It was the late 19th century in western Africa. European nations had just carved up the continent’s resources (and people) in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, the major chapter in what historian Thomas Pakenham described, in a term commonly used for the era, as the “scramble for Africa.” In the ensuing three decades, European colonial powers took control of almost 90 percent of the continent.
In the interior of a territory the German occupiers called Kamerun, a sultan named Ibrahim Njoya held sway over the kingdom of Bamum (also spelled Bamoun). He was the most recent in a line of a royal family that had ruled the grasslands region for hundreds of years. Though Sultan Njoya Ibrahim acceded to the throne when the Germans were imposing themselves in Cameroon, he managed to reign with relative freedom. The King of Bamun was known to be a pacifist and a great inventor.
Sultan Njoya Ibrahim was, in all likelihood, born in 1876 and was only three years old when his father Nsangou died on the battlefield. From 1879 to 1887, his mother Na Njapdnunke ensured regency with the honorable servant Gbetnkom Ndombu. He ascended to the throne at the age of 11, becoming the 17th king of the Ncharé Yen dynasty his reign lasted 46 years until May 30, 1933, when he died in exile in Yaoundé. He was a remarkable man, a polymath scholar, probably the most visionary of all the rulers of his kingdom.
Born in the mid century, Njoya grew to be a thoughtful leader who melded the modern techniques of the colonizers with the wisdom of his ancestors, taking power in the late 1880s in his capital city of Foumban. He oversaw the first surveyed map of his kingdom, called the Lew Ngu, or the “Book of the Country.” He wrote, with assistance from several scribes, the first history of his people. He created his own spoken and written language and built dozens of schools to teach it. Over time, he developed a unique religion that brought together Bamum’s spiritual practices with Islam and Christianity.
He built a mansion that still stands today as a museum and was a devout patron of education and the arts. His half first cousin who shared his name became an accomplished artist and is now regarded as the nation’s first prominent cartoonist.Today, the Library preserves several of Njoya’s achievements, including several of the maps and sketches he commissioned, along with examples of his language. There are also dozens of photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, showing men on horseback, women with unique hairstyles, buildings with elaborate carvings, and Njoya in variety of formal settings. (Most of these were purchased from an arts dealer within the past decade.)
Together, they form a window into the intellectual and artistic life of African populations before they were obliterated by colonialism. “One of the many things we do is provide research and stories that are not widely known,” says Lanisa Kitchiner, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division. “One of those is of Sultan Ibrahim Njoya. In creating (his maps, language and alphabet), he preserved not only a snapshot of his kingdom’s physical boundaries when European colonialists were erasing them, but also a picture of his nation’s hopes, dreams and aspirations.”
But Njoya was born in the wrong era for self-determination in that corner of the world. Locked inland, with no way to match German military or economic might, he thought the best path forward was one that did not interfere with German plans. Though a man of modern aspirations, he also hewed to his ancestral practice of polygamy, claiming hundreds of wives and more than 100 children. This bifurcated approach to lifestyle and governance had its risks, most notably from more traditional military men in his own region, who did not endorse his cooperative approach to colonizers.
By the time World War I came and went, leaving the French in charge of the region, Njoya was running out of room to maneuver. French colonialists sidelined him in 1931. He died two years later, though one of his sons would later take regain power, and the family remains influential today.
Still, Njoya’s reign during a period of great upheaval and transition managed to preserve his kingdom’s remarkable history for the ages.
What made Njoya Ibrahim's kingdom great?
Njoya Ibrahim was a charismatic and pacifist king but was also a great inventor. In 1915 or so, he created a religion inspired by Islam, Christianity, and traditional beliefs. The founding principles (which are named njoyaism and based on pragmatism) are written in the Nkuet Kwate (which means "pursue and achieve"), also called the King's Bible. This book is written in A-Ka-U-Ku, a writing system invented by Sultan Njoya himself, that stems from the language shü-mom. Sultan Njoya also wrote fifteen books (including romance novels) and an encyclopedia about traditional pharmacopeia.
Furthermore, he invented a machine to grind corn. Culture connoisseur, he promoted the development of arts to reach the cultural thriving of the Bamun people. The capital city Foumban is the city of arts today. At its heart is the palace built by Sultan Njoya, which has become part of the UNESCO World Heritage.
What are Njoya Ibrahim's famous adages?
"It is better to die than to live in shame." This phrase is said to explain how Njoya Ibrahim preferred to die exiled in Yaounde rather than be greeted as a former prisoner back in his kingdom.
"If someone overtakes you, learn to take your bag and walk behind him." This motto led him to compromise with the first German settlers in his kingdom.
"Do not let other people act for you." According to Oumarou Nsangou, teacher of the shü-mom language, this quote echoes philosopher Immanuel Kant who recommended "daring to think for yourself."