19th-century Letters between Bornu and Tripoli

Previous posts on early modern sources for Libyan history include: i) Early Modern Libyan Manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and ii) European Journals and Correspondence from early modern Libya.

The Libyan National Archives (دار المحفوظات التاريخية) held in the Red Castle (السرايا الحمراء) of Tripoli contain, or used to contain, a number of letters sent between rulers of Bornu and officials in Tripoli dating to around the mid-1800s. Two editions of these letters appeared in the 1960s, but the archives became less accessible to outside scholars after 1969 because of the regime and little has been published on or about these primary sources since. I haven’t even been able to find if a more extensive Arabic edition exists, although I imagine that there is at least one such publication in Libya.

Letter from Abu Bakr ibn Umar al-Kanami to Nazif Basha, Wali of Tripoli, dated 12 Dec. 1881 (Gwarzo Letter #5)

In the early 1960s, the Africanist scholar Bradford G. Martin was able to spend time working in the National Archives, then under the direction of Bahjat Qaramanli. In a later research report entitled “Turkish Archival Sources for West African History”, he described the relevant part of the archives of the Red Castle as follows:

In North Africa itself, the largest and most useful archive is the Libyan
State Archive, housed in the former Castle of Tripoli, and now known as the Dar
al-mahfizat al-ta’rikhiya (Historical Records Office). The writer visited it in
1962 and again in 1964, at which times it was presided over by Mr. Bahjat
Qaramanli, a descendant of the famous beylical family, assisted by Mr. Muham-
mad al-Usta and Mr. ‘Ali Hasan al-Jarbi. The Tripoli records are in Arabic,
Turkish, and Italian, with smaller amounts of material in other languages.
Many records still exist about the diplomatic relations of the Qaramanli beys
with other states, in Africa and also in Tuscany, Sicily, and Sardinia in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is also a series of registers
(dafatir) about the slave trade from Bornu to Tripoli, beginning in the seven-
teenth century, which records the import tax assessed on each slave entering
Ottoman territory from the south via the Fazzan. Other papers will yield infor –
mation about the provenence of slaves, as there were often lawsuits over their
ownership. In these suits, the slave was sometimes asked to make a deposition
about his place of birth, his early life, previous owners, etc. When properly
used and exploited, these documents will be of great value for the economic
history of these regions of Africa. A catalogue of the collection is in progress.
However, unless the investigator is armed with a fairly good knowledge of
Arabic, or Turkish, and some familiarity with the varied styles of Islamic
calligraphy, these collections may be hard to use.

Almost immediately after his first research stay in Tripoli, Martin published five of the Bornu–Tripoli letters in an article:

Bradford G. Martin, “Five Letters from the Tripoli Archives,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 2/3 (1962), pp. 350–372.

Just a few years later, the Nigerian scholar Hassan Ibrahim Gwarzo, on a trip to multiple northern African archives, discovered fourteen additional letters related to those published by Martin. Gwarzo’s publication of 1968, in a regional journal in Nigeria, contained seven of the letters, but a promised second study never seems to have appeared. His article contains English translations and commentary along with facsimiles of the letters.

Hassan I. Gwarzo, “Seven Letters from the Tripoli Archives,” Kano Studies 1/4 (1968), pp. 50–60.

During the course of my North African research tour I visited Tripoli in July, 1968. There was much talk there among the educated elite of damage having been done to manuscript collections during the Italian war of 1911. The Italians in their bid to dominate Libya at all costs made it a matter of policy to destroy its cultural heritage. Many manuscripts perished in this way; others were taken away to Italians Archives but still a lot survived and are now housed in various collections. The Libyan Government Archives at the Red Castle of Tripoli contains many original letters which throw light on the one hand on relations between the Shaikhs of Bornu and the Ottoman rulers of Libya in the 19th century; on the other they reveal the importance of trade between that country and the Central Sudan. Fourteen of these letters were discovered by the writer, thirteen of which were additional to the five discovered by B. G. Martin in the summer of 1962. The fourteenth is the same as number five in Martin’s article. Only seven letters are treated in this article. The rest will form the basis of another article in the next issue of Kano Studies. Two of the seven are available only in translation from Turkish. The rest are photocopies of the originals. They are all 19th century letters…

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