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Figures in a Spare Landscape: Serving in the Twilight of Empire, Nigeria 1959-60

by Peter Haring Judd




This as a memoir based on a journal kept by my 28-year old self, a history teacher in a government school in Bornu Province in the far northeast of Nigeria. I was there in the months before the British ceded authority to the newly independent nation of Nigeria. 

I was the rarest of birds in British colonial government service, an American with a wide-eyed interest in the land, in Africans, and in the Northern Nigerian variant of imperial governance termed indirect rule. There was unexpected adventure as within days of my arrival in 1959 I was seconded to duty in elections in advance of independence, taking me deep in the bush to people and places few outsiders had visited.

The vast savannah of the Bornu plain was then populated by farmers in well-kept villages, nomads and their herds; there were a few towns, all within a Muslim emirate whose history extended back 500 years. The tall, dignified Kanuri were responsive to a traditional hierarchy that delighted in spectacle and extravagant horsemanship.

In the hills at the edges of the plain, were indigenous people, sheltered from incursions from the plain. Bornu was part of the huge Northern Region of Nigeria taken by the British largely by treaty in the early 1900s. It is a semi-arid, flat land of grasses, shrubs and stubby trees, more akin to neighboring sub-Saharan regions than to the settlements on the Atlantic coast long exposed to European influence.  There are heavy rains for three to four months of the year; sun and heat in the remainder turn the

vegetation brown and yellow, the earth hardens to concrete. The sky seems endless, people in their traditional solidly colored robes stand out in the landscape, a beauty caught in the fifty and more of my photos in the book.

Today Bornu lies ravaged by the Boko Haram, villages burned, inhabitants murdered or enslaved; refugees in tent camps. My memoir celebrates what was. Read it as a young man’s adventure and glimpse a facet of a worldwide process as European powers withdrew and colonies became nations.


Peter Haring Judd, Figues in a Spare Landscape: serving in the twilight of empire, Nigeria 1959-60

MA ARRI, an imprint of Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, New York, 2018

ISBN 978-1-947980-57-0 pbk.

ISBN 978-1-947980-58-7 hdc.

ISBN 978-1-947980-86-0 b&w pbk.

LOC LCCN 22018018937 | ISBN 9781947980570 (pbk.) | ISBN 978194798058

"Peter Judd is always a rewarding historian. His latest work, Figures in a Spare Landscape, benefits from the same strengths as his other works: historical modesty and a devotion to the close study of unconventional sources. In this case, Judd’s source is himself. Based on diaries kept while he was teaching in Bornu Province, Nigeria, the book understands its position very clearly.


Judd’s position in Nigeria was that of a white, upper-class, very well-educated American man who was teaching in Nigeria because he was interested and motivated by ideals, but also because he wasn’t sure what to do at “home.”


The moment was 1959-60, one year before Nigerian independence from British rule. In fact, one of Judd’s responsibilities was the organizing and teaching of election supervisors. It would have been easy to say that it was a historic year, the year of independence. It would, therefore, also have been easy for Judd to say that he was participating in something historic. However, one of the many strengths of Figures in a Spare Landscape is Judd’s ability to make the “greatness” of things disappear and give evidence of the way individuals are able, but also quite unable, to see or understand their position and opportunities."


-Tom Johnson



"Just finished reading your book. I found a wonderful. At times it even moved me so much that I cried. also the suffering and anger you went through realizing you couldn’t change the school. I love so much, so much of it!!! This is avery important document of the past isn’t there anymore. As you say yourself, and your way of looking and describing it is so accurate full of feeling and humor too. I love sucking and Yusufu in a special way. There are so vivid I feel I know them."


-Francesca de Sapio, Rome Italy