Jacqueline de Vries, 'Your custom was bad. It has been changed by Government': Control over women in colonial Kom (Cameroon)

Before its fate became intertwined with European interests in the early 20th century, the Kom kingdom in the Bamenda Grassfields of Cameroon was a highly centralized, stratified, prosperous and powerful state, firmly anchored in a regional network of political and economic alliances. Fifty years later, on the eve of Independence, traditional authority had faded to little more than a faint echo of what it had been, having fallen dependent for legitimacy on the British administration and on the newly-educated elite. Internal instability and dissent eroded the foundations of local government, customary leadership and courts. Decades of interventions in political and social organization, legal practice, agricultural production, trade infrastructure, education and belief systems meant that the Kom kingdom which the British left behind in 1961 was very different from the Kom kingdom which they first encountered in 1916. Welcomed by some, contested by others, and understood by few, the changes wrought by European government and Christian missions were ambiguous and often inadvertent.

When she first began studying Kom modern history, Jacqueline de Vries' attention was drawn to a protracted, violent women’s uprising in 1958, known as anlu. Seen by the British administration primarily as a protest against agricultural reforms, the rebellion highlighted numerous concerns stemming from the European modernisation mission. Some research on this uprising had been previously published, but the more she learned about Kom under British rule, the more obvious it became that the anlu, and its historical context in particular, deserved re-examination. A detailed, historicized study of anlu can  help us to better understand not only the rebellion itself, but – more significantly – the varied and sometimes contradictory consequences of European penetration in Kom.

This book presents a new study of the anlu tied in with two key episodes in Kom modern history which preluded the uprising, and which illustrate the unravelling of the fabric of Kom social and political organisation. The first of those episodes is the establishment in 1919 of the Catholic mission by indigenous religious leaders in the village Njinikom. The second key episode is the mass flight of royal women from the palace in 1949. This three-pronged focus – anlu, mission, exodus – highlights the dramatically disintegrating impact of British administration, which, unlike the term ‘Indirect Rule’ would seem to suggest, was direct, irreversible, and far from innocuous.

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