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Stealing from the railways: Blacksmiths, Colonialism and Innovation in Northern Nigeria

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Abstract

This chapter aims to situate changes and transformations within the blacksmithing industry in the context of British colonialism. It links the massive thefts of railway keys and sleepers in Northern Nigeria to British colonial policies and highlights the technical changes and innovations that took place in the smithing industry at that time. The blacksmithing industry underwent tremendous transformations that shaped both the type of raw materials used and the technology of the craft itself. British colonial policies accelerated the decline of rural mining and smelting by starving rural smiths of raw materials. As a result, blacksmiths stole from the railways to compensate for the shortage of raw materials. Restrictions on imported manufactured metals proved a major boost to the smithing craft, leading to technical innovations and the emergence of coldsmithing. Smiths were the agents of change and innovation regardless of whether the change was triggered by external circumstances.
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Transforming Innovations in Africa
Explorative Studies on Appropriation
in African Societies
Edited by
Jan-Bart Gewald
André Leliveld
Iva Peša
LEIDENBOSTON

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Contents
Maps, gures, tables, boxes and photos .................................................. vii
Acknowledgements ........................................................................................ xi
1 Introduction: Transforming innovations in Africa; explorative
studies on appropriation in African societies .................................
 Jan-Bart Gewald, André Leliveld & Iva Peša
2 Who killed innovation in the Cape wine industry? The story
of a stuck fermentation c. 1930-1986 .................................................. 
 Paul Nugent
3 Entrepreneurship, colonial monetary economy and the limits
of creativity: Appropriating trading stores in Northern
Namibia, 1925-1980 .................................................................................. 
 Gregor Dobler
4 Frugal innovation in Africa: Tracking Unilever’s
washing-powder sachets........................................................................ 
 Cees van Beers, Peter Knorringa & André Leliveld
5 Mobile cash for nomadic livestock keepers: The impact of the
mobile phone innovation (M-Pesa) on Maasai pastoralists
in Kenya ...................................................................................................... 
 Marcel Rutten & Moses Mwangi
6 From Gao: Sawaba and the politics of decolonization and
insurrection in the Songhay Zone of Mali and Niger
(1957-1964) .................................................................................................. 
 Klaas van Walraven
7 From self-help group to water company: The Wandiege
Community Water Supply Project (Kisumu, Kenya) ................... 
 Samuel O. Owuor & Dick Foeken
viContents
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8 ‘It is time to start my own farm’: The unforeseen efects
of two waves of resettlement on household formation in
Zimbabwe ................................................................................................. 
Marleen Dekker & Bill Kinsey
9 ‘Cassava is our chief’: Negotiating identity, markets and the
state through cassava in Mwinilunga, Zambia .............................. 
Iva Peša
10 The social cocktail: Weddings and the innovative mixing
of competences in Botswana .............................................................. 
Rijk van Dijk
11 Of labradors and libraries: The transformation of innovation
on a farm in Kibale, western Uganda ............................................... 
Jan-Bart Gewald
12 Engine of change: A social history of the car-mechanics sector
in the Horn of Africa ............................................................................. 
 Stefano Bellucci & Massimo Zaccaria
13 Water innovations among the Maasai pastoralists of Kenya:
The role of outside interventions in the performance of
traditional shallow wells....................................................................... 
Moses Mwangi & Marcel Rutten
14 Stealing from the railways: Blacksmiths, colonialism and
innovation in Northern Nigeria .......................................................... 
 Shehu Tijjani Yusuf
List of authors .................................................................................................. 
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14
Stealing from the railways:
Blacksmiths, colonialism and
innovation in Northern Nigeria
Shehu Tijjani Yusuf
This chapter aims to situate changes and transformations within
the blacksmithing industry in the context of British colonialism. It
links the massive thefts of railway keys and sleepers in Northern
Nigeria to British colonial policies and highlights the technical
changes and innovations that took place in the smithing industry
at that time. The blacksmithing industry underwent tremendous
transformations that shaped both the type of raw materials used
and the technology of the craft itself. British colonial policies accel-
erated the decline of rural mining and smelting by starving rural
smiths of raw materials. As a result, blacksmiths stole from the
railways to compensate for the shortage of raw materials. Restric-
tions on imported manufactured metals proved a major boost to
the smithing craft, leading to technical innovations and the emer-
gence of coldsmithing. Smiths were the agents of change and inno-
vation regardless of whether the change was triggered by external
circumstances.
Introduction
Indigenous metallurgy, particularly smithing, in Africa in the twentieth
century has been the focus of a number of works that have appeared over
the last thirty years. One eld of discussion concerns the extent to which
 Research for this chapter was funded by a MacArthur Doctoral Grant from Bayero Uni-
versity, Kano. Comments by Stefano Bellucci, Gregor Dobler and Iva Peša on an earlier
version of this paper were much appreciated.
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British colonial rule undermined the smithing craft, with some arguing
that it caused major transitions in the industry because it led to the impor-
tation of European scrap metal. This deprived smiths of the raw materials
they required and led to a decline in smelting and smithing crafts, and
subsequently led to thefts from the railways to compensate for the lack of
iron available (Jaggar 1973; Herbert 1993; Cline-Cole 1994; Emeagwali 1997;
Aliyu et al. 2008). This is, however, an overly simplistic view of the impact
of colonialism on the local smithing industry. According to critics, the
importation of metals from Europe did not necessarily lead to an absolute
decline in the local smithing craft but it was disruptive and subversive
to indigenous metallurgy, especially mining and smelting. And smithing
not only appeared to escape decline but even expanded as the result of a
disparity in prices (Hill 1972; Hopkins 1973; Jaggar 1994).
Blacksmiths stole from the railways to compensate for the shortage in
locally mined iron, which was the industry’s original raw material (Fika
1978; Aliyu et al. 200; Yusuf 2011b). But this leads to further questions
about the role of theft from the railways in the expansion of smithing.
Why were thefts more prevalent in rural than in urban areas? How did
colonialism afect the supply and exchange of raw materials? How did the
iron shortage encourage both technical and entrepreneurial innovations
in the smithing industry? Who were the drivers of these innovations? This
chapter attempts to answer these questions and considers the impact of
British colonialism on blacksmithing in Northern Nigeria, arguing that
the craft of smithing underwent major transformations in the twentieth
century that accelerated the industry’s decline. Stealing from the railways
provided an important supply of metal for blacksmiths, especially those in
the rural areas and inuenced the industry in numerous and sometimes
unexpected ways. The technical and entrepreneurial innovations in the
smithing industry were the result of the smiths’ resourcefulness and kept
the industry going, despite all the odds. The smiths developed an import-
substituting metal industry based on the metal stolen from the railways.
An overview of blacksmithing in Northern Nigeria
Blacksmithing is an ancient African craft dating back to the rst millen-
nium BC. While some claim that smithing was imported from elsewhere
(Herbert 1993), others argue that it emerged independently in Africa (Aliyu
 Literature dealing specically with metal thefts from the railways is limited and the sub-
ject is often dealt with only in passing.
Stealing from the railways in Northern Nigeria277
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et al. 2008). In any case, the craft of iron working is a long-established one
in Africa. Iron was smelted at Nok, in Northern Nigeria, around 500 BC
and by the fourth century AD the knowledge of iron working had spread
across the region. It could not have developed without prior experiences
in copper and alloys and knowledge of iron working played an important
role in the region’s development. Some of the states were even founded by
blacksmiths, suggesting a long tradition of iron working. However metal-
lurgical implements not only placed power in the hands of builders but
also in the hands of destroyers of towns and states (Herbert 1993; Aliyu
et al. 2008; Hopkins 1973).
Over the years, blacksmiths came to play an important role in the politi-
cal economy of the region. In Northern Nigeria, blacksmiths manufactured
farming implements, domestic utensils and weapons, all of which were in
great demand. Successful smithing depended on being able to access iron
ore deposits and charcoal but iron ore difers in quality from one location
to another (Herbert 1993; Aliyu et al. 2008). Some areas within the mod-
ern states of Katsina, Zamfara, Bauchi and Birnin Gwari had good quality
iron ore, while Kano Emirate and the Bornu area had low-quality ore. The
same variation in quality applied to rewood. For example, Zamfara and
Bauchi were known for having good-quality fuel wood (Nalado 2004; Jag-
gar 1973; Herbert 1993; Aliyu et al. 2008). Where raw materials were not
readily accessible, blacksmiths procured them from other regions, which
led to long-distance trading.
In Northern Nigeria, as elsewhere, smithing was diferentiated from
smelting. They were distinct occupational groups requiring diferent
techniques and knowledge. Generally, blacksmiths did not mine or smelt
themselves but relied on professional miners, smelters and traders for
their supplies of iron ore. Smiths who wanted to mine or smelt needed
permission from their chief before they could do so. But there were some
exceptions. As Herbert (1993) pointed out, the quintessential smith was
one who not only forged iron but knew the secret of smelting as well.
Evidently, smelting was considered part of a smith’s duties among the
Anka of Zamfara and Adar of Niger and smiths were expected to mas-
ter the relevant skills required (Pilaszewicz 1991; Nalado 2004). In con-
trast, smiths in Kano, Fika and Katsina Emirates relied on intermediaries
such as miners, smelters and traders for their supplies of raw materials.
Most urban smiths also depended on rural miners, smelters and traders,
including rural smiths (Jaggar 1973; Nalado 2004; Aliyu et al. 2008). The
Kano smiths that Jaggar (1973: 24) interviewed claimed that their ances-
tors did not smelt but relied on rural networks of supply to urban areas.
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Urban smiths generally procured their raw materials from rural networks
(Nalado 2004; Aliyu et al. 2008; Ogundiran 2005; Pilaszewicz 1991; Hopkins
1973; Herbert 1993).
Like most crafts, smithing was organized around the chief of black-
smiths, whose oce is hereditary. He plays an intermediary role between
smiths and the traditional institutions. Smithing is a male-dominated,
hereditary craft, with sons being apprenticed patrilineally or occasionally
matrilineally and smiths teach their male children the craft from a young
age. Due partly to Islamic inuences and taboos, women have always been
barred from taking an active part in smithing, except on special occasions.
Nevertheless, young girls could assist in the forge. Through payment and
apprenticeships, those who did not belong to a smithing family could
be initiated into the craft, although there were diferences between the
towns. Unlike other traditional crafts, blacksmiths had certain rituals and
cultural performances that set them apart from ordinary people, such as
being able to play with re. As masters of iron and re, they were seen as
cultural heroes who possessed magical powers, which diferentiated them
from others. The process of iron working itself possessed some magical
properties too, making those who worked with iron objects gures to be
revered. They were seen as intermediaries between the natural and super-
natural domains. Depending on the town, blacksmiths have enjoyed posi-
tions of diferent status in Hausa society. For example, the Hausa smiths
in Kano and Anka enjoyed a high status, whereas their counterparts in
Zaria and among the Kanuri people of Bornu had quite a low status. In
fact, among the Kanuri, smithing was considered a shameful occupation
because blacksmiths made weapons that were used by enemies of the
Prophet Mohammed (Pilaszewicz 1991; Herbert 1993; Jaggar 1973; Jaggar
1994; Nalado 2004).
By the end of the nineteenth century and as a result of both human
and natural factors, smelting activities had declined, which resulted in a
shortage of raw materials. Widespread deforestation of hardwood trees,
the exhaustion of iron-ore deposits, changes in climate, and soil dete-
rioration and erosion had all exacerbated the raw-materials crisis. This
was further worsened by incidences of warfare, drought and famine that
seriously disrupted economic activities (Goucher 1981; Pole 1982; Okafor
1993; Cline-Cole 1994; Herbert 1993; Darling 1989; Nalado 2004). However,
blacksmiths kept the industry going despite the crisis, evidencing their
resourcefulness and ability to innovate. As Goucher and Herbert both
point out, the increased penetration of European metals into coastal parts
of West Africa from the seventeenth century onwards helped to sustain
the industry by providing it with substitute raw materials (Goucher 1981;
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Herbert 1993). It is dicult to ascertain how far inland the metals pen-
etrated or the extent of their impact. Certainly, the demand for imported
iron reected an existing ‘iron hunger’ in much of Africa, as the demand
exceeded the supply from indigenous sources (Pole 1982; Herbert 1993). By
the turn of the twentieth century, iron smelting had declined to such an
extent that it was conned to areas close to sources of raw materials, i.e.
iron-ore deposits and fuel wood (Cline-Cole 1994).
British colonialism and its impact
The advent of British rule early in the twentieth century signicantly
inuenced the landscape of Northern Nigeria as British colonialists
implemented reforms that afected the region’s political and economic
activities. To start with, British rule disrupted the blacksmithing craft by
banning the bearing and production of weapons. The British in efect
denied local smiths a source of income because they simultaneously
encouraged imports of foreign weapons (Jaggar 1994; Jaggar 1973; Aliyu
et al. 2008). Furthermore, a land proclamation was promulgated that
vested ownership of land and resources in the British, which deprived
smelters of access to land and minerals. The British also undermined
the craft of smithing by promulgating laws that regulated the felling of
trees. Such laws disrupted smithing, which depended on wood for fuel.
The felling of productive economic trees for rewood was restricted, as
proclamations declared some trees to be ‘protected’ and exploitable only
by licence or permit, and a levy was also introduced on the commercial
exploitation of trees. The negative inuence of such proclamations can be
gauged, especially as blacksmiths relied on smelters and charcoal burners
for raw materials. As a result of the poor status of smelters and charcoal
burners, permits were not only dicult to come by but the levying of fees
discouraged smelters from felling trees and, by implication, reduced the
quantity of raw materials available to smiths (Cline-Cole 1994; Aliyu et al.
2008). In addition, the British introduced a series of proclamations that
disrupted iron-ore smelting and thus further jeopardized the smithing
craft. As Jaggar, Aliyu and others attest, the enforcement of these proc-
lamations restricted mining activities and caused the closure of smelting
furnaces in Pauwa District of Katsina Emirate (Jaggar 1994; Aliyu et al.
2008). On top of this, the British introduced an ‘iron scrap policy’ that
encouraged the importation of European scrap metal and accelerated the
eventual decline of smelting by making the craft increasingly dependent
on scrap metal (Emeagwali 1997).
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The arrival of the railway in the region signalled by far the most trans-
formative impact of colonialism in the area. The railway was central to
British imperial policy, being seen as a means of ‘developing’ and ‘opening
up’ the region. It was thought that without a modern transport system
like the railway, a landlocked region such as Northern Nigeria could not
develop economically. The railway served the political, economic, strate-
gic and military needs of British colonialism (Lugard 1965) and its arrival
in Kano in 1911 was the culmination of British imperialism in Northern
Nigeria. As it opened up the region to European trade, it had an enor-
mous impact, stimulating the agricultural export trade, particularly that of
groundnuts which, from 1912 to 1914, amounted to some 21,900 tons from
Northern Nigeria alone (Hogendorn 1978; Okediji 1972).
The railway promoted spatial interaction between southern and north-
ern Nigeria. Prior to its arrival, contact between the two regions had been
limited. Extensions to the rail network from 1911 through the 1920s facili-
tated accessibility with the outside world. This started with an extension of
the line from Zaria Junction to the Bauchi tin elds, which was completed
in 1915. Another line between Port Harcourt and Kaduna connected north-
ern and eastern Nigeria and was nished in 1927. The Zaria-Funtua-Kaura
Namoda line was completed in 1929 and the Kano-Nguru line followed in
1930. The last to be opened, in 1964, was the Bauchi-Maiduguri line (see
Map 14.1). These extensive rail networks facilitated the emergence of new
towns along the railway lines, lending them new economic and strategic
importance (Yusuf 2011c; NAK 299/S.3, vol. 1 railway publications).
Efects of the railways
The railways impacted on the smithing craft due to the supply and distri-
bution of European scrap metal that ooded the local markets. As already
mentioned, European scrap metal had found its way into coastal markets
before the arrival of the British. Nevertheless, the arrival of the railway
almost immediately increased the amount and variety of scrap metal,
except in some of the more remote areas (Jaggar 1994). The railway facili-
tated its supply and distribution across Northern Nigeria, resulting in the
gradual replacement of locally mined iron as raw material for blacksmiths.
 As Pole (1981: 510) pointed out, an iron bar worth 6s 3d in Lisbon would sell for 11s 3d on
the West African coast and for double this price inland.
 Although scrap metal was distributed across the region by rail, supplies were mainly
restricted to urban railway terminals.
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The cities of Kano and Zaria became distribution points for scrap-metal
supplies because of their location on the railway line, their proximity to
major markets, as well as their low overheads (Jaggar 1994; Aliyu et al.
2008). As scrap metal became available, blacksmiths increasingly came to
depend on it as a raw material, which resulted in the gradual replacement
of locally mined iron by scrap metal, which was completed by the 1920s
or 1930s (Jaggar 1994; Herbert 1993; Aliyu et al. 2008). Equally, smithing
and other craft industries are said to have declined when they were faced
with imported European manufactured goods (Mabogunje 1968; Callaway
1968; Shea 1974/1977).
 Mabogunje (1968) reported a similar decline in the local craft industries of Yoruba towns;
Callaway (1967) commented on the decline of smithing and other local in dustries in Iba-
dan City, and Shea (1974/1977) observed a decline in the local textile craft in Northern
Nigeria in the face of competition from European manufactured textile materials.
Map 14.1Nigerian railways
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There is evidence that the urban smithing craft thrived and expanded
despite competition from imported scrap metal and it developed in new
directions later in the colonial period (Jaggar 1994). However, rural smith-
ing seems to have sufered from the scarcity of raw materials and sub-
sequent thefts from the railways should be seen as an indication of the
raw-material crisis in the smithing industry.
If the smithing craft did indeed expand, as was claimed, how then did
scrap iron and other forms of imported metals t in with the existing raw
materials available to blacksmiths? Blacksmiths had used imported met-
als and cheap and low-quality imports, like iron roong sheets and bars,
as raw materials. Although this only occurred on a small scale, such met-
als were imported by the agency of Hausa smiths and traders, some of
whom pioneered the scrap-metal trade. The arrival of the railways and
further investment in road transport facilitated the penetration of new
forms of scrap metal such as iron bars, railway sleepers and keys, as well
as metal from broken river boats. As the literature argues, local iron was
superior in quality to imported scrap metal. Tools made from local iron
were harder and lasted longer than those from imported or scrap iron. It
has been suggested that at least three hoes made from imported iron were
needed to complete farm work in one season, whereas a hoe made of local
iron could be used for more than two seasons. Much time would thus
be devoted to the periodic maintenance of farm implements by smiths,
including sharpening, straightening and reshaping tools (Pole 1982; Her-
bert 1993; Jaggar 1994; Aliyu et al. 2008). Archival records show that black-
smiths derived a high proportion of their income from this work (KSHCB
MLG 16490/1932 Kumbotso District Kano Emirate Reassessment, NAK
MLG 9117/1929 Kura District of Kano Emirate Reassessment). Yet black-
smiths preferred imported iron to local iron for technical reasons as it was
easier to repair if tools broke or became blunt, and it was easier to work
since most of it was already shaped and needed little or no reshaping. This
contrasted with locally mined iron, which was often too hard and brittle
to repair. Its solidity made local iron particularly dicult to cut into the
desired shape (Pole 1982; Jaggar 1994).
Pole suggests looking beyond the question of raw materials shortages
and price disparity when discussing why blacksmiths adopted imported
iron in spite of its inferior quality. Indeed how labour was organized in the
 As Pole (1982: 507) points out, the low quality of imported iron caused smelters of Sukur
in northeast Nigeria to start smelting in the early 1960s.
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iron smelting and smithing process was important as iron production was
a complex, lengthy and labour-intensive process. The economic pressures
brought about by the introduction of scrap or imported metal difered,
depending on whether smelting and smithing was performed by the same
group or by diferent individuals. Smiths who smelted their own bloom
could switch to buying imported iron as soon as this was advantageous. If
smelting and smithing work was not performed by the same group, smelt-
ers were cut of from the market for the nished products to which their
labour had contributed. This situation made them vulnerable to competi-
tion from other sources of iron (Pole 1982). This was not the case when
smelting and smithing work was done by the same person and imported
iron should be seen as a substitute for labour rather than as an alternative
raw material. Even if smelters or smiths could aford imported iron, the
proposition would not have been attractive unless there was pressure on
their labour resources. These could have come from other markets with
the arrival of the British. Anything that reduced production time would
increase prot margins. In other words, giving up smelting and concen-
trating on smithing alone meant that iron workers would gain time to earn
extra income. Given the inferior quality of the tools made from imported
iron and their short lifespan compared to those of local iron, the use of
imported iron would merely further demand (Ibid.). Preferences for local
iron also had to do with rituals attached to the material, which did not
stop with the use of imported iron. As long as smithing work remains nec-
essary and imported iron still requires reshaping by smiths, this inuence
is likely to continue. An additional technical reason for the preference of
imported iron over local iron is that tools made of the former can easily be
red and mended when they break or become blunt, as the metal is softer
than that of locally mined ones (Pole 1982; Jaggar 1994).
It is not surprising that as scrap metal made inroads inland, it gradually
gained acceptance among smiths who began to use it as raw material. The
penetration of scrap metal was no doubt a favourable development, espe-
cially in the light of the raw-materials shortage that plagued the smithing
craft and smiths gained access to a wider variety of materials. The avail-
ability of scrap metal not only increased smiths’ productive capacity, it
also resulted in technological innovations. Scrap metal provided labour-
saving devices at a lower real cost per unit and in less time compared
to local iron. Blacksmiths turned scrap metal to their own advantage by
 The iron quality also determined the price and income potential of the smiths.
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producing products that met local demands. As Jaggar (1994: 35) shows
in his work on Kano City smiths, a shilling’s worth of scrap metal could
produce as many as two dozen hoe blades, each of which would have sold
for 5d to 6d between 1911 and the 1920s. This would have been sucient
to buy between four and ve bowls of corn and allowed the smiths to
earn more than was previously possible. Pole (1982: 506) reported similar
ndings among Lawra smiths in northwestern Ghana where a hoe blank
or at piece of iron with a tang could be bought for one cedi. Smiths
charged between twenty and thirty pesewas for converting the iron into
usable tools or, alternatively, they could buy scrap iron from which they
made hoes that they sold for the same price. The work would have taken
the smiths about thirty minutes in the rst case and about two hours in
the second and in both cases, the smith would have earned about four
cedis a day.
There is no doubt that, in general, the arrival and penetration of scrap
metal had positive and transformative efects on smithing, at least in those
areas within easy reach of the railways and major markets (Pole 1982; Jag-
gar 1994). Some have argued that rural smithing expanded because of the
rural smiths’ competitive prices (Ogundiran 2003; Hill 1972). In the case
of Northern Nigeria, the opposite was true and the arrival of scrap metal
may have benetted urban smiths, whose proximity to railway termi-
nals and major markets where the scrap metals were ooaded provided
direct access to a new type of raw material. However, the distance of the
rural areas from such urban terminals reduced the likelihood of the metal
reaching the rural areas.
Although some of the scrap metal may still have found its way to the
rural areas through the agency of local iron dealers who propelled the
metal trade in the urban centres, this was erratic. The connement of
scrap metal to urban markets reversed the traditional trade relations
whereby urban smiths depended on rural miners, smelters and smiths as
well as traders for raw materials. Mining and smelting had declined in
most rural areas. Previously, urban smiths relied on rural networks for
the supply of raw materials. As the scrap metal made inroads inland, rural
Local iron dealers played an important role in popularizing iron across villages in the
remote areas. Given the bulky nature of this type of metal, iron dealers could not reach
all areas.
 Sasson (cited in Pole 1982: 507) pointed out that it was only in areas where smelting
was done by farmers (as in Sukur) and not by smiths that it was likely to be re surrected.
According to him, such resurrection could have taken place only within fty years at the
most because later the specialized knowledge would have been forgotten.
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smiths came to depend increasingly on networks of urban iron dealers for
their supplies. The penetration of scrap metal accelerated the eventual
decline of rural mining and smelting, forcing rural miners, smelters and
smiths to abandon their craft for something entirely new. The few that
held on to the trade resorted to stealing directly or indirectly from the rail-
ways to compensate for the loss of raw materials (Pole 1982; Jaggar 1994;
Aliyu et al. 2008; Yusuf 2011a, 2011b). Smiths in areas far from urban cen-
tres were short of raw materials for much of the colonial period and this
resulted in thefts from railways. Throughout the colonial period, railway
sleepers were made of metal rather than wood or cement, as was the case
in most of Europe at the time. The metallic nature of the sleepers and keys
were thus attractive to smiths who were in dire need of raw materials. In
the nineteenth century too, railways in Europe were plagued by thefts of
metal. In fact, even today it is relatively common to hear of the cancella-
tion of train services in Europe due to copper and metal-related thefts. In
Northern Nigeria, the railway metal thefts, which started on a small scale,
have over the years turned into an epidemic that plagued not only the
railway system but disturbed the British more than any other crime did.
Stealing from the track
Between 1914 and the 1950s railway metal theft assumed disturbing pro-
portions and attracted the attention of British colonial ocers in Kano,
Zaria, Bauchi Plateau and Benue Provinces. The rst documented evi-
dence relating to it focuses on Dumbi and Rahama villages in Zaria Prov-
ince where 35 people were convicted of the theft of railway keys in 1914
(NAK ZARPROF 2561/1914). And the annual report noted that the Emir of
Zaria ‘was instructed to keep a close watch on blacksmiths’ huts near the
line’ (Ibid.). Although the records did not explicitly mention blacksmiths
as being responsible for the thefts, their rural character and the idea of
keeping smiths under surveillance have relevance for this study. The idea
of keeping a watchful eye on blacksmiths may not have been mere sus-
picion. As raw materials were in short supply, smelting had declined and
scrap metal was scarce in the rural areas. And in 1915 another group of
27 people were convicted in Zaria Province of stealing railway keys. As the
report points out, the principal recipients of the keys were blacksmiths
(NAK ZARPROF 2562/1915).
 I would like to thank Mossimo Moraglio for drawing my attention to this issue.
286Shehu Tijjani Yusuf
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That the document mentions smiths suggests that blacksmiths were
directly or indirectly stealing from the railways. Either blacksmiths
themselves stole from the railways or thefts were carried out with their
knowledge and to their advantage. For instance, while commenting on
the frequency of such thefts in 1921, one senior colonial ocial remarked
that ‘(t)he best remedy for (the thefts) is for the Railway (authority) to
cheapen the price of iron by importing and (. . .) distributing it to the pub-
lic’ (NAK SNP 17/2 11959). Even if iron was available, it was not afordable
and blacksmiths could be short of iron because of its high price rather
than due to an actual shortage. Furthermore, in 1945, some blacksmiths
in the southern part of Zaria complained that they were not working
because ‘they were having no irons to work with’. This can be taken as
an indication of the raw-materials shortage, which is little reported in the
literature (NAK ZAR Prof RLY/2 ofences on trains and railway stations).
The Superintendent of Police reported in 1945 that ‘(s)teel is almost unob-
tainable these days and in consequences commands a high price (Ibid.).
Similarly, in the 1940s, the Resident of Zaria Province also observed that
‘(h)oes, knives, etc. are in short supply’, linking this to the spate of thefts
taking place across the region. He therefore suggested that ‘If unservice-
able (iron scrap) could be collected and sold, it would (a) prevent it being
stolen, (b) supply some of the input, which would otherwise lead to the
essential need of farmers etc. being supplied by thieves’ (NAK ZAR Prof
570 theft of railway materials). Iron was clearly scarce or available only at
a high price, which made railway keys and sleepers vulnerable to theft. As
Pfafenberger (1992: 506) suggests, people who lose out when a new thing
is introduced often devise strategies to compensate for their loss of self-
esteem, social prestige and economic independence. This involves ‘appro-
priation (. . .) (of the) artifact from which (they have) been excluded’ and
includes stealing from the railways to compensate for the shortage of iron.
Some technical advantages of working with scrap metal were stability in
prices, quality and the nature of the iron available to smiths. Whereas
the price, quality and the physical nature of the locally mined iron were
uncertain, that of scrap metal was fairly standardized and predictable.
Although metal thefts persisted, the British administration found it
frustrating and dicult to apprehend the thieves. It was noted that the
thefts were carried out ‘rst in one section of the line, then on another’
(NAK ZARPROF 2475/1917). The rate at which they occurred alarmed the
British, who started ofering rewards in exchange for information that
would lead to the arrest of the thieves. However it was unlikely that vil-
lagers who were experiencing shortages of farm implements would report
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the arrival of iron in their villages, even if they suspected it to have been
stolen. The desire for iron and the ready-made market for stolen metals
stimulated demand for stolen metal, which changed hands, moving from
the immediate area of the theft to places far from the lines. Stolen rail-
way keys were obtained in Katsina (which had no rail facility at this time)
at one shilling each, against a selling price of three pence in Zaria (NAK
ZAR PROF 2475). This suggests a decline in blacksmiths’ raw materials,
which stimulated a demand for stolen metals, and the further away the
metals were marketed, the higher the prices they fetched. It is likely that
most of the stolen metals were converted into tools or other artefacts,
which explains why the perpetrators were rarely caught.
The import restrictions resulting from World War I created a ready
market for local substitutes, with a corresponding demand for raw mate-
rials that resulted in further thefts. For instance, 69 people were con-
victed of theft and receiving railway keys and sleepers in Zaria Province
between 1917 and 1918 and most were arrested during a systematic search
of blacksmiths’ houses (NAK ZARPROF 2475, NAK ZAR PROF 163/1919).
Although it is not clear whether they were all smiths, they were certainly
connected to smithing in some way. Such reports evidence, furthermore,
that not only smiths and/or their cohorts were involved in the thefts but
that railway workers were involved too (NAK ZARPROF 2475, NAK ZAR
PROF/RLY2). As a result, about forty local police were stationed at inter-
vals along the line, especially between Kano and the Zaria border (KSHCB
318P Kano Province Report No. 57 for Half year Ending 30th June 1919). As
argued elsewhere (Yusuf 2011b: 9-10), the Native Authority and the railway
police were numerically unable to police the railways efectively.
The increased demand for Nigerian groundnuts after the end of World
War I stimulated production throughout the region and farmers required
 During an investigation in Kaduna District of stolen railway metals in 1955, the police
were told that the thieves had come from as far away as Abakwa, Unguwan Shanu and
Tudun Wada, all in Kaduna District (NAK ZAR PROF 570 theft of rail way materials).
Other records show that the thieves might have come from another village because
footprints leading to Doka and Kurmi villages (about ten miles north of Iri station)
were discovered at the site of a theft near Kutaru station mile 529 (NAK ZAR PROF
RLY/2).
 Hill’s (1978: 195) argument that smithing expanded in Katsina despite imports of metals
is questionable.
 As Anderson (1986: 399-415) pointed out, thieves forged brands on stolen cattle to avoid
being detected.
 Because of the inefectiveness of the railway police, the native authority police were
often asked to investigate cases of metal thefts but they were unable to curtail them.
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more farming implements that in turn led to a higher demand for black-
smiths’ products. This resulted in increased thefts of railway keys across
the region, which elicited an ocial response aimed at curbing the men-
ace (NAK SNP17/2 11959 Railway Ordinance 1920 on council applying).
Between 1921 and 1925 large numbers of railway keys were reported stolen
across Northern Nigeria. In Kano Province alone, 2100 railway keys were
stolen in 1924 compared to 1013 in 1923, 1030 in 1922 and 3636 in 1921
(KSHCB SNP/9/12/1924 Kano Provincial annual report le 635). These
appear to have been the largest metal thefts from railways in the area.
At the same time, the gures show the availability and scope of markets
for railway metals. As the annual report and other records attest, sev-
eral searches and raids on the huts of blacksmiths proved inefective. The
only solution appeared to be the extensive sale of the ‘scrape-iron’ to local
dealers (KSHCB SNP/9/12/1924; NAK SNP17/2 119.59; NAK ZAR PROF 570).
Interestingly, the report recognized blacksmiths as suspects or benecia-
ries of the thefts. The report also acknowledged the role of local metal
dealers in the iron trade, as it suggested the sale of scrap metal to them.
In Zaria Province too, about 3200 keys were reported stolen in 1925, which
represented a large percentage of the stolen metal in the region as a whole
in that year (NAK 2572 1925 Zaria Provincial annual report for 1925). And
thousands of railway keys were also stolen on the Bauchi-Rahama line
(NAK SNP 17/2 119.59).
The economic depression in the 1930s increased the prevalence of
metal theft, especially in places previously untouched by the problem.
Benue Province was one of the areas where theft became prevalent for the
rst time. The deteriorating living conditions of blacksmiths, arising partly
from the economic situation and raw-material shortage, accelerated the
theft of railway sleepers and keys in Benue Province. As elsewhere, black-
 A Railway Ordinance was introduced in the 1920s to counteract metal thefts but it
failed to curb the problem.
 There were large-scale thefts of railway sleepers and keys around the Dangora sec tion
of the railway in 1921. Eight persons were arrested and convicted: one man was sen-
tenced to two years in prison, two men to one year, four men to six months and one
man to nine months’ imprisonment.
 As Jaggar (1994: 35) pointed out, a shilling’s worth of scrap metal could produce up to
two dozen hoe blades, each selling for 5 to 6 pence.
 The extensive sale of unserviceable scrap metal to blacksmiths started in the 1950s
(Yusuf 2011b: 17) but new evidence suggests it may have started even earlier.
 Freund (1982) pointed out that the thefts were a result of the ban on iron smelting.
 The preceding years were a time of severe economic meltdown with imports and
exports temporarily checked.
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smiths were arrested and convicted in an attempt to curtail their activities
(NAK SNP 17/2 119.59). Evidence shows that both railway and non-railway
workers were involved in thefts. As the Resident of Benue Province
observed, ‘(i)ron stealing from the (r)ailway will (. . .) continue as long as
the connivance and assistance of blacksmiths is obtainable’ (Ibid.).
Imitation or innovation?
The raw-materials shortage and the structural changes emanating from
the import restrictions during World War II resulted in technical and
entrepreneurial innovations in blacksmithing. The ban on imports of
European-manufactured consumer goods created an acute scarcity of
manufactured metal products such as door bolts, hasps, hinges, shovels
and head pans throughout the country and promoted demand for locally
made metal products (Jaggar 1994). The supply of these products was
equally restricted. The wartime scarcity of European manufactured goods
had repercussions for a number of local crafts and there were shortages of
iron and farm implements across the region. For instance, in February
1945, the Resident of Benue Province reported that ‘(h)oes, knives etc. are
in short supply’ (NAK ZAR PROF 570) and in March 1945, a police o-
cer remarked that ‘steel is almost unobtainable these days and in conse-
quence command a high price’ (NAK ZAR PROF RLY/2). The termination
of shipments from Europe created a scarcity of imported manufactured
goods in the region and stimulated demand for substitute products. This
resulted in the local imitation of imported products by the local smithing
industry.
 See also Ochonu (2009: 81-82) and Yusuf (2011a, 2011b).
 As Koll (1982: 92) points out, smiths in Southern Nigeria became impoverished as a
result of the post-war changes.
 Kano (the region’s commercial centre) and Kaduna (the regional headquarters) had
large populations of Europeans (colonial ocials, members of the trading commu nity
and allied soldiers) as well as educated African elites who expected European-style
houses. Kano in particular (by virtue of its position as an air base for Allied contingents
to the Middle East, India and Burma) required specially constructed European houses
and barracks as well as European consumer goods.
 A revival in smelting activities across Africa occurred between the 1920s and the 1940s.
Jaggar (1994: 27) reports a revival of smelting in Zamfara in the 1940s following the
ban on imports of European manufactured goods. Sasson observed a similar revival in
smelting among the Sukur famers of northeastern Nigeria in the 1960s because of the
low quality of imported iron (Pole 1982: 507). Herbert (1993: 11) also noted a revival of
smelting in northern Ghana because of ‘hard times’.
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Local demand for imported manufactured goods increased demand for
local imitations of imported metal products and blacksmiths turned import
restrictions to their advantage by producing imitations of imported metal
products to meet growing urban requirements. As with most changes, this
was a dicult step for many smiths. Initially, only a few who realized the
prospects stepped in to satisfy the growing demand (Ibid.). Blacksmiths
showed a sense of entrepreneurship by charging higher prices for their
products, knowing that they had no competition in the market. And
although this was efective for some time, Jaggar noted that by the end of
World War II, smiths had lowered their prices to compete with imports.
The smiths managed to turn a disadvantageous position to their advan-
tage by pioneering the local imitation of imported manufactured metal
products. Smiths should be seen as innovators, given that they initiated
the reproduction of foreign products even though the products were pre-
viously in use elsewhere (Jaggar 1994: 81). Katzin (1964: 183) described
these smiths as innovating entrepreneurs, as they conceived an idea and
introduced new elements into the economy. He used the term ‘imitating
entrepreneurs’ to describe anyone who adopted a new economic practice
after a local innovator had demonstrated it to be practical and protable.
Critics have argued that imitators cannot be considered as innovators
because the idea emanates from elsewhere and not from within their
own environment (Koll 1968). However, as Katzin points out, imitators
too can be seen as innovators because, like innovators, they must be ready
to integrate new elements into their environment or culture. Although
it is not possible to provide information on the productive capacity of
blacksmiths in this period, the evidence available suggests that railway
metals, in the form of sleepers, keys, sh plates, spikes and even unser-
viceable scrap metal, were stolen in large quantities across the rural areas,
particularly the southern part of Zaria and Kano Provinces and especially
in the Dangora section (NAK ZAR PROF 570; NAK ZAR PROF RLY/2; NAK
KAN PROF RLY/3; NAK ZAR PROF 4182 Zaria Province Annual Report
for 1947). If these thefts were in response to the demand for local imi-
tations of manufactured imported metals, then demand was presumably
even higher. Despite ocial attempts to curtail the practice, metal thefts
persisted until the nal decade of British colonial rule. Large numbers of
 Locally made 10-inch bolts that sold for 60 shillings during the war were cut to 24 shil-
lings per dozen at the end of the war.
 Unserviceable scrap metals were accumulated as a result of the process of upgrading
the railway system over the years.
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railway keys were stolen in Kano Province and along the Kano-Nguru line
(NAK RLY/3) and, in the long run, the British distributed the scrap railway
sleepers and keys to blacksmiths across the region (see Table 14.1). Previ-
ously, it was assumed that scrap metal was rst distributed to blacksmiths
in the 1950s (Yusuf 2011a, 2011b) but distribution may in fact have started
in the 1940s or even earlier. For example, some older sleepers were found
during a search of blacksmiths’ properties in Zaria Province in 1945. When
asked where they were procured, the blacksmith produced a written per-
mit issued by the railway authority relating to the purchase of the said
sleepers and other types of ‘railway irons’. This suggests that the distribu-
tion of railway scrap metal to the Native Authority must have started by
that time or earlier (NAK ZAR PROF RLY/2).
Table 14.1Railway scrap metal distributed to blacksmiths across Northern
Nigeria, 1954-1955
Province Native Administration Quantity (no. of items)
Adamawa Muri ,
Adamawa ,
Bauchi Katagum 
Misau 
Bauchi ,
Borno Borno ,
Fika Value of £100 including
freight
Bedde Value of £50 including
freight
Biu Value of £40 including
freight
Ilorin Ilorin ,
Pategi 
Laagi 
Kaima 
 The scrap metals were distributed directly to the Native Authority across the region,
subject to the blacksmiths’ demands. The railway played an important role in dis-
tributing the metals across the region, preferring to ooad the scrap at the urban and
peri-urban railway towns. At times, they were distributed via the railway motor service.
Ooading scrap outside the approved distribution points was done by the blacksmiths
themselves.
 Station Master Zonkwa stated that the sleepers were bought in the Lagos and Kano
areas by a one Mai Tsabega who dispatched them to a M. Musa Na Yar-mallam at
Zonkwa village to sell. Nearly all blacksmiths from this area obtained their iron from
this man.
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Province Native Administration Quantity (no. of items)
Bussa 
Kabba Kabba 
Yagba 
Igala 
Bassa Komo 
Kwarra 
Igbira ,
Kano Kano ,
Gumel 
Hadejia 
Kazaure 
Katsina Katsina ,
Daura 
Niger Bida 
Agaie 
Kontagora 
Zuru 
Gwari 
Kamuku 
Abuja 
Lapai 
Plateau Jamaa 
Pankshin 
Kanam 
Lowland 
Jos 
Southern 
Sokoto Sokoto 
Sokoto ,
Gwandu ,
Argungu 
Zaria Zaria ,
Birnin Gwari 
Kagoro 
Jaba 
Moroa 
Source: National Archives Kaduna (NAK) RLY/15 Distribution of scrap sleepers by Nigerian
Railway Corporation, 1954-1957
What characterized smithing in this period was the remarkable innova-
tion and entrepreneurship in the sector. This resulted in the emergence
of a new craft, and this industry came to be known as ‘cold’ or ‘white-
smithing’, as opposed to hot, re or blacksmithing, which is the original
Table 14.1 (cont.)
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method of smithing. The technology of coldsmithing was adapted to
imitate manufactured European metal products. It was essentially a light-
weight craft technology as few of the tools and technical processes of
real smithing are used in coldsmithing. Initially, when coldsmithing was
developed, imitations of imported metal products like door bolts, hasps,
hinges, shovels and head pans were manufactured. The existing literature
on blacksmithing attests to the ‘newness’ of coldsmithing in Hausaland
(Wolf 1986; Aliyu et al. 2008). A similar distinction is made among Yoruba
blacksmiths in Southern Nigeria and the Adar smiths in Niger where work
in black-metal iron is distinguished from work in white-metal silver, alu-
minium and brass (Lloyd 1953; Pilaszewicz 1991).
This new craft has attracted many new entrants and patrons over the
years due to its reasonable price, the availability of scrap metal, its mal-
leability and versatility. Whereas the technical process in blacksmith-
ing requires more than one man, coldsmithing is relatively simple and
requires only one-man production units. Coldsmithing can be set up any-
where provided that the necessary tools, such as a light-weight hammer,
chisel, at anvil and some capital, are available (Jaggar 1994: 69). Although
it is not clear where the idea of coldsmithing came from and how it spread
to Northern Nigeria, it has become a popular craft. The range of products
manufactured by coldsmiths has increased from basic door bolts, hasps,
hinges, shovels and head pans to include other items like mouse traps,
trowels, metal cooking trivets, watering cans, piggy banks, kerosene tins,
oil drums and bicycle stands. Coldsmiths were always on the lookout for
new and popular consumer products (Heathcote 1976; Jaggar 1994). The
range of products manufactured by coldsmiths was determined by the
type of scrap metals available and nowadays metal workers make use of
scrap metals such as car parts, mild steel, and cast iron from piston rings
and aluminium as well as iron rods. Coldsmiths were always searching for
imported products that could be adapted and reproduced locally, which
is evidence of their innovativeness and entrepreneurship (Jaggar 1994;
Heathcote 1973).
This new substitutive industry enjoyed a relative boom as smiths
charged high prices for their products. The import restrictions following
World War II conferred a monopoly on them over their products and they
exploited this to their own advantage. By the end of the war, a number
 A major diference between the two is that while coldsmithing involves hammering to
produce implements at a low temperature, blacksmithing involves hammering at high
temperatures.
294Shehu Tijjani Yusuf
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of pioneering coldsmiths had accumulated a lot of capital with which
they charted the course of the industry over the following decades. The
coldsmiths’ craft experienced further growth during the Nigerian Civil
War when imported manufactured metal products were in short supply
because of the ban on imports and, when available, prices were unbear-
able. The price of imported door locks rose from 15 shillings in 1967 to 30
shillings in 1968. The import restriction was a boost to the craft of cold-
smithing. It stimulated the imitation of imported manufactured metal
products as it had done during World War II (Jaggar 1994: 64-87).
If the interwar period was a time of experimentation and innovation in
coldsmithing, the end of the Nigerian Civil War was a period of marked
transformation, from production by hand to modern, industrial produc-
tion by machine. Prots accumulated over the years meant that there
was a lot of cash in the hands of the coldsmiths who came to pioneer
the establishment of a modern industrial metal-working industry. This
development started in Kano among the city’s blacksmiths and the idea
of establishing an industry was conceived in 1969 by the same group of
smiths who pioneered coldsmithing. Due to the enormous capital require-
ments involved in establishing a modern industry, which the smiths were
unable to raise, they sought assistance from Kano’s state government. The
state, which had been established in 1967, was attracted by the proposal,
especially because it fell within the government plan of setting it on an
industrial path. The government approved the sum of £4,500 out of the
total of £15,000 of oating capital that was required for the industry’s
take-of. This loan was to be paid back within a period of eight years, at
an annual interest rate of 5%, with the possibility of a further loan. The
proprietors raised £3,000 among themselves, with the remainder coming
from local entrepreneurs who acquired shares in the company. While this
innovation was applauded as a land mark in the traditional craft industry,
people also expressed their concerns and fears about the industry’s sur-
vival, especially in the face of competition from imported manufactured
goods. The company eventually closed down in the 1980s, although it was
later revived and renamed Madakin Kira Trading Company. It is currently
involved in producing aluminium, steel and metal products (Jaggar 1994:
88-99).
Conclusion
The blacksmithing industry has undergone tremendous transformations
that shaped both the type of raw materials blacksmiths used and the tech-
nology of the craft itself. British colonialism, though not the only factor,
Stealing from the railways in Northern Nigeria295
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was indeed a transformative force in these developments. British colo-
nial policies accelerated the decline of rural mining and smelting, thereby
starving rural smiths of the raw materials they required. Blacksmiths
resorted to stealing from the railways to compensate for the shortage of
raw materials they were facing. Restrictions on imported manufactured
metals were a major boost to the expansion of smithing, leading to tech-
nical innovations that led to the emergence of coldsmithing within the
smithing sector. Further developments within coldsmithing also resulted
in the transformation of smithing from being a traditional craft driven
by hand to a modern industry powered by machines. This chapter has
attempted to show how smiths were the agents of change and innovation,
even though the changes were inuenced by circumstances triggered by
British colonialism.
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This project studied both historical as well as metallurgical aspect of metal working. It compared the ancient metallurgical technology of Katsina state with modern ones; its development and collapse of the industry. Some metallurgical examinations and tests were carried out on some of the blacksmiths to asses the level of development attained by these practices. Based on the study carried out, ways of improvement were suggested. INTRODUCTION Iron smelting in Hausaland predated the Jihad of 1804. Available evidence indicated that Katsina zone of Hausaland, where iron working has been going on for over 1000 years (Okafor, 1997), was the most active in this activity. This is because of the abundant iron ore deposits found in most parts of this area. Notable in this area are Pauwa, Katsina and Lafiaro, where the ore deposits are found in stony lands. The introduction of steel during the colonial era put a halt to iron mining and smelting, and was in fact completely abandoned, with a very few of the miners and smelters turning to blacksmiths.