Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Early & Colonial- Era Ethnicities

Readers should remember that the original bearers of this community name “Onitsha” were and are themselves a swarm of differing ethnic identifications. There were many contexts of this: a social division between “royals” and “non-royals”; a social category of “slaves” (ndi-oru, a category much whispered about by some members of the community), and the fact was openly known that, in past times, every Onitsha village had come from elsewhere, and within each of these, members had entered at different times and from different places. The ethnic diversities of Ndi-Onicha were widely known within the group, were carefully explored, and were indeed often celebrated.

For example, a local Onitsha news item from March 7, 1951, reported that Members of Obikporo (a respected Onitsha village) had provided a “fete [for] gentlemen represneting [the Riverain] towns of Odoekpe, Osomari, Oko, saying these sister towns call their group of four towns “Umuonaja” (roughly, “Children of Niger”). (Italics added.) 1

It is by virtue of the historically-pivotal event of European intrusion that a new and socially transformative period of ethnic diversification occurred, and this is the context on which we will focus here. The new physical (and social) category of “European Quarters” (though this division did not become formalized until the Twentieth Century) marks the basis of the symbolic change we will emphasize.

1. Reminder: The “Two-hearted city”

Basic to an adequate imagery of the subject-matter of this book is a figure of a two- hearted community, one centered in the hills around the Onitsha Obi’s Palace and the other in and around the modern Onitsha Main Market, its western edge marked by the flow of the River Niger. I have indicated that, in 1961, everyone drew a sharp geographical distinction between these two locations: the “Inland Town” (enu Onicha, lit. “high Onitsha”) and the “Waterside” (otu, “beach”), and a strong visual contrast could still be drawn between the two by that time though they were beginning to interpenetrate substantially. (When Helen and I returned in 1992 the division was much less obvious, though still substantially clrear to the eye.)

In the 1930s, the spatial contrast was much sharper: Sylvia Leith Ross wrote that “[going] to Inland Town… [is] like passing from modern times to the middle ages, from reality to a dream. You are in noisy, bustling Waterside, amid hurrying footsteps, wide streets, semi European houses, a clang and clatter of lorries, shouts, colour, sun; you cross a road, and you are in a silent gloom. Huge trees overshadow high mud walls, narrow lanes twist between, there is not a sound, not a passer by; the sky cannot be seen through the roof of foliage….” (This passage tells you, by the way, that her visits to Enu-Onicha occurred only when there was “nothing going on” — very few and very brief visits, indeed. But she was correct in part: the quality of sounds and sights were very different — traffic noises vs. the music of various kinds of drums, etc. to note just one major example.)

Historically, the division was a residue of the fact that the ancient community named Onitsha centered its villages (surrounded by its farmlands) in the higher hills of the East bank of the River Niger, while their international marketplace, Otu Nkwor (the peripheries of which later became the base for European and native immigrant expansion), was located down at the river’s edge. This strong separation was dictateed by needs of residential safety. 2

In the years just before the Europeans inserted themselves into the premises, Onitsha Indigenes were in nominal control of both hearts of the town, but were “under seige” from all sides: the safety of both hearts was definitely uncertain, and when in 1857 they invited the agents of the Church Missionary Society and of European trading firms to settle beside them, they openly hoped these strangers would help them to better secure this control.3

These new agents — specifically, Europeanized African (“Sierra Leonean”, mainly) missionaries and traders first settled at Onitsha in 1857, the traders establishing their warehouses along the waterside while the missionary contingent found a place in the hills rclose by the edge of the indigenous town. Samuel Crowther, a native Yoruba ex-slave who had raised himself through Church Missionary Society (CMS) education to a remarkably strong position of mission authority, sought during the initial moments of intrusion to establish a sharp social contrast between the missionaries locating on the west flank of what would become “the Inland Town”, and the traders residing at the “Waterside”. but Ndi-Onicha themselves did not see a sharp distinciton (because the realities were blurred from the start)..

And immediately,, from this double-infusion of newcomers into Onitsha space, hosts of new interactions took place, some details of which I will further examine below. Here we might summarize briefly that, by 1900 , European missionaries and the British Colonial Government had been ceded both extensive lands near the river and some of the high ground (ozala, “high grass”) on the north side of what became known as “the Inland Town”. This northerly part of town became both church (CMS and RCM) and Government offices and residences during the colonial era, when high positions in these institutions were reserved for Europeans, hence the term “European Quarters”.

It’s worth noting that the early core of this area, called Ozala “tall grass”), a hill where most European houses were first built, was for Ndi-Onicha categorically “Bad Bush” (Ajo Ofia), where for example persons who had died “bad deaths”, or newborn human twins (considered “abominations”, a sin against the Mother Earth) were left out exposed. At the time when the tall grasses were fired, Ndi-Onicha believed that the occupants became angry at the destruction of their haunts, so they would descend on adjacent Onitsha villages late at night as the Ayakka (dancing/singing figures whose presence was signalled in the darkness by the sound of an other-worldly, whirring roar). Such haunted terrains were a first choice to be given over to Europeans. 4

Other new settlements nearer the river became established by, and named after, particular social groups: one occupied mainly by early Onitsha Christian converts escaping the “pagan demands” of Inland Town life, became Ogbe-Umu-Onicha, “Village of Children of Onitsha”, north of the Main Market location, while one just east of a major protective shrine by the river there (Onlinri) was called “Olinri village” (Ogbe-Olinri). Traders from far up-river eventually occupied Ogbe-Awusa (“Hausa Village”, Ogbe-Nupe (Nupe Village), and other locations on the south side of the Main Market. Those from the Abah communities located further downriver lived at Ogbe-ukewu (“Great Village”), not far from the fullly-Aboh-affiliaated town of Atani (near the floodplain just south of Onitsha). The symbolic division between the Inland Town (Enu-Onicha ) and these (and other) local spaces (lumped together as Otu, “Waterside”) remained the primary geographical distinction in Onitsha in the early 1960s, and there were numerous other residential locations in the Waterside that contained important ethnic concentrations.5 In sum, diverse ethnicities tended to form distinctive spaces in both sides of the “heart”.

2.. Capsules of late 19th-century history

From the perspective of the Europeans who first decided to establish a center of occupation at Onitsha, their goal was to gain control of the best locations along the lower Niger which both surmounted the annually inundated Niger flood plain and gave direct access to the heavily populated uplands to the east and southeast (which comprised the main oil palm belt of the region). To the missionaries, the very large numbers of potentially salvageable human souls living in the hinterlands were crucial; to the traders, the bounty of “vegetable wealth” those Ndi-Igbo produced (measured largely in anticipated barrels of palm produce, though cotton was also an initial goal for profits) was focal. The fact that the site of Onitsha faced the Niger River sandbank locus where important up- and down-river slave trading still took place was probably another decisive factor in the political aim to “free the rivers of piratical tribes” then seen to be preventing the kinds of communication which the British sought to foster .6

While historical documentation of the lower Niger region is (except for some excellent missionary accounts) scanty for much of the period between 1857 and the beginning of direct British Government rule after 1900 7, enough evidence exists to provide a sense of general trends, and it is clear that in the long run both the European agencies and the Onitsha indigenes greatly profited from their 1857 choices. A sense of the initial impacts of the European establishment at Onitsha emerge vividly from the Journals kept by Samuel Crowther, who oversaw the initial operation, and the first resident C.M.S. minister, John Christopher Taylor (a Sierra Leonean whose parents had been themselves transported overseas as Ndi-Igbo slaves). Taylor was left in charge of the new Onitsha mission station on August 1, 1857.

Intense inter-group (and inter-personal) conflicts erupt

Immediately various groups became active in ways suggesting their awareness that regional sociopolitical balances were changing: Riverine traders sought to deal with the new trading factory directly, while people from other Ndii-igbo towns (and elsewhere) arranged audiences with Taylor at Onitsha, including Nri men saying the news of whitemen had reached them “like a raging fire” and men from Obosi and Nsugbe saying they wanted whitemen (Beke or Oyibo) to settle in their towns too. 8. The Onitsha people responded with what Taylor called a “spirit of jealousy” and sought to exercise strong control over the new interactions now erupting in their domain, and they also began petitioning him to assist them in dealing with “their enemies”, either providing arms to destroy them (which he declined, though some of the newly-resident traders were probably less circumspect in this regard) or acting as a mediator to reconcile them (he tried to settle their war with Ogidi, and later passed “judgment” in a dispute between Obosi and Onitsha). 9.

Onitsha people also acted more cooperatively to resolve some of their external disputes in order to facilitate the new establishments’ operations, and soon both traders and missionaries began (separately, and with Onitsha people as their translators and guides) venturing out to the interior towns to negotiate establishing relationships ‘ 10 Taylor however learned from these activities that “the neighboring towns hate Onitsha”, anticipated these neighbors might combine to wage war against it, and by January and February of 1858 he was reporting sporadic conflicts between Onitsha and Ogidi (and other towns) together with the King’s request for ammunition “as he is surrounded by war”. 11 Deadly war with Ogidi, clearly a chronic condition at this time, was first reported within two weeks of Taylor’s arrival 12.

In the years to come, these inter-ethnic relationships with neighboring communities would evolve and elaborate, with Ndi-Onicha holding many advantages due to their privileged access to their European-based sources of power.

Internally, the Onitsha King and chiefs began competing among themselves over advantages to be gained from the European establishments: which Onitsha villages would allocate lands for foreign settlement, in what villages the missionaries should directly preach (and establish local centers) , how trade would be conducted with the Sierra Leonean new-resident agents, and what presents would be required of them. In October 1857,, four major Onitsha chiefs begged Taylor to reconcile their long standing enmities, but on November 23, 1857 the most senior chief of Odoje Village was leading armed combat against Umu-Dei Village in a dispute over land. 13

During all this time, the seasonal cycle of Onitsha rituals continued to operate in full force , but Taylor began to intervene when he heard of or claimed to observe slave selling or human sacrifice (the people resisted his efforts) and he requested the insertion into their calendar of the Sabbath as a major ritual day (the King appeared to agree). 14

By February 1858 Taylor reported the people saying that given the King’s permission “they would gladly throw off their multifarious deities”, and at the beginning of April an Onitsha man named “Okosi” presented himself from an expanding group of attendees at Sabbath services as the first prospective Onitsha convert to Christianity. The Onitsha chiefs opposed the idea of “abolishing their idols” (though Taylor exulted that “their idols… are now tottering, and I hope will be ere long for ever paralyzed”) . 15 .

These apparent trends: expanding exchanges and increasing competition with (and among) neighboring towns, heightened competition among Onitsha villages themselves (and among the King and “his” major chiefs as leaders of these villages), extending outreach for influence by various European agencies, and growing concern among Onitsha people about possibly alternative lifeways, continued through the subsequent decades of the 19th century, punctuated by explosive acts of resistance made by traditional leaders.

This picture included new opportunities for Onitsha women. Originally they had directly controlled the everyday affairs of all Onitsha markets (under the guidance of the Obi and their respective chiefs), and when male foreign traders began to undermine their monopoly, enterprising Onitsha women formed relationships with Sierra Leonean and then European traders, eventually (much later) becoming affluent commissioned agents for the large European firms that emerged in the early 20th Century. Early in this process, Onitsha women were joined by women from linked Riverain towns (Ossomari, Aboh, and others), some becoming influential figures in the town. To some extent prominent women traders formed a distinctive interest group. 16

At the same time, a new social category of self-identifying “Christians” presented themselves as a privileged group, both in Waterside locations and in Enu-Onicha. In both locations but most explosively in relation to the latter, they immediately became an alien presence, for example eating “the fetish fowls” offered by Inland Town elders as “living sacrifices” emplaced in Sacred Groves, and also consuming the sacred fish of Nkisi Stream, and some began building “English style houses” in the Waterside

“Slaves” (ndi-oru) were an old (and remarkably dispensible) ethnic caste and judging by the frequencies of their being reported sacrificed, must have been numerous within precolonial Onitsha. Ndi-Onicha definitely traded considerable numbers of them across the river to Asaba (where there was strong demand due to prestige contests entailing human sacrifice). one CMS report stated that Asaba now had 405 “Kings”, each of whom had to make a human sacrifice at his investiture.

Slaves also became important participants in the new residential places in the Waterside,: Sierra Leonean traders and missionaries (and their wives) acted in the name of “redeeming” slaves (but then kept them as “assistants” who were denied the right to leave if they chose) . Thee practices led to a disaster among the entire Sierra Leonean cohort in 1876, when one clergyman murdered a female slave (who had attempted escape) by torture, and the local CMS officials as well as the Onitsha Obi sought to cover this up. In 1877 the acting British consul brought a Commission of Inquiry into this matter, at the same time presenting to Onitsha people a new Treaty to be signed by the Onitsha King and his chiefs.

The findings of the Commission cast a deep pall on the entire project of the CMS in Onitsha, as the CMS authorities in London pondered plans for reorganization. In the Treaty established with the Onitsha King and Chiefs at the same time, the King and Chiefs were required to sign in support of ending human sacrifices , supporting the Christian religion, developing trade, sending children to school, ceding lands to the factory owners and to the CMS, punishing those who steal from the English, and refering any conflict between British subjects and natives to a Court of Equity. In return, the King would receive a yerarly “dash” (free gift). 17

In hs “Journey up the Nigeri in 1877”, the Rev. Henry Johnson, reported extensively on events surrounding this treaty. Apparently the Consul’s visit coincided with the time of the Onitsha Obi’s annual Ofala ritual; Johnson reports the Consul presenting himself on that occasion “on a horse, attracting crowds. ” At the Treaty conference, he observes that the king opposed [the] clause doing away with human sacrifices, turning as he spoke to look at his people, for approval. The Consul said he only wanted him to do away with it gradually; this [was] ungraciously accepted. During discussion of another clause –, that when a theft is committed, the king will try to detect, punish, restore stolen goods — “one Senior Chief known for thievery tried to change the subject, asking for ammunition against Onitsha enemies in the interior. The clauses were finally “signed”, after much fear of King and Chiefs to touch the pen –they feared some awful consequences, and their signatures were defiinitely obtained under duress.18

The multiple events of 1877 — a formal public trial and conviction of mission agents for murder (exposing lines of serious weakness in the entire CMS establishment) and an onerous political Treaty imposed at the time of the sacred Ofala event — were not followed by new, more cordial relationships among the various ethnic parties involved. In 1878 Reverend D.C Crowther (now appointed Archdeacon of the Lower Niger) reported that he had relocated the entire storage depot for the Mission at Asaba, because the natives of Onitsha were treating mission agents so “graspingly”  — for example, “changing the value of land near the waterside about 6 times”, and ” showing growing pride”. (CA013/46)

In September of that year, the missionaries and factory agents held a meeting in the Mission house with representatives of all Onitsha villages, including ” all 3 classes of native chiefs and chief women  about 60 total” . Reverend Perry’s account suggests rising levels of anxiety: the mission stations at Umudei and Iyawo were being disturbed, as were the congregants on Sundays; “comments made by the missionaries against idolatry should not be labeled as nso (“forbidden acts” , a category much abhorred by Onitsha people); conflicts between the merchants and Onitsha people should not affect the missionaries; no factory should be molested for the faults of another; and any quarrel between Civilized and natives should be settled by “a: senior [person] of ‘the] establishment of the civilized”. In response, the only clear comment presented from the Onitsha side was that “the merchants should stay away from their rives.” 19

This passage points obliquely to the depths of deeply stressful cross-cultural misunderstanding that had emerged in this twenty years of face-to-face interaction between indigenes and foreigners. In effect, the resident population had allowed into its midst an array of invaders who were obviously intent on destroying their embedded ways of life.

In late 1878 several incidents were reported indicating that confrontations were occurring between indigenes and immigrants entailing issues of direct “presentation of self” raising problems of respect. For example, it was reported that two an Onitsha woman had insulted a Krooboy, who replied; she said his act was “forbidden” (nso,) and a mob formed. Mr. Flint (owner of one of the factories) pushed her after provocation; she fell down deliberately. the Krooboys were seized by the boys of Andrew, a convert who had become rogue;, they also hit Mr. Flint. Andrew was paid something “to avoid palaver”. Here, very different standards of interpersonal communication escalated drastically , with Ndi-Onicha seizing hostages to enforce payment. In January 1879, ;the Miller Brothers’ factory was reported on fire; this was “ native work”. James Ambufa ,  a “worthless scoundrel, worse understands English well, having been at the Mission ”, seized Captan French,and demanded a “greatly excessive ransom for an alleged damaged canoe”. That same month, agent Macintosh of the WestAfrican Company reported that Chiefs and Ozo men had invaded the factory with warrriors, charging that a company agent had used “forbidden language toward them. They “seized [the] cooper in my yard (Macintosh says), put him in chains in the town, I had to pay compensation.. (p. 67) p 68: to insult a titled chiefs carries severe retribution.(p. 67-8)

Reports like these, accompanied by statements of both missionaries and traders talking about quitting the scene, accumulated. Inside the indigenous community, incidents of accusations of witchcraft became prominent (giving the Onitsha King an opportunity for additional income, since he had the traditional right to administer the sasswood ordeal requiring suspected women to drink an unpredictably toxic cocktail). In early July, following a report to the King’s Court that the Europeans were considering departure, a human sacrifice was offered to forestall this prospect.

The culminating event that set off a series of explosive reactions was one that European observers could not comprehend: the wife of an Onitsha indigene convert (jjust deceased) gave birth to twins. From the perspective of Christians this should be celebrated; from the view of Onitsha indigenes, this was an “Abomination” — a “sin against the Mother Earth” (nso-ani).20

On July 31, the members of the Mission House, having notified the King and Chiefs about the birth, an having heard from their meeting that “it is against our law to raise up twins”, Simon Mbanugo, the foremost convert, refused to have them thrown away . The Christian converts fired guns to announce the event, producing reactions of horror next door within the Inland Town. “We made a bold face: we will preserve them. ” On August 1, “We took [the twins] to factory, left them (having sent our wives and children to the factories also)”, and on August 2, ” 500 or more armed men came for the children in three groups: one in front of the compound, 1 behind, [and] one ambushing the road toward [the] wharf. They got into (the locked) compound, seized livestock, properties of converts, and shot two converts who died. I [John Williams] was beaten by matchets; Simon Jonas Mbanugo kept them from seizing him by holding fire to a keg of powder. Another group sought to seize two redeemed slaves for human sacrifice: one to be dragged alive through the town to take away the sin, the other to be killed on the spot, the blood sprinkled on the desecrated ground. Reverend Perry bought them off by promising 40 measures = L 14. Archdeacon Crowther left for Lokoja, taking the twins. On August 3, the King promised Perry he would not use the just-mentioned ransom to pay for human sacrifice, but on August 8 ” [he] met the King’s servants dragging alive an infant to be drowned in the river.”.

It took some time for the British officials on the River to organize their response, but in November Acting Consul Easton reported that “[Captain] Burr, myself, and Captain MacIntosh [of the United Companies now trading in the Niger] called a meeting of all Biriths subjects [-in Ontsha], among these, three Sierra Leone men: J.N. Palmer, J.N. Ogoo, J.O Astrope were enaged in slave dealing. I arrested them and freed their slaves.21.

The remaining traders present agreed to remove their goods, dismantle the factories, guards were sent to assist them. Natives fired on this party, and wounded Captain Wallace. Next day, I sent notice to the King of Onitsha, demanding James Ambeefa and Andrew22 be given up to me, that he guarantee safety of all white men in Onitsha; Chiefs to attend a meeting in a factory 26 Oct. These demands were treated with contempt. The military officer in charge of the British gunoat elaborated: “Even while we were consulting, the natives seized several cargoes of the [newly almalgamated trading company].”

Next morning they removed their goods to t he ship, under cover of our guns, then dismantled theirfactories (built of corrugated iron); as they did so, numerous armed natives came down and attacked the laborers, carried off goods. I landed, attacked, dispersed the beach men, then opened fire on upper part of the beach town  Onitsha proper was 3 miles inland, estimated population 10,000. Our small arm men burned that part of the town down. Next morning, having received information that Onitsha Inland had 2,000 fighing men, now joining the beach men, I chose to bombard the Inland Town and marched on it. Used the Gatling gun and rocket tubes. Attacked all 5 villages. Natives made stands but the Gatling gun dispersed.them. Destroyed the town  King’s palace was furthest point , completely destroyed it.23.

Some interpersonal and inter-group interactions bear productive fruit

But all the while during that two-decade interval (1857-1879), the social forces associated with Christianity and the social concomitants of what the British called “legitimate trade” had slowly gained charisma, for example, when mission inoculations saved nearly all of their converts during a smallpox epidemic which ravaged the rest of Onitsha in 187324, and the obvious boons of learning new and economically-valuable skills while obtaining new goods at both mission and trading stations — these experiential changes carried long-term weight in terms of social acceptance of change.

The arrival of French Roman Catholic missionaries in 1885 brought a fairly monumental change in the social system: French, then Irish missionaries introduced very different “ethnicities” to the European mix, and soon thereafter the Anglican CMS responded by removing its Sierra-Leonean mission personnel, replacing them with Englishmen who initially operated with distinctively racist attitudes.

This was a very complex re-mixing of the European side of the linguistic steew, The CMS had followed a policy of slow education of their Igbo-speaking charges, seeking to introduce them to read at first in the “vernacular”, which meant emphasizing translation of the Bible into the Igbo language. They had tended to avoid what they considered “too-rapid” introduction to English, and more generally into “English ways”. This emphasis not only led to a “go slow” attitude toward constructive wesstern Ways, but produced what would prove to be a serious cultural misadventure: an infleuntial English missionary actively designed (and then arranged for wide publication of) a form of Igbo esperanto called “Union Ibo”,the massive failure of which substantially derailed development of future literary writing in the Igbo language..

In contrast, the French-then-Irish Catholic Fathers emphasized instruction in English from the start, laid full stress on drastic sociocultural conversion, and consequently — in light of the very active British colonial presence established in Onitsha in 1900– The Fathers drew large numbers of converts, many of them coaxed away from previous CMS commitments. Many Ndi-Onicha participated in this sociocultural (and personal) tramsformation.25.

With the British formal occupation in 1900, Onitsha indigenes moved into the Christian Colonial world in accelerating numbers Ndi-Onicha became active participants in the British-colonial “pacificiation” of, and then the introduction of Western values and education intto, the populations of their eastern interior. In the early years of the twentieth century, Ndi-Onicha also acted as pioneering entrepreneurs in local economic innovation and development.

3. Ndi-Onicha negotiate Colonial worlds

As persistent commitment to the Mission way of life began to pay off in secular success (mission education led to employment in the mission, in foreign firms, and in various agencies of the now ever-encroaching British Government), increasing numbers of Onitsha indigenous youths living around the central roots of the new culture embraced Christianity, and entered the new colonial occupational stream in large numbers. While some parts of Eastern Igboland were not even satisfactorily “pacifed” by the British until 1910, by that time Onitsha men were accompanying the final British invasion of that terrain as clerks, catechists, and schoolmasters for government and missions. By the 1920s, over half of the non European administrative staff of Onitsha Province was composed of Onitsha men26, although the Onitsha indigenous community comprised only a tiny fraction of the population of this Province. Thus they became the first Igbo-speaking agents of “modernization” throughout Nigeria.

So significant were their contributions that the great scholar of Igbo culture , G.I. Jones, having been assigned the task of assessing the status of chiefs and natural rulers in Eastern Nigeria shortly before Nigerian independence, made this observation in 1957:

By the end of the first World War Onitsha Town had become the most important educational centre in the [Eastern] Region,, a position it has retained and expanded — there are no less than six secondary schools there today. The peole of Onitsha were quick to profit from these advantages and the list of famous sons of Onitsha (this refers to the original community now distinquished as Onitsha Inland town ) is staggering when one considers its small size. [p. 27]

From a slightly later perspective, the political scientist Richard Sklar observed in his book on Nigerian political parties that “it is unlikely that any ethnic group in Nigeria has produced a greater proportion of learned men… than the Onitsha indigenes.”27)

Significantly, however, this proliferation of “learned men” — engaged increasingly in the more national arena — did not extend nearly as much to Onitsha women. Increasingly at home, Onitsha women increased in numbers, to the extent that the Inland Town population became more female (with a minority of retired males maintaiining the pre-existing patriarchal community structure).

“Modernizing Traditionalists”

Meanwhile, many of these same Onitsha “learned men” , who became early fashion models for Igboland, with their preference for Edwardian dress and other indicators of facility in European (via Sierra Leonean) lifestyles28, found themselves repeatedly pulled away from their Christian church and European ways, as many were drawn back toward the stubbornly traditional ways of the “Inland Town.”

Several important situations operated to producethis tendency. First, over the course of half a century, Ndi-Onicha had encountered Christian “modernity” in a variety of forms. They had experienced “native” (repatriated Sierra Leonean) missionaries and traders whose performances had become uneven in terms of their values, and who had been “sacked”, replaced by British Whitemen in a time of what can only be called “racist reform”, following a polcy of emphasizing slow culture change (teaching the “natives” to learn learning to read in the vernacular rather than exposing them to English, etc) Then they had encountered another brand of the Christian faith, Whitemen who did not particularly respect the details of British ways but who actively encouraged learning English and promoting modern medicine (for example), while discouraging any “native” ways. Ndi-Onicha experienced sustained contact with each of these apparently somewhat contradictory religions, were variably attracted to each, and from the early days of their double expoosures, found themselves often moving back and forth (and in-between, or perhaps “beyond” — many Ndi-Onicha by the 1960s embraced various esoteric practices (The Tibetan Book of the Dead was a form of gospel for some at that time). The non-Christian books of Science also became available (though strongly agnostic perspectives remained rare).

While partlyr disaffections from strong Christianaity reflected various disillusionments accompanying secular life, the persistent attraction of what came to be called “Onitsha Native Law and Custom” is a central fact of Onitsha modern history, which in turn relates to the distinctive colonial system evolved for (1) maintaining social order throughout the community and (2) managing Onitsha lands.

After Onitsha became the political headquarters of this part of “the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria” in 1905, the resident colonial officials evolved a dual system of governance. By 1917, the Obi of Onitsha was designated as the “native authority” for the Inland Town, and he sat in an Onitsha Native Court (which also included chiefs representing the Hausa, Yoruba, Nupe, and Igala communities locating in the Waterside, and a “Chief of the Waterside”was represented by various important local men beginning with Isaac Mba, an Onye-Onicha), hearing disputes not requiring the direct application of the superordinate colonial law. (Mba, son of one of the earliest CMS converts, attended Fourah Bay College [Sierra Leone] in the 1880s, became a colonial government clerk in 1902, and later became the first Igbo speaking representative on the Nigerian Legislative Council in 1923).

The chiefs also met together in a “Native Council” to discuss “native affairs” under the guidance of British local authorities. The whole “Township” (including both Inland Town and Waterside) was directly ruled by the British Local Authority, who supervised a substantial administrative staff and managed the considerable revenues amassed from the marketplaces etc. He sat with a “Township Advisory Board” (including the Obi, the Waterside “Chief”, and a few other European officials and local merchants) to discuss issues concerning urban development before making his decisions. All over the region, Native Courts became the main arena for indigenous politics, overseen by European officials who however had to leave everyday management in the hands of Court Clerks and their staffs, and most Court Clerks in the early days were Onitsha men. This policy of placing dispute resolution in the hands of putatively “traditional” (or quasi traditional) authorities both sustained the importance of the Onitsha Obiship and inspired ambitious Onitsha indigenes to value a knowledge of “traditionalist cultural politics”.

Kola land tenure and Onitsha descent groups

A second source of persistent traditionalism arose from colonial land policy. From its beginning, the emergence of Onitsha “Waterside” settlements depended on grants of land both from the Onitsha Obi (who controlled a major wedge of riverbank lands, including that containing the traditional Onitsha Market [otu nkwo, “Nkwor day Waterside”]) and from several Onitsha villages whose reserved farmlands (and fishing places) encompassed parts of the River bank.. Although various treaties were signed with European agents supposedly ceding indigenous interests in these lands Onitsha people never really relinquished their claims to much of this increasingly valuable real estate, and eventually (though sales also occurred from early in this century) many lands became held in a tenure system known as “Kola Tenancy” .

Kola tenancy is a Europeanized variant of the Onitsha version of precolonial Igbo land tenure rules, which enable tenants to gain variable term use rights in a piece of land while the grantors retain their spiritual relationship with the Mother Earth Spirit of that space.

As Onitsha became an increasingly important commercial center, and as immigrants came to settle there in pursuing its economic possibilities, Onitsha descent groups successfully defended what they called treaty based “native owner’s rights” against not only European encroachments but also those of the invading “native foreigners” (including at first mainly Nupe traders, then Yoruba, Hausa, and then, in rising flood, Ndi-Igbo from the Eastern hinterlands). Thus Onitsha patrilineages became valuable real estate holding corporations, obtaining money rent as part of their communal trust.

This means that the grantors retain the right and duty to make annual Sacrifices there to the Mother Earth (ikpuba-ani) , while the lessees must reciprocally present an annual “Kola” [or ife nru ani, “Earth homage”,] the prototypical form being the offering of kola nut as a symbol of moral oath], including a portion of the harvest or some other goods . As Onitsha Waterside developed toward an urban township, this relationship became commercialized, and Onitsha land holding descent groups increasingly employed standard English documentary forms to record such leasing as the urban milieu expanded toward the Inland Town.

As the urban economy monetized, Onitsha indigenes felt increasing pressure to retain their commitments to these traditional ancestor oriented lineages, and since taking the hallowed Ozo title was a pre requisite for a man’s gaining authoritative voice in these corporate groups, much of the money earned by many Onitsha men working in the new modern sectors was ploughed back into this institution (and they found themselves required publicly to venerate their “pagan” Mother Earth and various ancestral shrines).

The consequence was a very strongly dual pattern: many Onitsha indigenes lived as missionary teachers, company clerks, and government administrators in burgeoning cities all over Nigeria (including Onitsha), while when returning home they confronted (and many became in varying degrees co-opted into) an increasingly sophisticated, wealth managing traditional elite29.

A considerabler number of Onitsha men during this period became in effect cultural anthropologists, for example working as teachers etrc in (for example) western Nigeria, while compilling their own accounts of customs there that had various bearings on activities in Onitsha.30

Onitsha “sons” as disoriented youth

The choice of acting as a Christian or instread as a tradition-oriented Onitsha lineage priest or priestess became an existential problem for many Ndi-Onicha, a dilemma whose valences varied from person to person (depending largely on strength of social involvement with relatives living in the Inland Town), but were not overwhelmingly biased systematically toward one side or the other. Many tried to experience the best of both worlds, so that by 1941, educated Onitsha men — most conspicuously the youths — were engendering what would become a perennial antagonism emerging between Ndi-Onicha and the missionary establishment (most intensively, with the Roman Catholic Mission, the group most strongly opposed to any practices that might be labeled “pagan”).

In the Annual Federal Meeting of the Onitsha Improvement Union (OIU, an historically very important organization of educated Onitsha indigenes.)31 of that year (1941), members expressed concern that the Roman Catholic Church Fathers were becoming increasingly antagonistic to “our youths” [this and subsequent references are drawn from the OIU Minute Books.]. Under the heading “Onitsha sons prohibited from attending St. Charles College” [a Roman Catholic teachers-training school in Onitsha], the President of OIU (home branch), P.H. Okolo (prominent in the RCM) , observed that “the attitude of the Mission towards our Onitsha youths seems to point in that direction”, giving what he called the “obvious” reason that

“St. Charles College is an institution for the training of teachers only and any student… is required, on completion of the training, to teach a number of years. A bond to this effect is signed. It was very unfortunate that most of our youths who were trained in the College had resigned from teaching without fulfilling their bonds….”

To these comments the Reverend V.N. Umunna (an Onye-Onicha prominent in the CMS) added that “some youths… are unable to exercise patience in the Mission field because of the inadequacy of salary attaching to it, but only aspire to more lucrative posts in the Government service….”32

From a somewhat different point of view, The OIU recorded the following statement by its President in 1935, discussing what one member called our “lamentable and ‘I don’t care spirited’ boys” [OIU Minutes Sep. 18, 1935] :

“As could be observed our boys today are the victims of wholesale drunkenness thus they are enslaved in one vice or the other that saps their vitality. They become chronic parasites to their wage earning friends and relatives. Whereas the neighboring Ibos fill all odd vacancies in the fields of carpentry, masonry, agriculture, all skilled and unskilled labour. This tendency in the long run will spell disastrous woe to any promising community. It will impoverish the state in all phases of life. So as a remedial measures [sic] it is urged that with the support of the Union and the people of Onitsha at large that our boys be preached to in order to free them from their present catholic state of debauchery.”

A different slant appears in the following exchange during the OIU annual Federal Meeting Minutes for 1941 under the heading “Industry of our youths” [OIU Minutes December 25, 1941.:

“Mr. R.N. Ibeziako spoke that it was the duty of the parents to insist on their children learning trades. Besides Government and Native Administration employments, youths should be encouraged to learn other trades such as fishing, wood selling, repairing, and marketing. He mentioned that sometime ago Government has authorised the training, at its own expense, of boys in mechanic, in tailoring, cycle etc. repairing, and carpentry but he was surprised that not more than 6 Onitsha boys availed themselves of this opportunity for training. The President stated that it is evident that our youths did not want to do any manual work.”

These passages suggest strong shifts in orientation in light both of increasing local incomes reflected in increments of cash being remitted homeward from those employed abroad (an affluence facilitating prolongued idleness on the part of many of those inclined to pursue it) and white collar aspirations rising so sharply above earlier achievements that they rule out less prestigious occupations now defined as “demeaning”. Home residing Onitsha youths judged themselves (and were judged by their elders) by comparison with relatives occupying white collar offices “abroad”, and by these standards manual labor (except for a kind of “gentleman farming” practiced by a very few) had become (as Onitsha people themselves put it) “infra dig”. These stereotypes of Onitsha youths were in essence repeated to me by various Onitsha people in 1960-62, and visual evidence supporting their currency was obvious right outside our Inland-town housing. More remarkably, similar patterns have been reported for the year 2000. These patterns have been long-standing ones.

Back in the early twentieth Century Ndi-nicha market women (explicitly excluding Onitsha men) controlled interlocal trade by themselves traveling to the neighboring towns to the east, and then, as the European-penetrating market system expanded, they intercepted Ndi-Igbo “foreigners” at the “Wire Market” (afia waya) near the eastern edge of Onitsha (a market so-named for the new landmark telecommunications line leading into the eastern interior). However, British colonial authorities in Onitsha insisted on encouraging free trade, and after 1910 Ndi-Igbo immigrants began entering the Waterside market, and began occupying and building homes in the Waterside in increasingly large numbers. Census estimaates indicate that this in-flow very rapidly became a flood.

Whereas the neighboring Ibos fill all odd vacancies …..

[By 1931 (though there had never been an official census), the population of the entire Township was estimated at 18,000, of whom roughly 8,600 were “Waterside Ibos”, 6,100 “Waterside Strangers” (Nupe, Hausa, Yoruba, et al), the occupants of the Inland Town [Ndi-Onicha] reportedly numbering only 3,300.33, and the immigrant Ndi-igbo eventually came to dominate its commerce, swamping and peripheralizing Onitsha women traders (and Onitsha male entrepreneurs as well), partly because of thei more r widespread rural connections. Similar things happened with regard to male labor, a brief period of forced labor by Onitsha male indigenes (early 20th-century) being soon replaced by immigrating swarms of Ndi-Igbo eager for labor opportunities at very low wages. Second, immigrant Ndi-Igbo typically left already overpopulated, relatively infertile, recently subjugated and now-denigrated homelands in favor of an Onitsha which looked by comparison like a cornucopia of socioeconomic (indeed, life-affirming) possibilities.

They also sought the educational opportunities that Ndi-Onicha had long enjoyed in the expanding local schools. Thus, while Ndi-Onicha insisted on more prestigious, non-manual occupations (or failing that, devoted themselves to remittance- and rent-financed “traditional affairs”), the immigrant Ndi-Igbo were willing to try almost anything to make a living, and to scramble for educational openings as well. This pragmatism, a continuation of patterns described elsehwere, became a strong point of symbolic social contrast between these two (increasingly, formally-labeled) ethnicities. Third, Christian missions –especially the RCM — also appear to have developed somewhat different relationships with the bulk of the Eastern hinterlands Ndi-Igbo than they were able to sustain with Ndi-Onicha. As mission schools entered the rural areas, they were able to impose upon their congregations more sharply dualistic worldviews of the Goodness of Western civilization (especially the distinctively Roman Catholic version thereof) and the Evil of “pagan” Igbo life than many Onitsha Indigenes had ever accepted (having witnessed missionary life from its rudest beginnings in the late 1850s, when they had dealt initially with ex-slaves repatriated from overseas, who were not so very different from themselves). For a stark example of the distance between the good-evil dualism observed in Catholic-dominated Nnewi with the sophisticated religious perspectives among Ndi-Onicha, see Chapter 5 in this volume, the page entitled “Religion Matters! From “Pagan Sin” to “Alu”.

By the 1920s many Ndi-Onicha emigrant leaders lived in strongly secularizing environments like Lagos, where antagonism toward overly-assertive Christian authorities was becoming part of a simmering nationalist movement, and personal charisma was becoming attached less to figures like Jesus than to such international race-questioning figures like Marcus Garvey and Herbert Macaulay (a grandson of Bishop Crowther who led radical nationalist politics before the arrival of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Onye-Onicha who later became the most prominent Igbo speaking nationalist). (For discussion of that, see further below here.)

By the 1960s, most of the Ndi-Onicha with whom we discussed questions of values would say something like “We are Christians, but…”, while most educated Ndi-Igbo would make more general affirmations about the positive qualities of “civilization”, and seemed to view their own “native traditions” as things better consigned to the receding past, while often observing that “Ndi-Onicha have taken the wrong side of civilization”, meaning (i gathered) adherence to Western-elitist styles of conspicuous consumption, atheistic tendencies, “hypocritical” indulgence in “traditional activities”,and the like. Among Ndi-Igbo we encountered naive enthusiasms for the idealism of the Christian West that were seldom expressed so one-sidedly in Ndi-Onicha circles (though this contrast was by no means universal).

Regarding types of socially-acceptable occupations, I can do no better than to present the contrast between Ndi-Onicha and Ndi-Igbo as presented to me in 1962 by a young lawyer from Nnewi (a town regarded as exemplary “Igbo”, and politically very strong in both Onitsha and Aba) in response to my question of Why Nnewi people had been so successful in Onitsha:

“Hard work. The Nnewi man is very daring, determined if he wants something, he’ll fight for it till he gets it and he doesn’t like to be distracted by one pleasure or another. For example, when I came back from U.K., you could hardly find a lawyer who would start straight away on his own, most people would like to get some experience with their seniors. [But] I decided to start on my own. You should have seen the house where I now live: nobody but a Nnewi man would have agreed to go there& . I had to carry sand to raise the yard which was usually flooded in the rainy season Two months out of U.K. [The United Kingdom], I was going in shorts and shirt working like a laborer, nobody knew I was a lawyer& . No Onitsha boy would like to undergo these things. First, he wouldn’t like to live in that slum, he’d prefer to hire a storey building, but I didn’t want to pay rent& .. We Nnewi men are more tenacious and not ashamed of any honest job. We are not ashamed to be poor, for we will work hard to get out of our poverty. But the trouble with chaps today is that they haven’t got the money though they pretend they do. A Nnewi man will not do that. If he doesn’t have money for drinks, he won’t give you any.”

Another revealing example may be drawn from an issue of the Nigerian Spokesman newspaper of Maarch 31, 1950, during a discussion with the then-officiating Resident regarding prospective reform of the Onitsha Town Native Autority. A Nnewi representative who attended the meeting, C.C. Mojekwu, reports that “[The] Resident accepted Onitsha people’s proposal as backed by a “majority” of Onitsha people. [The] Resident did not allow us to present our modification or hear it. I could see [Onitsha men] nod at each other and pull their trousers to show their beautiful socks.” He concludes his comments saying “[The] Onitshas were not prepared to come down to earth and talk to “ordinary men.”

Comments like these reveal some of the strong visual contrasts that had become highly significant in the intensively contrasting perpectives of “Onitsha Ibos” and “Non-Onitsha Ibos”: the former’s elaborate concern with matters of “dress style”.

Another striking contrast between the Onitsha Indigenes and their burgeoning immigrant strangers was the difference in geneder proportions. While the Inland Town was strongly female numerically, the immigrant population was overwhelmingly male. Since Ndi-Onicha women overwhelmingly rejected consorting with the immigrants, the latter found it necessary to consort with prostitutes, overwhelmingly imported from “The North” to become reidents of the many “Hotels” that sprang up in Waterside onitsha. And, of course, the absence of female companionship in Onitsha led large numbers of immigrants to return to their homelands as often as possible. The massive weekend out-migration of Ndi-igbo became a regular (and highly visible) traffic jam on the city’s streets.

An interesting 1948 Administrative Report

In 1948, Government hatched a plan to reorganize Onitsha Division. An Administrative officer presented the following “1948 Onitsha Division Reorganization Report”:34

“In this Division, there are definite belts of cultural and economic life:

The Northern or backward belt;
The Middle or suburban belt;
The Southern or rural belt.”

[To elaborate:]
1) The Northern or backward belt

400 Square miles of “fertile riverain peoples, mostly descendants of Idda people, now partly Iboized and called Mbama milis.” [RNH: the assumption of these groups being “mostly Idah people” is a dubious one.] Water is life and home; “yams pride of the east, and rice flourishes.” Backward: “little intrusion of modern ideas, little incentive to progress”. But this now puts them in danger: “already a large percentage of the Anam yam harvest is in the hands of Onitsha big businessmen and fishing rights overt many of the richest pools left by the receding Niger are vested by allegedly legal agreements in the grip of the great men of the city”.

There are no roads in this area, [since] “for four months of the year a launch can reach to top of the Anambra and Umerum lake. People are friendly, hospitable, but “we will not follow whitemen about because we have chop.” (An Udi man “tried to exert his sway” in one area but failed. [Some charming but dismissive comments follow.].

[Editorial remarks (RNH): This describes the vast area of floodplain between the Niger and Anambra river drainages. I present an example of the latter in this volume, entitled “Visit to Umerum” (see Chapter 2). The allusions here to “Onitsha big businessmen” and “great men of the city” are clearly very significant: sophisticated, substantial entrepreneurs are accused of exploiting an uneducated, monetarily poor populace who occupy very fertile lands. In 1942 a reported example of this “exploitation by great men of the city” refered specifically to an Onisha man — indeed, a highly respected minister — P.H. Okolo,– who had made a land deal with some people of Anam., anmd whom the Colonial authorities chastised for this form of aggression. ]

2. The Middle or suburban belt:

This is “the hinterlands of Onitsha town from Umerum River to Idemili River, bisected by Onitsha-Enugu road”, growing sophistication here (“suburbs”).
Upper Section (north of the road):

high population but land fertile and sufficient — Awka men go to farm, [and] they have large tracts of land, leased annually to strangers; the indigenes “work little and live comfortably off rents and sale of seed yams to Onitsha Town. But the men are greedy, and they “want more money, and they get it through their women, [who] trek daily to Onitsha with petty petty chop, return to the rural markets with consumers goods.”

[RNH: these curious comments say nothing about Awka technical and economic specializations in metallurgy, etc. It’s a very dismissive account of a people known for their itinerant history and technological skills. ]

This is very different [from the Upper] though also “suburban”; they have no soil hence the men work harder than anywhere else in the Division, because they must work to provide food. (Their women trade.) “[Erosion processes of the].Idemili River has ruined the land, [and] the soil cannot be reclaimed here” [and consequently (?)] there are no kings here, and few great landlords.” [RNH: Obviously, the implication regarding the former absence is that, since Kingship in the model of either Ndi-Nri or of Ndi-Onicha may soon be sought (or this is already underway in some areas here), but in this immediate locale nobody has enough wealth to actively pursue these newly-activated potentialities. Regarding the latter, of course this implies nobody with money to invest is interested in these lands.]

Native Administration in the Southern Section: this has been effective, but the times are changing; “in the north, kings and titles remain prerequisite for authority,” [while] In Idemili, title is not that important, “[The] system [is] more concilliar due to [the] struggle to live — social convetions [are] stronger and more democratic; communal laws [have] exerted greater influence over one’s life.”

Communications are “good everywhere here”: “lorries [go] regularly from Onitsha to Otuocha [on the Anambra, twin town to Aguleri]. “Most towns have a school — mainly RCM — it has won the battle with the CMS.”

“Due to Government support, title-taking has become Kingship: Idigo [of Aguleri], Amobi [of Ogidi]. [The] Unions are interested, NCNC [has] formed at Aguleri and the masses want, not cattle or wives, but money.”

[RNH: This presumably alludes in part to an increasing tendency for NdiOnicha lawyers to export kingship titles to the rural areas. Monetizaiton of these rural places, and a rise in national politics as well — the NCNC reference.]
Southern Section: [contains the Idemili drainage, and includes the locus of Nnewi]

This is very different [from the Upper] though also “suburban”; they have no soil hence the men work harder than anywhere else in the Division, because they must work to provide food. (Their women trade.) “[Erosion processes of the].Idemili River has ruined the land, [and] the soil cannot be reclaimed here” [and consequently (?)] there are no kings here, and few great landlords.” [RNH: Obviously, the implication regarding the former absence is that, since Kingship in the model of either Ndi-Nri or of Ndi-Onicha may soon be sought (or this is already underway in some areas here), but in this immediate locale nobody has enough wealth to actively pursue these newly-activated potentialities. Regarding the latter, of course this implies nobody with money to invest is interested in these lands.]

Native Administration in the Southern Section:this has been effective, but the times are changing; “in the north, kings and titles remain prerequisite for authority,” [while] In Idemili, title is not that important, “[The] system [is] more concilliar due to [the] struggle to live — social convetions [are] stronger and more democratic; communal laws [have] exerted greater influence over one’s life.”

3) t he Southern or Rural belt:

“The growing desert of the Idemilli has made a profitless no-man’s land between suburbia and the rural masses of N[n]ewi and the South. The South is the oil palm area” where women do most of the work while men argue and ride bicycles”; where “Progressive Unions are more vociferous and parochial and where Orizus [RNH: This is a reference to Prince Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor Orizu (1915 1999) of Nnewi, who became very prominent as a Senator in the early Independence of Nigeria], police sergeants and retired CMS pastors form the cultured and leisure classes.”

“‘Rural” here does not mean ‘farmer’ or ‘yokel’ — “there are few farmers in N[n]ewi and no Yokels. Instead, they are lorry owners and middlemen. But they are not urbanized: they dislike Onitsha and Onitshas and they would be isolationists if they could.” But they must be rural, for it is the land and trees that finances their livelihood, [their] missions, and sends their sons to America, and there is no dependence on Onitsha town.”

[RNH: Another odd paragraph summary, but it does point attention to “lorry owners and middlemen” The discussion points snarkily toward the entrepreneurs of Nnewi and vicinity.]

East of Nnewi” is the Olu Ozizo solitude: a flashback to the Anambra: fish-minded people living on islands. But they are progressive; [they have] rich, fertile land; [their] young men have returned educated and [now] want to turn fertility in[to] cash.”

“[The] Southern Belt too has acquired Obi’s, in unwilling flattery to Onitsha Town. Obis [are now] created in Nnewi.”

“Nnewi has long [been] regarded as a separate administrative system; under a[n] ADO [Assistant District Officer], hence they leaned on him; elders, Obis etc. became [a] privileged clique who saw their main duty [as] to criticize Government — and so [it’s] not surprising they are known as ‘hard to handle'”. [The] Courts here are more corrupt than elsewhere, [their] authority [is] used with insolence.”

[Discussion of recommendations for change follow this brief “ethnographic” outline .]

[RNH: This curious document highlights (while dancing around it) the rising importance of “big businessmen”, alluding at one point to the efforts of an Onitsha indigene to buy up valuable Anambra floodplain lands from ignorant but needy local people, but looking more broadly at groups of more active innovation: “Nnewi government critics”, “lorry owners and middlemen”, without openly recognizing the increasing importance of Nnewi (and nearby other) businessmen and the clustering of their activities from bases inside Onitsha (except on weekends, when “all of them depart to their hometowns”, a pattern of long standing).

This very snarky and rather confusing account points however at the ferment Ndi-Onicha (and otgher Onitsha businessmen) were involved with in these parts of the Eastern Region in the late ’40s: increasing numbers of “big Businessmen”, “lorry owners” and “great men of the city” who take over control of fertile rural lands from less educated people; men who “dislike Onitsha” but go to work there in order to make more profits. It’s a dispiriting picture the AO has painted, but it points suggestively to the economic (and political) turmoil of the late colonial period: opportunistic and creative entrepreneurs from Nnewi, Awka, and other Igbo-speaking communities were spreading their activities widely; they were “out of control,” viewing all social situations in terms of their opportunities for “building businesses”.

4. The Coming of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the “Transformer”

Now we must step back a bit in time and take account of a major change in the Colonial Era situation (the contents of which we have barely sketched so far, and whose fine details we will largely omit — it has been well-covered elsewhere).35 I will focus around The Nigerian Spokesman , the primary local newspaper we encountered in Onitsha in 1961-62, and which occupied a strong historical position in Onitsha social life, dating from its inception in 1943 as one arm of the nationalist politics pursued by the man who soon became the Onitsha people’s internationally most famous native son, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, “Zik”   as he became known throughout Nigeria and beyond.

In 1934 Onitsha people received a profound shock to their identity when their native son Nnamdi Azikiwe (“Zik”) returned to Onitsha after 9 years in the United States, having become the first Igbo-speaking person to obtain an advanced university degree.36 He visited Onitsha briefly in November 1934, being received by “a gargantuan crowd” led by the prominent men who formed the core of the Onitsha Improvement Union (home branch), who presented him with an “Address of Welcome” which began with the words “Our worthy son of Iboland  Africa”. ( This Repor tis taken from My Odyssey pp. 233-38. Zik’s wording is somewhat problematic in these passages, since the formal constituting of Onitsha Improvement Union Home Branch apparently did not occur until March 1935, but there is no reason to doubt that the event occurred.)

By that time, however, Zik had been refused a teaching appointment at King’s College, Lagos, and therefore he chose to accept a position as Editor of The African Morning Post in Accra (in what was then part of The Gold Coast), where he soon radicalized West African journalism. Having been exposed to life in America’s segregated Negro colleges, and to th eharsh social contexts of drastic racial discrimination (and the “race riots” and lynchings of 1920s America), he had also imbibed the militant values of the “Negro Renaissance” press and the “Black Nationalism” of Marcus Garvey ,as well as the readings of Karl Marx and many other social thinkers,, and he brought a plethora of new ideas and methods of protest to the West African political scene. His three years of newspaper editorship in the Gold Coast provided him both experience in tailoring radical criticism of colonialist regimes to the limits of legality, and a sense of the requisites for making indigenous African journalism a commercial success, which served him well when in 1937 he returned to Nigeria to found the West African Pilot and through this daily newspaper to “transform Nigerian political resistance into a strong nationalist movement”.37

The West African Pilot

In 1937 Zik presented his main newspaper creation, the Lagos-based West African Pilot, to an expanding reading public in that politically-simmering coastal city, and during the 1940’s (especially following the end of World War II), Zik’s writings in the Pilot identified him as the greatest political spokesman of “the Ibo man”, i.e. speakers of the Igbo language.38

Zik’s early writings in the West African Pilot (hereafter, “WAP”) may be discerned in this example from 1942 in his regular column, “Inside Stuff by Zi,k”, under the heading “The Neglected Ibo”:


I am sure that the nonIbo element among my readers will be broadminded enough to allow me to use this column, today, to defend the escutcheon of the much neglected Ibo, particularly in the realm of Nigerian politics.
Whatever I may write is not to be deemed either offensive against any other tribe or at the expense of any other person.
Indeed, an objective approach to the study of the status of the Ibospeaking peoples in the social evolution of Nigeria is now necessary, if the governance of this country must attain to its ideal and make life worthwhile for the greatest good of the greatest number.
It is most unfortunate that… in most official publications, State Papers, gubernatorial addresses, and statements of public officers, the Ibo tribe was virtually misrepresented, due to an amazing ignorance of the origins, nature, and functions of Ibo ethnography.
Pseudoscientific statements were published to the effect that the Ibo people were “primitive” in their societal organization, that they had no political capacity, and that they were “backward” compared with other “enlightened” and “advanced” Nigerian tribes.
With the passing of the years, the spirit of the Ibo began to assert itself, the soul of the Ibo began to rebel against this species of man’s inhumanity to man, and it became clear that the Ibo is a dynamic tribe that has its share to play in the future destiny of Africa….

Thanks to many sources, the mist of ignorance is fastly disappearing before the rays of the sun of knowledge…. To have an unbiased and objective view of the people, it is wise that the seeker after the truth should consult the following publications, among others:

  1. R.C. Maugham, “Native Races of Africa”  a series of articles in the “West African Review” where he postulates the thesis that the Ibo was among the most mentally vigorous and physically dynamic tribes on the whole African continent.
  2. Dr. C.K. Meek in his “Law and Authority in a Nigerian Tribe” submits the view that the Ibo peoples are exceptionally adaptable and were “one of the largest and most progressive tribes in Africa”.
    In Chapter XIV of his book, this anthropologist adduces evidence to show that… the Ibo… are essentially democratic in their political system.
    Said he: “It is incumbent, therefore, on the Government to recognize and utilize fully this basic institution and to avoid the mistake of regarding any Ibo community as a mere collection of individuals.”

The impact of an essay of this kind at the time in question must have been staggering. The writer uses the work of Nigeria’s own colonial officials to attack the Colonial government where it hurts: their current operating policies (based on very paternalistic, utterly nondemocratic principles).

This text (an entry in an opinion column regularly run by Zik for years on the second page of the Newspaper alongside its regular “Editorial” column) is accompanied in this instance by an editorial calling for more democratic (i.e., larger, including elective) representation of the “Ibo” (i.e. the Ndi-gbo, speakers of that language) in the Legislative Council of Nigeria  the main elective body of that Colonial period. Thus Zik underlines his editorial call for “progress” first by identifying democracy as a “traditional” feature of “Ibo” life, calling attention to its significance for an “Ibo community”, and second, he repeatedly applies the standards of “objective social science” to politicallyrelevant domains.

Recipient of advanced degrees from American universities, Zik consistently used these credentials to justify the authority of his newspapers in the grounds of their grasping universal “Truths”. This stance gave his newspapers a highly effective, militantly Modernist cast from their earliest days (and its importance explains in part why Helen and I were so warmly received by many local admirers of Zik when we arrived in Onitsha in 1960: like him, we were “American Anthropologists”  intellectual cousins, perhaps even his “offspring”). Zik’s father had worked for a time for the remarkably progressive early ethnographer, Major A.G. Leonard. This paternal connection likely influenced his decision to study anthropology in the United States.

This militant modernism contains its own cultural dualism, in the sense that its strong form of scientific Realism tends to lead its proponents to regard opposing views as ignorance, error, or (if these be ruled out) deception — while clothing one’s own interests in a clean gown of impersonal, “objective” Science.

Reading some of Zik’s book-length studies from the perspective of the 21st Century gives one occasionally a sense of “deja-vue”, for example sometimes his arguments seem to foreshadow the political theories later labelled as World-System Theory. He anchors his perspectives in global frameworks, a humanistic view. And in his business management policies at this time, he employs a notably inter-ethnic approach, hiring Yoruba and individuals from other ethnic groups to help run his operations.

At the same time,, Zik’s newspaper kept close contact with his “Home Town” of Onitsha. I put “home town” in quotation marks because in fact Zik was born in the North of Nigeria, and his first language was Hausa. Alarmed at his loss of identities, His father sent him home as a child to Onitsha, where he did indeed bond with that massive wealth of relatives. The West African Pilot carried frequent columns on the subject of Onitsha activities, and throughout his career Zik gave considerable preference to Ndi-Onicha in his choices of workers and supporters.

From the beginning of his Nigerian journalism, Zik’s opponents accused him of being “power mad”, refusing to work with others collegially, possessing a “megalomaniac” ambition to dominate any political movement in which he became involved. (Some even claimed he was himself the source of “tribalism” in Nigeria, in that he stereotypically elevated some essence of the “Ibo man” and thus generated an inter-ethnic “press war” which did indeed become a perennial feature of Nigerian politics. But the Yoruba leaders for example were already well on the way toward making sharp ethnic discriminations, in any case.). Some of his followers on the other hand tended to deify him as the Holder of Truth (and thus of Righteousness), which alarmed all who did not share this particular “deification”.

These accusations regarding his personal grandiosity were not without merit. I recall a passage, I think in My Oddysey, where Zik observed that a comet was seen streaking through the sky exactly at the time of his birth. More gernerally, he complletely appropriated for his own purposes various traditionally Christian religious symbols, for example, from his Renascent Africa comes this homily (worthy of an invested cleric): “Blessed are the youth, for theirs is the earth and all therein.”
“Blessed are the mentally alert, for theirs is the heritage of a society which calls a spade a spade.”
“Blessed are the evangelists of the New Africa, who go from place to place, debating with the Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees of the Old Africa‚.”
“Blessed are the youth of Renascent Africa, who refuse to be intimidated, browbeaten, cowed, mocked, mobbed by the Old Africa, for they shall grow stronger and sounder in spirit and in body.”

Having dispensed benevolent homilies, the Master then hands out some words of wrath:
“Woe unto you, evangelists of the Old Africa! You do the bidding of the Old Order‚ You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
“Woe unto you, hypocrites who halfheartedly believe in the New Africa, whilst your deeds reveal you as part and parcel of the Old Africa. You are doomed to a bathyspherical grave.”

Throughout his writings, Zik maintained a consisten undercurrent of criticism of Roman Catholics (he tells of how his father pulled him away from that faith into firm support of the CMS), and at one point he chides the leaders of one convent in the Lagos area for their reported equating of reading the West Africcan Pilot with an act of “mortal sin”. (His ears reach out to very distant corners of the realm.) He defends teachers at RCM schools against unilateral actions of their supervisors; accuses Catholics of contradicting their preachings in their own behavior (“forgive us our trespasses”); headlines reported Vatican conflict with workers; and blithely parallels the course of his own life with aspects attributed to Jesus. He does not “back down” in the face of criticisms, but the strength of his opinions does generate strong reactions from committed Roman Catholics. This would follow him when he eventually chose to enter the political fray in what became the Eastern Region of Nigeria.

The Nigerian Spokesman

In 1943, Zik expanded his journalistic reach from the political center of Lagos to the peripheries, including into his own hometown of Onitsha, by establishing the Nigerian Spokesman, which was published in Onitsha Waterside. From its beginnings as one of Zik’s Provincial Daily newspapers, the Spokesman served to bring Zik’s (and from 1945, his political party’s, the NCNC’s) anti-colonial, “democratic” perspective immediately into this largest urban base of the Igbo-speaking people, simultaneously stimulating heightened awareness of their shared ethnicity (while also opening more sources of ethnic opposition to them).

As I have already observed, Zik — in Lagos, in the Spokesmen and elsewhere — employed numberout Yoruba and members of other ethnic groups in his journals. He made a serious effort to cross ethnic boundaries in this regard. In the March 1, 192 edition of the Spokesman, a brief history of its editorship lists four Yorubas and one man from Aronduizuogu and Awka.

During the late 1940s and early ’50s, such Spokesman features as the voice of “Spitfire” (a name sugesting the potency of a famous World War II Bitisih fighter aicraft) regularly lambasted the evils of British Colonialism, while conveying the views and actions of Lagos nationalists into The Onitsha scene.

For example, In the October 1, 1951 issue,, below a photograph of Zik, there appear two smaaller images, with the question: “Hitler, Mussolini Did they live and die as Catholics? The accompanying Editorial. under the heading “Hitler and Catholic Empire”: states that Hitler, “who attempted to rule the world by destroying humanity”, was a ‘profound catholic’ until his death. His ally, Benito Mussolini, also a Catholic; “in one of our recent editorials we said that Hitler attempted to expand Roman Catholicism through the Nazi conquest with Mussolini backed by the Vatican.” When in 1941 Hitler “stabbed Russia” with whom he had a nonaggressive pact, this was immediately after his historic visit to Rome. Did the Pope ever criticize Hitler’s brutalities?

This is pretty hostile stuff. Essays like these eventually led to the creation of a local Onitsha opposiiton newspaper, New Africa, which first appeared in Enugu in late 1950 then moved to Onitsha in early 1951. It presented a strongly pro-Roman Catholic view from the outset, and its diverse proponents confronted him when he moved his political center to Onitsha in 1952, contested and won the Regional (“Eastern House of Assembly”) Elections there, he found himself — becoming Chief Minister, then later Premier of the Eastern Region when it became a federating unit in 1954 — facing a very complex arena of political struggles, no small number of participants in which were devout roman Catholics.

Zik became known as the greatest political spokesman of “the Ibo man”  speakers of the Igbo language — – in part despite his repeated efforts to present himself much more universalistically, primarily as an African), and the political party he co-created, the NCNC (Originally the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons; after 1959, the National Council of Nigerian Citizens), served as the prime political vehicle of Igbo-speaking people in the struggle for Nigerian Independence (in part despite proclaiming it was not a “tribalistic” agency but rather a universalistic one opposing “man’s inhumanity to man”).

But in his home town of Oniitsha, where he might have presumed to have secure support, he found a local political arena in which a large number of the populace defined themselves as “Non-Onitsha”, while leaders of the indigenous Onitsha people were claiming that “We are not Ibos”.

The “Non-Onitsha Ibos” become an Onitsha Cohort

In the May 12, 1939 issue of the West African Pilot,, a reader complains about “some nonOnitsha elements sojourning in Onitsha whereby they pay taxes in their own towns and evade it in Onitsha which is the land that gives them subsistence.”

To understand the implications of this comment, it’s convenient to look at an earlier event, namely the time when Ndi-Onicha first established their “home union” of an organization that began much ealier in Lagos, called at first a “Friendly Society” and then (as this kind of organizaiton bedame more widely popular in Lagos), it became the Onitsha Improvement Union. Back home in Onitsha, the Onitsha people established their “home branch” in 1935.

At their inaugural meeting, when members saw the design for “the certificate to be printed for the Union.” In response to a member’s request for the meaning of the traditional Onitsha ceremonial sword (Abani) and spear staff (Ogbanchi) represented as a crossed pair on the design,

 “The president explained that the two imply the well known maxim Igbo Enweze (the short form of Igbo enwegh eze, “The Igbo have no King”). The secretary supplemented this by saying that the two are emblems of authority– originally the ndichie (Chiefs) were warriors of the king…. In view of their position they hold….

((OIU home branch minute books 1935))

This certificate explicitly designates an exclusion: Onitsha people “have a king”, while “the Ndi -igbo do not”. From its inception, the Onitsha people in Onitsha excluded people they designated as Ndi-igbo from membership in this Home Branch. And this exclusion became normative for other branches of the Onitsha Improvement Union.

Exploring the OIU Home Branch Minute books from 1937, one finds entries reporting a number of apparently quite congenial interactions between the OIU and the “Ibo Tribe Union” (a wider-connecting “improvement-Union” type of organization), in which the OIU was at that time represented. However, as the OIU now began to achieve effective participation of “educated elements” from the Inland Town in the Local Government, it came into intensifying conflict with the growing (and also substantially educated) community of other Igbo speakers.

On October 30, the minutes refer to a “damnable article contributed by a Non Onitsha” on the matter of Onitsha Market stalls. This constitutes the first use of this identity-label in the Union’s records (presaging the long-lived political identity of “Non-Onitsha Ibos” in local Onitsha politics coming later). The meeting of December 3 also reported the views of members of the OIU branch in Kano, who emphasized that the appellation given to Obi Okosi on the OIU Almanac should include the word “Eze”, in order “to show a line of distinction between us and Ibos.”

This subject will be pursued further later. Here we first explore in deeper detail the emergence of the Onitsha Improvement Union, the subject of the next page of this chapter.

  1. Henderson 1972 covered these diversities in considerable detail, and some more details will appear elsewhere in this volume. Kopytoff 1987 elaborates on this point for Subsaharan Africa as a whole. []
  2. In Henderson 1972: 86, 98, 100, 294, 312-313, 502, I described some aspects of the religious symbolism that Ndi-Onicha associated with this regionally pivotal marketplace. []
  3. Crowther & Taylor 1959:32 33, 428 29. See also Henderson 1972:499 502 []
  4. See the West Equatorial AfricaDiocesan M agazine June 1913 for a report. []
  5. We were unable to clearly delineate these boundaries during our research in Onitsha. []
  6. Allen 1848:I:268 271; Crowther 1855:180 81; FO2 23: MacGregor Laird’s Memorandum 4 December 1856, Baikie Report 28 Sep. 1857; Crowther & Taylor 1859: vii viii, 37,40, 259; CMS Report 1859 60:57.1 []
  7. Baker 1960 attributes a substantial part of the gap to willful destruction/prevention of record-keeping by George Goldie Taubman, founder of the amalgamated Niger firms that eventually became the Royal Niger Company. He apparently oversaw the massive destruction of RNC records before he retired. []
  8. Crowther and Taylor 1859:251 2, 258 59, 268, 274 5, 276 9, 283 []
  9. Ibid., 247, 265, 267 70, 276 80, 284, 288 9, 373 []
  10. Ibid. 296 7, 331 []
  11. Ibid. 329 30, 334 5, 337 8, 340 41, 353, 362, 364 []
  12. 252- 3). []
  13. Ibid. 273, 281 4, 288 9, 291 2, 312 15, 331 []
  14. Ibid. 262 3, 315, 344 46, 354 56, 372 []
  15. Ibid. 336, 355 56, 367, 271-72 []
  16. See Ekejiuba 1966 for an account of one of these “Merchant Queens”. []
  17. File: FO88 1/3610:1877; CA3/04:Treaty of 1877. []
  18. CA3/023 CMS London []
  19. CMS N 3/1 []
  20. Asked for a rationale, the standard reply at the time was “Animals bear two (or more), humans only one.” []
  21. Elsewhere the report notes that IT George said Palmer had 24 slaves, Astrope 40, Ogoo 50. Most were from higher up river, a few from “Eboe” (Ndi-igbo) country. []
  22. see references to these two men in the paragraphs above []
  23. Great Britain, Foreign Office:1888:8 contains accounts of this event. See also Ekechi 1971 []
  24. Crowther, S.A. letter 1874:154 5 CMINtelligencer vol X []
  25. See Ekechi 1971 for an excellent account of the missionization of Igboland up to 1914 []
  26. Nigerian National Archives, Enugu [1926] []
  27. (Sklar 1963:152 []
  28. The influence of local Sierra Leonean Creole converts to the culture of the early Onitsha educated elite is a subject worthy of further pursuit. []
  29. See Henderson 1966:375 8 for additional materials on Onitsha “modernization” during the colonial era. []
  30. Onuora Nzekwu was a distinguished example of these in the 1960s and later, writing for Nigeria Magazine as well as writing his own publicaitons. []
  31. See, in Chapter Two of this volume, the page “Cultural Politics and the OIU. []
  32. Both P.H. Okolo (then Headmaster of the Holy Trinity [RCM] School in Onitsha, eventually awarded the British honorium of an M.B.E.) and Reverend Umunna (eventually a CMS Archdeacon) are accorded chapters in Chike Akosa’s (1986) Heroes and Heroines of Onitsha (pp. 90-101) Both were pioneer advocates for Christianity in Igboland (and both became devoted custodians and preservers of Onitsha tradition as well). []
  33. 11679, vol. 9: OPAR 193] []
  34. Henderson Archives (Onitsha), Administrative Documents 1946-49, part “See also 37172….” []
  35. Sklar 1963; Okeke 2010 []
  36. MA in Anthropology, MSc in Political Science, the University of Pennsylvania. Source: My Odyssey p. 156-57). []
  37. Coleman 1958: 220-24. []
  38. This communicative “location” is where the real roots of “an Igbo Nation” lie, not in the later imaginings of Adiele Afigbo, who identified the base in an indefinitely ancient “territorially-bounded group who spoke [an ancestral form of] Igbo”. []
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