Babungo : a study of iron production, trade and power in a nineteenth century Ndop plain chiefdom (Cameroons)
A survey of smelting debris undertaken in BABUNGO brought to light what is to date the largest single recorded centre of iron production in sub-Saharan Africa. High output in the 19th century was facilitated by innovation in furnace structure that enhanced capacity and brought in economies of scale along with changing fuel usage that enabled the intensification of production by a sedentary industry set within a grasslands environment. Elsewhere in the region separate smithing and smelting using older, smaller furnaces exploiting traditional fuels and ores collapsed and in its place arose a devolved technology centring on recycling of slag in simple open hearth furnaces. The enormous output of the BABUNGO industry was linked to a mode of labour recruitment and division of rewards that overrode the boundaries of the kin group. At the point of establishment of the foundry and throughout its operation non-kin freely offered their labour in return for access to the foundry. A pervading ethos of cooperation and stress on the sharing of the product in terms of a familial paradigm provided for the social validation of the accumulation of wealth by individual descent group heads. The distribution of products was characterised by periodic markets, organised trading groups, use of convertible currencies, credit and commissions. The heavy costs of transporting ironware to regional markets was largely taken over by specialist trading chiefdoms that clustered around BABUNGO. Unencumbered by these costs output rose to even higher levels. The great material wealth generated by iron production was further enhanced by the highly profitable conveyances to be made between continental and coastal spheres of trading activity that abutted on the Grassfields. The political organisation of BABUNGO offered only limited opportunity for conversion of wealth into political authority. The integrity of the chiefdom barely withstood the internal pressures generated by the enormous wealth derived from iron production but was bolstered by an external alliance undertaken by an astute FON with the vanguard of German colonisation.