Chapter 2 (pt.6)


Chiefs: Chiefs are associated primarily with the Namoos in Taleland, (1949a, p. 3) and the Chief of Tongo is the most prominent among them. Fortes indicates that chiefs had no political power "as we understand it" before the coming of the white man (1945, p. 182). By this I take him to mean that chiefs had no direct power of coercion; neither through jural and economic authority (as do lineage heards at lower orders) nor through the moral and ritual sanctions they wield (which do not give authority in political matters, formally), nor through differences in wealth of significant enough extent to give much power or influence. This cannot be taken to mean that their voices were insignificant, however. Still more, it cannot be taken to mean that succession to the chiefship was not a primary focus of the processes of genealogical and political realignment so central to the extension of Tale social order in time. Nonetheless, the status of the chiefs, their economic and political power, and their personal differentiation from their fellows was greatly increased by their incorporation into the colonial government apparatus. It is worth quoting at some length from Fortes' discussion of this:

The influence of British rule has naturally been most marked in Tale political life. At first it was directed towards two main ends: to maintain the peace between the Administration and the native communities as well as amongst the latter, and to ensure a sufficient supply of labour and local materials from the native population for keeping up roads and rest houses. The Administrative officers laid down boundaries, meted out justice, and backed up chiefs and headmen, mostly appointed by themselves, in the exercise of coercive powers over the mass of the people. Nothing was known about the country or the people, and the Administrative officers had to rely on their own sense of justice and their own ideas of what was in the interest of the population. The natives look back on this period with few regrets. They describe it as a time when extortion was widely practised not only by the police, the soldiers, the interpreters, and others who stood between them and the District Commissioners, but also by their newly empowered chiefs and headmen. They learnt to think of any official or unofficial servant of the white man as armed with arbitrary authority which it would be futile to resist. (1945, p. 13)

This is not authority as we shall discuss it in Chapters 6 and 9, but it is very definitely power. Among other things [that it points out of relevance here is the difficulty of distinguishing the pre-colonial and colonial elements in the status of chiefs. We shall first attempt to look at the traditional position of na'am (chief) by itself.

Chiefs, like tendaanas, derive the main part of their authority from their position as head of a maximal lineage. Their additional ritual powers include such as that of the Chief of Tongo over rain (1945, p. 95), and are indicated by the various calamities portended by the death of a chief: a scarcity of food in his own clan, perhaps a famine throughout the country (1945, p. 183). The death of a tendaana is also ominous, but the threat is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that there are likely to be at least two tendaanas in any given clan, whereas the chiefship includes a somewhat wider and more exclusive jurisdiction (op. cit.). This is an indication, perhaps, of the somewhat smaller social groupings which are salient in the affairs of the Talis among the Namoos. The latter tend to be organized into somewhat larger and less differentiated collectivities. Where in other areas the chiefship is vested in the head of a maximal lineage, at Mosur biis (among the Namoos) it is vested in the head of a sub-clan (1945, p. 43) which follows our earlier suggestion that sub-clan and maximal lineage are largely analougous.

As was seen to be the case with the tendaanaship, the chiefship is a unitary institution made up of offices distributed among various clans and lineages (1945, p. 182). This is connected to the rule by which the installation of any ritual functionary is always the prerogative of another neighbouring functionary, or sometimes a functionary of the same congregation, thus linking the entirety (1945, p. 105). Fortes has suggested that a politico-ritual functionary of any variety is raised, by virtue of his office, above the sectional interests of the people of whom he is a part - usually a crucial part-on any lower level (1945, p. 225). It is not clear exactly how this is done, or to what extent. For one thing, it presumably depends on the situation, since "a particular lineage head may be the head of several segments of different orders" (op. cit.); he presumably acts in the sectional interest in opposition to the particular interests of the other sections of the larger unit at certain times. How much he does so may presumably depend on the extent to which corporate unity of the higher order lineage is at stake, how much pressure is brought to bear upon him by members of the lower order segment, and how clear the claim of normative 'right' may be in the situation.

The primary function of chiefs in the traditional politico-economic system was representative, however. The chief acted on behalf of his lineage, but not necessarily with a prerogative to decide on behalf of its members, whenever they were involved in dealings with another lineage of the same order. His ability to alter the internal workings of the lineage was relatively minimal; he was in large part a spokesman. In the negotiations over bride-price or debt settlements, for example, the chiefs of the lineages concerned were their points of formal contact. As we have noted, this definition of the function of the chief no longer obtains, or at least, no longer is dominant. Chiefs have become the major focus of the involvement of the Tale social order, as a system of authority, with alien power. The entire social order is becoming more and more integrated into larger orders or attempts at order, and at the same time, the incursions of alien power into the local scene are becoming a major factor in the social organization and/or disorganization of the Tallensi. It is an argument of this thesis that these (no longer strictly alien) elements of power have reduced the extent to which Taleland's population may accurately be described as 'society' (see Chapter 6) both because of its incorporation into larger units of sociation, and because of its decreased internal sociation, that is, for example, its decreased range of internal predictability to social action over time (see Chapter 6). We need only touch briefly on matters relating to this aspect of the chiefship here.

In particular, the important changes have to do with wealth, the introduction of jural authority, and changing selection procedures, including especially the frequent lowering of age and genealogical position of chiefs. The impact of these changes is, as we shall see, very much enhanced by their interrelations.

Already, when Fortes studied the Tallensi in the 1930's the position of the chiefs had changed dramatically, most obviously in their material wealth. There are two categories of importance to this: increases in wealth of the same varieties (e.g. wives) as in the native system; and the introduction of new media of wealth, particularly hoardable and rationally exchangeable media. Although in Fortes' descriptions the former seems still to be the greater measure of wealth, the latter may have (or have had) at least as great an impact. The primarily traditional varieties of wealth in Taleland were/are livestock and wives (land being a common and generally non-transferable property, with no increase in use-vale to the individual after the attainment of a certain quality and quantity). The relative measure of the former in the 1930's is summed up thus:

Except for a handful of chiefs and headmen - who have herds of cattle numbering from 20 to 50, and, in at least one case, apparently, over 100, as well as numbers of small stock - a man with a dozen sheep, a few goats, and three or four head of cattle is considered to be wealthy (bondaan). (1949a, p. 82)

Wives may also be acquired by chiefs in numbers contrasting greatly with those of the rest of the adult male population.

The five biggest chiefs and headmen of the Tongo district had between them about 160 wives of all ages in 1936. Their predecessors of a generation ago would have had perhaps 30 between them, at the utmost. (1949a, p. 84)

In Fortes' sample of 146 men over 18 years of age, 46% had only one wife, 20.5% had two, and 24% were single, which gives an idea of the negligible proportion of the population having large polygynous households. Further, age makes a significant difference, with 91.4% of the married men under 30 having only one wife (and a third single) vs. only 60.4% of all married men having only one wife. Of the men aged 46 and over (almost all of whom were married), 62.2% had more than one wife. Still, only one has as many as five. (Figures either taken directly or recomputed from table, 1949a, p. 65).

According to Fortes, acquiring wives is one of the principal uses to which wealth in the form of livestock is put. Of course, wives may be acquired either for the owner of the livestock or another member of the lineage, frequently a classificatory son, if the owner is a senior man. The wealth is thus partially a communal benefit in many cases. This is true of wives as well, even the extravagant numbers of wives held by colonial chiefs, for these are productive units providing food beyond that generally consumed by the chief's family, and are also fairly readily available for sexual affairs with young men of the area. Quite beyond the sharing of wives and/or livestock (intentionally or otherwise) by a living owner, all will be shared on his death through the various partitive mechanisms of inheritance among the Tallensi. This is where the importance of the age of the wealthy man (usually a chief or senior headman) comes into clear focus, at least in one of its aspects.

When the holders of wealth are very old, they will not hold it for very long. In Taleland, further, it is widely distributed on their deaths. These two factors combine, further, to produce a mechanism of limitation to economic differentiation and, in most modern meanings of the term, to capitalism. If a man acquires wealth and/or power very young, he may use the rest of his life to increase it through manipulation and investment of various sorts. He may thus multiply his initial wealth much more than an old man may do. If, further, the wealth accumulated by any one individual ma be left intact to his heir or heirs (assuming the plural group to act as a corporation, and to be small in number), then they will be able to increase the differential between themselves and the rest of the population still further. This, of course, is a rudimentary outline of one variety of capital accumulation, one which is prevented, or at least very severely limited by the Tale socio-economic system.

One half of the mechanism of limitation was broken in Colonial rule, however. Chiefships (and senior headships) not only became a source of considerable wealth, but succession to them was removed from strict genealogical reckoning. At first this took place as the Administration recognized chiefs and headmen on its own, and rather ignorantly, as Fortes notes (1945, p. 13). It continues even now when chiefs are elected. This means that a younger and/or genealogically junior man may become a chief. This destroys firstly, the principle of a single system governing all affairs at all levels of the society; and secondly, it enables the process of the accumulation of wealth within the individual life to begin much earlier. Although the native organization attempted to compensate for the former by declaring that chiefs were 'fathers' and 'elders' (kpeem) whether or not they were otherwise entitled to those statuses (Fortes, 1949a, p. 154), it cannot effectively incorporate the latter. Radically redistributive inheritance can keep it in check to a certain extent, essentially delimited by the extent to which differentiation of wealth and competitive advantages can be increased in the lifetimes of individuals.

The fact that such redistributive inheritance is still (or was recently) operative can be shown through the case of the Golibdaana, a prominent ritual functionary among the Hill Talis, who in the time of Fortes study monopolized the pilgrim traffic which came from the south to the Tong Hills (1945, p. 254). the Golibdaana was able to become a political as well as an economic leader, using much of his wealth to reward followers and pay off various functionaries, a redistributive activity to some extent, but as Hart notes, one with "elements of an upward spiral" as well (1974, pp. 13-14). Further, the Galibdaana could turn perhaps as much as half his wealth to lavish personal consumption. His fortune, however, could not under the Tale system become the foundation for continued capitalist expansion, and the system seems in this instance to have held:

The Golibdaana, when he died, left behind a large, fragmented family (as Fortes predicted) and the Tong hills pilgrim trade was no longer a major source of economic power in Taleland. (Hart, 1974, p. 30)

As to the acquisition of wealth in non-traditional media - especially cash - this has been widespread and follows, presumably, in proportion to the economic integration of the Tallensi into larger trading units. The primary import of this for our present study is as an instance of a process of rationalization (coupled generally with individualization). This process was limited, not only where it came into contact with the mechanisms outlined above regarding the perpetuation of capital, but by such facts as that in the 1930's basic subsistence items, particularly food, were not available on the open market on a regular basis, and neither labour or products could be sold regularly or in sufficient quantity to achieve independence from the traditional economic system. In other words land and its cultivation were still the primary direct resources in Tale economic life. This can be seen further reflected in the relatively low extent of differentiation of tasks of social division of labour which Fortes describes. When, in the years subsequent to Fortes' study, rationalization and other economic changes became more widespread, they did so largely through the impact of migration (cf. Hart, 1969), although marketing was important as well. In other words, the process was not one of social change internal to any previous Tale system, but one of incorporation into a larger system (cf. Fortes, 1936a, esp. his support of Radcliffe-Brown's incorporation argument over Malinowski's 'interaction' argument, the latter represented by Hunter and Mair in Fortes' paper; see also Gluckman, 1974, p. 4). Tale chiefs have been pivotal in this process of incorporation, and their differentiation is a sign of its progress. The fact that they now have jural authority (in the larger system, although they would not in the Tale system more narrowly construed) is a further indication of the direction of this change - not only the direction in which it moves, towards rationalization, but also the direction from which it comes, from above, via imposition.

A Note on Ancestors: As Fortes has emphasized many times, ancestorhood is a position in the genealogical hierarchy; like the chiefship, tendaanaship, and headship, the status is an extension (and specialization) of a fatherhood:

When a particular deceased - and it is always a particular person - is thus reinstated as an ancestor it is, as I have argued, because he has living descendants of the right category. His reinstatement in this status establishes his continued relevance for his society, not as a ghost, but as a regulative focus for the social relations and activities that persist as the deposit, so to speak, of his life and career. (1965a, p. 129)

Ancestor worship is a representation or extension of the authority component in the jural relations of successive generations ... (op. cit., p. 133).

Just as fathers and headmen and the holders of more senior positions act in political and ritual affairs for their dependants and constituents, forming a hierarchy of representation, so ancestors are linked in a series, continuing the same pattern. In making an appeal or prayer to an ancestor at any given level, one cannot, as it were, go over the heads of ancestors at intermediate levels. Neither can one ignore the living generations of fathers who may come between one (or one's lineage segment) and ancestors who are salient in some circumstance. Either a living father prays for one, or one prays to and through one's father to his father, to forefathers, etc. Fatherhood is an essential criterion of spiritual 'enfranchisement':

In this social system, jural and ritual authority is vested in the men who have the status of fathers. Until a man's father dies, he himself has no jural independence and cannot directly bring a sacrifice to a lineage ancestor. He is, as it were, merged in his father's status. (1959, p. 17)

As we have noted, the intermediate lineages from the range within which the extension of classificatory fatherhood reaches its maximum.

It is nearness to the ancestors which is the consistent rule determining who shall succeed to politico-ritual positions. These positions, are, in essence, devolutions from positions of ultimate authority, those of the ancestors (1961, p. 187).

We could say that ancestor worship is specifically referable only to that segment of the social life in which descent and succession play the organizing part. It would seem that the nuclear relationship involved is that of a person with his senior filial successor,a n the nuclear institution is that of rightful authority. (1965b, p. 20)

We shall have a great deal more to say directly on the subject of ancestors as we continue (particularly in Chapter 9). Here the important point is that ancestorhood is a position in the hierarchy of social authority which also includes chiefs (under the traditional system), tendaanas, headmen, and fathers. Ancestorhood is somewhat more abstract, and less subject to the foibles of moral humanity; it is more absolutely correct and correspondly ancestors are more absolutely authoritative. Nonetheless, it is a part of the same system. Ancestors, though they have no differentiations in strength of authority, are arranged in a hierarchy of scope of authority. That is, they are not an undifferentiated mass, but are ordered, so that each social group of Tallensi has reference to a common ancestor (and his ancestors) demarcating the point of their social differentiation. Ancestors do not countermand each other, and this should be a clue to the relations of living authority-figures in traditional Tale social order. Primarily they have authority at different ranges, over different sets of relations: their conflicts are not seen as conflicts of authority, but conflicts stemming from the imperfections of the human beings who stand in for the pure authority of the ancestors. (cf. Middleton on the Lugbara, 1960, pp. 16-7)

Tale social life is almost wholly organized by reference to relations of descent and of kinship. Precise genealogical knowledge is necessary in order to define a person's place in society and his rights, duties, capacities, and privileges. This is one reason why the cult of the ancestors is so elaborate among them. However, it is much more than a mnemonic for regulating their social relations. It is the religious counterpart of their social order, hallowing it, investing it with a value that transcends mundane interests and providing for them the categories of thought and belief by means of which they direct and interpret their lives and actions. (Fortes, 1959, p. 19)

Even without those of its aspects we call religious, the authority of ancestors would be of great significance in Tale social order.

Next chapter

The Condition of a Static View-The Corporations-The Nuclear Lineage - The Inner Lineage - The Intermediate Lineages - The Maximal Lineage - Larger Collectivities - Summary - Political, Jural and Ritual Positions - Lineage Headmen - Tendaanas - Chiefs - A Note on Ancestors

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