Igbo names and spellings for various settlements
Abakaliki is Abankaleke; Afikpo is Ehugbo; Awgu is Ogu; Awka is Oka; Bonny is Ubani; Enugu is Enugwu; Ibusa is Igbuzö; Igrita is Igwuruta; Oguta is Ugwuta; Onitsha is Onicha; Owerri is Owere; Oyigbo is Obigbo... any more will be added.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Arụ̀ Women

Aro women photographed by Rev. William T. Weir, in The Women's Missionary Magazine of the United Free Church of Scotland, 1904. Google digitisation.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

19th century Akwete Textiles

19th century cotton textiles likely made by Ndoki Igbo women at Akwete and surrounding communities. British Museum. [+] [+] [+]

1981 letter from the donor and grandchild of the collector via the British Museum:

[…] I thought though, that you should know they [the textiles] are not from Cameroons. My grandfather, Walter Johnstone, brought them home just over 100 years ago and had been stationed in Calabar, Bonny and Opobo [so] that they must have been woven in one of those places, possibly by some of King Jaja's women as my grandfather was very friendly with King Jaja[.]

"letter Mrs J A Macdonald/M McLeod, 16.5.1981".

… (The last one looks like akwà mmiri.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Dike Nwaàmị̀ Ọ̀hafị̄ā

Ohafia women with long braids fashionable in Ohafia at the time. Photographed by Rev. William T. Weir. From The Women's Missionary Magazine of the United Free Church of Scotland, 1904. Google digitisation.

Ohafia is a society where rights to farmlands are passed through the maternal line and where there were women, although rare, who joined the usually male Ekpè society. A number of Ohafia women warriors, dike nwaàmị̀, local and married into Ohafia, are recorded in the history and folktales of Ohafia. A version of one particular story tells of Nne Mgbaafo who, in war gear, risked her life looking for her husband who she thought was killed by enemies in Ibibio territory. Putting her life on the line, Nne Mgbaafo's intimidation of the enemies led to them revealing that her husband had in fact been kidnapped and, through her bravery, she was able to take him back to Ohafia.

Another story tells of Inyan Olugu whose husband, Itenta Ogbulopia, hadn’t taken heads during battle and therefore hadn’t solidified himself as dike, a valiant warrior. As an onye ụjọ, a coward, his status opened him and his wife up to harassment and humiliation. Inyan Olugu took things into her own hands to secure the honour of her house. She took her husband into the forests of the Nkalu, getting her battle-shy husband to accompany her with the expectation of harvesting palm fruits. While her husband scaled a palm tree, she shot five Nnong Ibibie men dead with her husband's gun, procuring several heads and arranging them in a long basket. On returning to Ohafia, she presented the heads to the ikòrò, the ancestral slit drum that traditionally receives sacrifices. As warriors hailed her husband, Inyan Olugu told the revellers to also sing praises of Inyan Olugu who brought heads and gave the honour to her husband.

Later in the 20th century, by the instruction of the divinity Kalu Akanu through a woman in the compound of his priesthood, Nne Uko Uma Awa of Akanu Ohafia, with other girls during their age-grade's coming-of-age ceremony, carried out a ritual hunt usually done by boys. The girls were led by Nne Uko who dressed in attire usually worn by male warriors including a warrior's loincloth and an òkpu agụ, the leopard cap. Nne Uko continued to dress in a typically male style.

Nne Uko was admitted into the usually exclusively Ekpè society, danced the male style of the iri agha dance of Ohafia warriors, and married two wives who had children through Nne Uko's brother. Nne Uko had yam titles as a successful farmer with the assistance of the wives and children and became the custodian of the maternal lineage shrine dedicated to named female ancestors. In later years, Nne Uko wore more conventionally female attire. In Nne Uko's words, “I dressed like a man because by creation I was meant to be a man. But as it happened, when coming into this world I came with a woman's body.” These are some of the stories of the dike nwaàmị̀ of Ohafia.

Sources: Chukwuma Azuonye (1990). The Performances of Kaalu Igirigiri, an Ohafia Igbo Singer of Tales. John C. McCall (1996). Portrait of a Brave Woman.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Bridge over Imo River

Bridge over Imo River. Published 1920. Internet Archive.

A temporary wooden bridge over the Imo River for the Eastern Division railway line built from 1913 to access the Udi coalfields around Enugwu Ngwo, terminating at the Diobu cliffs of the new port named Port Harcourt by Frederick Lugard. It was originally intended for the line to extend further north to Kaduna to join the Western Division railway to Kano, but the outbreak of WWI led to postponement. The work on the 151 mile section from the port to the Udi hills was prioritised due to the wartime need for coal.

Quay building at Port Harcourt. The National Archives UK.

Several battles were fought against the British in the Ngwo area leading to the British taking lands for the railway and for uses relating to the collieries and the building of the city of Enugu which also included the lands of the Nike. At Diobu, the railway took up more land than the local people agreed upon. These lands were declared the property of the Crown.

Much of the labour for the construction of the railways was gotten through British appointed warrant chiefs who selected local people to work, often by force, on sections of the railway running past their communities. Railway and road building was important to the colonial regime. The building and repair work of the railway was a source of contention between the colonial regime and communities on whose lands the railway ran through or near.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Ọ̀kọ̀nkọ̀ Tolls

An Ekpe masquerader in Uzuakoli, present-day Abia State. Photographed by G. I. Jones, 1930s. MAA Cambridge.

Ọ̀kọ̀nkọ̀ members controlled important roads in the eastern Igbo area. British imperial interests ran against this system.

Passing by Abruki, which had, however, to be " dashed " in the usual way, we arrived in the evening at Omo-pra [Ụmụ̀ọpara?], the last mile or two into the town being more like an avenue in England, shaded by splendid trees, than a wild roadway in Africa. […] Under a lowering sky, and in a, slight drizzle of rain, we left Omo-pra early the next morning[.]
On the way we passed by quite a picturesque ruin of a conko [Ọ̀kọ̀nkọ̀]—or club—house, standing almost on the road. It was covered with one mass of convolvulus, which grows quite like a weed in these parts, creeping and twining over bushes, shrubs, and trees, but is, for all that, pretty and effective, with its various tints of lilac and purple, enlivening the otherwise sombre foliage with light and colour.
Ekpe clubhouse in Bende, early 20th century. P. A. Talbot. Wellcome Collection.
It appears that these conko-houses are nothing but toll bars—hence their close proximity to roads—to join which members have to pay a certain entrance fee. The custom is for certain members to take it in turn to sit there and demand toll from all people passing with goods for trade or who make use of the road for their own purpose. If this is refused, the club members plunder the goods, and in many cases seize the owners, or drive them away. The priests, it is almost needless to say, form the leading members of these institutions, and when necessary to produce an effective impression, Ju Ju is used, for the connection between the conko-houses and Ju Ju-ism is extremely close and binding. In plain words, conko is nothing but part and parcel of a pernicious system of levying blackmail that seems to prevail all over the country—a system which is in a great measure, I imagine, responsible for the closing of roads and the stoppage of trade. A system which at times recoils on itself, however, for it is on this very account that the club-house in question has fallen into ruins.

– Major Arthur Glyn Leonard (1898). Notes of a Journey to Bende. In: The Journal Journal of the Manchester Geographical Society. pp. 196-197.

"A Famous Were-Leopard"

"A Famous Were-Leopard". Percy Amaury Talbot. Internet Archive.
The power of metamorphosis is generally termed Uworraw-Ukponn, corresponding to the Ibo word Ehihi, and is sometimes inherited, sometimes bought. Since many believe that it is only used for evil purposes, the faculty is not often boasted of, or admitted, by its possessor. Nearly all " strong " animals in the bush, such as leopards, elephants, etc., are credited with being were-beasts, but such can only be recognised by hunters, who, unless bad men, would not shoot them, since their death would entail that of their affinity.

Many communities and lineages among Cross River peoples like the Ibibio and among different Igbo groups and beyond have special animals or vegetation that they have bonded with. In many cases, this came with the ability to take the form of the animal, plants, or trees through a projection of the individual's consciousness which can happen at great distances such as from one's home to an entity in the wild. The ability is usually first gotten through medicine and is hereditary. Sometimes these animals may have protected or saved the community before the bond. It is forbidden for members of such lineages to harm or harvest the animals, plants, or trees they have bonded with or allow others to do so because they are considered kin.

[…] Among Eket, snake " affinities " predominate over all others, though many women say that their souls go forth and enter the great fish in the rivers. A man named Ikot of Usun Inyan gave the following account to Mr. Eakin :
  " I was sitting, with others, in the verandah of my house, when one of the company suddenly jumped up, crying out that his soul was caught in a trap on the farm of a man whom lie named. He had the appearance of struggling violently, as though seeking to loose himself, and begged some of those present to go to the place indicated and set free his affinity. Several of the spectators ran to do as he asked, while I stayed by him, to see what would happen. In a short time he quieted down, and said, with an appearance of great relief : Now I am free once more. My soul has come back to me:
  Not long afterwards our friends returned, and said :
  " ' We went to the place pointed out to us, and there found a great python (Asaba) caught in a trap. So we cut the ropes and the snake glided forth into the bush.' "
[…] Usually fast runners, and those who move with a peculiar creeping motion, are looked upon as leopard souls[.]
[…] So firmly is this belief in fish affinities held among Eket women that, when other Ibibio have had a specially good catch and carry fine specimens of smoked fish to market, the former are known to burst into bitter tears at the sight, weeping and wailing, " You have slain our kin."

– Percy Amaury Talbot (1923). Life in Southern Nigeria. pp. 88-89, 91, 106.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Igbo compound walls

An Igbo compound entrance, in or near Önïcha. Photographed by Herbert Wimberley, c. 1903-18. Cambridge University Library.

The ancestral compound is usually handed down from father to first son, and other lands are shared by other sons, usually making concessions for daughters. There were compounds that were headed by women, especially in the case of wealthy women who married other women into their umunna (patriline), and there are Igbo communities such as Ohafia where agricultural land rights are traced matrilineally.

There are conventional layouts for compounds depending on the cultural region. A compound, known commonly as ngwuru, ezi, or ama, depending on the wealth of the owner, can be divided by walls into different sections. For each wife is the mkpuke which is her own section and house, while a central building known as the obi or obu serves as the head of the house's main living area and the meeting house where the main ancestral shrine is usually in. The kitchen area, often in the back is commonly known as ọnụ ụsọ Ekwu or Usekwu, the abode of the women's hearth spirit Ekwu. In many places the common practice is to surround the compound with a high defensive wall made out of earth known as egwe or aja ngwuru, such compounds usually had a grand entrance with many carved and coloured wooden panels and a large door or gate known as mgbo ezi. There are few aja ngwuru and mgbo ezi (usually the right of titled people) left today.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Prince Chukwuma of Àbọ, William Baikie

"Prince Tshúkuma [Chukwuma]" of Abö, illustration from an 1854 voyage by William Baikie. Internet Archive.
[At Abö] we learnt that King Obí [Osai] had been dead for nearly nine years, and that since that time there had been no regular king. At Abó, the chief power is elective, and after the death of Obí two parties sprung up, one of which supported the claims of his son, while the other advanced as their candidate an influential person named Orísa. The two sections were respectively entitled the king's people and the Oshiodápara party. Obí's friends were unanimous in their selection of Obí's second son, named Ajé, an active, intelligent, young man ; and this was acquiesced in by his less energetic and more peaceful brother Okúrobi or Tshúkuma.
[…] Ajé has four large war-canoes, and about 250 slaves, while Tshúkuma has five smaller canoes, and about 50 or 60 slaves.
[…] At this moment Ajé was absent, having gone to settle some dispute at Igára ; but Tshúkuma, as his deputy, had sent Alihéli to receive us. We promised to come on shore the next morning and pay our respects. […] About mid-day, after church, some canoes were seen approaching, in one of which a drum was heard constantly beating. This we discovered to contain Tshúkuma, with a large retinue, come in grand state to pay his regular return visit. To-day he was dressed in an engineer's scarlet uniform coat, a pair of duck trousers, and a purple beaver hat ; he held in his hand the sword I had presented to him, and round his neck were suspended two small medals given him by Captain Trotter.
[…] Abó, the Eboe or Ibu of Lander and of Allen, is the name of a town and also of a district extending along both sides of the river, from the Orú country towards Igára. It forms one of the sections of the Great I'gbo (Ibo) territory ; and though by no means the largest, is, from its position along the Kwóra, one of the most important. The sovereignty, since the death of Obí, having, as I have mentioned, been partly in abeyance, many towns which were under his rule have ceased to pay tribute, and have become independent. The dialect spoken along this tract is called also Abó, and it is readily understood over the whole of I'gbo[.]

– William Baikie (1856). Narrative of an Exploring Voyage up the Rivers Kwóra and Bínue… in 1854.. pp. 42-43, 48, 50, 303.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

A Lady of Nibo

An Igbo woman from Nibo, present-day Anambra State. Photographed by Northcote Thomas c. 1911. MAA Cambridge.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

'The King of the Eboes'

People on the island of Jamaica. USC Digital Library.

March 22, 1816. A European's account of a thwarted African uprising in Jamaica.

The two ringleaders of the proposed rebellion at St. Elizabeth's have been condemned, the one to be hanged, the other to be transported. The plot was discovered by the overseer of Lyndhurst Penn (a Frenchman from St. Domingo) observing an uncommon concourse of stranger negroes at a child's funeral, on which occasion a hog was roasted by the father. […] They had elected a King of the Eboes [Igbo], who had two Captains under him; and their intention was to effect a complete massacre of all the whites on the island; for which laudable design His Majesty thought Christmas the very fittest season in the year, but his Captains were more impatient, and were for striking the blow immediately. The next morning information was given against them: one of the Captains escaped to the woods; but the other, and the King of the Eboes, were seized and brought to justice. On their trial they were perfectly cool and unconcerned, and did not even profess to deny the facts with which they were charged. Indeed, proofs were too strong to admit of denial; among others, a copy of the following song was found upon the King, which the overseer had heard him sing at the funeral-feast, while the other negroes joined in the chorus:—


Oh me good friend, Mr. Wilberforce, make we free!
God Almighty thank ye! God Almighty thank ye!
God Almighty, make we free!
Buckra in this country no make we free!
What Negro for to do? What Negro for to do?
Take force by force! Take force by force!


To be sure! to be sure! to be sure!

The Eboe King said, that he certainly had made use of this song, and what harm was there in his doing so? He had sung no songs but such as his brown priest had assured him were approved of by John the Baptist. "And who, then, was John the Baptist?" He did not very well know; only he had been told by his brown priest, that John the Baptist was a friend to the negroes, and had got his head in a pan!

As to the Captain, he only said in his defence, that if the court would forgive him this once, he would not do so again, "as he found the whites did not like their plans;" which, it seems, till that moment the conspirators had never suspected! They had all along imagined, no doubt, that the whites would find as much amusement in having their throats cut, as the blacks would find in cutting them.

– Matthew Gregory Lewis. Residence Among the Negroes in the West Indies. pp. 114–115.

Sunday, May 3, 2020


An Igbo girl from Nibo, present-day Anambra State, with ùlì designs on her skin. Photographed by Northcote Thomas c. 1911. MAA Cambridge.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Aro Sword

Double edged sword with a fluted blade from Arochukwu, c. 1932 or earlier. Pitt Rivers Museum [+].

Friday, April 17, 2020

Palm Oil

A palm oil factory photographed by Jonathan Adagogo Green likely in either Opobo or Bonny, c. late 19th century. British Museum.

The palm oil industry grew after the sixteenth century as a provisional source for the growing international and slave trade. After the palm oil industry replaced the slave trade from roughly around the 1840s, the southern Igbo area became the biggest producer of palm oil in the world by the 19th century, accounting for over one-third of West African palm oil exports by the colonial era. Palm oil also dominated the economies of other areas of the Niger Delta, such as the Urhobo and Isoko areas.

Palm oil demand grew from many tons of oil being imported by Europeans from Calabar and Bonny in the late 18th century to the 1860s when Liverpudlians were importing 26,000 tons of palm from the Bight of Biafra, the area that made up two-thirds of Britains palm imports. James Welsh, the captain of an English trading vessel in Benin in 1588, reported buying, among items like cotton cloth, elephants teeth, and pepper, palm oil. Palm oil was used in the production of goods such as candles, soap, and for lubricating machines.

Palm oil (Elaeis guineensis) originated in West Africa and had been used as a food staple that had been cultivated for over a thousand years. The two kinds of oil come from the pericarp, the soft outer covering, and the akụ, kernel, which became useful after the late 19th century due to the industrial revolution in Europe.

"At the Akquete [Akwete] Market" by Jonathan Adagogo Green, an Ibani (Bonny) photographer, 1895-1905. British Museum. The Ndoki town of Akwete, in Ụ̀kwà, was a commercial centre for the palm industry where coastal traders and later Europeans bought palm oil.

Coastal states like Bonny and Opobo that traded with Europeans directly and other areas like Abö got their supply of palm oil mostly from the palm oil-rich areas around today’s Abia State and Imo State. There was palm oil intended for local consumption from local rotational markets and the palm oil for the long-distance trade handled by merchants. The currency was different types of ego igwè, iron, copper, bronze, and brass money. The Ngwa people were the primary producers of palm oil and traded in the Ukwa and Echie area, from which coastal traders bought most of their oil.

"Interior of palm oil factory, Old Calabar", c. 1890. Palm oil from the Igbo area and other parts of the Niger Delta and Cross River area, through Calabar, Bonny, Opobo, and other ports, lubricated the machinery of the industrial revolution in Europe. New York Public Library.

Women were initially the primary producers of palm oil in domestic settings while men later came to be the ones who traded it as its economic importance grew. The job of climbing and cutting trees was done only by men. Men who married many wives had an advantage in the palm oil economy as they could use their wives labour. The production and trade in the kernels used for medicine and cosmetic reasons was controlled by women. After the growth of the palm oil export trade, palm oil was produced in large pits known as ikwè akwụ which, for larger production, replaced wooden mortars, ikwè, and allowed for multiple men to pound palm fruits. Manpower was hired for the work and, in some places, slave labour was used. Most of the oil palm trees were owned by the community.

An Igbo man pounding palm nuts in an ikwè akwụ. Photograph via P. A. Talbot, 1926. Google digitalisation.

Apart from other parts of tropical Africa such as the Belgian Congo, the palm oil industry took off in other areas where the oil palm was newly introduced, particularly in Malaya and Sumatra. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia, with environmental issues as a consequence, are the primary producer of palm oil. It was partly through the British tussle with coastal traders over the palm oil industry in particular that the area was made a protectorate which became (a part of) the British controlled Southern Nigeria.

Sources: Gloria Chuku (2005). Igbo Women and Economic Transformation…, p. 48–54.; Birgit Müller (1985). Commodities as Currencies…; M. A. Sowunmi (1985). The Beginnings of Agriculture in West Africa…. Current Anthropology.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Okoli Ijeoma Ada War: Agha Ìbenne

Gịnị mè ndị Ọka jì à sọ ènwè?

Enwe Imoka, the mona, Porto-Novo, Benin. Photo: Okouneva Olga via Wikimedia Commons.


Okoli Ijeoma was a 19th-century merchant warlord of the Aro settlement of Ndikelionwu in today’s Anambra State. He was notorious for his recruitment of the militaristic Ada people of the Cross River area for wars against his enemies or for the services of those who paid him. He was the grandson of Ikelionwu who founded Ndikelionwu in the 18th century.

Ikelionwu, sometimes Ikelionwu Ufele, Ufere, or Uvere, was born in Ifite Öka. Notedly an mgburuichi, Ikelionwu was a child with noble ichi marks. Ikelionwu came from the family of Eze Oshie. The name Ikelionwu appears to be a contraction of ike emelị ọnwụ, meaning ‘strength does not conquer death’.

"10 Aug. 1905. Edet market, Ndiya. An Inokun (Aro [Igbo]) man." Charles Partridge. British Museum.

In one account, Ikelionwu was kidnapped by the Amantogwu and later bought by a wealthy Aro woman named Ufere Mgbokwa who took him in as a son and carried out the necessary rites to take him out of slavery. Some accounts say Eze Oshie was the one who was sold. Ikelionwu had taken some of the wealth of Ufere Mgbokwa on her death, this was said to have been done incrementally by Ikelionwu while she was alive due to his later confirmed fears that he would not be able to inherit from her as he was not her blood descendant. Other accounts say an Aro merchant warlord named Ufere Mgbokwu Aka was the enslaver of Ikelionwu.

Ikelionwu established his own lineage of Ndikelionwu in the territory of the Omogho, similar to other Aro settlements in the north-central Igbo area (Anambra), particularly the Nde Eni cluster of Aro settlements under the founding Mazi Eni. Aro settlements were trading and slaving springboards into other areas. The Aro infiltrated communities through allies, marriage ties, and trading.

Ikelionwu later helped Öka with the drawn-out war started with Amantogwu over his kidnapping and was able to use the newly introduced gun from Arochukwu to Öka’s victory. The Aro were the main introducers of guns from Europeans and middlemen at the coast to Igbo communities in the interior in the 18th century.

Prior to the slave trade, the Igbo area was dominated by ritual specialists, often itinerant blacksmiths, from centres such as Nri, Öka, and Abiriba. As the slave trade intensified, in came the era of the merchant lords. As major players in the oracular network, ritual specialists like the Aro turned ritual networks into slave trading routes.

Aro colonies bolstered their populations by absorbing refugees and other migrants from neighbouring communities. Many Aro colonies were founded or dominated by originally non-Aro people such as Ikelionwu. This is not unlike the initial founding of the Aro themselves who are made up of a diverse set of lineages comprising Igbo, Akamkpa Ejagham, and Ibibio elements. The Aro also had non-Igbo allies such as the Ika people of present-day Akwa Ibom.

Ikelionwu had several sons, one of them named Ijeoma. Ijeoma went on to have a son named Okoli. An expansionist, Okoli was the warlord who hired the Ada to attack Öka sometime around the 1880s and 1890s. ‘Ada’ was a generic name used mainly by north-central Igbo for Aro mercenaries, notably from Eda, Abam, and Ohafia in present-day Abia State and Ebonyi State. The war between Okoli Ijeoma and Öka became known as Agha Ìbenne, the war of relatives. The story of how black monkeys became sacred to the Öka starts here.

Enwe Imoka

As part of their war plans, the Ada went into the bushes around Öka and laid in wait to ambush the Öka. According to tradition, monkeys inhabiting the bush became startled and fled from the Ada. These particular monkeys appear to have been the mona monkeys. It was through the alert of monkeys fleeing into the main Öka settlement that the Öka were able to thwart the plans of the Ada. The Öka assembled the Egbunoji, the Öka militia, and outnumbering them, the Öka overcame and defeated the Ada.

An Igbo man in battle dress. Photographed in Öka (Awka) by Northcote Thomas, c. 1910-11. MAA Cambridge.

Enwe Imoka, the mona, is celebrated during the Imoka festival and is sacred to the Imoka feminine divinity, the national divinity of the Öka people. It could be that the Enwe Imoka was already sacred to Imoka before Öka’s encounter with the Ada due to traditions that say monkeys were dedicated to Imoka early in Öka’s history. There is a widespread practice prohibiting the eating or harm of certain animals designated sacred in communities in the Igbo cultural area.


Abam, Ohafia, and Eda, and other Cross River Igbo, were mercenaries hired by different warlords and communities. The Enugwu Ukwu people became known as Ike melu Ada for outsmarting the Eda by poisoning food and water sources on the Eda warrior’s route towards Enugwu Ukwu, a tactic also used by Enugwu Ezike.

Before the Aro introduced guns and the Abam came with their headhunting practices, Igbo people mostly used clubs and staves to fight with ‘crash’ helmets to protect from blows to the head. The Abam used ambushing and rushing tactics. They'd lay in wait and rush enemies while they were unprepared or preparing their guns. They used daggers, ogbuonyeoma, for short-distance attacks. The Abam painted their eyes with blood and wore mostly loincloths and palm leaves.

The Amakom Alliance

The activities of the ‘Ada’ during and prior to the time of Okoli Ijeoma also forced Nri to compromise its absolutist pacifist position and laws under Nri Enwelana who, as Eze Nri, broke taboo by sanctioning the formation of a war group, the Amakom, against Okoli Ijeoma and the Ada raids. The Eze Nri had earlier warned Okoli Ijeoma against his aggressiveness to no avail and thus cursed him and formed the Amakom military alliance comprising several settlements around the Nri-Öka area, including Öka.

These turbulent times contributed to the estimated number of over a million Igbo people being sold and taken over the Atlantic by Europeans, and to British colonies like Barbados, Jamaica, and, before the 1770s, Virginia in particular.

Map of communities attacked by the Abam, after John Oriji (2011).

The dreaded Abam and Eda (Ada) made the north-central Igbo, roughly Anambra State today, build high walls around their compounds. In other areas, people built trenches and stockaded their communities. There was an already established settlement pattern used by many Igbo communities of placing slave quarters in the periphery of the main settlement, invariably the most vulnerable areas to attack.

An Igbo tower photographed by British colonial government anthropologist Northcote Thomas, early 1910s. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge. Although impressive, the obu na enu structures reveal the immense pressure raids put on communities in the north-central Igbo area, especially from the Abam, Ohafia, and Eda from the east. Necessity pushed for innovation. The obu na enu towers were used for tracking movements and had loopholes for gunfire and thick walls for defence.

Okoli Ijeoma died in 1905, right around the start of the British incursion into the Öka area and the beginning of the colonial era in the Igbo area. The Okoli Ijoma war was one of the last major conflicts involving the ‘Ada’ before the arrival of the British.

Sources: Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Felicia Ekejiuba (1990). “The Aro of South-eastern Nigeria, 1650–1980…”; Ugo Nwokeji (2011). “The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra…”; Elizabeth Isichei (1977). “Igbo Worlds…”; Amanke Okafor. “The Awka People”; John Oriji (2011). “Political Organization in Nigeria…”; Ndubueze L. Mbah. (2019). “Emergent Masculinities…”; L. R. Baker; A. A. Tanimola; O. S. Olubode; D. L. Garshelis (2009). “Distribution and Abundance of Sacred Monkeys in Igboland”. American Journal of Primatology; Robert D. Jackson (1975). "The Twenty Years War”.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Shrine to Agwụ̀

Titled elder Onyeso of Agukwu Nri washing hands for a rite before a shrine to Agwụ̀, a divinity of doctors (dibị̀à). Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911. MAA Cambridge.

Agwụ̀ is an entity of unconventionality and hence creativity that guides the dibị̀à. Agwụ̀ is related to strange occurrences and mishaps. Such occurrences are often signs to individuals that are destined to become doctors.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Òtù Ọdụ

"Rich Women. Onitsha. (church members.)" G. F. Packer, 1880s. Pitt Rivers Museum.

These women are likely part of the Ndị Ọdụ, Òtù Enyi, or Òtù Ọdụ society, the ivory society, the elite women’s socio-political and economic organisation of the Önïcha (Onitsha) ministate made up of wealthy members who either bought the rights to the title or whose relatives bought the rights to either wear ọdụ aka, ivory bracelets, or ọdụ ụkwụ, ivory anklets, or both.

Before the 1890s, the Ọ̀mụ Ọ̀nị̀chà, the female counterpart to the Òbi, the overall leader of Önïcha, the last being Ọ̀mụ Nwagboka, wielded great power over society, particularly women, and the Òtù Ọdụ and was the head of commerce and trade. Ọ̀mụ Nwagboka, initially resistant to Christianity and the church, later became a catalyst for the growth of church attendance among women after encouraging them to attend services which brought many women, including quite influential ones, to the Anglican mission.

Ọ̀mụ Nwagboka was initially a traditional practitioner before converting to Christianity, at least, formally. Her change in attitude to the religion may have been due to pressure from missionaries and her European trade partners who worked as two arms of European imperialism in the area, traders later becoming invaders and subsequently forming a colonial government. Indeed this may have been the case for other women traders, the most successful of whom would have no doubt been Ndị Ọdụ.

Pressure to convert also came from their children trained in mission schools; although older generations may have been resistant towards conversion, the mission school attendees eventually came to take the position at the top of society in politics, in the courts, and in what was termed ọrụ or ọlụ bekee or ọrụ oyibo, civil service and other jobs introduced by the British Empire that formed a decade after the last Ọ̀mụ Ọ̀nị̀chà. While there hasn’t been a woman appointed by the Òbi Ọ̀nị̀chà to the position of Ọ̀mụ for well over a century now, the Òtù Ọdụ society is still quite prominent.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Yọ́k Òbòlò of Andoni

Objects of the shrine of Yọ́k Òbòlò of the Andoni, Agwut Obolo, present-day Rivers State. By A. A. Whitehouse who led a raid on the shrine, 1904. British Museum.

Andoni was difficult for missionaries to penetrate. Yọ́k Òbòlò was condemned by figures like Ajayi Crowther, who led the destruction of its offshoots in Bonny, for its role in the resistance to Christianity in the area, especially in the case of Jaja of Opobo who was in dispute with Crowther and Christian missions.

Bronze and copper sword from Alama, also known as Alabie, known as Allabia to Europeans, Agwut Obolo. Looted by Whitehouse and company from the shrine of Yọ́k Òbòlò. Now at the British Museum. Photo: British Museum.

King Jaja was given land by the Andoni in 1869 to found Opobo with the condition that he venerated Yọ́k Òbòlò in the form of objects given to the divinity annually, a requirement of all under the influence of the divinity. The king also wore a ritual necklace of the divinity.

Traditional religion underpinned autonomy and inspired resistance while Christianity was used as pacification. This gave rise to the colonial regime's policy of destroying shrines and major oracles.

Bronze leopard skull from the shrine of Yọ́k Òbòlò, Alama, also known as Alabie, Agwut Obolo. Photo: British Museum.

The shrine of Yọ́k Òbòlò housed sacred bronze and ivory objects as well as the skulls of the adversaries of the Andoni, this was how it came to be known as the 'House of Skulls'.

Bronze seated figure from the shrine of Yọ́k Òbòlò, Alama, also known as Alabie, Agwut Obolo. Photo: British Museum.

Yọ́k Òbòlò is the tutelary war and justice divinity of the Andoni. Later a collective of multiple divinities, Yọ́k Òbòlò is regarded as a king of the Andoni, a deified soldier, and, traditionally, the Andoni regard themselves as the followers of Yọ́k Òbòlò. Already active before the 18th century, Yọ́k Òbòlò was thought to forbid the Andoni from starting wars, but sanctioned punitive actions against the Andoni's aggressors. Yọ́k Òbòlò also forbade civil wars in Andoni or the killing of Andoni by other Andoni, punishable by impalement.

The bronzes in the shrine of Yọ́k Òbòlò are of unknown origin, believed by some scholars to be the work of itinerary smiths, placed within the class of bronze sculptures studied collectively under the title of the Lower Niger Bronze Industry.

Copper object (manilla?) from the shrine of Yọ́k Òbòlò, Alama, also known as Alabie, Agwut Obolo. Photo: British Museum.

Although officially ‘destroyed’ by the British in 1904, and many of the bronze shrine pieces looted and now in the British Museum and National Museums Scotland, like many major shrines and oracles ‘destroyed', it was merely moved or reinstated shortly after. The influence of Yọ́k Òbòlò continues. A drum sacred to the shrine was not captured by the British. Later Christian missionaries were more affective in diminishing African spiritual autonomy.

Sources: Nkparom C. Ejituwu (1995); Monday B. Abasiattai (1990); Joseph Miles Davey (2015).

Friday, February 14, 2020


"The Inokon Society, Creek Town, Calabar." Postcard from c. 1910s-20s. Ụ́kpụ́rụ́ Collection.

Inokon or Inokun may be related to Okon, a founding figure in the history of Arochukwu. It is the name the Aro people are known by in the Cross River area.

The Aros are often called Inokuns. Authorities disagree as to the difference between these names. It is stated that the Aros are the aristocratic or freeborn caste of the Inokun tribe, that there are sixteen Aro towns, each presided over by a chief of its own, and that these chiefs in united council used to govern the whole Inokun tribe. Of these sixteen towns, all in the near neighbourhood of the "Long Juju," the principal is Ibum [Ibom]. The Assistant District Commissioner used to live down in the town itself, but it was found to be damp and unhealthy, so the station was moved to the top of a hill about one and a half miles outside, previously occupied as an outlying farm of the township. Ibum is marked "Aro Chuku'' on the map, and the Government residence stands about midway between Aro Chuku and Obagu. From this hill one looks down upon the Aro towns, indicated in the densely wooded valley by the columns of blue smoke overhanging them.

– Charles Partridge (1905). Cross River Natives. p. 54.

The articles exposed for sale were of the common produce of the country, with cloth and other European goods imported into Calabar and Bonny. Those latter are brought across the country by the people of Inokun, a town or district of Ibo, who travel among these tribes, making trade in every commodity they can get sold—slaves included. Their women are distinguished by the tasteful and elaborate mode in which they dress their hair. Their scanty clothing—merely a loins' cloth—gives little scope for displaying their desire for personal adornment, but they are at great pains to secure this in their hair-dressing. We do not often see such ornamental heads in Calabar; but the women of Gaboon have an elaborate mode of producing them. It is said there that it occupies a day to dress a head, but one dressing will suffice for a fortnight.

– Hugh Goldie (1901). Calabar and Its Mission. p. 287.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Àbọ House

"Eboe House", a drawing on the map of the Niger River by the Lander Brothers while on their expedition of the Niger River in 1830. via archive.org.
The little we could see of the houses with which the shore is interspersed gave us a very favourable impression of the judgment and cleanliness of the inhabitants of the town. They are neatly built of yellow clay, plastered over, and thatched with palm-leaves; yards sprucely fenced are annexed to each of them, in which plantains, bananas, and cocoa-trees grow, exhibiting a pleasing sight, and affording a delightful shade.

– The Lander Brothers, 1832. From Journal of an Expedition to Explore the Course and Termination of the Niger. Vol. II, p. 210.

Àbọ Canoe

"Eboe Canoe." An Abö canoe via the Lander Brothers while on their expedition of the Niger River in 1830. via archive.org.
An hour or two after this, or about midday, one of the Eboe men in our canoe exclaimed, “There is my country!” pointing to a clump of very high trees, which was yet at some distance before us; and after passing a low fertile island, we quickly came to it. Here we observed a few fishing-canoes, but their owners appeared suspicious and fearful, and would not come near us, though their national flag, which is a British Union, sewed on a large piece of plain white cotton with scallops of blue, was streaming from a long staff in the bow. The town was yet, we were told, a good way down the river. In a short time, however, we came to an extensive morass, intersected by little channels in every direction, and by one of these we got into clear water, in front of the Eboe town. Here we found hundreds of canoes, some of them even larger than any we had previously met with. They are furnished with sheds and awnings, and afford commodious habitations for a vast number of people, who constantly reside in them; perhaps one of these canoes, which is made of a single trunk, contains as many as seventy individuals.

– The Lander Brothers, 1832. From Journal of an Expedition to Explore the Course and Termination of the Niger. Vol. II, p. 210.

Igbo Runaways

Igbo 'runaways' in Jamaica on a page of The Royal Gazette, a 19th c. newspaper. Runaways escaped slavery for freedom. This is from a list of those caught c. 1826. These people were born in the Igbo country and taken over the Atlantic to the West Indies. University of Southampton.

The British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in their colonies in 1833, gradually taking effect after August 1, 1834. Formerly enslaved people over the age of six were apprenticed for some years until this system was abolished in 1838.

Thursday, February 6, 2020


"The Aboh Creek", drawn from an 1841 visit during the British government's Niger Expedition.

Abö (Àbọ) was the most powerful mercantile state on the Lower Niger before European incursion into these hinterland areas around the Niger.

Located directly on the western bank of the Niger River, near the Forcados and Nun rivers from which the Niger runs into the Atlantic, Abö controlled trade on the Niger from the delta areas up to Asaba, with its influence reaching Ida, the Igala capital and main trading rival of Abö.

Only with the establishment of a European trading and mission station in Önïcha in 1857 did it come to stop being the controller of much of the goods that were previously being brought from the delta states to Abö to be distributed into the hinterland in exchange for produce.

Europeans saw Abö as the 'capital of the Igbo country' and the Obi of Abö as the 'king of the Igbo'. They also regarded Abö as the most important Igbo settlement. Abö was one of the first Igbo towns to receive Europeans when the hinterland was largely unknown to them.

Abö men and women were involved in long-distance trading on armed canoes. Because of their reliance on trading hinterland produce, particularly palm oil later on, Abö people also settled on parts of the Imo River to the east, in places such as Akwete, Owerenta, and Mbaise.

Abö reached the peak of its influence and its largest extent under Obi Osai who became Obi sometime in the 1820s until his death in 1844. His was the last era in which the Lower Niger’s trade was controlled by Africans.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Igbo Compound Tower

"An [Igbo] chief’s compound, with war-tower and inner wall; natives listening to phonograph; Azia, Onitsha district." A. E. Kitson, published 1913.

Each house stood in a compound surrounded by a high mud wall. There were small loop holes in the walls at equal distances, through which a gun could be fired in the event of an enemy attacking the town. In each compound also there was generally at least one high tree with a platform in its branches, from which a good lookout could be obtained. We noticed also two large, square watch-towers, three times the height of ordinary houses.

– T. J. Dennis (1899). Itineration in the Ibo Country. p. 780.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The White Man on a Bike

“A stop & gossip on the road from Owerrinta to Owerri.” c. 1919-1932. MAA Cambridge.

The story of a white man dragged off a bicycle and killed while riding in the Igbo country has been told in different ways, even in Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart". The man, a doctor named Stewart, was actually killed due to mistaken identity during resistance to the British.

The incident happened in November 1905, in Mbaise, while Dr. Stewart was attempting to catch up with a convoy of colonial troops from Owere to Calabar by bicycle. He was captured and paraded through several areas and finally killed in the Afo market of Onicha Amairi, his body never found.

Stewart was actually mistaken for a man named Harold M. Douglas, the first District Commissioner of the new colonial Owerri District, who is noted in oral tradition and official colonial reports for his ruthlessness.

H. M. Douglas was noted for his focus on building roads which were built with forced labour gotten through Warrant Chiefs and the prisons. Douglas' reputation for abuse and the colonial imposition in general led to the intense hostility towards Europeans in the Owere area.

"Road making at Calabar." c. 1909.

The killing of Dr. Stewart was blamed on the Ahiara which led to the punitive Ahiara Expedition of December 1905 in which many lives and properties in the Ahiara area were lost. Whole villages were levelled and many were taken as prisoners.

Douglas Road, the main road through Owere town, was named after the brutal H. M. Douglas, so was Douglas House, the main seat of what is now the Imo State government.

During the earlier parts of the British colonial regime, roads, and later the railway, were built with forced labour. Prisoners were also used as slave labour in districts of the colonial government. Africans were sent to prison for minor offences to provide prison labour.

Colonial prison at Bende, early 20th century. British Museum.

Prisoners were even loaned out for private uses.

This impression was reinforced by the tendency of the British to use prisoners on administrative and even personal projects. In 1917, for example, the Church Missionary Society grounds at Awka were being maintained by fifty prisoners on loan from the local jail. District officers frequently assigned prisoners to carry the loads of touring officials and to work for local British firms. As though to emphasize the similarity to slave labor, the prison officials annually calculated the value in money of the work performed by prisoners. After the abolition of domestic slavery in 1907, a police patrol without British supervision visited Atani (Ogbaru Division) and seized sixty children who had recently been purchased as slaves. Although six of the children were returned to their northern Nigerian villages, the remainder were given to the police and to other Onitsha notables as domestic servants, on the sole condition that they be given mission educations. The slave owners of Atani were given no compensation whatever, and they could only conclude that the British and their agents had stolen their slaves for their own use. The argument that civilization required that all slaves be freed was lost on them, and for good reason.

– Robert D. Jackson (1975). The Twenty Years War. p. 209.

The British administration in the southeastern area was inefficient and inconsistent. Untrained colonial officers found themselves in isolated areas where many took advantage of the lack of supervision and the permission to use force and violence to quell the sporadic resistance to British imperialism in the area.

"Police Detachment. Bendi." c. 1909.

A district officer gives an example of forced labour wherein he kills a forced labourer for resisting, supposedly to thwart him from alarming others.

On any of these expeditions carriers are a most important consideration as you cannot get anywhere without them, and if any men selected by the chiefs for this work displayed reluctance or unwillingness, strong measures had to be taken at once, not only to uphold the authority of the chiefs but for the sake of other expeditions....
I waited with as much patience as I could command for perhaps an hour, and at last twenty men were brought and I ordered my native sergeant major to get the loads put on their heads. One great big fellow looked very sulky and showed unmistakeab1e signs of giving trouble, and I told two of my men to get hold of him. They attempted to do so, but they were in full marching order and carrying their rifles, and the instant they tried to grab him he hit out and sent them both flying like ninepins. The next second he was bolting for the bush. The interpreters shouted an order for him to stop, but he took no notice, and in a flash I realised that he must not be allowed to get away. Though he was by now fully fifty yards off and going hard, I managed to drop him with a lucky shot from my revolver.
It would have been fatal to let him escape, to tell his friends and tribesmen that white men with soldiers had tried to take him as a carrier, but that he had been too much for them, and had not only run away but had knocked down several armed men first! The story would have grown in the telling, and had it got about in the countryside it would have been a poor lookout ... for any other European who chanced to come along with a small escort or no escort at all....
In such emergencies you must think and act quickly--you can't sit down and hold a convention about it.

– Adams, By Force of Argument (RH MSS. Afr. s. 375 [4]) via Robert D. Jackson (1975). The Twenty Years War. p. 229-230.

Corruption and violence were prevalent during the ‘opening’ of communities of what is now southeastern Nigeria to European colonialism. It involved a series of battles lasting roughly from the 1880s to resistance movements lasting well into the 1920s. The people constantly tested the force of the imposing British, and the British control over of the area was strained and could be described as loose or nonexistent in certain cases. Violence became a persuasive tool that permeated all levels of the colonial administration, including through the 'native' warrant chiefs.

See: Robert D. Jackon (1975). The Twenty Years War. Felix K. Ekechi (1983). Portrait of a Colonizer: H. M. Douglas in Colonial Nigeria, 1897-1920.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Igbo Tradition of Oratory

Photo: Postcard via the Library of Congress.

There's been focus on the importance of the individual's voice in Igbo societies. The following short examples examine traditions of consensus decision-making and how they have influenced behaviour, relationships, and communication.

Consensus decision-making in Igbo society lead to the development of a particular persuasive way of speaking. Misty L. Bastian on debates between missionaries and members of Önïcha society.

First, it is deemed polite in Igbo-speaking areas to use the terms of those with whom you are visiting or who are your guests. This politeness persists. For example, even today if there was one person in a room who did not speak Igbo, everyone who could do so would witch to a language of mutual intelligibility. Just because a person uses the outsider's terms does not mean that he or she has agreed with the terms' import. […] Such verbal twists and elaborate, ironic construction are common in the speech-play of modern-day Onitsha elders and are much applauded.

This indirect way of speaking, perhaps masked as politeness, would have developed as a way of pushing a particular idea or argument while trying not to offend or put off a particular section of the congregation. Balancing views may have made extremism avoidable.

Money was also a persuader and undermined other forms of leadership. An example among the Agbaja (present-day Enugu State). Interview of Noo Udala, aged c. 102, in Ụmụaga, Agbaja, June 19, 1973 by E. N. Okechukwu.

In fact, much respect was given to these titled men, who because of their wealth were known as ndị āmadị, as against ndị ogbènyè, the poor. These ndị āmadị then formed the governing council of the village or town. They took the initiative in calling meetings and soon, after some time, our elders were happy to be called to such meetings without any efforts to show the influence of their age at such meetings. During deliberations in the governing council of ndị āmadị, the suggestion made by an àmadị was more agreeable to those present than that of a poor elder, no matter if he was the eldest. I do not mean that we now have two separate governing councils. But what I am telling you is that even though the ndị ishi ànị̀ summoned meetings, the views of the rich titled men are more readily accepted. Both rich and poor still attended the council meetings.

In Igbo society, titled people are people of influence. Titles cost money. The more titles could mean the more influence. Titles symbolise success and also knowledge; title societies were centres of esoteric learning.

In the Igbo view, intelligent and therefore trustworthy people capable of leadership would, logically, be also wealthy. Compounds of wealthy people were used as meeting places for the community.

Photo: A meeting in an Igbo notable's compound, late 19th century. British Museum.

Even with more formal leadership, there was representation for various lineages, the core of Igbo society. In Önïcha, before colonisation, there were reportedly eight hidden kings in addition to the Obi of Önïcha representing original Önïcha lineages.

The Aro developed leadership from three kindreds. One of these Nna Atọ becomes Eze Aro. Under them were leaders, and under them lineage heads who take on individuals opinions. A similar structure exists in some other Igbo communities such as Asaba.

The role of the individual in Igbo society also factored in anti-colonisation movements such as Ekumeku and the Women's War. Philip A. Igbafe (1971). "Western Ibo Society and Its Resistance to British Rule".

The first Ekumeku outbreaks were regarded as an illustration of the people's inability to govern themselves. The British administration therefore decided to establish native courts in the centres of Ekumeku activities as a way of bringing the people under effective control. Further violent eruptions after the establishment of these courts pointed to some social ferment which generated an anti-European feeling in the Asaba hinterland and nurtured the growth of a well-organized resistance movement. The Ekumeku risings were then attributed to a lack of supervision of the native courts.

Finally, this tradition of oratory influenced independence era Igbo politicians. Raphael Chijoke Njoku (2013). "African Cultural Values". p. 152.

In the colonial society, the progressively oriented Igbo age-grade organization along with the modern political parties, served as a forum for leadership education. Within the age-grades, the future leaders trained in the art of public speech—an important marker for leadership in all societies. Thus, while the ability to speak, read, and write were inculcated in mission school graduates, the new elite also acquired the skills for public speech through participation in the various age-grades, secret societies, and other village forums. Ikoku, Ibiam, Azikiwe (who belonged to the Ndọkwaka age-grade in Onitsha in addition with membership in other fraternities), Ojike and KO—were all distinguished as political leaders by their knowledge and oratory skills. As members of these indigenous institutions, the elite learnt about the supremacy of institutional authority over that of the individual as practiced among the Igbo people. In public, power resides with the people and one's ability to persuade and convince them.

This social structure may explain why idiomatic expression is so important in the Igbo oral tradition, well known for its proverbs.

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