The Igbo Red Cap

All my life I've known - not guessed or assumed or thought but known, with the same level of confidence I know that when it rains the streets of Yaba will be flooded -  that the red cap in Igbo traditional society is a symbol of a certain level of wisdom, maturity and achievement. A symbol, which I have heard older men complain, is now being devalued and defaced by the fact that everyone wears it and that young men who's wisdom and maturity is certainly in doubt and who's sources of wealth is questionable at best and downright immoral at worst had somehow earned (bought) the right to wear the red caps. All of that I have heard, and can even, should the spirit move me argue both sides of that debate. My acceptance of the world and the role of red caps in this world was balanced. Until Monday this week.

I was reading a highly informative book on colonial Nigeria and discovering stories that I didn't know. Everything was going fine, then I read a paragraph and I couldn't go any further. I read that paragraph three times then did a quick google search and spent the next one hour researching. This was the paragraph that shook my world:

"It was the District Commissioner for Ikot-Ekpene who first gave his Warrant Chief a Moroccan fez hat and a staff of office. This practice caught on and the Red fez became a symbol of Chiefs' attire throughout the Eastern province" - Olasupo Shasore 'A Platter of Gold'

Some context is probably appropriate so you can understand what happened to my world that fine Monday afternoon. Warrant Chiefs were appointed in what is now South East and South South Nigeria, in the early days of colonialism because British colonialists couldn't be bothered to learn the culture of the people who's land they'd come to plunder *coughs* civilize I mean. A warrant to govern on their behalf and most importantly collect tax was given to whatever individual the British officials currently held in favor, it could also be withdrawn at will. The institution was rife with corruption, abuses and injustice which, with the help of other factors would lead to its eventual collapse. Incidentally, the focus of this chapter in the book was tax and the tax riots and revolts of the 1920s. I read on trying to find more information the cap, but Mr Shasore's focus was on tax not hats. The only other mention, he'd make was that the hats became so symbolic that during the Market Women's Revolt of 1929, one of the demands the women made was the 'de-hatting' of erring warrant chiefs, some of whos hats were burnt or ripped into pieces.

But surely it can't be. Surely this symbolic red hat - which traditionalists insist is the very symbol of a post-selfish, for-the-good-of-the-community ideal we should all aspire to - cannot be a relic of a colonial institution even officers of the British empire were forced to admit might not have been their best idea (a feat almost as difficult as getting a Nigerian politician to abstain from looting)? But apparently it might be.

This is a red Moroccan fez hat without tassels.

And this is the vaunted traditional Igbo Red cap.

I'm not a professional or anything but they do look similar. And I haven't found a single source that can categorically tell me the origin of the caps. I did find a claim that the true origins of the cap are the ancient Nri Kingdom or the Arochukuwu Confederacy of pre-colonial renown but again, there is nothing to back up these claims. Obviously a lot more historical research and archaeological reconstructions needs to happen in Nigeria for us to understand the times that have gone by.

But I digress from my point. The mini-controversy on the cap aside, that paragraph made me realize that I need to challenge some of the assumptions I take for fact. Instead of accepting anything on face value, I will now be running tests to figure out exactly what I think and why I think it. You might want to do the same, before a paragraph comes out of nowhere and shocks you into stupor. If you want to join me, I'll be at a chemistry lab somewhere trying to figure out is water is really H20.

If you know more about the Igbo red cap and it's origins, please share in the comments section, that we all might learn.

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