Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Kingdom of Nri

Fig.1: If you squint, the Kingdom of Nri looks...just as puny.
Normally when we talk about old kingdoms, we laud about how powerful they were and how easily they took over their neighbors and helped themselves to their cookie tin. I mean, would we really care that much about the Romans, the Vikings, the Mongols, and the British if they kept to themselves and decided to live in peace and harmony? How boring is that crap?! Well my therapist told me I needed to take it easy with the whole "violence" thing, so maybe I'll write about a kingdom that is known for never using military force against others or themselves. I'm talking about Nri, a medieval African kingdom situated in the southeast of present-day Nigeria. Comprised of people of the Igbo culture and language, Nri remained within its borders for the majority of its nearly-one-thousand-year-long history, emphasizing its political and spiritual welfare over the conquest of land or resources. As boring as that may sound, I suppose that actually should be a good thing. So let's give some time to the Nri before we feel the need to satisfy ourselves with the blood and gore of greater civilizations (is it too soon to do another Roman history?).

Fig.2: Believe it or
not, Chukwu's
favorite animal
is the giraffe.
The Igbo people had been hanging around the Anambra River, making pottery and all that crap, since about 2500 years Before Crullers (unfortunately they didn't make crullers, which would have been a more lasting accomplishment).  Records indicate that they got around to making a formalized political structure around 948 After Doughnuts with the arrival of a figure named Eri. According to Igbo legend, Eri was sent down from the sky by the god Chukwu (fig.2) in order to become an eze (king) over that region of the Earth. Eri initially complained about this assignment, saying that the Anambra Valley was too wet and sticky, and asked if he could be given a cushier place to become an eze like Hawaii or Aruba; Chukwu simply told him to suck it up and deal with Africa like the rest of the Africans. Once on Earth, he provided order to his loyal subjects, who became known as the Nri clan. Like always, archaeologists have killed the buzz when it came to Eri's heavenly origins, believing he was just a normal Igbo dude who seemed competent enough to become king, and have even dated his reign to as late as the 13th century (archaeologists always ruin the fun). Nevertheless, all other eze claim to embody the spirit of Eri, starting with his successor, the unfortunately named Ìfikuánim.

Unlike other kingdoms around this time, the job of the eze was not just to lounge around in a huge palace, boss people around, and eat giant turkey legs. His main job was to protect the spiritual welfare of his people, which sounds much more difficult than the wife-carousel that Henry VIII was on. The eze possessed a special connection with the heavens that his people relied on for their continuous welfare. He would spend most of his time secluded in a temple praying for bountiful harvests and peace among his people, while his advisers would do the actual work making sure those things really happened (just like any other boss). The Nri would often present yams to the eze in return for his blessings, though I have found that children are not as grateful when presented with yams on Halloween. The need for spiritual protection was so paramount that whenever a new eze was chosen, he had to be taken down to the Anambra River so that his magical powers could be tested...by seeing if he could collect rocks from under the water. Seriously, that was the test. My little cousin who picks his nose and eats it could have been considered a mythical African king!

Now, the thing that makes the Kingdom of Nri so unique in history is that it really didn't have a military force to speak of. They believed that it was a grave sin for the blood of humans to spill upon the land, which is why they were always very careful when they got a nasty papercut. As such, Nri was never at war with their neighbors and declined to conquer additional lands, explaining why its territory was basically the size and shape of a dog biscuit. But how did the eze keep the peace and prevent revolting revolts within his own borders without big burly guys standing around with their arms crossed? Again we turn to his role as the mouthpiece to the gods: whenever a certain group was getting out of hand, he would simply cut off spiritual protection to those people. Soon enough, they would freak out that hunger, pestilence, or death would soon be upon them unless they made up with the eze (which means that it had to have happened at least once for folks to be scared about it). They have also been stories that the eze deliberately sent a pox upon an invading force, causing them to itch all the way back home. Such techniques were much more effective than a regular old army (I know I hate being itchy!).

Fig.3: Watch where you're pointing that thing!
Thanks to all of the peace and whatnot, Nri focused on becoming a commercial powerhouse in West Africa. Traders from all around, from here to Timbuktu (which actually wasn't too far away, but nonetheless) came to buy and sell goods in Nri's famed marketplaces. The eze would even proclaim that certain days of the year should be devoted to commerce, though without the trampling associated with today's Black Friday. Archaeological finds have turned up artifacts in Igboland that originated elsewhere, such as horse statues (horses are not to be found in that part of Africa), bronze seashells (Nri did not have much of a coastline), and masks representing a three-horned creature (most of the Igbo only have two horns). The Nri were also pros at hunting and farming, the products of which would also be sold at the market to people who were too lazy to get their own food (I would still need a drive thru for that to interest me).

Unlike other peoples in Subsaharan Africa, the Kingdom of Nri did not use slave labor to do all their menial tasks for them. Religious doctrine declared that slavery was taboo, never to be practiced or even discussed, especially not when people are eating. Nri was even considered a safe haven for slaves from other lands; once a person held in bondage crossed into Nri territory, it was as if his shackles disappeared into thin air. Runaway slaves further validated the authority of the eze, since, as the old saying goes, they would not bite the hand that feeds them (or the religious figure that gives them freedom and immunity from the pox). The same was true for individuals who were otherwise outcasts in most African cultures, such as dwarves, albinos, and people who snore. As far as Nri's participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, historians are rather split: some optimists believe that Nri continued its anti-slavery stance, while other Debbie Downers claim that they gave into its economic benefits by the 17th or 18th century, if only to get rid of the snorers (a culture can only take so much).

The Igbo people are renowned for their artistic abilities, and the people of Nri were no exception. Bronze sculptures have been found dating back to at least the 9th century, making them older than the traditional founding of Nri, as well as other West African kingdoms who were still nothing more than honorable mentions. While the bronze works of neighboring Benin hog many archaeologists' short attention spans, the Igbo had their own unique take on masks, staff heads, pots, and drinking vessels (fig.4). They would even create sculptures for pests like flies, grasshoppers, and beetles who threatened their crops, answering the question if the people of Nri would really welcome everybody (what's next, a bronze casting of the potato blight?).

Fig.4: This drinking vessel was created with the sole purpose of freaking out 
girls who are afraid of lizards.
Nri hegemony over the region began to wane in the 1600s, possibly when people began to discover that hurting each other was a far more effective way of getting what you want. The kingdom still staggered along until, like everything else in the world, the British had to come along and ruin everything. They began to colonize the region in the mid-1800s, leading to the establishment of the Nigeria Protectorates in 1901. The axe fell on Nri's political independence when British soldiers forced the reigning eze to renounce his religious powers over his people, making it so that rocks would never be found in the Anambra River ever again. However, the Nri began a cultural revival after Nigeria's independence in 1960, and its practices have found new life among its people and annoying college hippies who claim to be "worldly." In fact, an eze named Ènweleána II has ruled since 1988, much to the delight of the yam farmers. In a world history where violence and conquest seem to be the only ways to get you noticed, it's great to see the Kingdom of Nri get their just deserts as a successful, yet peaceful state.

Glad I got that out of my system. Stay tuned next week, when I will write a history on a war over something completely stupid. That's what history's all about!

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