It is a measure of the fame, power and popularity of the late Alhaji Alhassan Dantata , and an indication of the widespread nature of his trading, that within 24 Hrs of his recent death i had heard of it from a Hausa trader in Freetown - two days before local newspapers published the news. and when i came ashore in Takoradi i was given the information by a hausa lady who had come down to the harbor specially to tell me.
Alhaji Alhassan, whom I knew well, was possibly the richest man of any race in the whole of w/a; and was in himself, a living rebuttal of the allegation that Africans, as a race, have no commercial aptitude, an example to his fellow - countrymen of what a man can rise to even without education and a wealthy background.
His mother was a petty trader,
and he was born in the 1880's not even he could tell his exact age - in the corrupt, decadent, and
war-wrecked Emirate of Kano, where he spent his childhood. Some of his earliest
memories were of the vast Kano slave-market, of executions and public floggings
as he toddled around the city peddling kola nuts for his mother, and presumably
acquiring his commercial acumen. he must still have been very young when he left
Kano with his mother in search of better trading conditions, for he remembered
that for a large part of the two year journey on foot through the turbulent
kingdom of Dahorney to Kumasi ( the only route open at that time) he was carried
strapped on his mother's back. During the journey, which was forced upon his
mother by the virtual closing of the trade routes to the south with the advent
of the British, and by the unsettled conditions in the emirates themselves, she
supported him and his elder brother by making "Fura" ( a Hausa specialty -
millet balls spiced with ginger and usually eaten with milk) and hawking it in
the villages through which she passed.
In Kumasi, protected and lodged by the already quite large and prosperous Hausa trading community, his mother found the ideal conditions for which she had been searching and decided to settle there. His days were spent quietly with a Qur'anic teacher until, to use his own words, "BOOM ! " the British came" Trade languished and conditions became very disorderly during the disruption of the Ashanti state immediately after the british occupation of kumasi, so his mother decided to pack up and go back to kano. This time, as the route to the coast was open, they had merely to walk down to cape coast and take ship to Lagos, where they continued their journey to the north, partway, in the first train which young Alhassan had seen. They had not been settled long back in kano when "Boom the british came", but despite closing the slave market trade did not languish there as it had done in Kumasi. Social order was maintained through the continued existence of in some ways an even more autocratic Emirate ( Lord Lugard recognized the Emirs as sole native Authorities, with very wide powers, whereas traditionally sovereignty had been vested in the emirs-in-council, as it is at the present day), and the opening up of good communications with the south stimulated trade. after his mother's death, the young man who now had become a prosperous petty trader in his own right, having heard that conditions were much improved in kumasi ( the hausa have probably the best system of "bush telegraph" commercial intelligence in West Africa), returned there, and renewing old connections, started trading in Nigerian products, and kola for export to Nigeria. His success can be judged by the fact that shortly after the great war he felt able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca the "rich man's way". In those days there was no" pilgrim Flyer" service to Jeddah; West African pilgrims either made an abominably uncomfortable and dangerous journey on camel-back or foot across the desert, many of them giving up the journey and settling as cotton laborers in the Anglo Egyptian Sudan, where there are still large and growing) colonies of their descendants, or if they could afford it, went by sea to the U.K and then either directly by boat or by rail to a Mediterranean port to join a ship.
When Alhassan and the small group of pilgrims who accompanied him, after having survived the perils of boarding the mail boat off Accra by surfboat and ammy chair, arrived chilly and forlorn. without a word of English between them, in Liverpool they found a most unexpected and enthusiastic welcome. The English press had made a big fuss about the first west African pilgrims to travel to Mecca via the U.K the colonial office had, without being asked, arranged guides, interpreters, accommodation, and what have you and his very brief stay in England culminated with a reception at Buckingham palace at which he was presented to king George V.
on his return from
pilgrimage, he continued to expand his already large commercial empire,
establishing agents in all the main trading centers and concentrating more and
more on the two commodities, groundnuts and kola, which led him to settle once
again in kano, biggest west African market for both. The marketing board took
over export of groundnuts, and when he finally became a licensed buying agent
himself, he soon became the second most important in the list. when last i was
in kano, about a year ago, long after evacuation of groundnuts began to speed
up, he could still indicate with a lordly wave of his hand 60 pyramids of last
season's groundnuts and say: " These are all mine ". In the kola trade, too , he
could dominate the kano kola market, where over $3m. Changes hands each year,
and many of the special kola trains run up from western region to kano carried
kola only for him. In kano he was soon
reintegrated into the social structure of the city. He owned a lot of property
in kano as well as his substantial holdings in Kumasi, Accra, and Lagos,
and among other public offices,
became the " commerce" Member of the emir's council, although not born of a
noble family. He was a founder of the kano citizens trading company, an attempt
to get together enough northern owned capital to finance industrial undertakings
which resulted in establishment of a weaving mill. He was also energetic in
philanthropic activity: as a strict Moslem his main interests were support of
Qur'anic education, relief of the poor, and of course, the kano pilgrim society,
which eases the way of the modern air or lorry-borne-pilgrim At ed-el-kabir a
herd of cattle would be slaughtered at his house, cooked and distributed to the
Many men alive today owe their successful trading career to his generosity debarred as a Moslem from accepting interest, he used to find an outlet for surplus capital by advancing money to any promising young man who put up to him likely sounding trading scheme, asking them to repay half their profits (in some cases less; in some cases none) if they made any. The size of his bank balance can be judged from the fact that he was one of those gilded men of kano who stipulate for religious reasons that their deposit accounts shall be non-interest-bearing, but who receive instead a substantial " dash" each year.
It is a great pity that such a
man should have been taken from us now, just after his new appointment as a
director of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, and at a time when west Africa
needs so many men of his caliber to demonstrate to the younger generation that
there is more in life than being a clerk or a teacher, and that ability does not
necessarily correspond to degrees of literacy.
I shall always regret that i shall never again be able to go round in the cool of the evening to his unpretentious house near the city gate, rendered almost uninhabitable as it was by the untidy stacks of files which encroached everywhere on the living space, and dig up from the past more of his childhood memories of pre-British Hausa land and Ashanti, while he continues in the intervals of conversation to dictate letters to his secretary. he was a man of enormous energy, and must like lord beaver brook, have employed his secretaries on a shift system, for i never knew to stop work except at the times for prayer. Outside on the verandah, until late in the evening, one would hear the soft chatter of the young men still at work plaiting the special rope made of strips of "duka" (baobab) bark which is always used for securing the bags of kola. That perhaps i s A D's message to west Africa salvation through hard work.
Another tribute written after his death including one of the greatest honor given by the then king of Britain King George V when he had the honor of meeting him at Buckingham palace in 1918 on his way to Mecca on pilgrimage via London by ship with some of his family.