Ndumbé Lobé Bell or King Bell (1839 – December 1897) was a leader of the Duala people in Southern Cameroon during the period when the Germans established their colony of Kamerun. He was an astute politician and a highly successful businessman. The first European records of the people of the Douala region around the Wouri estuary noted that they were engaged in fishing and agriculture to some extent, but primarily were traders with the people of the interior via the Wouri River and its tributaries, and via the Dibamba, Kwa Kwa and Mungo river. The main Duala communities at the mouth of the Wouri River were Bell Town, with the subordinate Bonapriso to the south and Bonaberi in the opposite shore of the river, and Akwa Town with the subordinate Deido to the north.
Douala was a dependable if minor source of slaves for the Atlantic Slave Trade.The British became active in suppressing the trade in the 1820s. In November 1829 the British ship “Eden” seized the Brazilian slave trader “Ismenia” of Rio de Janeiro after it had given its trade goods to the then King Bell for the purpose of obtaining slaves. On 7 March 1841, King Bell’s predecessor signed a formal treaty with William Simpson Blount, commanding the British ship Pluto, in which he agreed to suppress the sale or transport of slaves in his territory
With the abolition of slavery, the Duala people expanded their barter trade in palm oil, palm kernels and ivory from the interior in exchange for European goods. The practice of domestic slavery continued long after abolition of the overseas slave trade. Slaves were not necessarily mistreated. For example, David Mandessi Bell was brought as a slave from the Grassfields region into King Bell’s household in the 1870s and became a rich and powerful member of the Bells, although he was not eligible to become chief.
Bell royal house in 1841, when Ndumbé Lobé Bell was an infant.An 1880 guide said the towns of King Bell and King Aqua, “separated only by a little brook, are apparently of great extent and considerable population. The houses are neatly built of bamboo, in wide and regular streets, with numerous plantain and cocoa-nut trees, and even large fields of maize… A considerable trade has been carried on for many years with the natives, who from their activity in collecting palm oil, and their intercourse with Europeans, have become a large and important community, possessing a high degree of civilization”
The Duala leaders, whom the Europeans called “kings”, came from the two lineages of Bell and Akwa.In practice, both Bell and Akwa suffered from internal divisions and did not have strong control over their subordinate communities, who rivalled them in trade and at times took independent action.King Ndumbé Lobé Bell succeeded his father Lobé Bebe Bell in 1858, when he was aged about twenty. He was to lead theBell faction for almost forty years until his death in 1897.
Between 1872 and 1874 there was a conflict between the Akwa and Bell factions over an attempt by Bonapriso to secede to Akwa. King Bell was supported by Deido, which had become independent of Akwa, in this struggle In the late 1870s, King Bell managed to exploit a quarrel between the Akwa faction and the Kwa Kwa River traders to begin trading on this river, which leads to the much larger Sanaga River.Between 1882 and 1883, just before the German annexation, a violent dispute broke out between King Bell and three of his brothers, supported by Akwa and Bonaberi. These struggles were all harmful to the Bell trade.
By the later part of the 19th century the British were active in the Wouri estuary both as traders and missionaries and outnumbered the Germans, but accepted that the region fell within the German sphere of colonial authority.King Bell sought European protection to support his authority, prevent further attempts to defect by segments of his people such as the Bonaberi, and stabilize trade.
On 12 July 1884, King Ndumbé Lobé Bell and King Akwa signed a treaty in which they assigned sovereign rights, legislation and administration of their country in full to the firms of C. Woerman and Jantzen & Thormählen, represented by the merchants Edward Schmidt and Johann Voss. The treaty included conditions that existing contracts and property rights be maintained, existing customs respected and the German administration continue to make “comey”, or trading tax, payments to the kings as before. King Bell received 27,000 marks in exchange for signing the treaty, a very large sum at that time.
Treaty between King Bell and King Akwa, Eduard Schmidt for Woermann Co. and Johannes Voss for Thormälen Co.In a letter to the Earl of Derby dated 30 September 1884, King Bell explained his reasons for accepting the German offer. He said “Having written to you, through the English Consuls on the West Coast, several times, covering the space of over five years, in which letters I anxiously inquired to know if the English Government would take by annexation my country, I at last despaired, having not received any answer… I hence concluded that neither the Consuls nor yet the English Government cared anything about my country…”
The rulers of Bonaberi and Bonapriso refused to sign the German protectorate treaty in July 1884.King Bell told the British Vice-Consul, Buchan, that the sub-chiefs would prefer British rule, but were waiting to see what the Germans would offer.In December 1884, the forces of Bonaberi and Bonapriso attacked and burned Bell Town. Newspaper reports said that English traders had incited the sub-chiefs of Joss Town (Bonapriso) and Hickory Town (Bonaberi) against King Bell, saying he had failed to pass on their fair share of the money he was given by the Germans.The German representative, Max Buchner, called on a small naval squadron to restore the peace, which they did by destroying both Bonaberi and Bonapriso. 25 Africans and one German died during the fighting. The Admiral of the naval squadron assumed authority until the first Governor, Julius von Soden, arrived in July 1885.
King Bell in later lifeEuropeans who described the situation at Douala during the period before and after the formal colonial annexation praised King Bell and his son and heir, Manga, while they thought little of his rival, King Dika Mpondo Akwa. King Bell was described as a man of natural dignity and decency.Although there were more people in the Akwa faction, the Bells were more successful commercially and received higher payments than the Akwas after annexation. King Bell had managed to eliminate the middlemen in the Mungo trade, greatly increasing his profits. Despite his astute and highly successful commercial and political dealings during a period of social upheaval, King Bell was the target of racist prejudices common among Europeans of that time. A typical verse in a German paper ran:
- King Akwa and King Bell Said lately: “Very well” They took six measures of rum And gave their whole kingdom.
When King Ndumbé Lobé Bell died in December 1897, he was said to have left 90 wives.His son Manga Ndumbe Bell inherited his position and salary, and a few months later was given appeals jurisdiction over all non-Duala peoples of the Littoral, a highly lucrative appointment.
Just north of Bamenda is the large Tikar community of Bafut, traditionally the most powerful of the Grassfields kingdoms. The fon’s (local chief’s) palace here is home to a 700-year-old dynasty and is a fascinating insight into traditional culture.
The palace compound consists of numerous buildings, including the houses of the fon’s 150-or-so wives (not all of whom are presently in residence), and the sacred Achum building, which is off-limits to everyone except the fon and his close advisors. In front of the palace compound are several stones marking the burial sites of nobles who died while serving the fon, and the Takombang House which holds the fon’s ceremonial drum.
The imposing colonial building above the palace is now a museum. It holds many interesting (and slightly scary) carvings, traditional costumes and weapons.
In late December, Bafut holds a huge four-day celebration to mark the end of the year’s ancestor worship with masked dancing and drumming. Bafut also holds a large market every eight days (every ‘country Sunday’).
In most Fondoms of grass field Cameroon, the lineage for succession is based in one compound. Not so in Esu where the Fons alternate between the lower and the upper compounds of Wimeh. This paper explores the origins of this alternation and begins with a historical background of the Esus.
The Esu fondom is part of the larger Tikar ethnic group in Cameroon. Tikars rejected Arab or Muslim subjugation from Egypt their original homeland around the 10th century A.D., fled down south, across the Sudan during several hundred years of migration to settle around Ngaoundere (Tikar). Yet the Muslim Jihad wars caused them to continue to flee southwards until they got to Fumban where they spent several decades before migrating to Ndop. (Note that, Ndop (or Ndobbo) later became the capital of German Grass Field of Cameroon in 1884.) By 1400 A.D. the Nso, Bali, Kom (also Tikars) had settled in their present day locations. So too did Bafmeng, Bafut and Esu settle at Ndi’wung near present day Bafmen where Ngum and Fuh, were princes at the Ndi’wung Palace.
As the population exploded around Ndi’wung, Fuh and Ngum led fractions of the people out of Ndi’wung to separate destinations yet maintaining the traditions at Ndi’wung. This common origin explains why Esu, Bafut and Mmen all have the same traditional calendar days, same market day , similar names and same “country” Sunday. Fuh moved southwards to present day Bafut where they merged with some Widikum settlers of the other Bafut villages. All Fons of Bafut located at Mambu-Bafut, continue to trace their origin to Ndi’wung in Menchum. The present fon of Bafut, Abumbi II’s official wife is from Menchum.
Ngum shot a magical spear in the air and ordered his people to follow him to wherever it would fall. He promised to make that land their new home. This spear shot its way through the plains of Weh and fell at present day Utoh quarters. It can still be found at the spot where it fell around the 15th century. It is believed that the soil around this spot, considered holy grounds, is used to “cure women from infertility.”
Ngum and his followers followed the trails of the spear. Known for their bravery and warfare, the Usu quickly subdued their newfound land when they found the spear. People who occupied the land at this time, either accepted the Usu, left the land, or were completely destroyed. One such people who stayed were the children of Kah (Wekah quarter).
Ngum established his throne at Ukumughe quarter where the powers of the executive, the legislative (ntchu), the judiciary (kwifuah) and the spiritual (ukum) were seated. Ngum had two sons, Meh and Utoh after whom Wemeh and Utoh quarters were formed. Kedzeme quarter represented where ashes and dirt were thrown while Tengheghe quarter simply meant down the bush.
After several generations, then came a fon who passed away leaving no males or legitimate hires. As was the tradition in the fondom, the late fon gave the bufallo horn to her daughter to keep until a new fon was found. Because no hier was found before she got married to a son of Wimeh, she took the Nsuu (or buffalo horn) and the fon’s stool (Tieke Batum) along to her husband’s compound. She kept the Buffalo horn and throne until she had children of her own. Unexpectedly, the first female monarch was made in Esu when the late fon handed over the ensignia of power (Nsuu and Tieke Batum) to his daughter. It is not known exactly when this happened but a closer look at when the alternation process of selecting the Esu fon began indicates that this would have happened between the forth and fith Esu fons.
This only virtual female monarch who is rarely counted as a fon of Esu, had two sons who established the upper and lower compounds of the Wee Ngen Patriclan at Wimeh Esu . Because the two sons were born to a Wimeh father, the throne moved to Wimeh where it has remained until today. At that point, the Ntchu established that the throne would alternate between the compounds of the two brothers. The eldest son took the emblems of power from his mother and became the new fon of Esu.
The Ndaw-Ntsu was later transferred from Ukumuyeh to Wimeh when a new legislative house was constructed. This house, usually built in one day, was constructed with the entrance facing its place of origin; the Wee Meh Bih family where it came from. It should be noted that only the Wee Ngeng family and the Wee Meh Bih Families in Esu have a common grave for their leaders (Sai-Ibami). While the current royal family meets at the Ndaw-Ibami to select the new fon, the Wee Meh Bih family meets at the Ndaw-Ukum to hear the name of the new Batum of Ukumuyeh who is selected by the missing fon.
Executive and legislative power had through destiny left Ukumughe but spiritual (Ukum) and judiciary (Kwifua) authority remained there. Only the late “Kedong” of Ukumughe, Geh-ikum (1890-1981), has been credited for the decentralization of these two institutions. Today both Ukum and Kwifua exist in more than one quarter of Esu but the Usu have maintained one Ntchu and one Fon (Nfua) as is the case in most fondoms of Tikar origin where the “Kwifua”, the “Ntchu” and the throne are always together at the fon’s palace.
It is important to note here that further research is needed to understand why the female Natum is not listed in contemporary Esu Patriachal Dynasty when female rulers have existed in other Tikar societies such as the Bamun.