• Mon. Dec 4th, 2023


Oct 13, 2023


As mentioned already, the traditional machinery for upholding the marriage institution could no longer function under the new influences of the colonial administration. It was clear that arbitration played a major part in keeping traditional marriages stable. The argument is not that pre-colonial marriages did not undergo violent stresses and strains, but that they were not allowed to break under these strains as parents, relatives and in some instances, Chiefs and elders on both sides, stepped in to settle quarrels and prevented any rupture. In the early days of British administration when political officers presided over Native Courts, the trial of cases including matrimonial disputes rested primarily with them. These disputes were taken out of the hands of the Chiefs, quarter heads and village heads, who would have used all persuasive means in arbitration to effect reconciliation between the parties.

Under the Native Court system, therefore, it became increasingly difficult, for this kind of arbitration to be continued; since such arbitration was technically tantamount to holding illegal court, which was an offence that carried severe penalties. The consequence of this was that all petty matrimonial disputes, which would not normally have reached the village council of elders, were taken to the Native Courts. This possibly accounted for the large number of matrimonial cases, which came before the Native Courts.

Since the bulk of the payment in traditional Ika marriage was in the form of services and gifts, the Administrative Officer introduced the system of computing the value of such service and gifts in order to determine the returnable bride-price divorce suits. Thus originated the practice of fixed sum refund to husbands in various localities in Ika. As time went on, the Native Court members now sitting without the District Officer continued to grant divorce without attempting to dissuade the parties from their chosen course. People were quick to realize that instead of the traditional courtship process, which entailed years of services and gifts before marriage, it had become cheaper to get a wife by seduction and payment of fixed bride price through divorce in the Native Courts.

Initially, this refundable bride price was fixed at £5. By about 1920 it was increased to £10. Between 1930 and 1940, it was raised to £12 and by 1950s when divorce cases in the Native Courts continued to increase; an additional penal dowry of £5 was introduced Under this scheme, women who wanted divorce at all costs but who, in the opinion of the Court members, had not made any convincing case to secure a divorce, were still granted a divorce on payment of additional £5 to bring the refundable bride price to £17. In spite of this, the rate of divorce continued to increase. The whole complex system of civilization, in which the society was exposed to new social factors, was actually responsible for this situation.

The old society had various ways of checking divorce as stated earlier. When these traditional methods of enforcing obedience and stability in the society conflicted with British ideas of humanity and justice, the Administrative Officers suppressed these, even though their effects were good in practice. With the removal of banishments and death sentences, adultery cases became numerous and these usually ended up with the women taking action for divorce against their husbands. The adulterers often backed them in this regard.

In place of the former harsh methods, most marriage offences were dealt with in Native Courts as civil and a few as criminal cases. It is relevant to stress here that all the matrimonial civil cases in the Native Courts were all connected with divorce. Such cases included direct divorce suits, claims for bride-price repayments, return of children and return of wife. Other allied cases like abduction, rape, marrying a woman to two husbands, refusal to give up a woman and enticing another man’s wife, were classified as criminal cases. It was easy, therefore, to illustrate the high percentage rate of divorce cases prevalent in many Native Court areas. With the old sanctions against adultery and divorce removed under colonial influences, a general precedent developed. The people blamed the British Administration squarely for this changing scene. As Mr. Butcher found out in Ewohimi in Ishan, “there was a popular slogan that the government permits adultery”.

The Provincial Officers also slowly hacked down the old customs of not granting divorce when they objected to the maintenance of the custom of infant marriages. They saw no justice in ordering young girls to marry husbands whom they could object to on attaining the age of discretion. British Officers, therefore, always granted divorce if it could be so called in such cases before the marriages were due for consummation. This was a big step in the direction of granting divorce without regard to the proper causes as required by native custom.

Girls who were betrothed awoke to the realization that the Whiteman was appalled by parental insistence on choosing husbands for daughters. They began to refuse such would-be-husbands. Obedience to parents was weakened when it could not be enforced. Girls who married on their own choice without family restrictions in ensuring the durability of such marriages, and who were aware that the Native Courts granted divorce, threw themselves in and out of marriages at the decisions of Native Courts.

Col. H. C.Moorehouse’s own interpretation of these developments that the increase in divorce was the result of the emancipation of the women, which he felt was inevitable. In fact, it is only partly true to say that the problem of divorce in Native Court was a product of the jettisoning of old customs, which British Officers regarded ‘asrepugnant’ to their own ideas of justice. Some of the Provincial Officers, for example, regarded child marriage as virtually a form of sale.


There were other general influences associated with British rule, which helped the increase in the divorce rate in Native Courts. One of these was the improvement in the means of transport and communications. The construction of roads under early British administration, and the conscious policy of opening up markets linked towns together, opened new areas contact and facilitated the movement of women from one area to another. With the arrival of the motorcars, women could travel long distances and could easily run away from their husbands. Greater opportunities for seduction were thus opened up to the women and many were definitely attracted by the glamour of the bigger cities and their inhabitants.

The growth of education and Missionary influence, which were corollaries to the establishment of British rule, and which have already been shown as affecting other aspects of the traditional marriage also contributed to the increased rate of divorce in Native Courts. Education militated against family discipline as the children under new influences became less amenable to parents in matters where they felt they had a personal discretion. The missionaries actively sought the co-operation of the Administrative Officers in breaking old customs, which they considered obnoxious to religious requirements. About 1920, these Missionaries took up the question of infant marriages, or the betrothal of children.

The problem was whether the missionaries should wink at any practice, which could force Christian girls to marry non-Christian husbands, probably against their will, merely because the girls’ parents had arranged the marriage or merely to uphold an existing custom. Because of the hostility of the missionaries to the practice and other considerations of justice and morality by the Administrative Officers, the practice was abolished. Instead, the procedure adopted in Ika and other areas of the then Benin Province, was not to force any Christian girl to marry a pagan against her will. Girls who proved reluctant to complete the marriage arrangements entered into by their parents during their minority, always had the contract abrogated and the bride price returned.

The Acting Resident for Benin Province, P.A. Talbot, under such circumstances favoured the award of damages to the offended party because in British Law, such was a breach of promise. The parents had, therefore, to pay an additional sum to the bride price for the use of the money as well as benefits from the would-be husband’s services over a number of years. Though the rule was not definitely laid down, the practice was widespread. Those young girls had their marriage agreements annulled on conversion to Christianity if their proposed husbands were still pagans. It was observed that many girls turned out pseudo-Christians for the mere purpose of obtaining a divorce. There did not seem to be any remedy to this possible development.

With the interplay of the various factors mentioned above, divorce rate in Native Courts remained high. The rate of bride price refund was so high that the tendency must have been to regard marriage as a temporary union to be set aside at the whims of the women, merely on the payment of a fee to the Native Court and return of bride price, which was being treated as deposit refundable whenever the woman decided to leave her husband.

It may be relevant here to discuss the usual motivation of wives in seeking for divorce. Theoretically, the woman had to adduce convincing evidence to prove the existence of a loathsome or incurable disease like leprosy before Native Courts could grant a divorce; she had to prove impotence on the part of the husband as well as show evidence of maltreatment and starvation. Instances were when Native Court judges conditioned a disagreeing couple in an apartment in the Court premises to ascertain proof of impotence. As already shown, these reasons were not new as they existed theoretically in traditional society, though they did not usually lead to the break-up of homes. (Ended)

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