Recovering the endangered archives of the Benue Valley, central Nigeria (EAP532)

Aims and objectives

This project will rescue two groups of records in the Otukpo-Makurdi axis of the Lower Benue region of Central Nigeria: the Methodist Mission’s ecclesiastical records in Otukpo; and the transcribed oral and written records in the private collection of the late renowned scholar of Central Nigeria, CC Jacobs. The Jacobs collection is housed in Benue State University in Makurdi, about an hour’s drive from Otukpo.

The documents held in these collections include personal and institutional letters, correspondence, reports, commentaries and polemical pamphlets, disciplinary proceedings, liturgical and other ecclesiastical documents, memos, employee files, diaries, transcripts of oral and folkloric traditions, ethnographic and private photographs, and transcripts of oral performances.

Between 1977 and 2003, CC Jacobs spent much time and resources in gathering primary data and archival records on the micro-ethnic nationalities of the Central Nigeria region, whose histories are largely neglected by scholars. The ethnic communities, cultures, and religious traditions of the Central Nigerian area are poorly understood by scholars because of an emphasis on the Muslim emirate regions of colonial Northern Nigeria and because many of the peoples and societies of the region did not evolve strong, centralised political traditions and thrived instead in a multiplicity of compact ethno-linguistic units. The CC Jacobs collection has the potential to fill this gap and to support new research into the peoples, economic and agricultural systems, cultures, and migrations of peoples in this region of Nigeria.

The CC Jacobs collection is significant in several respects. Apart from being the largest individual archival collections on the Central Nigerian region and its peoples, it is also the most systematised and detailed. Copies of some of the files that are currently missing from the National Archives, Kaduna, which deal with the customs and cultures of the largely non-Muslim communities of Central Nigeria, can be found in Professor Jacobs’ collection. In addition, during the late 1970s and 1980s, Jacobs worked closely with Professor Elizabeth Isichei and Dr. Peter John Yearwood, among others, on several ethnographic surveys, which greatly altered existing perspectives on the pre-colonial history of the peoples of Central Nigeria and the greater Benue-Plateau region. Some of these reports have survived exclusively in Professor Jacobs’ collection. Thirdly, Professor Jacobs’ collection contains enormous primary data on the origins, early migrations and settlement patterns, as well as dimensions of inter-group relations of most ethnic nationalities in Central Nigeria in general and the Benue Valley in particular. In light of claims and counter-claims by some groups in conflict zones within Central Nigeria, the information in such data will support new historical and anthropological explorations into the pre-colonial dynamics of coexistence, interactions, and cleavage formation. As ethno-religious conflicts continue to erupt in the region, research into the complex histories and cultures of the area needs to be empirically grounded in materials that have not yet been mined.

Central Nigeria was a major centre of the Atlantic slave trade. The importance of Central Nigeria in the Atlantic slave trade is well documented in European and African travel accounts, in the oral and written narratives of communities, and in the records of nineteenth and early twentieth century Christian missionaries. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, agents of the newly constituted Sokoto Caliphate repeatedly raided non-Muslim communities on the northern and southern banks of the Benue and the Niger rivers. Many captives were sold to European and Brazilian slave merchants for transfer to Atlantic destinations. Other captives were transported north to lubricate the Caliphate’s slave-worked agricultural plantations and its socio-political system of tribute and patronage.

As a result of this complex history, Central Nigeria is awash with oral and written anti-Caliphate and anti-slavery narratives, which are captured by the records and documents of ecclesiastical institutions, and by private correspondences and transcribed oral traditions in missionary reports and commentaries like those in the Methodist Mission in Otukpo. The collections contain individual and institutional narratives on late nineteenth and early twentieth century anti-slavery efforts of Christian groups to combat the relics of slavery and convert people to Christianity. They also contain commentaries on colonisation and colonial society in Idomaland that are unencumbered by the strictures of the colonial bureaucracy and the norms of official colonial communication. Missionary records are invaluable materials for reconstructing colonial histories beyond the formulaic renderings of standard colonial archives.

When the Methodist records were consulted in 2001 and 2002, they consisted simply of thousands of documents strewn on dusty floors. Exposed and uncared for, many of the documents were already damaged beyond salvation. The rest were brittle and covered in dust, termites, and spider webs. With no funds to preserve them, the records had been neglected and abandoned.

The CC Jacobs collection in Makurdi is a bequest to the Benue State University from the late scholar and curator’s estate. The documents, including photographs, were stuffed randomly in several big bags and in ripped files, and were put in dusty storage rooms with other items at high temperatures.

The first phase of the project is training. The two project co-directors, with the help of local archivists and technical audio/visual specialists, will conduct a 4-day training seminar on archival digital restoration and preservation for local ICT personnel, archivists, and graduate students who will do the digitisation and cataloguing.

The project will create a digital archive of all the salvageable documents in these two collections, saving them on multiple devices that will be stored in multiple locations in Nigeria, the United States, and the British Library. Approximately 100,000 digital images of documents will be created and catalogued. The digital materials will be stored on CDs, hard drives, and on a small dedicated server in Vanderbilt University. Master copies of the digitised documents will be housed at Benue State University and at the Methodist Mission in Otukpo.