The Genius of Cameroon’s Sultan Ibrahim Njoya

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.

He was a remarkable man, a polymath scholar, probably the most visionary of all the rulers of his kingdom.

Born in the midcentury, 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.

The map of Bamum that Sultan Njoya commissioned. The text is in the language he created. Geography and Map Division.

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.

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