1992: Court Evidence… Onitsha Women 1908-1934


By Helen Henderson

[Editor’s Note:  Helen presented this paper at the African Studies Association meeting (Emory University) in 1992.]

This paper examines women’s strategies and modes of self representation during family conflicts, especially those concerning property, insofar as these may be inferred from records of the Native Court of Onitsha, Nigeria between l908 and l933 (? – see above title). These court materials occasionally provide a type of personal narrative that reflects perceived and sometimes contradic­tory familial obligations, as well as the influence of the British coloni­al administration on Onitsha marriage and property patterns.   By examining such cases, we may perceive women “defining themselves” and negotiating with other familial and community actors in terms of their own understanding of their rights and changing social positions[i].   I will show how Onitsha women used new economic opportunities to strengthen their relations with members of their own descent groups, yet how these economic opportunities also led to new conflicts over property.

Historical Contexts of Onitsha Native Court Records

The city of Onitsha, Nigeria, is located on the east bank of the Niger River, about 150 miles north from the coast.   Prior to the beginning of direct British intervention, the Onitsha community (known by its Igbo-speaking neighbors in its regional setting as Onicha-mmili, “Riverine Onitsha”) was situated in low hills inland from the river about two miles. There the Onitsha indigenes (ndi-Onicha, “Onitsha People”, a self reference used by those tracing their ancient origins to the place)[ii], estimated at the time of the first European settlement in l857 to number about ten thousand persons[iii], lived in residential clusters or villages, each focused around a group of patrilineally related relatives and separated from other villages by gardens and forest. Prior to this first British settlement, few if any Onitsha indigenes resided in the area next to the Niger river today known as the “Waterside” (otu), though they maintained a regular inter-regional marketplace there, called “Nkwo-day Waterside” (otu-nkwo).

In precolonial Onitsha, the common estate of the patrilineage (a group tracing descent through males from a named ancestor) was controlled primarily by lineage priests, with lineage priestesses having supportive roles. The villages were further organized by chiefs (an achieved status) and unified to varying degrees by their shared allegiance to the King of Onitsha. The major political activities of the town revolved around complex interactions among the king, chiefs, the Omu or “queen”, wealthy titled men of all villages, a system of age-sets, a masquerade association representing the village dead, a complex of patrilineage elders, and a ritual and political organization of women often now referred to as the Town Mothers[iv].

In those days, Onitsha women farmed in garden land near their family houses, producing mainly cocoyam, cassava, pepper, okra and other vegetables, the production, distribution and profits of which they controlled. Women also worked sometimes with men on the yam farms outside the village, but their primary economic interests were in trade[v].

When the British first entered the area, the Onitsha Waterside marketplace already conducted an important inter-regional traffic in palm oil, slaves, fish, yams, salt, ivory, and — by the end of the 19th century (with gradually increasing European and other non-native settlement there) — an increasing amount of imported European commercial goods. While the pre-colonial Waterside Market was formally “owned” by the Onitsha King, its everyday activities were largely controlled by the Omu and her council, and trade was largely conducted by Onitsha women. Traders coming from the interior eastern uplands sold their goods to Onitsha women traders in lesser markets located at the upland peripheries of the Town, though traders arriving at the Main Market from riverine areas via canoes were allowed to trade directly in that marketplace. Onitsha men largely disdained the food trade, and used their wives and sisters as agents for traffic in other kinds of goods. Onitsha women consequently gained substantial wealth and its concomitant, prestige through their trading ventures[vi].

In l857, the British established an Anglican Mission and the beginnings of a “factory” near the river in an area that came to be known as the Onitsha Waterside [onicha-otu], as distinguished from the “Onitsha Inland Town” or “High-Onitsha” [onicha-enu], the site of the residence-cluster of indigenes living in the low hills above the river. This Waterside residential community formed initially as a mix of Anglicized Africans brought in by the British, freed slaves from various areas, Onitsha women driven out of their community for crimes such as witchcraft, and new converts to Christianity also forced out of the Inland Town. For those who settled at the Waterside near the foreign intruders, new kinds of opportunities arose. Some Onitsha women attached themselves to the newly‑resident foreign traders and gained new avenues to wealth.

With the expansion of the churches and trading “factories”, opportunities arose for Western education, for employment in the companies, and (later, in the early 1900s) for administrative work in the British Colonial Administration.   During this time, some of the increasingly wealthy Onitsha women traders, who mediated the trade between foreign companies and hinterland merchants, also moved their residences to the Waterside, where they (and various women associated with them) found greater freedom to pursue wealth and to establish lifestyles that were to some degree independent of the patrilineage‑dominated Inland Town than women normally found when confined to those more tightly-controlled social spaces.

This is the context I wish to explore in these Onitsha Native Court documents. While the first Native Court cases dealing with Onitsha people were held in 1900 in Asaba (an old town located directly across the river from Onitsha, in l905 the British moved their government offices across the Niger to Onitsha, which thus acquired a Supreme Court, a District Court, and a Native Court.   The Onitsha Native Court (hereafter, ONC — which was at first called the “Native Council of Onitsha”) initially included as judges variously the Onitsha King [Obi Okosi], some of his traditional chiefs, some “Chiefs” chosen to represent diverse native populations of the Waterside, and some “Chiefs” from neighboring hinterland towns[vii].

Since all court cases were subject to review by the District Officer, judges were selected by the District Offi­cer , and British views of justice modified customary law by prohibiting rulings that were ” offensive”( see Elias, l962), Onitsha Inland Town law was systematically affected.  Methods of handling disputes changed, for example, as procedures for acquiring land at the Waterside, site of foreign missionary and commercial interests, were formalized.   While proceedings were in theory conducted under the directive guidance of the local District Officer, in practice the Court Clerk (usually an Onitsha educated man) exercised a great deal of influence (whose impacts, however, cannot today be readily measured). Although in the early years non-indigenes participated in the Court both as litigants and as judges, the soon developed to become an arena involving the Onitsha indigenes almost exclusively (both as litigants and as judges and other officials)[viii]. (Prior to establishment of the ONC, dis­putes were evidently settled within a variety of social groups, such as the patriline­age, the Village Chiefs, the Town Mothers, and the King and council, and these avenues remained the preferential arenas of litigation for many Onitsha people after the ONC became an integral institution of the Inland Town[ix]. These institutions still provide a means for disputes to be settled outside the Onitsha Customary Court system as a colonial product)[x].

From the earliest time, the records of these courts were retained in the ONC building. In light of our understanding that historical records for reconstructing the social life of early British-dominated Onitsha were very limited (a prospect that has largely held true)[xi], we sought to record as much of these texts as possible in the time we had available[xii].   When we arrived in Onitsha in September of 1960, we gained introductions to a number of prominent Onitsha jurists, who accorded us access to the records of this Court[xiii].   So I brought my typewriter to the court office, and began my work.

The records were contained in bound books [? – how bound?] filed on open shelves in the Customary Court office and were in a poor state of preservation, many of the records being riddled with holes made by “white ants” (mostly termite spp.), and entire volumes were missing. Sitting Court judges told me that, to their knowledge, litigation had always been conducted in the Igbo language, but the Court Clerks made direct written translations into English for the benefit of the British District Officers who reviewed them. The records I examined in l961 for the entire time period I covered were in English, recorded by Igbo-speaking court clerks whose names I either found illegible or failed to record them[xiv].

I proceeded by identifying cases of major interest to our research, and took notes from them in accurate (but generally not complete) detail, recording the context of the case and using direct quotes as frequently as possible. Indented sections in this paper contextualize longer quoted case sections. I eventually covered the period from 1908-1955. For the period discussed in this paper (l908‑l934), my notes covered approxi­mately 50 cases and case fragments.

Onitsha Women Seeking Rights to Security in Residence

Several cases refer to women moving to the Onitsha waterside in the l880’s[xv]. In the earliest case reference (l9l4), a male witness states that he began living in the waterside “34 years ago” (i.e. l880), and that he was followed by another man who brought his sister, and that “there was nobody else (living) there” at that time[xvi].   Once residence there had been achieved, women found that the Waterside provided a new forum for their own (as well as men’s) assertion of property interests. Although many women moved into waterside housing constructed by their male relatives or husbands, some were soon wealthy enough to construct residences for themselves. While a house built by a woman in Onitsha Inland Town would of necessity be built on the patrilineage land of a woman’s husband or father and therefore become part of that corporate estate[xvii], houses built on waterside land could not be automatically claimed by any particular kinship group, and ownership was therefore more open to dispute.

In the latter part of the ninteenth century and the early twentieth century, Onitsha women were required to marry inside the Inland Town (except to men from some of the Riverain Igbo towns) and, given the nucleated character of the town, they were therefore able to retain strong ties with their own natal patrilineages even after marriage. If separated or divorced, they could return to their fathers’ or brothers’ compounds and also maintain contact with their children who still lived with their fathers. Even when wealthy women were relatively independent in commercial relationships, they still needed the support of their male patrilineage relatives in traditional socio‑political and religious spheres, and in situations where their wealth might intensify marital conflict.

Married women might be “driven out” by their husbands, or depart on their own accord to go to prospective replacement husbands (who were expected to refund the bridewealth), or to return to their fathers or brothers. Divorce occurred when a husband drove out his wife and renounced all claims to her future children. A woman might leave her husband for any reason, but if she left voluntarily, she or her family was expected to repay the bridewealth.

Court cases indicate that frequent motives for a husband ejecting his wife were (1) her bad temper, leading to disputes with husband and co‑wives; alleged adultery; barrenness; bearing only female children; and bringing in dangerous “medicines” or prac­ticing witchcraft.   But a woman could also successfully assert her customary rights, for example by first leaving her husband and second litigating the right to be supported by her husband in meeting her own lineage obligations:

  • Case 1:   A woman claims that her husband would not give her leave to visit her dying father and would not help her with her father’s funeral costs. Her major help [for this funeral] came from her own father and brothers. Judg­ment: the husband should take kola[xviii] to defendant and settle dispute with his wife and brother‑in‑law, then take his wife[xix].


Various cases show women leaving their husbands and risking court procedures to assert perceived cus­tomary personal rights, such as the right to become pregnant:

  • Case 2:   (l9 ‑‑) A “head wife”[xx] complains to the court that her husband refused her sexually. She reports, “I stayed with [her husband’s father] who gave me per­mission to go out[xxi] and then I was put in pregnancy and get child”. She claims the right to live in a house which she has assisted in building. The husband accuses his wife of adultery. Judgment is for the husband, but he is instructed to take his wife home or build a separate house for her and give her monthly maintenance[xxii].


In some cases, women clearly saw Waterside residence as linked to a right to be safe from abuse:

  • Case 3:     (l918) A husband accuses his wife of refusing to cook for him and for miscarrying. The wife retorts that “my husband’s wife from Nsube[xxiii] laughed at my child dying. We fought and she cut off my finger. My husband’s mother discovered house for me at   Waterside”. The wife refuses to move back to the Inland Town since she has never conceived there and was   attacked [by parties there]. Judgment for husband, wife is to return but he should prepare a house for her[xxiv].


In this case, an interesting connection between females may be seen, in this case the linkage of the wife’s mother-in-law with Waterside housing (and a refuge from a type of intra-household conflict endemic to Inland Town society).

Residence rights are linked with a right to be cared for when sick:

  • Case 4:   (date?) Husband as plaintiff says his wife will not sleep in his house although he has given her 5/ for trade. He accuses his wife’s brother of not returning his wife to him even though he has sent him gin and l5/. The wife’s brother says he wanted his sister to live with her husband but “she was sick and he [the hus­band] did not care for her. “I paid for medicine to cure her and feed her.” Judgment missing[xxv].


Women and their male relatives also used a husband’s failure to provide medical support support the right for a woman to leave her husband’s house without her patrilineage’s returning the bridewealth.   [case?]

Court cases consistently showed the importance of mutual obli­gations in the brother‑sister relationship even after the sister had married:

  • Case 5:     (l9‑‑) A wife who said she has supported her husband’s political claims and cared for his other wife for a year , now sought reimbursement of a debt owed by her husband to her brother. The husband accused the wife of ” being fond of palaver even though he had made title for her son and married three wives for him.”[xxvi]

Prominence of an expected role of the brother as supporter and defender of his sister is further evident in the following cases:

  • Case 6:   ( date?) A woman is asked to confess adultery, refuses and “takes her things and goes to live with her brother at waterside”[xxvii].


  • Case 7: (l927), a husband accuses his wife of taking her properties and going to her brother, the defendant. The wife’s brother accuses his sister’s husband of assaulting his sister[xxviii].


  • Case 8: (1927), a woman says she was going to get her fowl from a neighbor’ compound when her husband beheaded the fowl and beat her. Her testimony is supported by that of her brother. On the other hand, the husband says his sister told him his wife (who was not living with him at the time) removed a fowl from a neighbor’s yard to take it to her brother’s compound. He accuses his wife’s brothers of beating him when he tried to retrieve the fowl. Judgment for husband/not guilty[xxix].


Note how in Case 8 a woman’s agnatic ties appear in double force: a woman draws on the obligation of her brother to defend her from her husband, while her husband has relied on his sister to tell him of his wife’s alleged thievery.

In domestic disputes, the husband frequently accused the wife of removing properties and taking them to her brother’s or father’s house.   One man claimed, for example:

  • Case 9: “cloth and sewing machine and 5 pounds (money) (I) gave her for trading” while the wife claims” he did not feed me‑ but hit me and stipped me naked.” The wife denies taking the properties[xxx].


we have seen that both husband and wife had perceived “rights” in a marriage which they each strongly defended, and that because of the strength of the brother‑sister bond, the brother was often called upon to provide the support that the woman claimed she should be receiving from the husband.

The Onitsha Widow in Jeopardy

Onitsha customary law has often been interpreted to hold that a widow’s primary support should come from her husband’s patrilineage, and that she should be taken as wife to one of the husband’s brothers. The ONC upheld a widow’s claim to continue residing on her deceased husband’s patrilineage land in a number of cases, despite contradictory versions of “the custom” as asserted by various parties:

  • Case 10 (1913): The plaintiff, a widow, claimed her husband’s brother refused to support her or her dying child and thus she was forced to have her brother maintain her. She claimed it is customary for a man to take his father’s widow as wife or that his father’s junior brothers should do so. The defendant, the husband’s brother, disagrees, claiming that he gave his husband’s wives cloth, “as is custom­ary”, and they returned to their homes (i.e. to their own patrilineages).   A witness supports the widow, also calling on “custom,” maintaining that if a man leaves a wife, his son or nearest relative must maintain her by building her a separate house and giving her “chop”[xxxi] even if they do not wish marry her. He then may collect bridewealth on her subsequent remarriage[xxxii].


In this case, the Native Court Judges disagreed among themselves concerning the obligations a deceased man’s brothers had to his widow: one judge argued that the late hus­band’s son or relatives only needed to support the woman if she was not able to maintain herself; another judge said that if the son or nearest relative did not want to maintain the woman, he should return her to her people and renounce all claims to her and to any subsequent bridewealth her marriage might bring.   However, in a later case, the judges’ opinion was less ambiguous:

  • Case 11 (1924): a man demands that his father’s brother’s widow should leave his house “since she is a thief”. The widow defends herself saying that she had to steal food to feed herself because the plaintiff “never take care of me and my children”. The judgment is for the widow to remain with the plaintiff and he is required to build a house for her and feed her and her children well[xxxiii].


In an earlier dispute concerned with property at the Waterside,

  • Case 12 (1919): a man charges that his father’s sister refuses to let him and his widowed mother live with her in his father’s house. The father’s sister reports that the house has been given to her by another party, not by her brother. Judgment in favor of the deceased man’s widow and son and against the father’s sister’s claim. However, the father’s sister is allowed to remain in the house if she wishes[xxxiv].


In this case, the rights of patrilineage members and of widows are carefully reconciled.   On the other hand, some court cases indicate that widows were increas­ingly being required to support themselves.   Men succeed, for example, in getting court permission to eject their deceased brothers’ wives since they are “witches”:

  • Case number 13 (?):   [insert above witchcraft accusation case]


Other men try to assert their patrilineal rights against those of widows by claiming priority for one kind of right, while widows claim priority for another:

  • Case 14:   (date?) A man claims his brother’s widow has entered his house in mourning cloth ,and has taken bridewealth of her own daughter which is rightfully due him. The woman defends herself saying that she is living in a house built by her deceased son and claims her husband’s brother has not mourned her husband as per custom[xxxv].


In this case, the widow’s demands – both on the house and her daughter’s bridewealth — are based upon her assertion that her husband’s brother has failed to complete his obligatory role in her husband’s funeral, which means that her husband remains formally “alive” (and she may thus act in his name).

Widows’ justifications for claiming money from their deceased husbands’ patrilineage were clearly presented in a case from l9l9:   [note: is this different from Case 14? They look very similar!]

  • Case 15: The widow, who had not been remarried by her hus­band’s brother, claimed that the latter not only did not assist her and her children, but left the costs of her husband’s burial up to her to pay . She also stated that he took bride­wealth for her daughters at their marriage, but had not provid­ed bridewealth for his nephew [presumably, her son].   Even though an assemblage of Onitsha people had earlier ordered the husband’s brother to refund monies to the widow, when the case came to court, the decision was for the husband’s broth­er, without comment. The widow was forced to turn to her own patrilineage for refuge[xxxvi].


Thus in the situations facing widows, we see women first asserting their customary claims as affinals of a patrilineage, but losing their claims in the Native Court and hence returning to their own patrilineage for support and for refuge. The husband’s brother accepts his patrilineage rights (where they bring him money) but rejects his patrilineage obligations (where he would pay out money). That a balanced, reciprocal set of rules was “customary” is suggested by the earlier decision of some local “assemblage”, but the Native Court simply favors the male over the female.

Factors affecting Women’s Claims to Property

The ONC during the first third of the century appears to have systematically reinforced male rights over property rather than those of women.   Men stated in court that women had no right to give land to anybody ‑‑ nor to own houses. One man argued baldly that a female litigant had “no right to claim land as she is but a woman.”[xxxvii]

  • Case 16 (l921): the Court ordered a widow to leave her property and return to her parent’s home and that she not be ” allowed to take away from the late husband’s home even what she took there ex­cepting ordinary wearing clothes.” Nor was she entitled to any property or money resulting from their joint trading[xxxviii].


However, claims to “customary” rights appear to have been interpreted by the courts with some flexibility depending on the social and eco­nomic resources a woman could mobilize, including the witnesses she could bring to support her case. The Court records indicate women traders who were active during the latter quarter of the l9th and the first quarter of the 20th century as taking titled names (indicating wealth and prestige), owning slaves and ivory, trading in palm oil, using male assistants to conduct long distance trade, collecting debts through court action, owning valuable tree property, marrying wives for their husbands , sons, or brothers, being asked to contribute to their husbands title taking, and building houses for themselves at the Waterside.   [Insert here some specific case materials referencing some of these points.]

Women secured their positions by making alliances through sharing wealth and property with supportive males (as well as females). During the 26 year period under discussion, cases make frequent reference to women paying bridewealth for obtaining wives for their husbands and sons:

  • Case 17 (1910): The children of a deceased father accuse their father’s sister of using his property in her own oil trading. The sister defended herself arguing that she not only paid the bridewealth for her brother’s wife (using cowries and ivories belonging to their late mother), but also provided a home for her brother’s wife and children while jointly trading with her brother[xxxix].


A dispute [? Singular – how many cases do you have?] involving women traders, especially those living at the waterside, indicate brothers giving money to sisters for trading purposes and later claiming the late sister’s property by virtue of having performed her funeral.   [Insert case? – and make number consistent in sentence.]

In other cases, brothers accuse their sister’s husband or son of abandoning the woman; as a result of such alleged abandonment the brother might sue his sister’s husband for the costs of supporting her and her children for many years, or he might claim rights to a house owned by the woman at the Waterside. [Insert case?]

Although women’s abilities to independently acquire property were restricted, Onitsha women’s active trade in the expanding waterside marketplace enabled them to augment the wealth and power of their husbands, sons, and brothers. By strategic use of their economic power, they were able to acquire a circle of relative autonomy within the context of competing patrilineages.   [Not clear where this paragraph should go – at beginning or end.]

Themes of Conflict over Residential Property

A common form of dispute brought to the ONC involved women claiming rights to property, especially houses, either built by their husbands, sons , or brothers , or by the women themselves. Houses in dispute were more often on land at the Waterside, where an individual’s rights to lease or buy land were more clearly established than in the Inland Town.   Although women’s claims to property in land and houses were usually re­jected by the Native Court during this period, women persisted in arguing these claims, and under certain circumstances met with some success.

Brother‑Sister Property Disputes


Although the sister‑brother relationship was usually mutu­ally supportive, tensions arose over property in the waterside area. This particular type of conflict reflected a new type of freedom that women acquired when the waterside was opened up for residences and declared by the British free from tradi­tional male‑dominated Onitsha associations such as the masquer­ades which served as a type of police in the Inland town.

Claims to property pitting a full sister against a full brother were rarely found in the court cases. However:

  • Case   (l921) (#353), however, a brother (as Plaintiff) claims a Waterside house that belonged to his dead mother and is now occupied by his sister. The sister replies that her father drove her mother from her house [presumably, in the Inland Town], and that she obtained a plot of land at the Waterside for her mother on which they built a house. She says she cared for her mother, and borrowed money for her funeral. [Here she is using debts incurred to bolster her claim over the property.] A female witness reports that the plaintiff, the defendant’s brother, was “rude to this [?? – “his”?] mother” and should have assumed the costs which were, instead, paid by his sister.   Judgment is for the defendant with costs[xl].


Occasionally, there were cases where children of the same father but different mothers disputed over property:

  • Case   (l922) The plaintiff, a woman, accuses her half brother (now head of her father’s patrilineal segment) of not providing a house for her mother, thus forcing the mother to move to the Onitsha Waterside . She also accuses him of refusing to pay burial expenses for his half sisters, or to give maintenance to his father’s wife and her children even though he had received his sister’s bridewealth. Over 30 years ago the plaintiff, having quarrelled with her husband, moved in with her mother, taking her children with her. The half‑brother in his defense claims to have fed the plaintiff and her children up to the present time[xli].


In another case of men and women of the same patrilineage quarreling over property,

  • Case   (1926): the male lineage member, recently returned to Onitsha with his wife, asked his female relative to leave his house after she threatened his wife. She argued that the family had ignored her and her children. The court referred this case to the titled man of the family for settlement[xlii].


Claims by Woman Against her Father’s Brother , Father or Father’s Sister


Although claims by a woman against her own patri­lineage were rare, an extraordinary forceful claim reveals crucial legal assumptions:

  • Case         (l934) (#101) the daughter of a deceased man claims the right to receive the bridewealth payment for her sister, because she has trained her. The opposing statements are recorded by the court as follows:

The father’s brother states: “Defendant is a woman and has no right to receive any bridewealth ( father’s kola).” Defendant contravened custom by compelling one of her small male brothers to take kola as offering to her father’s shrines.

The defendant, a female, rebuts, “I am the man who mourned my father”, who performed burial of my father’s wife, and the man who trained my sister since my senior brother and senior sister are away and I am responsible for their business.”

She denies, however, “sacrificing to juju” or drinking the father’s gin. The finding of the Court acknowledges the finan­cial reimbursement owed the woman, and awards most of the bride­wealth due the (deceased) father to her. She is asked, however, to perform conciliation ceremonies with her father’s brother. The court does not recognize her right to act as the father, but does recognize her claims for financial reimbursement[xliii].


Property disputes between widow , her children and her brother’s family

Although the brother‑sister relationship was a source of much support for women driven from their husband’s patrilineage, complications occurred especially where property was disputed between descendants of the sister and descendants of the brother. In the period under discussion, cases of this type comprised a significant number of lineage disputes over property involving women.

Property disputes often aligned a widow or her adult children against her brothers’ chil­dren.   Such a dispute often arose after a brother had provided land or a house for his divorced or separated sister. Although ages are not provided in these cases, testimony indicates that those women who permanently resided in a residence provided by a broth­er or father’s brother were often past child‑bearing age.

In cases where children have been living with their mother in a house at the waterside, now claimed by the widow’s brother’s children, we observed that although the widow , by choosing to live with or near her brother or other members of her own patri­linage, placed herself under lineage protection, her children, belonging to their father’’ patrilineage, were not in an equiva­lent position when it came to inheritance of property. Brothers, and even more likely, their children, wanted to take back from their sister’’ children the houses or land that their lineage had previously made available to their sister.

  • Case   (l9l4): A male Plaintiff wants to oust his fa­thers’ sister’s son from a Waterside house which the latter claims to have inherited from his mother. A female witness claims that the mother had obtained her land at the waterside even before her brother had land there[xliv].


Onitsha people will often speak of the very close relation­ships of children to the members of their mother’s patrilineal segment, especially to the mother’s brother, and his children. As we have observed earlier in this paper, when a woman and her children were rejected by her husband and his patrilineage , they often went to the woman’s own patrilineage and sometimes took up permanent residence on the mother’s brother’s patrilineage land. Claims by a woman and her children to waterside land and houses owned by members of her own patrilineage (e.g.father or brother or male descendants), however, caused ruptures in a social sup­port system which was, probably , more taken for granted in the pre‑colonial Inland‑Town context.

Claims of land through Mother


Cases where land is claimed through a woman were uncommon, but in

  • Case     (l934): Claiming rental rights at the Waterside, a asserts his right to the property on the grounds that he had buried his “first mother”, “M” , a wealthy trader (who had “married” and owned his own mother,) and he had also paid Ozo title for her husband. The land, he says, was given to his “first mother” by a non‑Onitsha man.   This claim, at its simplest level, is made by a man for the property of his mother’s female husband or owner. In a High Court decision, the defendant appeared to win[xlv].   [Who was the defendant in this case?]


Women as Individual Leasers/Purchasers

Early cases make it clear that women who had the means could lease land at the waterside:

  • Case     (l911):   The ONC finds that a defendant is within his legal rights in giving property   over to Lucinda, who says she personally leased the land and has paid the rentals[xlvi].


  • Case   (date?) In another early case, the court decides in favor of a woman who testifies that, having temporarily left her husband, she paid rental to a landlord at the water­side, brushed the thick bush, and established rights to the use of the land[xlvii].


  • Case     (l926):   The court supports a woman’s claim to a house and land at waterside against her husband’s son by another mother, on the grounds that the woman’s properties had been obtained before mar­riage[xlviii].


This woman’s status as a Christian may also have strengthened her case.   Christian marriage affected women’s ability to make claims in the Waterside:

  • Case     (date ?)   Women also successfully claimed property at the water­side through Christian marriage to their husbands, the owner [xlix].


In general, a woman’s right to lease waterside property did not give her the right to lease land to another person:

  • Case     (1926-7): The Waterside Chief, whose family claimed to own most of the waterside land[l], testified to the court that “a woman has no right to give land to anybody.” Women, however, continued to contest this issue. Indeed, even during the case itself, evidence is presented that the woman purchased land, then married and moved in with her husband on another plot at the waterside, retained rights in the original property, and moved there after leaving her husband. The court, however, wanted to determine if the woman had been married to a prior husband at the time of the first purchase. If such a point were established, the first husband’s patrilineage representative could make claim on the land[li].



Using court cases from the first three decades of the twentieth century, I have focused on women’s testimonies or assertions concerning their rightful status in a rapidly changing society. The court cases I have examined show severe tensions in a cultural system occurring when an individual’s expectations are violated to such a point that that she/he is willing to bring the conflict into a public (and somewhat foreign) arena. That cases in certain categories are so rare as to be considered “unnatural” (e.g. cases of a child against her/his mother or father, full sister against full brother etc.) indicates the strength and also the extreme sensitivity of such a relationship.

As new opportunities for movement, choice in residence, and accumulation of wealth opened up for women and for men, further tensions were created in kin relations that already had internally contradictory aspects, for example a woman’s loyalty to her husband versus to her brother, a brother’s loyalty to his sister and her children versus to his own immediate family.


As the economic system began to focus on foreign currency and costs for imported goods, women not only seized the opportu­nity to further develop lines of wealth and power, but they also saw their relations through birth and through marriage, made somewhat less secure through competing economic demands.

Thus through these court cases, Onitsha women and men can be viewed as re‑negotiating their changing rights and statuses in the context of new risks and opportunities. In such a world, women (on occasion) performed funerals of their fathers and demanded bridewealth due for their sisters, and by meeting obli­gations traditionally expected only of men, pushed against a seemingly rigid gender hierarchy toward a more ambilineal system.




Bosah, S.I., n.d.,  Groundwork of the History and Culture of Onitsha.   Publication arranged by the author with the assistance of Increase H.E. Coker, Director of the Increase Coker Agencies. mid‑1970’s, Onitsha, Nigeria.

Chanock, Martin, 1985,  Law, Custom and Social Order:The Colonial  Experience in Malawi and Zambia.  Cambridge:  Cambridge Univ. Press.

Elias, T.Olawule, 1962,  British Colonial Law. London, Stevens and Sons.

Henderson, H.K., 1969,  Ritual Roles of Women in Onitsha Ibo Society.  Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California (Berkeley).

Henderson, H.K., 1997, “Onitsha Women: The Traditional Context for Political Power.” pp. 215-244  In Queens, Queen Mothers, Priestesses, and Power: Case Studies in African Gender, edited by Flora Kaplan.  NY:  New York Academy of Sciences.

Henderson, R.N., 1972,  The King in Every Man: Evolutionary Trends in Onitsha Ibo Society and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nader, Laura, 1990, Harmony Ideology: Justice and Control in a Zapotec Mountain Village. Stanford:  Stanford University Press.

Onitsha Native Court, 1908-1934, Civil and Criminal Judgment Books. Onitsha, Nigeria: Customary Court Records.


[i] As Nader puts it, court cases may be used to “ascertain dominant patterns, discover configurations of cases, or to illustrate particular points relevant to broader analyses”(Nader, l990).

[ii] The subsequent text will use the term “Onitsha indigenes” to refer to this group.

[iii] [Cite source from initial sources – Crowder etc.]

[iv] Henderson, H.K., l969; Henderson, R.N., 1972. In this and the following introductory paragraphs, I assume that the historical reconstructions being identified are unproblematic, though I agree with Chanock (l985) that “customary law, far from being a survival, was created by [??these – what kinds?] changes and conflicts”(l985: 4) and that images of tradition are political phenomena, not fixed templates.

[v] See Henderson, R.N., 1972, pp.

[vi] Ibid., and Henderson 1969.

[vii] See Henderson 1972 on the subject of “traditional” chiefs, that is, social statuses pre-existing the colonial period. As used in this paragraph, the term “Chiefs” refers to officials established by the British.

[viii] [Here we need some references to history of the Nigerian courts.]

[ix] According to an ONC case (2/1/3/1924), in the early part of the 20th century, Onitsha people, as well as residents of villages outside Onitsha, generally pre­ferred to come to their own elders and chiefs prior to taking more formal action in the Native Courts since,”they had no knowledge of English ways for the Native Court at Onitsha”.


[x] The Onitsha Province Files (ONPROF) contain a record of a Supreme Court case brought in 1908, in which Obi Okosi, then-King of Onitsha, testified about the Native Court and other “customary courts” as follows: “I am head chief of Onitsha and have been for 8 years. I have been member of the Native Court for five years. It is in custom of head chief of Onitsha and the head chiefs of quarters to hear palavers. Such as dispute husband and wife or quarrel about farms are brought. If the chiefs cannot settle them they are brought to court. If a dispute arises between a man of Mkpaw [Nkpor, a contiguous Igbo town] and a man of Onitsha, friends may intervene to try to settle it; if they fail the chiefs of Onitsha may try to settle it before bring it to court. It is customary for both parties to bring kola to be divided among those who hear the palaver. Amount varies from one bottle of gin to about 3 bottles. Each party pay a fee. Only cases in which Onitsha people are concerned are so heard. This authority has been confirmed by District Commissioner.” ONPROF 2/1/3 No. 11, page 120, 1908.

[xi] [Cite materials concerning Goldie’s destruction of RNC records; other sources]

[xii] In 1992, the current Native Court Clerk [?] told me that nearly all of these records have since been lost or destroyed.

[xiii]   Cite some names:   Moses Balonwu esp; Louis Mbanefo Dr. Uwechia; [???? – not sure where the following citation belongs:   ONC 2/1/3/1914]

[xiv] During a period in the 1950s, the Customary Court records were written in Igbo. I did not attempt to deal with these materials.

[xv] Cases no. 623/l914; 369/l922; l90/l934.

[xvi]   Case 623/l914. Elders often described early Waterside residence in these terms of emptiness (often associated with images of “bush”).

[xvii] See Henderson 1972:     for description of descent group land tenure.

[xviii] A ritual offering of goodwill.

[xix] Case

[xx] The senior wife (first married by husband).

[xxi] I.e., to visit males outside the village.

[xxii]   Case

[xxiii] Nsugbe, a town contiguous to Onitsha and with fairly close ties to it. When a non-Onitsha wife is present among Onitsha co-wives, conflict is proverbially intensified.

[xxiv] Case

[xxv] Case

[xxvi] Case

[xxvii] Case

[xxviii] Case 1927/48.

[xxix] Case 1927/133

[xxx] Case

[xxxi] “Food” in Pidgin English.

[xxxii] Case

[xxxiii] Case 1924/407.

[xxxiv] Case

[xxxv] Case

[xxxvi] Case 1919/637.

[xxxvii] Case P. 1E 14, 1927 [?? – identify this one!]

[xxxviii] Case 2/1921.

[xxxix]   Case 1910/46.

[xl]   Case 1921/353.

[xli]   Case 1922/369.

[xlii]   Case 1926/373.

[xliii] Case 1934/101.

[xliv] Case 1914/643.

[xlv] Case 1934/190.

[xlvi]   Case 1911/562.

[xlvii]   Case (ONC Civil Judgment Book #309/1900-1910)

[xlviii] Case 1926/ ?? – number?

[xlix]   Case   ? – date, #29.

[l]   [Here insert material on who this was, and what “family”.]

[li] Case   ?