Egba Women Unite! Lessons from the Egba Women’s Anti-Colonial Movement

For much of history, Egba market women have been erroneously (re)presented as ‘barbaric’ and ‘disorganized’. Such women, however, were indelible forces of anti-colonial resistance. Their legacies invite us to deconstruct anti-colonial struggles—a restorative and equally revolutionary act.

Despite Nigerian women’s long history of resistance, their contribution to the anti-colonial struggle is often under acknowledged. A key movement in Nigeria’s history is the Egba Women’s Revolt, a revolt against the imposition of British colonial taxation on Egbaland. In 1916, Lord Lugard, the Governor-General of Nigeria urged the colonial office to impose direct taxation in Egbaland. Three years later, Sir Hugh Clifford imposed a tax that was justified on the basis that Nigeria was a British colony. Britain experienced food shortages in the First World War, and as a result the Colonial Office instructed their officials in southwestern Nigeria to seize foodstuffs, impose price controls and food quotas and increase tax for Britain to recover its economic losses. As the colonial treasury increased, Egba women continued to suffer as the draconian taxes reduced their incomes and impoverished their families.

Taxes were a violent and intrusive mechanism that the state used to control women’s lives, which further underdeveloped Egbaland. The viciousness embedded in Britain’s capitalist practices of extracting raw materials for its empire through free labour and the creation of the warrant system to increase profits was violent. In response to the violent tactics of the colonial machinery, representatives of the market women associations met with and expressed their grievances to the Alake of Egbaland. However, the taxation continued for 30 more years. After several years of economic hardship, Egba women employed other resistance strategies such as strikes and protests, demonstrating Frantz Fanon’s cry that revolutionary violence is an emancipatory tool from colonial violence.

Outraged by the state’s complicity in deteriorating their lives, Egba market women challenged the new political structure and economy by engaging in a politics of resistance and refusal. By refusing to pay taxes and striking, these women’s anti-colonial struggle, Judith Byfield argues, ‘broadened into a larger critique of relations of power under colonialism’.


In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois identified the slave system as a model that supported the development of capitalism. Similarly, a critical reading of Egba women’s anti-colonial struggle shows that the afterlife of the transatlantic slave trade was embodied through the 1901 Ruling when the Egba United Government started using forced labour. This ruling legitimized free labour in Egbaland and workers earned wages lower than what was needed for a decent level of living.

In Slavery and Capitalism¸ Eric Williams explores how ‘the colonial system was the spinal cord of commercial capitalism’. Williams charts enslavement through periods of history, an example being the triangular trading system. Egba women participated in this trade in the late-nineteenth century through the export of agricultural produce to the European market. There was a rise in trade in Britain, which facilitated the emergence of early modern notions of capitalism. However, as Britain accumulated wealth, the people of Egba suffered from poor wages and oppressive working conditions, which made them feel incredibly helpless. Through capitalism, a global racial order was produced and simultaneously, the people of Egba experienced feelings of despair and inferiority. These feelings are unsurprising since they are psychological characteristics of slavery that were fostered by the racist underpinnings of nineteenth-century global capitalism.

Jennifer Morgan explains the intersection between capitalism and slavery by highlighting the transformation of women to commodity. This transformation from a subject (woman) to object (commodity) formed the foundation of early commodification and capitalism. Through this transformation informed by racist and capitalist logics, capitalism and colonialism were able to exploit women further and maintain a globalized racial order. As Britain economically prospered, Egba women’s economic conditions worsened—their humanity and freedoms(s) were stripped through enslavement. It is through the intersection of capitalism and colonialism that we can (re)read the Egba women’s protests as not merely a struggle in response to colonialism. The understanding that the Black worker is as Du Bois described, the ‘ultimate exploited’, informed the resistance of several anti-colonial struggles.


In the early twentieth century, Britain experienced two major wars which threatened to affect their thriving economies. For Britain to accumulate more wealth, British forces dominated and enslaved Egba women. Although slavery was abolished in 1833, the Egba United Government continued using violent measures reminiscent of slavery practices such as beatings to collect tax . By rationalizing slavery, enslavement was framed as necessary for Egba’s economic growth, and as a result, Egba women continued to suffer.

The use of forced labour produced racial hierarchies underpinned by foundational theories of capitalism. For example, revisionist thinkers used racial hierarchies to justify the production of goods by enslaved labour in African economies such as Egba. Although the Egba Revolt took place years later, Du Bois’ comment that many workers were under ‘absolute subjection to the individual will of an owner’ is relevant. Indeed, through the wage-labour system, colonial administrators had financial control over Black labourers. What Du Bois referred to as ‘negation of human rights’ demonstrates how humanity is itself racialized, as non-Western workers received little to no access to necessities, and experienced limited movement and possibilities because Westerners regarded them as sub-human.

Britain used forced labour to increase its profits and continued supplying the world market with processed materials produced by Egba women such as palm oils and textiles. In addition to institutionalizing oppressive working conditions, colonialism also destroyed the indigenous social fabrics such as kinship ties encoded in communalism. Byfield explains, for instance, that many Egba women who did not want any more income were forced through laws to trade family time for forced labour. She adds that when women refused to work, they were fined £5 or imprisoned for three months. Through exploitative laws and court fines enforced by the Egba United Government (comprising the colonial administrators, the Alake and Egba officers) any resistance to British control in the short term was prevented.

This cruelty continued as international demand for Egba products and labour increased. Egba labour was necessary to build infrastructure such as railways which supported the trade. Since building infrastructure was highly expensive, the British colonial administrators continued to justify its slave system as a successful model for maintaining profits and capitalist production necessary for Britain’s economic prosperity. It was also on this understanding that exploited Black workers expressed solidarity, making the mobilization of women for anti-colonial struggle highly effective. As Fanon writes about the proletariat or peasants, since they have ‘nothing to lose and possibly everything to gain’ they are the most valuable for any revolution. This explains why the Egba Women were revolutionary—they had an understanding that as exploited workers, their emancipation of labour was a crucial step in also emancipating themselves, since the liberation of Black workers is integral for their own emancipation.

Colonialism involved profiting from African labour and resources while contributing to the underdevelopment of Africa and the development of Europe. To sustain Europe’s development, capitalism through taxation was instrumental. When Egba women challenged this taxation, the British Government reminded the women of the infrastructure they had provided. However, engagement with anti-colonial texts like Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa adequately challenges this claim that colonization fuelled development in Africa, since colonial infrastructure (roads, hospitals) was negligible compared to the extraction of raw materials and exploitation of labour. By acknowledging the Colonial Office’s racist and dehumanizing rhetoric, we might be able to consider the gaps and silences of history and develop a new way of understanding modernity. Secondly, Egba women did not benefit from infrastructure they built, and none of their demands for schools, improved public sanitation and hospitals were met. This illustrates Rodney’s arguments that Britain was only concerned with exploiting the labour of Africans inside Africa. Taxation was hence a part of the colonial machinery, and the state’s apparatuses fulfilled Britain’s objective to recover the costs of running the apparatuses they did not want to incur by enforcing tax. At the expense of these slave-like draconian taxes, Egba women continued to suffer.

The imposition of the taxation was a deliberate and direct attack on women’s economic independence and was a means for Britain to continue enslaving people of Egba. While men and women in Egba were taxed, women were taxed higher. This unfairness supports Angela Davis’s assertion that in a capitalist economy, women’s labour and work is often under-valued and at risk of even more exploitation than their male counterparts. According to Byfield, since Egba women dominated retail trade (production of palm oil and textiles such as indigo dye) and sold food in markets, they contributed immense revenue to the colonial treasury. Hence, gendered taxes were indeed an instrument of colonial violence and Angela Davis’s notion that women were simply ‘profitable labour units’ provides understanding on the imposition of colonial taxation by the British.

As Byfield explains, when women challenged authority by refusing to pay their tax, the capitalist class reasserted their authority through beatings, stripping women naked and raping them. This colonial violence is loaded with both sexism and economic exploitation. By situating this exploitation within sexism and capitalism, we can further see the strategic ways patriarchy alongside capitalism function to extract large profits for capitalists. By paying attention to the ways women are oppressed within a capitalist system especially in economies that devalue women’s work but require their labour, we develop a more expansive understanding of anti-colonial struggles such as the Egba Women Revolt.


The creation of the Egba United Government by the British had three main consequences: the removal of the Iyalode, the imposition of colonial taxation and the employment of Alake and the native authority policemen to facilitate tax collection. Colonization transformed gender relations through its removal of the Iyalode: powerful female leaders in politics who represented women’s interests. Before British intrusion reorganized Egba political structure, women sat on multiple councils. The colonial entry replaced the councils with one dominant council and ordered a single head to be solely in charge alongside other male chiefs. This king was the Alake of Egbaland. This change in the structure limited women’s political participation as their positions were eroded and the titles many women had were rendered irrelevant. Since poorer women did not have any representation, they continued to suffer under colonialism. According to Byfield, Madam Jojolola, the highest titled woman in Abeokuta, expressed to the Alake: ‘Women all complained that they derived no benefit from the Government. We make no profit on the goods we sell, and yet we have been called upon to pay taxes.’

In explaining an activist’s protest against the tax, Byfield argues that under the British colonial government, Egba women continued to suffer from exploitation. It was during this period that anti-colonial resistance grew. Egba market women were insistent on defending their autonomy, which had been previously undermined by the hegemonic European political system. However, racial hierarchies sustained this hegemonic system since colonized subjects were rendered inferior to colonists. Through the removal of the Iyalodes, the British were able to mentally colonize the minds of women to make themselves feel even more inferior and restricting the autonomy they once held. Indeed, as Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘colonialism[…] turns its attention to the past of the colonized people […]and destroys it.’ However, by reclaiming their past through consciousness-raising in meetings and markets, Egba women reminded themselves of predecessors like Madam Jojolola who resisted colonial violence.

Through the reclaiming of their past of anti-colonial resistance, Egba women were able to construct and affirm a positive political identity. Infused with a national consciousness, this political identity helped forge a great sense of solidarity required for anti-colonial struggle. Fanon argued that the restoration of pre-colonial social relations combined with a sense of collectivity is central for the rebirth necessary for the ‘veritable creation of new men’. Rather than lurking in a ‘passive and despairing attitude’ as Fanon put it, Egba women resisted attempts of the colonists to impose an inferiority complex on them. Hence, by refusing to submit taxes and by risking being stripped and beaten, Egba women portrayed Fanon’s assertion that ‘revolutionary violence is a cleansing force’ — where to such women, what was being cleansed was colonial despair.

Anti-colonial resistance became widespread within marketplaces, and consciousness increased across Egba. Consequently, the colonial treasury’s revenue significantly decreased and the British, now aware of this revolutionary violence, reacted by increasing the numbers of the Native Authority policemen in markets, and imposing even more life-threatening punishments.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon articulates the compromising position of  Native Authority policemen when he writes that, ‘certain colonised intellectuals have established a dialogue with the bourgeois of the colonising country’. Ifi Amadiume argues in Reinventing Africa: Matriarchy, Religion and Culture, that British colonialists gave men higher salaries and certificates of recognition and authority called warrants to incentivize them to exploit  women. Through the introduction of bureaucracy and money relations via capitalism, Rodney’s retelling of the South African saying that ‘the white man has no kin, his kin is money’ is blatantly demonstrated. As such, it is not surprising that White men continued to extract Egba women’s wage-labour in order to accumulate profits.

Since these men continued to exploit Egba women’s labour, Egba women’s refusal to pay taxes and withdraw their labour by striking is an example of anti-colonial violence. Fanon explains that colonized intellectuals forget the purpose of their anti-colonial struggle—to defeat colonialism. In contrast, Egba women did not forget their purpose; they recognized that the colonial taxation and warrant chief’s enforcement of this tax was colonial violence and responded with absolute violence. As such Egba women burnt buildings, descended on British native administrative centres such as courts, offices and jails, and publicly shamed native authority policemen.

In 1947, ten thousand Egba women gathered in front of the Alake’s palace to protest against the forced colonial taxation. Poet and playwright, Wole Soyinka writes in Aké that addressing the Alake, the women said, ‘Enough is Enough!’ My own grandmother, a witness of the revolt, remembers hearing the words, ‘No Taxation Without Representation!’ Folklore, proverbs and protest songs have typically been excluded from historical accounts of the anti-colonial struggle; however, such instruments of resistance should be closely examined.

Indeed, anti-colonial struggles mobilize people and create a common enemy. As Fanon wrote, revolutionary violence is totalizing since ‘each individual represents a violent link in the great chain[…]in reaction to the primary violence of the coloniser’ . Although occupying the Alake’s palace was dangerous for these women, their occupation of the palace marked what Fanon called a ‘fundamental jolt’. This jolt was demonstrated through their realization that their struggle was against a violence that, as Fanon also put it, was ‘not a body endowed with reason’. In the past, Egba women tried to reason with this violence by writing petitions and letters which were ignored. It was when they went beyond reason, confronting colonialism with greater violence, that it yielded. Remarkably, the Alake fled the town as a result of their protest, and the Egba women’s demands were met.


Oyèrónkẹ Oyěwùmí recognizes that in studies of modernity, Europe is represented as the only legitimate source of knowledge. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote ‘sources are so material since they are often by living things’. Hence, the representation of sources has two main implications: firstly, on how we analyse African culture and indigenous knowledge. Secondly, on frameworks we choose for such analysis. Often, such frameworks, Njoki Wane notes in ‘African Indigenous Feminist Thought’, fail to ‘emphasise the saliency of colonialism and the continued marginalisation of women’. Wane adds that to expand our understanding of anti-colonial struggle, it is necessary to challenge frameworks that have ‘buried indigenous knowledge under the weight of modernity’.

Trouillot highlights that history is malleable and subject to distortions. He points out that historical movements reveal how power functions to silence the ‘four crucial moments of historical production namely: fact creation, fact assembly, fact retrieval and moments of retrospective significance’. For much of history, Egba market women have been (re)presented as ‘barbaric’ and ‘disorganized’. The use of such grammar highlights how power works with history to reproduce racial hierarchies through language. For instance, when a narrative that suggests women were disorganized is produced, a history is revealed. This argument is similarly expressed by Christina Sharpe who writes in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being that history can reinforce women’s ‘narratively condemned status’. Indeed, by failing to interrogate the four moments of historical production, we reproduce violence in historical production.

The Egba women’s protest was highly coordinated and rooted in an anti-colonial practice. Byfield, for instance, has highlighted the role effective communication, consciousness-raising and the creation of a manifesto played in increasing mobilization across Abeokuta. In addition, she writes that during the Egba women’s protests literate women taught illiterate women literacy. This evidence of mobilizing is akin to enslaved African American women who educated each other as a form of rebellion.

Byfield has also written extensively on founder of Abeokuta Women’s Union, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti’s leadership. Ransome-Kuti utilized her international networks to form transnational alliances with Marxist organizations, such as the Women’s International Democratic Federation. It is no surprise that newspapers like the Daily Worker expressed solidarity with the anti-colonial struggle by publicizing that British colonialism had severely marginalized Nigerian women politically and economically. By critically engaging with an archive of song, oral testimonies and historical records, we can, as Sharpe explains, ‘track ways we resist’ and be provided with a more expansive understanding of anti-colonial struggle

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