Semester

Summer

Date of Graduation

2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Type

PhD

College

Eberly College of Arts and Sciences

Department

History

Committee Chair

Joseph Hodge

Committee Member

Robert Maxon

Committee Member

Tamba Mbayo

Committee Member

Devin Smart

Committee Member

Moses Ochonu

Abstract

With limited access to the traditional sources that historians typically use to document their work, it has become necessary to find new ways to explore the voices of local peoples who have been historically “denied a voice.” One way is through the study of petitions. Indeed, scholars of history have sparingly used petitions in some way while few have made systematic use of them. Even so, historians of colonial Africa have largely overlooked petitions in their studies, despite the important role that these sources played in negotiating African-European relations. This dissertation revolves around the hundreds of selected petitions, dubbed “voices in ink,” addressed to British officials by subjects of colonial Igboland – part of the southern protectorate of Nigeria, located in present-day eastern Nigeria. In fact, one of the challenges I raised for myself – and the field of African history more generally – was how to extract social and political history from a study of petitions. This research is my response to that challenge. It allows me to tackle the old issue of colonial rule with new angles of vision.

“Voices in Ink” brings together transnational, historical, sociopolitical, geographical, and gender perspectives in exploring previously untapped colonial petitions written by Igbo subjects from 1892 to 1960. I make some vital arguments. Firstly, I argue that the outcomes for colonial policies in this period were not the making of imperial Britain alone but were also shaped by African responses through petitions. Secondly, I argue that imperial ideologies, which were employed to justify colonial rule in the first place, influenced the framing and writing of petitions. And thirdly, I contend that petitions are unique windows through which the daily lives, thoughts, desires, and actions of colonial subjects are revealed and, therefore, they should be treated as an integral part of the complex politics between colonial subjects and officials. Petition writing, delivery, and feedback should be seen as transactional processes – interactions that defied imperial hegemony and power structures. The contents of these petitions are results of strategic choices made by their authors in the context of their surroundings which not only provide insights into constructions of colonial relationships and social change but place petitioners as active agents of colonial administration. My arguments are based on three questions: How can people, especially subject people, without any official political power, push the colonial authorities to act? What do petitions tell us about everyday life and social change? How do petitions, petition writing, and bureaucratic responses form important (and historiographically neglected) parts of imperial politics and ideology in Igboland? I offer a revisionist reading that stresses the value of petitions, both as alternate historical sources of and methodology to the study of African history, which historians must exploit. What excites me most is how petitions record, so to speak, the voices of ordinary subjects.

In this dissertation, I read petitions as a representation of agency, power, and bargain—whether they were successful or not—and as a venue of lived experiences of colonial subjects, who defined and sometimes, redefined colonial interactions in terms that demonstrated the complex web of relations between them and British officials. By exploiting these overlooked sources, my dissertation, arguably, offers the most comprehensive study of petitions in colonial Nigeria. Unquestionably, “voices in ink” humanizes colonial subjects and brings fresh insights into their ordinary lives and colonial experiences previously undocumented, or rarely even heard of, in other historical documents.

Embargo Reason

Publication Pending

Available for download on Friday, July 29, 2022

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