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Court Records in Africana Research

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

Carol Dickerman
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Roger Gocking
Mercy College
Richard L. Abel
Elisha P. Renne
New York University
Allan Christelow
Idaho State University
Richard Roberts
Stanford University
David Robinson
Michigan State University
Roberta Ann Dunbar
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Jay Spaulding
Kean College
Elizabeth Schmidt
Macalester College


A series of panels at the ASA meeting in November 1989 focused on sources and methods for the study of law in colonial Africa. At an informal discussion held afterwards, participants agreed that court records are potentially very valuable sources for historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of Africa but that they have not been used as widely as they might be. In an effort to alert Africanists to the existence of such documents and to encourage their use, those of us who had used court records in our research were asked to provide descriptions of them. This paper is a collection of the responses.

Courts were established in the African housing quarters in what was then Usumbura in 1938 as part of a broad reorganization by the colonial administration of the conditions of African residence in the city, one in the quartier of Buyenzi and the other in that of Beige (today Bwiza). These tribunals, which are still in existence, were granted jurisdiction over civil and minor criminal cases between Africans; each court had its own officials, advisors, and clerks, prominent residents of the quartier appointed by the colonial administration. Buyenzi's population was predominantly Muslim, and its court officials were men knowledgeable about Islamic law. Beige, in contrast, was a more heterogeneous community, and its court tended to be staffed by residents who had risen in the African ranks of the civil service.

Men and women of both housing quarters resorted frequently to the courts, with the Buyenzi court hearing approximately 9,000 cases and Beige almost twice that many in the years between their establishment in 1938 and independence in 1962. Their complaints covered a wide range of matters: debts, business ventures, bridewealth disputes, divorces, child rights, property transfers, and various quarrels between friends, neighbors, and family members. Procedure was relatively simple. A man or woman who wished to present a complaint went before the court and was given an appointment for the case to be heard. At the time the court considered the complaint, both accuser and defendant were present. Although the parties might bring with them supporters and witnesses, there were no intermediary personnel such as lawyers. Each individual argued his own case and answered questions put by the judges. A judgment was usually handed down immediately, and it was based on customary rather than European practice. As these courts were originally established, their autonomy was very great: in principle, unless the decisions violated colonial law, they could not be overruled by Belgian officials.

Research Article
History in Africa , Volume 17 , January 1990 , pp. 305 - 318
Copyright © African Studies Association 1990

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page 309 note 1. For a description of the courts in the 1960s, see Abel, Richard L., “Customary Laws of Wrongs in Kenya; An Essay in Research Method,” American Journal of Comparative Law 17 (1969):573626CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and idem., “Case Method Research in the Customary Laws of Kenya,” East African Law Journal 5 (1969): 247-90; 6 (1970): 20-60.

page 310 note 1. The number of divisions and territory included in Kabba Province actually varied during the colonial period.

page 310 note 2. More specific documents relating to the Oworo and Ebira Districts courts may possibly be kept at Agbaja and Okene respectively.

page 310 note 3. See Niven, Rex, Nigerian Kaleidescope (London, 1982), 4445Google Scholar, and Upland, Allen, “Notes of Cases Tried in the Provincial Court of Kabba, Northern Nigeria,” Journal of the African Society, 12 (1904), 405–09.Google Scholar

page 310 note 4. There are two files in the National Archives, Kaduna, which simply list Native Authority court case titles for Kabba Division for the year 1922 (LokProf ACC 7) and for Kabba Province in 1925 (LokProf 249/1925).

page 313 note 1. For more information on the peculiar legal status of the originates and on the construction of the French colonial legal system, see Dominique Sarr, “The Jurisdiction of Muslim Tribunals in Colonial Senegal, 1857-1932,” and Roberts, Richard and Mann, Kristin, “Introduction: Law in Colonial Africa,” in Mann, Kristin and Roberts, Richard, eds., Law in Colonial Africa (Heinemann, forthcoming).Google Scholar

page 313 note 2. My preliminary effort to interpret these court records is “Text and Testimony in the Tribunal de Première Instance, Dakar, 1913-15,” presented at the African Studies Association annual meeting, 1989.

page 316 note 1. Salacuse, Jeswald W., An Introduction to Law in French-Speaking Africa, Volume I. Africa South of the Sahara (Charlottesville, VA, 1969), 48, 5960.Google Scholar For a general discussion of French colonial law and the courts see ibid., 21-65.

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