Akinpelu Obisesan — a gentleman diarist in colonial Africa

Obisesan was a wealthy and well-known public figure who established himself in the higher echelons of late colonial Nigerian society. Through his eyes, and specifically through his voluminous diary writing, we glimpse the profound historical changes that were wrought by British colonialism in Yorubaland.
Obisesan
A photograph published in The Yoruba News on 4 May 1943, of the Honourable Akinpelu Obisesan to mark his appointment to the Nigerian Legislative Council. Credit: Ruth Watson/National Archives of Nigeria Ibadan.
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‘I have no written record of the year of my birth, but I presume I was born in 1889 in the month of August and I am a little over 31 years of age now; thank God.’ So wrote Akinpelu Obisesan in his diary on 16 September 1920. Obisesan lived in Ibadan, a city in the southwestern region of present-day Nigeria. Back in 1889, Ibadan was a powerful military city state founded after the collapse of the Oyo Empire during the early nineteenth century; by 1920, it had been incorporated into the British Empire. Obisesan’s life spanned the relatively short epoch of formal colonial rule in this part of Africa: he died in 1963, three years after Nigeria was granted independence. In the second half of his life, Obisesan was a wealthy and well-known public figure who established himself in the higher echelons of late colonial Nigerian society. However, the world into which he was born was very different from the one in which he died. Through his eyes, and specifically through his voluminous diary writing, we glimpse the profound historical changes that were wrought by British colonialism in Yorubaland.

Obisesan’s father, Aperin, was an elephant hunter who had protected Ibadan from its hostile Ijebu neighbours during the 1880s, claiming a vast tract of land on the southern outskirts of the city. His mother, Aruwe, was a slave woman; it is possible that she was captured during wars that dragged on from the 1870s, but we cannot be certain. What we do know is that Obisesan Aperin was a signatory to the Ibadan Agreement, a ‘treaty of friendship’ with the British, which Ibadan chiefs signed in August 1893, when the younger Obisesan was four years old. The threat of imperial military force loomed over Ibadan at this time: a year earlier, the British had bombarded the rival state of Ijebu and forced the desertion of its capital, as punishment for closing roads to Lagos from the interior.

This period has been vividly documented in the History of the Yorubas by Samuel Johnson, a clergyman and historian born in Sierra Leone to ‘recaptives’, who were slaves freed at sea by the British navy and resettled in Freetown (after the banning of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807). Johnson and his family moved to Ibadan in 1857, where he later played the role of peacemaker, mediating between Ibadan and its adversaries. By the 1890s, Johnson was living in Oyo; he claimed that Ibadan’s chiefs initially refused to sign a treaty with the British Governor of Lagos because, after seventeen years on the battlefield, ‘they were not yet settled down for civil administration.’ Aperin was among those installed to a chieftaincy title after the leading war chief was murdered by members of his own household, which enabled political positions to be redistributed. The chiefs then stated they would reconsider a treaty, which the British declared was ‘to preserve peace, to secure open roads and reasonable freedom of action to the inhabitants generally.’ By December 1893, a British Resident was stationed in Ibadan with a contingent of soldiers. For the chiefs, ‘to be at home with nothing to do was rather irksome for those whose trade was war’, observed Johnson, but the Ibadan army never again engaged in battle.

In this context of enforced peace, Obisesan Aperin ‘donated’ his youngest son, seven-year-old Akinpelu, to the Aremo mission station. Akinpelu thus became the first member of the Aperin household to receive a formal education and, in particular, to become literate in English. Founded by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) during the mid-nineteenth century, Aremo mission was located on the southeastern side of Ibadan, not far from the Aperin family compound. It is possible that Obisesan’s mother was a congregant there; she probably played a role in his selection for mission education since she was herself Christian, which is not surprising considering that women slaves were numerous among Christian converts in the city. From 1896, her son began attending St. Peter’s Primary School, and subsequently proceeded to train briefly as a priest with the CMS.

By the early twentieth century, Akinpelu Obisesan had been drawn into the emergent world of colonial Yorubaland. He worked on probation as a clerk in the Ibadan Resident’s Office, a sought-after position that heralded upward mobility. African clerks were crucial to the functioning of British colonialism, a role famously depicted in the novel Mister Johnson. In 1906, Obisesan was seconded to the Railway Construction Department, where he passed the railway entrance examination two years later. By his early twenties, Obisesan was station master at a small town northeast of Ibadan but, upon completing a correspondence course in 1913, he received the disappointing news that the railway administration would not support his further education in England. As a result, he quit his job and sought work in the private sector, becoming a produce agent for European trading companies. In this role he was employed to purchase palm kernels and later, cocoa.

To the great fortune of latter-day historians, it was at this time that Obisesan embarked upon a life-long project of keeping a diary and committing his daily thoughts to paper. Shortly after becoming a produce agent, he purchased a commercially produced business diary, to keep track of stock and monitor fluctuating prices during the early months of 1914. However, after the outbreak of the First World War, the German company that owned his shop was shut down, and Obisesan returned to Ibadan. He continued writing in the same diary until 1919, constructing a rough family tree and reporting on births, deaths and significant events such as the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he remarked: ‘men and women are dying like flies.’

From 1920, Obisesan began writing his diary assiduously, a shift that appears to have been connected to him asserting claims over land originally occupied by his father during the late nineteenth century. These farms became valuable for their cocoa growing, but ownership was contested by other local families and Ibadan chiefs, along with the tenants settled there by the Aperin household. Obisesan’s literacy skills were vital for managing the bureaucratic complexity of claiming title to land in the colonial courts. He also used his diary to keep a record of ‘trespass incidents’ and to keep account of the price and the quantities of cocoa that he sold. What comes across most powerfully through the diary narrative in this time, however, are Obisesan’s feelings of marginality as he struggled to make it in the harsh world of colonial commerce. ‘Still feeling sorry for my poor condition’, he wrote in May 1920, ‘all around the time young men are dazzling in riches whilst I remain poor — the cause is six years I have devoted my entire time to the progress of my people.’ By September 1928, his feelings of failure were even more acute: ‘I am no more a gentleman,’ he lamented, ‘outside appearance shows me to be everything and all things but I am nothing.’ In January 1931, Obisesan was forced to declare bankruptcy; that year is the only missing diary volume between 1920 and 1960.

A page of Obisesan’s diary, the week begining the 14 October 1929. A bleak week as he notes that he is ‘in a state of penury’. Credit: Ruth Watson/Kenneth Dike Library, University of Ibadan.

Over time then, Obisesan’s diary evolved into a personal and confessional document, which he wrote always in English, apart from when he used Yoruba proverbs or sayings. He wrote about his work and especially his financial situation, about his intensely felt fears and anxieties and interpretations of his dreams, about family tensions and struggles over land, about his intimate relationships with his many wives and children, including details on his wives’ menstrual cycles, about his interactions with colonial officials, and his dealings with Ibadan chiefs and their incessant political intrigues and, occasionally, about events in the wider world. Although he used a commercially produced diary rather than a plain notebook, he eschewed its function as a clerical record. Instead, he adopted its pre-printed chronological format to generate a self-reflective and self-referential life narrative of more than 14,000 entries, which he occasionally re-read and edited. Few comparable sources have survived, although the diary of Amar Singh, a Rajput nobleman and officer in the Indian army, is also notable for offering a rare and intimate glimpse into British colonialism from the point of view of a colonial subject.

Obisesan maintained a large household, which was important to embody social status in twentieth-century Ibadan, just as it was during the precolonial period. It is difficult to establish the precise number of his wives and children, but family tensions were a common theme in his diary entries. ‘My wives are in secret love conspiracy against me’, he complained in March 1921, ‘I care very little for them.’ During the same week, he regretted that he was ‘in state of poverty’. Matters were even worse by the end of the decade, when mercantile firms resolved to pay only on produce sold and stopped offering traders a flat commission rate. In his entry for 16 October 1929, which he later edited, Obisesan wrote:

I am in state of penury; my condition comparatively speaking, is worst (sic) than the one of 1921 … then I had no large number of dependents & family to hang their livings responsibility around my shoulders; I was popular but my needs, my aspirations & ambitions were small and limited. Now I spend over £20 a month & my income of £30-£40 hitherto suddenly dropped to £7. Is there exists now today at Ibadan any man of my rank & standing whose path is more blighted & thorny than this? Dum spiro – 

Obisesan often referenced the Latin phrase, ‘Dum spiro spero’: ‘While I breathe, I hope’.

Ten years later, he had begun to turn his life around. After being declared bankrupt, he returned to his father’s land to farm cocoa, and ultimately made his fortune by establishing farmers’ cooperatives around Ibadan. Since these organisations became central to the buying and marketing of cocoa and other cash crops in Nigeria, Obisesan finally built a profitable business. As President of the Ibadan Cocoa Cooperative Marketing Union from 1934, he spearheaded the cooperative movement in Nigeria to the extent that, in 1953, he obtained a £1 million grant to set up the Co-operative Bank of Western Nigeria. Its headquarters were the first high-rise building in Ibadan, and still stand alongside Obisesan Hall, an assembly hall and cinema, in the central business district.

Aside from this long sought financial success, from the late 1930s, Obisesan was recognised by numerous political roles and honours. In 1948, he received an OBE ‘for public services in Nigeria’, but it was one of his last accolades — his installation as an Ibadan chief — that was especially important to him, because it honoured the Aperin household name. ‘Plunged myself consciously into pond of debt … Akinpelu the stupid’, he wrote in his diary, lamenting the title fees he had to pay to secure the position. In September 1960, he was appointed to the Western Region House of Chiefs, just a few days before Nigeria gained independence. Later that year, he became unwell after he attended a conference in eastern Nigeria; it was following this illness that he stopped writing his diary.

In 1943, Obisesan was chosen to represent Oyo Province in the Nigerian Legislative Council, the seat of colonial government. The years of strife and struggle behind him, a newspaper report described him as a ‘straightforward gentleman’. Obisesan appears in a photograph posing by an elegant cane table in a suit and dons a hat, holds a cane, and wears bright white shoes. A decade later, when he attended a garden party with Queen Elizabeth, he wore opulent Yoruba robes. The ‘blighted and thorny’ path that he trod until his late forties was no more: ‘Given a Rolls-Royce car to ride,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘I appeared as a big chief and entered the palace.’

Ruth Watson

Ruth Watson is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Clare College. She is the author of ‘Civil Disorder is the Disease of Ibadan’: Chieftaincy and Civic Culture in a Yoruba City and several articles on the life of Akinpelu Obisesan. Her current project is a study of crowds in world history.

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