David Pratten. The Man-Leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. xii + 425 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-34956-9.
Reviewed by Insa Nolte (Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham)
Published on H-Africa (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia
No Innocent Detail: Exploring the Man-Leopard Murders of Southeast Nigeria
In a time when many books on Africa reflect the popular trend towards brevity, it is refreshing to read one that takes up space confidently and self-assuredly. Printed on over four hundred pages of good-quality paper and including numerous historical photographs and maps, David Pratten’s wonderful history of Annang society during the colonial period has a beautiful appearance as well as containing an accomplished text. Considering this, it is not expensive, and the comparatively lower price in U.S. currency is particularly good news for North American readers.
The explicit focus of the book is the man-leopard murders which began during the mid-1940s. The number of victims is uncertain, but over two hundred deaths were investigated by the colonial police, and many more were rumored to have been part of these murders. The episode led to a quick deterioration and the near collapse of the social order before the killings stopped in 1948. What or who caused these deaths? The government originally suspected a popular panic, but it soon accepted that it was dealing with murders. Since many of the early victims investigated by the colonial police were women whose bodies showed forms of leopard-like mutilation, it was suspected that their deaths reflected a specific sexual or ritual motive. But as more people died, colonial investigators felt that they must be dealing with the activities of a secret society, though they were unable to identify with certainty which association was to blame for the murders. Also, as the number of victims increased, it became almost impossible to identify a coherent motive for the murders. Where they linked to a breakdown in gender and lineage relationships? Were they part of a conservative attempt to stall the modernization and Christianization of society? Or were they aimed at subverting colonial authority? Towards the end of the murders, it seems, the very multiplicity of theories about Annang society seemed to point back to their external appearance: were the murders perhaps, after all, the killings of leopards?
Pratten begins his exposition by tracing the sometimes dramatic, but often more subtle shifts in power associated with the coming of British rule to the Annang, a group of Ibibio speakers located near the Kwa Ibo river in southern Nigeria. As relations between the generations, sexes, and local institutions were transformed by the collapse of local trading monopolies and the establishment of a colonial-cum-missionary infrastructure, new tensions over the control of commerce, bride prices, and decision-making arose. These tensions could not always be resolved, and contributed to the structural pressures associated with the British ambition to first establish "indirect rule" and later to reform local courts and councils. The colonial interest in ruling through specific institutions was at odds not only with the rise of an educated elite, but also with the ongoing importance of decentralized associational life. Despite government attempts to restrict the activities of the more powerful traditional groups, collective action remained an important feature in Annang society, whether in the form of secret societies, masquerade groups, or "modern" associations. Illustrating the enduring ideological and political significance of associational life also in the "modern" sphere of life, the Ibibio Welfare Union both reflected and attempted to overcome the manifold fissures affecting Annang society.
The restrictions accompanying the Second World War intensified economic pressure on the locality. These were translated into increased social tensions that in turn fueled fears and rumors about murders believed to have been committed by wild leopards or by humans pretending to be leopards. In local understanding, leopards were seen as a source of real danger to humans and their animals, as well as multifaceted symbols associated both with chiefly authority and ékpê, a traditional secret society which had played a central political and economic role during the nineteenth century by facilitating the incorporation of local malefactors into the regional slave-trading network. Moreover, as Pratten points out in the introduction, while the rumors about leopards primarily engaged forms of local imagination, they also fascinated colonial officers and indeed contributed to a whole genre of myths about Africa (and other non-Western societies). In the encounter between colonial administrators, local clerks, and leaders as well as suspects, victims, and their relations, the investigation of the murders and speculation about their motives shed light on a number of historical concerns.
Read as a historical-anthropological murder mystery (and it has clearly been received as such by some reviewers), this is a very satisfying book. Exploring early and mid-century Annang history, it provides a fascinating insight into a relatively under-researched colonial society, and it even adds a further twist to the narrative by not providing an explicit resolution to the search for the murderers. This subverts the expectations typical of the crime story and leads the reader back to the difficulties of the original investigation: as Pratten quite reasonably suggests, sometimes there are no simple explanations, or it is impossible to uncover them. This point, I suspect, also addresses the conventions of academic genres: as the murders remained unresolved at the time, and as field work did not uncover compelling evidence to support any one theory, anthropological and historical work is not invalidated by the absence of a firm conclusion.
All the same, the meticulous text provides the reader with enough information about Annang society to form an opinion about what the author thinks is unlikely to have happened. During the period in question, investigations into the activities of secret societies, priests, diviners, and other associations provided no convincing evidence of an organized interest or motive reflected by the murders. Also, overall murder rates, inclusive of the leopard-related deaths, did not rise greatly, suggesting that it is unlikely that wild animals were responsible for the majority of the deaths (as this would imply a parallel fall in "normal" murders) (p. 298). The stability of overall murder rates and the heterogeneity of the possible motives implies that what most likely united many of the murders was not a single motivation, but a shared and decentralized practice, which was, at least in the beginning, successful in disguising the killings as other forms of deaths. However, in the absence of a corpus of convincing confessions or surrounding narratives (see however pp. 230-232), it is impossible to be sure. Even if the murders were really the acts of individuals who shared a decentralized technology (and I should stress that this is not suggested explicitly), then they reflected a multiplicity of individual strategies embedded in various historical trends and thus resist explanation in a more linear narrative.
Beyond the difficulties associated with "uncovering the truth" in this case, Pratten’s refusal to commit himself to a single explanation is also an intrinsic part of his ambition. Determined both to fuse synchronic and diachronic exploration and to examine the engagement and transformation of Annang, colonial, and Christian discourses, Pratten focuses on the man-leopard murders because of the way in which they condensed and refracted historical debates about important local practices. A stratification of narrative and structural exploration would have reduced what is currently a masterpiece of reflection on the interwoven strands of Annang history and society to a much more conventional work.
Due to the wealth of detail and description provided, Pratten’s book can be read as a contribution to a wide range of inquiries, and undoubtedly, those looking for specific material within the historical social sciences will read it with profit and delight. While Pratten does not provide any explicit theory about the murders or the Annang more generally, his implicitly structured and reflective description enables theorizing as a shared engagement between author and reader. This refusal to provide unambiguous answers may be frustrating to the book’s more impatient readers, and it may be best to ensure that students can deal with its openness when it is used for teaching: I shall reserve it for final-year undergraduate and postgraduate courses. However, the book’s refusal to offer definite answers is also its greatest strength, and it will surely stand the test of time. For those who trust the author’s instincts, this book does not contain one innocent detail.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-africa.
Insa Nolte. Review of Pratten, David, The Man-Leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria.
H-Africa, H-Net Reviews.
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