The ‘Women’s War’, 1929

In the closing months of 1929 the women of Nigeria rose up against British colonialism in a coordinated effort that has subsequently become known as the ‘Women’s War’. Rioting against the power of British-imposed Warrant Chiefs, women from the Igbo ethnic community congregated in their thousands, re-mobilising the traditional practice of ‘sitting on a man’ as a form of anti-colonial and anti-corruption collective action. Ostensibly a revolt against the imposition of a tax specific to Nigerian women, whose marketplace activities allowed them a level of financial independence from their husbands at the same time as supporting their families, the causes of the revolt can be traced back to the imposition of Indirect Rule in Nigeria under Lord Lugard in 1914. The Women’s War was a co-ordinated strategic rejection of British colonialism, and led to reforms in the way the colony was ruled, as well as the abolition of the women’s tax itself.

Indirect Rule and British Colonialism

 Lord Frederick Lugard was famously the architect of indirect rule in Nigeria, a policy by which the British handpicked local African elites who were friendly to colonial rule as ‘Warrant Chiefs’, responsible for the day-to-day running of the colony, and in particular the administering of the law, the organisation of labour, and the levying of taxes. The appointment of the Warrant Chiefs was not only an attempt to have ‘colonialism on the cheap’ on the part of the British, but also to impose British notions of colonial hierarchy – including changes to the gender relations of the people. While in Igbo culture, women and men worked collectively, the British imposed systems of forced labour and taxation that pushed women into what they considered their rightful place: the domestic sphere. When they attempted to tax women’s economic activities (the selling of palm-oil) in 1929, rioting and protest ensued.

‘Sitting on a man’

The women of the ‘Aba Women’s Riots’ (as they were known by the British) cleverly fused traditional forms of protest with collective action against the colonial state. They embarrassed the local Warrant Chiefs by ‘sitting on’ them – a ritual action involving dance, lewd gestures, songs and noise. At the same time, though, they attacked Native Court buildings, cut down telegraph wires, and damaged banks, post offices and factories – all seen as manifestations of white colonial oppression. Thousands of women were involved, and many more suffered from the reaction of the British, who burnt down villages as collective punishment, and fired into crowds of protesting women. In one incident at Opobo on 16th December eighteen women died at the hands of colonial troops, leading to questions in Parliament back in Britain.

Collective Action

Female protesters involved in the Women’s War were savvy and determined. They wore palm leaves as a link to the economic roots of their discontent, they mobilised traditional practices of protest through marching, singing and dance, and they disrupted the administrative mechanisms of the colonial state. Despite attempts in the British press to put this down to female ‘hysteria’, the Women’s War is an example of collective and organised female political and economic action. The British introduced reforms to the Warrant Chief system in an attempt to curb corruption, and abolished the women’s tax itself. Women also became involved in administration, but continued their action when necessary in future disputes such as the Tax Protests of 1938 and the Oil Mill Protests of the 1940s.

Women and Political Activism

‘A feature of the disturbances was that women were the actual aggressors’, noted a shocked correspondent for The Times in January 1930. ‘The trouble was of a nature and extent unprecedented in Nigeria’, continued the correspondent for Nigeria in August of that year. ‘In a country were the women throughout the centuries have remained in subjection to the men, this was essentially a women’s movement, organised, developed, and carried out by the women of the country, without either the help or permission of their menfolk, though probably with their tacit sympathy.’ The Commission sent to investigate the revolt, and the reactions of British troops in particular, came to many conclusions. Perhaps the most interesting for us in the current context is this: ‘More attention… should be paid to the political influence of women.’

Dr. Emily Manktelow

International Women’s Day

In 2018 International Women’s Day (8th March) has arrived in the midst of the Universities and College Union’s industrial action in defence of your lecturers’ pensions. As such, we in the School of History felt it would be a good time to reflect on the role of women in industrial and political action through time. Women have often been active members of such actions, and in this the centenary year of female suffrage (for some) in the UK, it is a good moment to pause and think about the women of the past and their campaigning, suffering and triumphs in the face of oppressive power structures. Women of the past can inspire us all – men, women and trans-persons of the present – to campaign for what we believe in, speak truth to power, and win rights for ourselves and others. To quote from the Mary Poppins song ‘Sister Suffragette’:


Cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters’ daughters will adore us
And they’ll sign in grateful chorus
“Well done, Sister Suffragette!”



Dr. Emily Manktelow
(Acting EDI Officer, School of History)

South East Hub Conference 2018: Call for Papers

Victims, Perpetrators, Bystanders and Collaborators as historical concepts: Redundant labels, useful categorisations or somewhere in between?

19th June 2018, Grimond Building, University of Kent, Canterbury

There’s a big fashion for categorising bystanders, perpetrators and so on, why? Everyone collaborated!

– Interview with a Holocaust survivor, January 2018

The twentieth century saw the concepts ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘collaborators’ entering not only historical study but public discourse surrounding instances of war, atrocity and genocide. However, these terms also have a broader application outside of the twentieth century, in contexts of earlier imperialism, religious iconography and revolution. Despite this near universal application, there has been surprisingly little critical evaluation of the conceptual utility of the aforementioned terms amongst scholars. Problems associated with the dearth of engagement in our understanding and usage of these words include reductionist tendencies that can obscure nuance and disregard the experiences of individuals whose stories are not so easily classified. This conference aims to provide a forum for postgraduate students and early career researchers to begin to facilitate vital discussion as to the future of these often problematic concepts.

Applications are sought from postgraduates and early career scholars, focusing on the following themes relating to the application of these terms within different historical contexts, including, but certainly not limited to:

  • Gendered connotations
  • Public memory, commemoration and the mass media
  • Imagery and visual culture
  • Occupations during wartime
  • Everyday violence
  • Law, courts and society
  • Revolutionary mentalities and culture

Submissions with an interdisciplinary approach are particularly encouraged.

Please send a 250 word abstract for a 20-30 minute paper and a brief biographical statement to Kate Docking and Ellis Spicer via by 16th March 2018.

Keynote Speaker: Professor Tim Cole, University of Bristol

Sponsored by CHASE DTP and the School of History, University of Kent



AHRC PhD Studentships

The Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies is delighted to announce TWO FULLY FUNDED AHRC PhD STUDENTSHIPS to work on the topic of relations between sixteenth century England and Scotland. The successful students will be jointly supervised between Kent and the British Library, and have the contribution to contribute to a major British Library exhibition on relations between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Links to details of these studentships (one on early and one on late sixteenth-century Anglo-Scots relations) and how to apply are below:

AHRC Studentship -Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots:

AHRC CHASE Studentship – Anglo-Scottish Relations In The Early Sixteenth Century:

Please contact Dr Amy Blakeway, the Kent supervisor, for more details, on

Lecture by our own Dr Emily Guerry on ‘The Wall Paintings of the Sainte-Chapelle’, 8 February, 7.00pm

You are warmly invited to a lecture by our own Dr Emily Guerry on ‘The Wall Paintings of the Sainte-Chapelle’, Thursday 8 February at the Old Library, Kent College

This fascinating talk should interest anyone who is interested in medieval history or art history – as well as lovers of Paris. The Sainte-Chapelle is just a few steps away from Notre Dame, hidden away in the Palace of Justice. It was built for King Louis IX in about 1241 to 1248 to house his collection of religious relics and has been described as one of the most beautiful buildings on earth. Its interior is dominated by 15 huge stained glass windows but, as Dr Guerry will explain, every inch of the remaining wall surface and the vault was also richly painted and decorated with remarkable images, patterns and motifs.

If you have any questions please contact

History Research Festival

Wednesday 17th January 2018, 1-6pm

Darwin Conference Centre Suite

The Festival aims bring together colleagues and students from the School of History to have informal conversations about the collective experiences of ‘doing history’ through a variety of panel debates.

1 – 2pm Challenging source materials and methods (chair: Dr Claire Jones)

Dr Emily Mantelow; Dr Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin; Dr Juliette Pattinson; Professor Ulf Schmidt

2 – 3pm Collaborative Working (chair: Dr Emma Purce)

Dr Rebekah Higgitt; Dr Jan Loop; Professor Kenneth Fincham

3pm – Tea and coffee

3 – 4pm Interdisciplinary Perspectives (chair: Dr Aske Brock)

Dr Ben Marsh; Dr Karen Jones; Dr Emma Hanna; Dr Phil Slavin

4 – 5pm Writing and Publishing (chair: Professor Gaynor Johnson)

Dr Barbara Bombi; Professor Charlotte Sleigh; Professor Grayson Ditchfield

5 – 6pm Wine reception

Click here to return to the School of History website.