives must always be next to him, carrying the royal spitting bowl. The King also has to wear his scepter in permanence. Holding it in his hand or hanging on his shoulder, more than a symbol, the scepter is the King. The silver dust protector worn on the nose, dates from the nineteenth century, and was inherited from the King Gbehanzin. It protected the King’s nose from the dust, during the royal processions in Abomey.
13. Goodwill Zwelethini – King of Zulu (South Africa)
King Goodwill Zwelethini is a descendant of the famous Shaka, founder of the Zulu kingdom. At the beginning of the ninetheenth century, Shaka was the chief of a small insignificant clan among the Bantu people. Thinking that the survival of the Zulus depended inevitably on the subservience of the other clans, Shaka submitted the natal region to blood and fire. Between 1815 and 1828, he annihilated all tribes that were opposed to him. This troubled period referred to as Mfecan (terror), was accompanied by famine and exodus of a large part of the Bantu population. Shaka’s cruelty became legendary.
14. El Hadj Mamadou Kabir Usman – Emir of Katsina (Nigeria)
The Emir of Katsina is a passionate follower of polo, and his family has contributed many champions to Nigeria. In the twelfth century, Katsina was a Hausa village, governed by the Durbawa, which was a royal dynasty that had emigrated from a region whose name tradition has lost. One of the Durbawa kings, Janzawa, married a Daura princess from another Hausa state. The Queen Katsina, gave her name to the village which became the terminal of the commercial transsaharien route from Tripoli (Lybia).
15. Salomon Igbinoghodua – Oba Erediauwa of Bénin (Nigeria)
On March 23, 1979, prince Salomon, a graduate of Cambridge University, was crowned Oba (king) of Benin. He suceeded his father Akenzua II, and became the thirty-eigth king of a dynasty dating back to the thirteenth century. “The large chalk stick is broken”, was the metaphor used to officially announce the death of Akenzua. Immediately afterwards, the Edo of Nigeria, England and America, shaved their heads. The new growth of the hair signified the rebirth of the kingdom, and the re-establishment of the harmony between man and the elements, that had been broken for an instant by the death.
16. Aliyu Mustapha – Lamido of Adamawa (Nigeria)
One day, Adama who was also called Modibo, heard that a great Marabout (moslem leader) by the name of Ousman Dan Fodio, had proclaimed the Jihad (holy war) in Gobir and the Hausa country. At Adama’s death, his immense territory became Adamawa, which actually covers a part of south-west Nigeria and all of northern Cameroun. Today the Lamido has sixty children, and is the chancellor of Amadou Bello University at Zaria, one of the most prestigious universities in Africa.
17. Oba Joseph Adekola Obunoye – Olowo of Owo (Nigeria)
Six hundred years ago, Olowo, the King, fell in love with Orensen, a very beautiful woman. Unfortunately for the King, she was a goddess who could not live with a human. She was forbidden to see women pounding spices, draw water, or throw a bundle of wood to the ground. Because of his love for the goddess, and in order to marry her, the King promised her that his other wives, in front of her would follow these same restrictions.
After several years, the King’s wives became jealous and revolted. They did everything they were not supposed to do in front of the goddess, who then cast a spell upon the entire kingdom. The goddess promised that people of Owo, would die of famine or sickness if the King and his chiefs did not celebrate every year a ceremony in her honor. The drums should beg her pardon and sing her praises. One also had to offer her a sacrifice of a man and a woman. This ceremony, Igogo, still exists, but the human beings have been replaced by a sheep and a goat.
18. Bouba Abdoulaye – Sultan of Rey-Bouba (Cameroon)
The Baba (sultan) of Rey-Bouba rules over fifty five thousand subjects, and his territory is as large as Belgium and Luxemburg reunited (35 000Km2). It is wrong to call him Lamido, because he was never a vassal to Sokoto. A former parliamentarian in the Camerounian Assembly, Bouba Abdoulaye had to leave everything and renounce modern life in order to suceed his father.
His great-grand father, Bouba Ndjidda came from Mali in 1799, with his Fulani warriors, and decided to settle on the borders of Adamawa, at the edge of the Mayo-Rey river. He placed a white flag, a silver drum, a sword and a basket containing the royal secrets, and built a palace with a surrounding wall that was 800 meters long and seven meters high.
Today these walls shelter one of the most traditional soverains of Africa. He exercises an invisible and permanent power. He is only allowed to go out three times during the year. The Baba is the center of the world and the kingdom. He knows everything, and has to know everything. Hundreds of agents keep him informed of all the movements and acts in his kingdom.
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