On 'Portraits' of Usman dan Fodio again




Last year I mentioned here a number of alleged photographs of Usman dan Fodio and drawings that purportedly portrayed the Shehu that I had encountered as illustrations in newspapers and elsewhere. I wondered whether such a portrait – either a photograph taken in dan Fodio's lifetime or a portrait at least sketched after meeting the man himself – could actually exist. 

I suppose, I found it hard to imagine that any of the sheikh's contemporary disciples would have produced such a drawing, let alone had access to a camera to take a photograph. I still do. Just consider his admonition of the customs of the Hausa-dynasties that his jihad dethroned.

'One of the ways of their governments is their … wearing whatever clothes they wish, whether religiously permitted or forbidden […], and living in decorated palaces, whether religiously permitted or forbidden and spreading soft (decorated) carpets as they wish, whether religiously permitted or forbidden …'


The illustration that started me on this discussion.


Also, consider that the debate about the permissibility, in religious terms, of photographs among the religious elites of northern Nigeria continued well into the 20th century. Thus, the records of the Advisory Council of Emir's (quoted by Heathcote 1979: 212) suggest that the inclusion of photographs into local newspapers was still controversial in 1931. Among religious authorities at least, the debate about the permissibility of drawings – what kinds of drawings for which purposes – continues today as I found during fieldwork (of course, popular practices are a different issue).

So, I focused on possible European sources for the portrait. A European traveller who had met Usman dan Fodio might have been inclined to sketch a portrait of the influential reformer and religious leader, even without the permission and/or knowledge of the Shehu or other local authorities. However, the first European that visited Sokoto that I could think of was Hugh Clapperton. He arrived in town in 1824 and therefore several years after the death of Usman dan Fodio. He could not have sketched a portrait of the man himself, let alone taken a photograph. The other European I should have mentioned was Heinrich Barth (1821-65), the second famous 19th century European visitor to Sokoto. Barth arrived in Sokoto still after Clapperton and, therefore, even longer after the Shehu's death.

The travelogues of both contain illustrations based on the explorers sketches – well, the illustrations in Dixon Denham, Hugh Clapperton and Walter Oudney's (1826) Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa (Links to Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) were based on Denham's sketches (selection here), if I remember correctly. As I mentioned in the other post, Denham's volume also contains the rather famous portrait of Muhammad al-Kanem. Barth's volumes (1857-58) too are illustrated (selection here) but there are no portraits of anybody he met in Sokoto, as far as I can recall. But, I digress again.


Illustration of Sokoto Market in Barth's Travels and Discoveries. Source: Wikipedia)

I put my question about the purported photographs of Usman dan Fodio to friends. One of them told me that as far as he knew the photograph was attributed to a French explorer who visited Sokoto.
The only French explorer that visited Sokoto in the 19th century that I know of was Parfait-Louis Monteil (1855-1925). However, just like Clapperton and Barth he visited Sokoto years – in fact, decades – after the death of Usman dan Fodio. I am not really familiar with the account of his travels but Wikipedia suggests that he only visited Sokoto in 1891. I had a quick look at this travelogue and it contains a number of illustrations including portraits. At first sight I cannot tell whether they are based on photographs or sketches. However, Monteil could certainly not have taken a photograph of the Shehu.


Illustration 'View of Sokoto' in Monteil's De Saint-Louis (1894: opp. 240).


So, dear lone reader, maybe you do know a few people who may know of other (French) explorers who visited Sokoto in the lifetime of Usman dan Fodio and may have provided the basis for a portrait (drawing or photograph)? Yes? Send them my way!

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