Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

European-organized Intrusions

The Landers Route in 1830(detail), Map in Hallett, ed., 1965
The Landers route down the Niger in 1830 (detail), Map in Hallett, ed., 1965

Introductory note:  on this page, I provide sketches of the pre-colonial explorations of Onitsha and vicinity by various European intruders.  These are sketches, not intended to replace the much more detailed and elaborate studies made by others.  For example,, Ekechi, F.K., 1971, Missionary Enterprise and Rivalry in Igboland 1857-1914,London: Frank Cass, provided an excellent account of the subject titled in his book.  His (and others’) work should be consulted for much fuller details.  Mine are sketches, no more than that.

The immediate vicinity of Onitsha first appeared on the European historical stage when the Landers brothers, Richard and John, rode canoes down the Niger River in 1830 to discover for Europeans the river’s outlets to the sea (and therefore the route by which European merchant interests could directly penetrate the West African interior). This intrepid and very resilient pair did not encounter Onitsha directly, nor even hear its name, but their journal provided an indispensable window into  lives of riverain people during this time, so we examine it fairly closely here.1

1. The Landers Brothers’ account of 1830


The survival of the two brothers during  this lap of their journey was due in part to the fact that, having floated downstream from the vicinity of Idah (the ancient Igala capital city, which they passed undetected, is marked in the map at right by the black circle labeled “Attah”, below the Niger-Benue confluence at upper right on the map), they stopped at a village called “Damoogo” (called by later explorers “Adamugu”), where they first met a “messenger from the chief of Bonny”, through whom they were able to converse with the residents because one man of the Landers’ party was a son of “King Pepper”, one of the great traders of Bonny Town in the Niger Delta.2

The chief of Adamugu, newly accompanied by a “Nouffie [Nupe] Mallam”, showed the brothers great hospitality and arranged to send them off with a second canoe along with some of his own people as escorts to guard the travelers’ security.3

On November 5th, 1830, Richard set out from this village of Adamugu with his African assistants “in the old canoe, which contained the whole of our luggage”, and ahead of his brother John who took the new canoe. Richard passed a small river entering the Niger from the east (surely the Anambra), and then observed on the right (western) bank of the Niger “a large market, which I was informed is Kirree” (surely at or near the location of Asaba), where a “great number” of very large canoes were parked, and then, having passed this place, he saw4

about fifty canoes before us, coming up the river. They appeared to be very large and full of men, and the appearance of them at a distance was very pleasing. They had each three long bamboo canes, with flags flying from them…. As we approached each other I observed the British Union flag in several, while others, which were white, had figures of a man’s leg, chairs, tables, decanters, glasses, and all kinds of such devices. The people in them, who were very numerous, were dressed in European clothing, with the exception of trousers. I felt quite overjoyed by the sight of these people, more particularly so when I saw our flag and European apparel among them, and congratulated myself that they were from the sea-coast.”

His “fond anticipations” were however quickly dashed as one of the canoe teams accosted him, surprised him as he sought to resist, “sprung on me and forced the gun from my hands. My jacket and shoes were as quickly plundered from me….”5  For the moment he and his aides fought off further assault, then, since “Our canoe having been so completely relieved of her cargo”, they pursued the culprit canoe toward the Kirree Market to regain their lost goods, when “…some people from a large canoe, which I found afterwards belonged to the New Calebar river” hailed them in English: “Holloa, white man, you French, you English?” Richard responded “Yes, English”, and the Calabar canoe team quickly hauled him aboard, “treated me with much kindness”, gave him a glass of rum, and escorted him toward Kirree.6

Shortly prior to this moment Richard’s brother John, now coming downstream in the new canoe, accompanied by people from Adamugu , approached the Kirree market:

“Nothing could exceed my surprise, on approaching the market, to observe, as I thought, large European flags, affixed to poles, and waving over almost every canoe that was there. On a closer examination I discovered them to be imitations only, though they were executed with uncommon skill and neatness. British colours apparently were the most prevalent…. [He also found that] the market-people were clad in European apparel, though with the odd fancy which is remarkable among Indians, who have any intercourse with Europeans, none of them were dressed in a complete suit of clothes. One wore a hat only, with a Manchester cotton tied round his waist, another a shirt, another a jacket, etc. As all natives, with the exception of kings, are forbidden by law to wear trousers, a common pocket handkerchief was generally substituted for that article of dress…. Many of the men had a smattering of the English and French tongues.”7

“Eboe canoe” (Hallett p. 244)

Pulling out into the river again, he saw more “canoes of amazing size” coming upriver, and his team proceeded to try to “pass in the midst of them” (having observed his brother in one of the “squadrons”):

“When we drew nearer, it was apparent that these were all war-canoes, of prodigious dimensions; immense flags of various colours were displayed in them, a six-pounder (cannon) was lashed to the bow of each; and they were filled with women, and children, and armed men, whose weapons were in their hands. Such was their size, that each of them was paddled by nearly forty people.”8

Pursued by some of these canoes, John and his Adamugu supporters were thrown overboard as the war-canoes dashed into and capsised their canoe, which sank to the bottom. John was forcibly pulled out of the water into one of these war-canoes, and then

“On account of the eagerness and anxiety with which every one endeavoured to get near us in order to share the expected plunder, and the confusion which prevailed in consequence, many of the war-canoes clashed against each other with such violence, that three or four of them were upset at one time…. Men, women, and children, clinging to their floating property, were struggling in the river, and screaming and crying out… to be saved from drowning. Those that were more fortunate, were beating their countrymen off from getting into their canoes, by striking their heads and hands with paddles, as they laid hold of the sides and nearly upset them.”9

Richard and John were then taken in a group of canoes “to a small sand island in the river, at a short distance from the market…. In a short time the Damuggoo [Adamugu] people [accompanying the Landers] made their appearance, and also the chief of Bonny’s messenger”, and a line of war-canoes then paddled to the Kirree marketplace, where “we were informed that a palaver would be held….10

The Landers were made to wait in the burning sun in their canoes, but

“A person in a Mahomedan dress, who we learnt afterwards was a native of a place near Funda [the Igbirra city-state then under heavy pressure from the Moslem Fulani], came to us and endeavoured to cheer us, by saying that our heart must not be sore — that at the palaver which would be held, we had plenty of friends to speak for us. That all the people in the Mahomedan dresses who had come from Funda to attend the market, were our friends, besides a great number of females, who were well dressed in silk of different colours. These women wore large ivory anklets of about four or five pounds weight, and bracelets of the same material, but not so large.11  About twenty canoes full of Damuggoo people had arrived from the various towns near Damugoo… having heard how we had been treated, also became our friends….  Some of the market-women came down to our canoe, and looked at us with much concern and pity… and in a few minutes afterward returned, bringing with them a bunch of plantains and two cocoa-nuts.”12

After a search of all the canoes recovered some of their stolen goods, “We were now invited by the Mallams to land, and told to look at our goods and see if they were all there.” Richard took note of what was lost (most of their valuables) and what was saved (only two boxes and a carpet bag which still held a few pieces of their clothing). whereupon “the sound of screams and the clashing of arms reached the spot; and the multitude… drew their swords”, so the Landers retreated to canoes13:

“The origin of all this was a desire for more plunder on the part of the Eboe peope. Seeing the few things of ours…which had been taken from their canoes, they made a rush to the place to recover them. The natives, who were Kirree people, stood ready for them, armed with swords, daggers, and guns;”14

So the “Eboe” [people from Aboh] pillagers backed away, but later in the day the Landers were again called to shore (where “deliberation and discussion” had continued), and finally they received the resolution that was the outcome of this “palaver”:15

‘That… Those of our things which had been saved from the water should be restored to us, and the person that had first commenced the attack on my brother should lose his head, as a just retribution for his offence, having acted without his chief’s permission; that with regard to us, we must consider ourselves as prisoners, and consent to be conducted on the following morning to Obie, king of the Eboe country, before whom we should undergo an examination, and whose will and pleasure concerning our persons would then be explained.”

The  A.B. Becher map of 1832 presented above shows the further destinations  of the brothers downriver to Aboh [“Eboe”] and later to Brass (where they finally gained a safe berth on an English ship).

To continue the Landers’ narrative (an extraordinarily vivid and informative one, as must be obvious from what has been presented here) beyond this point would deflect us  from our primary aims in this report. The general character of the riverain  market exchange at “Kirree” has been described in detail by Henderson16, and was outlined earlier by Boston17, but the material just given suggests some further points worth emphasizing. As later research has shown, the major marketplace for trading in slaves was held at this time in midriver (and on the sandbanks; the marketplace was called Ubom, “Sandbank”, by Ndi-Onicha), and was dominated by two groups: Igala people (“Attah” to the Landers) from the north, meeting Aboh people (“Eboe” to the Landers) from the south, the political boundary between them lying at “Kirree” (and therefore in the river location exactly beside Onitsha). (Each of these two dominant riverain communities (Igala and Aboh) also hived off new and smaller settlements along the riverbanks, which became to some extent separate trading factors in the system, increasing its sociopolitical complexity.)18

Striking in the narrative just presented is the role of the Moslem Mallams (and secondarily, by the pagan agents from Bonny) in mediating and eventually settling this conflict. The Landers’ description of the Adamugu chief suggests that this village was in the process of becoming what the historian J.S. Trimingham called (as the intial phase of Islamic conversion of an indigenous political system, though on a much larger scale in his perspective) an “imperial cult”, that is initial conversion of the residing chief to Islam while his subjects remain almost entirely pagan.19 These Mallams, moreover, show a very different orientation toward conflict resolution than do the Aboh (“Eboe”) trading agents described here. (Interestingly, too, the Mallams also appear to work together with the local trading women of Asaba vicinity, who themselves show considerable solicitous concern for the foreign travelers.) The Bonny agents are probably motivated partly in opposition to the dominance of the Aboh traders, but (in concert with their northern allies) they are able to swing the outcome to one relatively favorable to the Landers (though the reality of Aboh power from this point downriver dictates delivery of the two Europeans into the hands of agents of the Aboh King). All of this international dynamic occurs entirely without any evident participation by Ndi-Onicha (a people renown as “unable to swim”, i.e. ineffective with boats)..

These facts point to what might have become a very different history of the Lower Niger River:  had Europeans not entered the river at this time, Islam might have soon penetrated to the coast along this channel, given their skills in settling disputes in unstable, dynamic situations through authoritative triangulation (backed by a sense of wider power-connections), a process the outline of which we can detect in operation here at Kirree. This kind of conflict management, which historically fostered the spread of Islam by nonviolent means, was less developed along the lower river, where reciprocal vengeance was a more deeply entrenched tradition (and one less readily conducive to expansion of a system of centralizing authority).20

2. The Laird-Oldfield Expedition of 1832-35

The Landers’ discovery of the Niger mouth in the Gulf of Guinea aroused enthusiasm in the Liverpool merchant MacGregor Laird, who decided the time was ripe to enter this long-sought highway into West and Central Africa, so he formed the African Inland Commercial company, aiming to establish a permanent commercial settlement at the confluence of the rivers today known as the Benue and the Niger.21

Laird sent (and during the first year, accompanied) two steamers of his own (and Richard Lander’s) design up the river during two high-water seasons (1832-33), demonstrating the river’s openness to steamer navigation, but 40 of 49 Europeans who accompanied the expedition died (mainly of malaria) as the venture quickly foundered. Laird himself reached his major goal of the city-state of “Funda” (Panda) on the Benue (where reports had led him to believe he would find a lucrative trade in ivory), but by then he suffered extreme physical debilitation, and was held captive by the “Funda King” until he managed to escape through a lucky display of aerial rocketry that terrified his captors.22.

For our puposes here, the useful comments of these volumes come from the journal of R.A.K. Oldfield, the junior surgeon to the party (also accompanied by Lt. William Allen, R.N., who surveyed the river as representative of the British Admiralty on the expedition), and of Richard Lander, who died near its end.  Oldfield was well occupied tending to fevered patients from the time of his arrival along the Guinea Coast, and he remained in the sailing ship Columbine anchored offshore of the Niger Delta while the main party ascended the river in their two steamships in October of 1832 (and its members sickened and died at an alarming rate).

In April 1833 Richard Lander returned downriver in a canoe, reporting that most of the officers and men had been dead for months, and that Mr. Laird was lost in “Fundah”.  Oldfield then accompanied Lander and a crew of 21 men upriver in the Columbine’s longboat and a canoe to the point near the Niger-Benue confluence where the larger steamship lay at anchor and they found Mr. Laird, “pale and emaciated to the last degree”23 .

After traveling downstream for a visit with the Attah of Idah, they sent the larger vessel down to the coast with Mr. Laird in late July of 1833 and themselves returned upstream in the smaller steamer to continue the expedition (hoping to trade for ivory) up the Benue River branch during the remaining summer high-water season.  They gave up and turned downstream in mid-August,  Oldfield observing that he “was not sorry at the idea of quitting this inhospitable country24.” Returning to the confluence of the two main rivers and steaming up the Niger, they continued their search for trade, but with little success, and ceased their upstream journey at Rabbah in Yoruba country when engine problems led them to return downstream early in October.

After a stop at Idah (where they met Abboka, the Landers’ previous contact at Adamugu), they continued downstream where (on October 25th) they passed what must have been the Anambra River tributary and then

“anchored off kirree, in seven fathoms water, while a market for the sale of palm-wine was being held on the bank…. (vol II: p.137)”The current ran at the rate of three knots per hour over the rocks in this part. The surrounding scenery is extremely beautiful, being the first high land to be met with on coming up the Niger from the sea-side: it was therefore the last we expected to see…. …the luxuiant foliage of the trees… was diversified by gentle eminences, whose verdant banks added still more to the beauty of the scene… a striking contrast betwixt this and the low flat country which lay between this part and the sea-side.”25

After describing “Kirree”, the town a few hundred yards from the spot of the Landers’ captivity in 1930, and discussing the “King of Kirree” and his war with the “King of Eboe”26, they anchored nearly three miles further south, and took a latitude measurement there: 6 degrees, 6′, 6″ South (p. 139). This is exactly the latitude of the southern part of today’s Onitsha.


The map at right, a detail from the one drawn by Lt. Allen and published in 1837 facing page 1 of vol. 1 of the Narrative, clearly marks the point near Onitsha and Asaba where the first high land was seen (on the map, at the point where the middle and lower boxes intersect, marked “Jorvis I.”). The fact that they made a precise latitude measurement at this location suggests a sense of its importance, and since they were taking regularly measurements of river draft, they may also have noted a change in river depth below and above the place.

Also noteworthy was MacGregor Laird’s description of Idah (he too called it “Attah”) in early December 1832: “…a most picturesque appearance. It is seated on the summit of a hill, the perpendicular side of which rises immediately from the river to the height of about two hundred and fifty or three hundred feet… and I anticipated much benefit to all the survivors by the change from the low and monotonous scenery…. It is healthy, and the only place we have yet seen in the river where a European could possibly exist for any length of time. It has many natural advantages, and on some future day will be a place of great importance.” 27

3. The Trotter Expedition of 1841

Following the early Niger expeditions of the 1830s, the English humanitarian T. F. Buxton turned his efforts toward ending the West African slave trade, proposing a multi-pronged program for the British government: to penetrate the interior with British-backed trading posts, based on treaties made with African authorities and lending government encouragement to growth of “legitimate  commerce”; to develop local African agriculture modeled on exemplary European plantations; and to provide direct moral/religious instruction through the agency of resident missionaries.

the British Government responded proactively to policies advocated by humanitarian groups for stopping the slave trade and regenerating the people affected by it (the introduction of “commerce, civilization, and Christianity”):  the Expedition to the River Niger of 184128 .

Thus, British Colonial Secretary John Russell explained the objects of the Expedition in 183929:

The Queen has directed her ministers to negotiate conventions and agreements with those chiefs and powers, the basis of which conventions would be, first, the abandonment and absolute prohibition of the slave trade; and, secondly, the admission, for consumption in this country, on favourable terms, of goods, the produce and manufacture of the territories subject to them— over the countries adjacent to the Niger and its great tributary streams. It is therefore proposed to dispatch an expedition, which would ascend that river by steamboats as far as the points at which it receives the confluence of some of the principal rivers falling into it from the eastward. At these, or at any other stations which may be found more favourable for the promotion of a legitimate commerce, it is proposed to establish British factories, in the hope that the natives may be taught that there are methods of employing the population more profitable to those to whom they are subject than that of converting them into slaves and selling them for exportation to the slave traders.

This plan came to fruition in the form of a modest trial expedition to be centered on the River Niger.

The expedition sailed in 1841, commanded by Captain H.D. Trotter, R.N. accompanied by now-Commander William Allen (of the Laird-Oldfield 1832-34 expedition) and T.R.H. Thomson, M.D., Surgeon, and 142 other Europeans including both research scientists, a chaplain, and two Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries.  One of the missionaries was Rev. Jacob Friedrich Schön , a German National working in Sierra Leone and studying various West African languages. He had married a CMS missionary of African descent.  The other was the freed Yoruba slave Samuel Adjai Crowther, then a CMS catechist.  These two were accompanied by a freed Onye-Igbo slave named Simon Jonas, who was to serve as their Igbo language interpreter. 30

Any account of the history of Onitsha from the European point of view must include detailed reference to the background and work of Samuel Crowther, who became the first (and surely one of the foremost) ethnographer/ anthropologists to describe the peoples living along the River during the second half of the 19th Century. 

Entering the Niger Delta in mid-August 1941, the expedition proceeded upstream in three vessels, making careful scientific studies of the river, its sediments, vegetation, wildlife, and human residents (and to a very limited extent, their cultures). At Aboh the government Commissioners sought and signed a treaty with the Kingdom of Aboh,  whereby the reigning Obi Ossai accepted a written document affirming both the abolition of slavery and support for the unobstructed presence of Biritsh agents along the river.

Obi Ossai was clearly a leader of consummate power on the Lower Niger of this time.  He commanded massive arrays of large canoes plying the River, crafts devoted to both trade and warfare, and he had posted residential agents at various locations along the river who  kept him informed of developments there.  Onitsha people lived in fear of his wrath:  they dared not approach their own waterside marketplace without armed support  (possessing a few muskets, thay faced canoes containing lashed cannons as well as a great variety of other technically advanced, metallic weapons, wielded by large numbers of highly trained crewmen.  It was small comfort that Onitsha people complained that historically they “could not swim”).

Selected to join the British Niger Expedition of 1841, Crowther distinguished himself throughout as an acute observer and thoughtful participant in this disastrous adventure, where more than a third of the participants died (despite having plentiful supplies of quinine on board, it was unfortunately administered  at that time only when patients showed signs of recovery).31

4. Laird-Baikie et al 1854-6

Baikie, describing Laird’s new proposals for a more definitive expedition to the Niger, emphasized the need to keep the rivers free, especially in the Delta, from “piratical tribes that now prevent all communications to the upper Niger”. This can be accomplished by regular steamer passage,  providing stable local  agents through “reimmigration of liberated Africans”. Brtish efforts can open trade above the Delta tribes who bar navigation; then introduce “improved African blood” which “have been in contact with a superior race” and have acquired European habits and wants. This is the only way to civilize the continent. But  a steamer must be present assuring a steady demand for collection of produce by the Europeanized class. The goal then is to establish “fixed stations for collection of produce; the first above the delta at “Ossamare”, then near the confluence, etc. 32

While in 1841 the British agents (strongly guided by Samuel Corwther) had promised Obi Ossai that the first foundations for a Chritian mission would be established at Aboh, ,when the new expedition arrived there in 1854, Obi Ossai had died  a decade earlier  and his two sons were “sharing” the Kingship, one of them now behaving more aggressively toward resident European agents there,, claiming that some had refused to pay for land where they had built their factories.   Crowther in particular became very suspicious of the intentions of the more aggressive son, and more dubious about the prospects of basing a mission establishment there.

Hutchinson, J.J., 1854 with Laird in the Pleiad;  54-5 describes the situation further upstream at the Onitsha market where “Women fled in terror when we landed.” “They had, however, nothing saleable, save a few calabashes full of green peppers.” “Alongside the beach there was a canoe, having two empty palm-oil puncheons in it.”  He observed that Onitsha town is some miles inland,  Its King is Obi Akazua. 170

The 1956 Expedition was to have been led by Consul John Beecroft (at Fernando Po) but he died only a few days before expedition began to assemble there. Dr. William Balfour Baikie, sent as Beecroft’s deputy, medical adviser and naturalist, took charge. Baikie had trouble with some of his onboard staff and Crowther became even more essential thereafter. “He was often the spokesman and chief negotiator of the Expedition..” Having some understanding of Igbo and Hausa, and a keen interest in langauges generally, he was [in effect the closest thing to an observant ethnographer.

Crowther summarized the situation as he saw it “Asaba and Onitsha … present the two most promising localities to be inspected by those whose lot is to be to commence missionary operations among the Ibos.”(180) Our interpreter said concerning the Isuama and Elugu (on the eastern side): “they cannot swim,” meaning they are not Watermen”. He reports  a crowd of about 500 people in Onitsha market, trading by the waterside, with a great number of canoes. (p 24)

Crowther had a favorable opnion of Onitsha’s King Akazua and his people, who “appeared easy and tractable”, and both he and Baikie thought it preferable to Asaba for both commercial and strategic perspectives: Baikie thought it the most strategic nucleus on the River Niger. Crowther called it  (1) the “high road to the heart of the Ibo nation” (1857) (2)) Onitsha is dry, free from floods, (3) virtually the dividing line between muslims and pagans. Crowther insisted that a missionary thrust further north,  into Moslem regions, would be futile. 33

Wiith the expedition underway in September 1857, Baikie reported that he had remained ained a week in Onitsha to erect a trading house, and we also made ” our first missionary establishment.” “This town had never before been visited by Europeans, but we easily secured the friendship and confidence of the people, and upon my asking from their King ground for our purposes it was readily granted”. Here also I left three men who had accompanied me from Sierra Leone as settlers, they being either Igbo or of Igbo descent, and who formed the beginning of an immigration of liberated Africans from Sierra Leone into these their native lands.” Onitsha: well-placed; rising land; key to interior; main productions of Igbo are palm oil and red wood; cotton grown for their own use. (Cotton commences just after leaving the Delta.)

5. Crowther’s Associates Occupy Onitsha

Crowther’s accounts:

In Crowther’s journal of July 26, 1857 (when they land at Onitsha), he observes that [23] “the inhabitants having never seen white men in their country before, (except Odiri, the king’s son, whom we met in the market-place three years ago)” they were frightened and armed themselves, “but a little explanation [24] and friendly conversation soon ensured confidence” and one person offered to guide them to the town. (He provided no descriptions of the Waterside location at this time.)

He then proceeds to describe their trip from the riverside:

“The road, which led between extensive cultivations of yams and Indian corn, among which young cotton plants were just growing up, was very good, clean, and dry…a gradual ascent; and, by the time we reached the entrance of the town, which is about a mile and a-half distant from, and about 100 feet above the level of the river, the Niger lay in full view below us, appearing through the scattered trees and plantations from the border of the town.” [24]

Note that he observes the presence of cotton plants.  At this point the Expedition’s financers were very interested in the possibily of trade in cotton 34.  At their earlier visit  in 1854 the explorers had inquired about certain especially admired cotton cloths apparetly produced in the Ndi-Igbo interior, and were encouraged to presume these were available here (but this did not prove out in later experience).  his account seems respectful of local clothing, “The people of Onitsha manufacture their own clothes, generally plain or fanciful white.” He does add that “European manufactured goods are not so commonly used here as in the lower parts of the river: shirts, jackets and straw hats are in great demand by the people.” [30] He continually makes comments relevant to the economics of the situation, observing for example that Aboh people bring cowries to Onitsha to purchase palm oil, and comments on the presence of a palm oil puncheon present in an otherwise inactive marketplace.

The newcomers were very impressed with the elevation of the land (and also with the cooling breezes that passed across the hills near the level of the town). Passing through the town itself, Crowther remarked that it was “literally enshrouded in groves of tall and immense bombax, cocoa-nuts, palm, and…. other trees whose names I do not know”, but he was not at all impressed with Ndi-Onicha housing (for which he uses the term “squares”).

“Houses are very inferior here: they are mere enclosed verandahs, in oblong squares of mud walls, without rooms. After diligent search, we fixed upon one small square, which needed much alteration to make it habitable for any length of time. (until our own place is built. Its location in the uplands was the reason for choosing this poor building)”.   At another point he emphasizes that “The native houses here are mere sheds or verandahs, and afford no safe shelter for any length of time”, emphasizing that  we need better accommodation to receive visitors from the interior.  And here we fully grasp his intentions:  to emplace his missionary agents right at the edge of the “high town”, (enu-Onicha).

At one point he reports that “We visit four groups of houses while strolling about the town, which is about one mile long, and that one broad road divides it into two sections (end 28) On either side are groups of houses, a little remote from the high road, ruled by heads of families or inferior chiefs.

“There is one great disadvantage to the situation of onitsha — its distance from any water” — people must fetch water for household use from the river about two miles from the center of the town. (p. 27)   Here he observes the problem for which  Ndi-onicha had devised multi-village traditional solutions:  an array of trails leading from the town to the Nkisi stream flowing into the Niger on Onitsha’s northside.  Treks to this pristine stream (the fish within it were traditionally sacred and forbidden from harvesting) comprised part of everyday life of the people.

En route to consulting with the Onitsha king,  Crowther reports that “after waiting some time at the house of Odiri, the King’s son… we were invited to the king’s quarters, and desired to wait at the audience-hall, an open building outside the square, with spacious ground before it. After a long waiting we were invited into the outer square, where (25) we were received by the king Akazua. After the usual salutations, Dr. Baikie briefly stated the object of our visit to Onitsha, which was very favourably responded to by the king; after which he withdrew with his four councillors, of whom Odiri was one, to hold conference. On their return the king addressed the assembly to this effect: that as the white men desired to dwell among them and trade, if any one had any objection, he should state it now; and that those who had nothing to sell should not go to the establishment, lest they be tempted to steal, and bring trouble upon themselves and the country. A man from the assembly came out, and spoke in the name of the people of their concurrence with the king’s wishes, which they considered were for the good of the country.

However, the matter was to be discussed tomorrow, and we were permitted to look out for land in any place we pleased, and let them know next morning. We were entertained with kola nuts, and then returned to Odiri’s house, who refreshed us with palm wine and gave us kola nuts. To Odiri, Orikabue, and Anyankoha, the king’s brother and councillor, I quietly intimated our intention to form a Mission establishment in their town, quite distinct from the trading factory already mentioned to the king, and that Mr. Taylor, who was with me, would stay among them. They were quite pleased with the idea.

p 28 King’s son odiri, bro Anyankoha, and Chief Orikagdi-Oue went with large number of men to cler grass for factory (to be erected for protection of goods to be landed here). Orikagbue accompanied us to inspect ground: Land for mission station: on the right as you go up on the west border of the town on a gentle slope, clear of wood; river in full view. He said as soon as yams and corn are gathered in, the land will be at our service. Three Sierera Leone men, traders, help make alterations to  the building; they will occupy the house with Mr Taylor and Simon Jonas — are also members of our church.

So from CroN ther’s account we learn that five Sierra Leonean men will live right at the boundary of Umudei Village (under the chieftaincy control of its Senior Chief Odikagbue).  35 He then adds that [39]  Mr Thompson,” a member of our church”, was left in charge of the factory near the waterside, with seven men under his direction. With Mr. Taylor and the four men with him in the town, make a total of thirteen  persons left at Onitsha.

Simon Jonas, the Igbo-speaking person who acted as interpreter, was presumably present during this time (but he died in Fernando Po in December of 1858; he was not otherwise metnioned in this account).

Finally, on July 30, entering the town “we saw a large number of people in the street neatly dressed in their best; and in one of our landlord’s squares there was a crowd of people of both sexes dancing to the beat of drums, with which was kept up constant firing of muskets.” [33] Asking about the occasion, they were told that a man had died some months ago, and that “a  poor blameles female slave was  to be sacrificed”. We spoke against it; their interlocutor proposed we buy the woman, so  they could then buy a bullock to kill in her place. We refused, saying we are not  slave traders; so the matter was left unresolved (though the new-resident Christians were later told that the woman had been freed.

With this event, the newcomers found themselves gazing a bit more fully  into the heart of their oncoming social situation.  In 1857, they encountered the prospect of a single human sacrifice; fifteen years later, one prospective number  (for a king’s death in 1872), would be 60.

Regarding the “character of the people, Crowther found them “boisterous!” .. but went on to observe (428-9):

Though the Ibos in their appearance are fierce, and in their quarrels boisterous, yet no sooner is the storm pacified, than they are again in extreme quiet and yielding.  Even in common transactions, as buying and selling, &c., they get so warm at a little difference or misunderstanding in settling the price between them that I often imagined they were going to give blows; but they soon settle it, and all is calm and friendly again.

In this passage, Reverend Crowther identifies (merely, it would seem, in passing) one of the crucial features of self-presentation conveyed by Igbo-speaking people when they later emerged into the wider social contexts of colonial Nigeria:  an open emotional-expressiveness, often delivered without restraint in large-scale urban situations, a behavior that people whose social experience dictated presentations of passive, emotion-controlling reserve in such situations found shocking.  Crowther, a native of a more centrally-regulated polity, was struck by this remarkable difference, and did not fail to record it. (By the 1960s, such differences had festered into murderous mutual regards.)

From the beginning, Crowther recognized that the king of Onitsha had little power to control the behavior of members of his kingdom, however formally subordinate to him they might be. Unfortunately for all concerned, the British authorities along the river gained little grasp of local politics (focusing attention mainly on their immediate profits and losses), and two decades later Crowther would be forced to present a full account in the aftermath of disaster (see below for his 1880 ethnography).

John Christopher Taylor

From his first travels up the Niger, Crowther had planned the introduction of native, that is African agents rather than Europeans to become the missionaries to the Igbo-speaking people. “When John Christopher Taylor, himself of Igbo parentage, was chosen by Crowther was the titular head of the voluntary native missionary group, there were signs of racial pride among the many men and women of Bathurst Church where the Reverend Taylor was a pastor.”36

Taylor was left in charge of the new Onitsha mission station on August 1, 1857. In his parting directives to his Sierra Leonean charge, Crowther emphasized, the importance of generosity, good will, and patience in dealing with the “ignorance and simplicity” of the people, and outlined a series of tasks including careful description of the social geography of the area, construction of suitable mission housing, and attending to “the “reduction of the language: correct the primer in the course of using, improve and enlarge the vocabulary, and make as many translations as you can.” (37) 37

So a primary focus on teaching literacy to the natives was to enable them to learn gospel stories in the Igbo language. The core of the planned curriculum included simple mathematics and geography, which would presumably be done in English, and English was taught from the beginning. Since Taylor himself at this time did not speak igbo,, he spoke in English and wrote his journal in it. His primary translator must have been the Igbo-speaking Simon Jonas (but since the latter died in December of 1858, other translators must have been present as well).

A primary task for students was set as learning the core of Christianity — the Gospel Stories — in the Igbo language. Learning English was the necessary operational tool for doing this, but there was definitely some fear regarding its “potentially corrupting” influence. Two decades later, during his “trip up the Niger,” the Reverend Henry Johnson would complain about “Hearing too much English; don’t allow it to suppress the native tongue”. This emphasis on the natives’ learning to read in Igbo would continue as an aspect of CMS policy well into the twentieth century (when it culminated in a shockingly misguided effort to create an “Esperanto” version of the language intended to serve all dialects of Igbo in a single written form.)

Regarding Crowther’s charge to map the geography, Taylor could hardly avoid observing the wider social situaiton, which now pressed in from all around. Emissaries from neighboring groups came to town to see him, , for example men from “Inzi” (Nri) say news of white men reached them “like raging fire”; soon Nsugbe and Obosi men visit saying they want Beke or Oyibo to settle in their towns.38

Onitsha people responded to these visits with what Taylor called a “spirit of jealousy”, and sought to exercise strong control over the new interactions now entering 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 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 he later passed “judgment” in a dispute between Obosi and Onitsha) .He reported that the Onitsha King and chiefs made peace with Nkwele” so the Oibo can go there. 39

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, how trade would be conducted with the Sierra Leonean agents, and what presents would be required of them in order to facilitate this. . In October, four major Onitsha chiefs begged Taylor to reconcile their long standing enmities, while on November 23, 1857 the most senior chief of Odoje Village was leading armed combat against Umu-Dei Village in a dispute over land. 40

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). 41

The accounts of these first months — missionaries and traders residing in Onitsha! — suggest an almost “Carnival” atmosphere in which Mr. Taylor found himself playing the role of an unscripted Master of Ceremonies. He was exposed as a focus of attention far beyond his previous experience.

To grasp this initial situation better, I here insert the ethnographic findings of Bishop Crowther, when he sought in 1880 to explain why the Onitsha community could not better control the behavior of its citizens (as the British military forces had demanded they do, before destroying the town during their fit of pique toward “Onitsha Authorities” in 1879):

Crowther’s 1880 account

S.A. Crowther, Dec. 1880: King and chiefs sent an invitation to reoccupy town as a mission station; met King at his house 21 July. We were in midst of 2 opposing elements one helping us, one hindering us.
At the meeting he points out the difference between the mission and the traders: people got anger when we did not interfere on their behalf with the traders; people mixed mission agents with those at the factories. We are your friends; the merchants have not returned (but we are here!) [Here he repeats the effort he had made twenty years earlier, drawing the distinction between traders and missionaries (which had of course always been seriously bluarred)]. Finally [he says]j , you should bear a portion of the expenses of rebuilding. They agreed.
“state of govt at Onitsha described” a new king must offer 60 human sacrifices, 60 also at his death; 2 human sacrifices if he leaves his designated premises, o rif he sees the river; one each year before he takes new yams; he only can kill a bullock; he has right to certain game; and a certain bird is especially claimed by the king as a royal property, on account of its feathers which are used as a sign of distinction, therefore nobody cares to kill one. (Many more such rights are described.)
His bondages: each township is an independent or patriarchal free state, headed by a chief of its own, so that if an offence is committed, king can’t punish unless chief of that township is willing or able to deliver him (and can’t unless the offender’s family is willing).
Law is set by king and his 6 chiefs and some of second rank, “but the people are so independent that the laws are very little observed” (or enforced), unless the public voice is raised hence mere “boys” may defy the king or chiefs.

Even in a murder case, king has no power by himself see how they try to execute. They try to mediate, while armed mobs go after settlers who offend, yet do not allow punishment of offenses agains [the missionary or trader ] settlers. Thus some people have become lawless, “emboldened, I regret to say, by a handful of unprincipled persons from the Colonies who had settled about the factories at Onitsha….”

Each [Onitsha] township is independent or patriarchal free state, headed by a chief of its own, so that if an offence is committed, the King can’t punish unless chief of that township is willing or able to deliver him (and that chief can’t unless the family is willing).
Law is set by the king and his 6 chiefs and some of second rank, “but the people are so independent that the laws are very little observed” (or enforced), unless the public voice is raised hence “boys” may defy the king or chiefs. Even in a murder case, the king has no power by himself. See how they try to execute: They try to mediate, while armed mobs go after settlers who offend, yet they do not allow punishment of offenses against settlers. Thus some people have become lawless, ’emboldened’, I regret to say, by a handful of unprincipled persons from the Colonies who had settled about the factories at Onitsha.

Crowther had in fact assessed the Onitsha kingdom much earlier, in his initial reports from 1857. For example, he said there, “A king is acknowledged in every district of the Ibo country, though at Onitsha his power is very much limited.” ( He went on to outline the king’s “councillors”, ,who stand to face him (in contrast to lesser persons who must kneel and bow heads), observed that he never goes out from his palace without human sacrifice; he distinguishes Ozo men (“Ndi Nze”), who carry ivroy horns; Ndidzi-boriba., and Oganyanyan “All persons of some property” Having observed these facts of social stratification, he goes on to observe that “It is a curious fact , that land is possessed by inheritance in the Ibo country; and the right of alienation is not in the power of the king, nor in that of an individual member, unless by consent of all the leading members of the family owning the land. 42


These conditions as described by Crowther (on these two occasions) meant that — generally speaking — Onitsha people were not very much constrained in their interactions with these strangers. Indeed, it was the King and his chiefs who were limited in their interactions; the King was strictly confined to his palace grounds, while the chiefs went forth only with acolytes who loudly warned ordinary potentially in their pathways to stay away. Lesser people, however, were free to move about to greater degrees, and apparently they did so, both as visitors to the new Mission quarters in the foothills next to town and at the Waterside to visit the traders.

So Taylor found large crowds following him wherever he went (individuals from various villages felt free to come and go as they chose), vying for his attention. Some 300-500 people attended some ministerial gatherings, where he taught them simple prayers, and King Akazua and other chiefs arranged to hear him preach. He traveled beyond Onitsha, to Nsugbe and Obosi, and considerably further. 43

Given the deference that was shown to him during this time, it is perhaps not surprising that Taylor became excessively optimistic about his situation, believing that official tolerance of his activities meant spiritual conversion to his ministry. .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 attendants at Sabbath services as the first prospective Onitsha convert to Christianity. The Onitsha chiefs opposed the idea of “abolishing their idols” , but Taylor exulted that “their idols… are now tottering, and I hope will be ere long for ever paralyzed”). 44 .  [He would surely have been shocked to learn that many “idols” would be actively worshipped by Onitsha leaders one hundred years later.]

In November of 1858, he oversaw the opining of a Day School in Onitsha. At first 14 girls were enrolled, having been given items of clothing to cover their nudity. These children were apparently offspring of the earliest persons to actively seek the benefits of the church — persons of very low social status: redeemed slaves, widows, diseased figures and the like (lepers for example), but when they learned to read and write at this school, higher-status people paid attention.

By the time Taylor departed Onitsha for a visit to his home station in Sierra Leone in 1859, few conversions had occurred (mostly slaves and other diminished-status persons), but to some degree the ideological unity of the society had definitely been broken: some new converts refused to go to market on Sunday, and even the King of Onitsha had sent out a town crier on Sunday morning: “come to the mission house.” Taylor clearly had established intimate relationships with some locals, who emotionally sent him off, saying they were grievously awaiting his return.

We have very few records of what was going on in the “trading factories” during this early time — the historian Baker 45 attributes a substantial part of the gap to willful destruction of records by George Goldie Taubman, the rabidly greedy, deceitful, and (occasionally) wilfully vicious founder of the amalgamated Niger firms that eventually became the Royal Niger Company — but Crowther made early reference to Mr. Thompson, the station-master, reporting quite successful trade in palm oil in 1858. At that time Crowther also reported that “our House and Factory have become neutral grounds on which contending parties meet, and talk together as friends, to their own surprise.” 46

So a “moment” appears to have arisen at this time — “Carnival” might capture the sense that there was a “new social centering” that for a while enabled the establishing of new relationships, as well as perhaps discarding of some old ones. Clearly in this process, numbers of Onitsha people — young men, women traders, and the like — approached the traders (at first entirely Sierra Leonean, then Englishmen, among others) and formed new (and various) relationships.

Increasing Complexity in the Trader Community

And along the River, news of the new operation spread rapidly, and canoes from up- and down-river began stopping at the factories, entering negotiations and doing business. A new social world brewed there, very rapidly, to which Onitsha indigenes quickly responded (and to some extent joined).

For example, a man from Aboh named “Ugonabo” came to reside there (negotiating land rent along the river with an Onitsha chief), and occasionally acted as a mediator between the Onitsha people and the often warlike Aboh rivermen who perennially attacked them. At one point, 20 Aboh canoes landed at waterside,preparing to attack Onitsha, but Ugonabo negotiated their departure . On another occasion Onitsha men captured two Aboh trespassers and prepared to dismember them for sale to Obosi cannnibals, but (at the missionaries’ suggestion) Ugonabo arranged to redeem them . The Onitsha senior chief Obijioma Ogene was reported at one point to be “having war with Ugonabo” (the Ogene was also having chronic disputes with the latter’s landlord.)

This might have been a moment in the establishing of Ogbe-Ukwu, the “Great Village” reserved for Riverain people at Onitsha Watersde during the early twentienth Cntlury (See Chapter Three, “Otu… 1960-62” — the Aboh-lined Village was still present at that time, though it was destgroyed with the completion of the Niger Bridge after 1963.).

By the time of Taylor’s return in 1861,, he had learned enough Igbo to be able to speak in it, and he preached in Igbo without an interpreter in October 1862, with magical effect on his audience. Now Ndi-Onicha owners of slaves began attending church, all classes of people (Crowther had predicted this would be very important). People came in hoping to regain lost wealth; others to avoid onerous ritual/monetary duties in the traditional community. One recent newcomer, Okosi., Sent away his wives, brought his idols in a bag to the mission in late 1862; soon after others followed his example. On 23 November 1862, the: first real conversions in Igbo districts were recordeed: 9 men, 8 women, 25 children baptized. Okosi, the leader was given the name John Samuel Okosi. (16)

Smallpox Outcomes Benefit Missionary Cause

Some intrusive events of the early 1960s definitely served the cause of the missionaries. In 1864 and 1867, smallpox epidemics raged in the area, but the missionaries saved most of their adherents by providing the necessary medicines and also by isolating schoolchildren. This sharp contrast with the fates of the unprotected brought many new converts into the mission folds

School Becomes (culture-dividing) “Boarding School”

By 1864, the day school served 50, the night school 70. The schoolchildren, mostly baptized, were kept at the mission house, which marked the beginning of a boarding school system (separating them from “the pagans”). Some were supported by funds sent from abroad, but these were irregular and Taylor found feeding them difficult sometimes. The CMS had established a cotton gin at Onitsha, and some students were employed there in exchange for room and board.

The Boarding system served as a means of indoctrination, enabling the missionaries to succeed “in virtually overthrowing the social order.” these Children came to regard themselves as a special class.. For example, in 1863 the king and his son were watching a school procession, “As the prince’s son, Odita, came to the area where his father and grandfather sat, he refused to accord the king the traditional greeting…” (Taylor himself was much opposed to the standard salutation to the King — falling to one’s knees and bowing the head to the ground; perhaps he had voiced this opinion before in the presence of the grandson.)

Thus the Church became a mechanism for “detaching the young from their tribe”; the missionaries defended these actions as arising from higher, Christian principles. In 1866, Taylor boasted that “people from Asaba complained to me that the missionaries have made it impossible to get slaves from Onitsha for their sacrifices. (Asaba’s rapid proliferation of new “Kings” was causing a great expansion of demand, since each “new king” had to perform such sacrifice in order to validate his new status.)

During the 1860s, increasing numbers of young Onitsha indigenes, Christian-educated men and women (some of whose names would later find prominence in Nigerian colonial affairs) were reported (for example) eating “the fetish fowls” which had been offered in Onitsha sacrifices (that is, “living sacrifices” left at Sacred Groves), and the sacred fish of Nkisi Stream, and building “English style houses” in the Waterside, acts Onitsha traditional lineage priests, chiefs, and other traditional leaders found deeply disturbing.

Taylor Loses His Grip

As negative reactions to the Mission loomed, John Taylor found he was working in a different Mission establishment than he had left in 1859. In his absence,a fellow Sierra Leonean, William G. Romaine, had been appointed station chief, and others –Romaine’s friend F. Langley, T. George, Edward Phillips, and W. John (Crowther’s former personal aide) were also present. (Some of these, including George and John, became insightful ethnographic accountants in some of their mission reports. They had apparently learned from Crowther’s own ethnographic skills.)

Taylor’s somewhat messianic-dictatorial character did not respond well to these newcomers, and conflict soon erupted among the Mission staff. The two sides — Taylor on one, the newcomers on the other — engaged in such serious disputes that Crowther — now operating at much greater distance from his headquarters in Lagos — send his now-ordained son D.C. Crowther to mediate. As a result of Crowther’s assessments, Taylor was transferred elsewhere, and the newcomers took over control of the local mission. Or, perhaps more accurately, the missionaries and traders and Onitsha indigenes embroiled themselves in a social nexus now swarming with starkly incompatible goals and values.

New Residential Clusterinngs Appear

The missionaries proceeded to set up local stations inside what was coming to be called “The Inland Town”. one in Odoje, the other in Ogboli.

What became called a “lower town” or “beach town” began to emerge. We have no details, but both Onitsha people and the trading community began to occupy places near the “factories” (these latter became multiple, as trading agents from the lower river and beyond came to enjoy the emerging palm-oil-based wealth).

Some new Christian converts began to be harassed by the indigenes who observed their newfound advantages (as agents for both missionaries and traders. Samuel Okosi, the first convert, was attacked by locals. Christopher Mba, another new convert, aroused great envy among the natives because of his success buying and selling for for the mission. Crowther in 1865 reported 97 baptisms and 8 marriages at this station; Things are better here now: the people are decently clothed, many school children can read New Testament in Ibo and some speak English and can be employed as translators. (64)

Converts were however also backsliding due to polygamy rules, which lowered their social status; (21) John Samuel Okosi was by 1865 showing inner conflict; he asked to go polygamous, refused, left the Church. Soon all of his children were gone from the mission school. (But he continued to reside in the “Beach Town”) Some of the “Christian” Europeans and African traders (coastal), white and black, kept mistresses, and some began keeping slaves. Some missionaries too began collecting them.

The Chiefs’ “Acting out” Become more Active

Meanwhile ,, Onitsha Chiefs, having observed the economic and social successes of lesser men, began engaging more assertively in the local melange. Visiting the mission and trading establishments. Obijioma Ogene, from Ogboli Ollosi, ventured into the mission context and sought to entice young Christian-convert women, tricking one newly-dressed convert to sit beside him on a bench (and act which, by Onitsha custom, made her one of his wives). Chiefs began venturing into the trading Factories, where they responded violently when the traders failed to give them what was considered among Onitsha people to be the proper obeisance behavior due them (making appropriate salutations, granting them special seating arrangements etc. ).

The missionaries and their converts also began new and more ambitious building projects. In 1867 the , foundation for Christ Church in the Waterside was laid. As a “Lower Town” emerged with a somewhat heterogeneous membership, the “Inland Town” was becoming infiltrated with resident Christian inserts. Since the values systems of the various parties were different and often in stark conflict, disastrous conflicts loomed ahead.

The Death of Obi Akazua in 1972

One major change occurred in 1872, when the Onitsha King Akazua died suddenly. Immediately the stakes of conflictof regarding human sacrifice escalated drastically, as the reigining leaders of UmuEzeAroli claimed that 60 human beings must be slaughtered for the funerary rites. A new contender for succession emerged within the royal clan, one drawing a substantial array of supporters from the Kingdom of Igala to the north, who openly attacked the presumed groups of supporters. Open conflict emerged, along with an epidemic of smallpox , which killed the “rightful king” but then led to the murder of his challenger (who was designated the bringer of the disease). Around this same time, about 20 elderly women were accused as witches who had brought the small pox among them; poisonous draftsof the Sasswood water of ordeal were given to them to drink, whereof half that number died, hence being proved guilty. We observe here a seriously disorganized KIngdom (one considerably worse then the previous “normal” state of low-order organization) for some years to follow. The various senior chiefs quickly asserted their promionence in combat among each other.

While this paragraph roughly covers the ground, the disorder extended for a long time , and extended Interregnum situation.

Aro-Chukwu slate traders Disturb the Eastern Flank

During the middle 1870s, the fearsome Aro-Chukwu oracle system of slave-trading was operating to the east of Onitsha, and rumors of impending attack by the highly organized mercenary agents of this operation came to Onitsha. The local “warrior chiefs” of Onitsha appeared to be utterly unable to stand against the challenge; their standard forms of combat were primarily ritualized stand-offs between each other and their village-based supporters. ( They had no experience preparing for defense against an entirely new form of military operation.)

Third, the now-seething local interaction among the traders and resident natives in the “beach town”, including agents of the Church Missionary Society, entailed increasing slave-holdling, prostitution, and other business-related struggles which culminated in some actds of serious mistreatrment of slaves, including murder, leading the increasingly strong European (British) presence to insert themselves in Commissions of Inquiry whic in 1877 h imposed upon the resident “rulers” what amounted to demanding they perform European rules of political order. The local rulers of course had no means of understanding (much less enacting) such noew rules of procedure. (Crowther’s 1880 assessments cited above are relevant to this context.)

1878 (Sept): CMS N 3/1:

Meeting in Mission house w/ all 3 classes of native chiefs and chief women about 60 total. (Missionaries and factory agents named.) 3rd class chiefs complained to Rev. Perry: British subjects duties had been suspended because of outrage committed no redress nor any guarantee for future security of English residents given. Reps from all villages called to this meeting as historically required. English demands: missions at Umudei & Iyawo not disturbed; nobody disturbed on Sundays; no factory molested for the faults of another; quarrel between Civilized and natives: senior of establishment of civilized will settle. Natives agreed on rules to prevent stealing. Natives wanted merchants to stay away from their wives (not clear if agreement). Mission demands: church and mission grounds should be held sacred; merchant Onitsha conflicts should not affect missionaries; nothing said by missionaries against idolatry should be taken as nso. Sgned Perry.

The 1879 Disaster Year

Acting Consul Easton: Nov. ’79: Captain Burr, myself, Capt MacIntosh of United Companies now trading in the Niger called meeting of all British subjects; among these, 3 Sierra Leone men JN Palmer, JN Ogoo, JO Astrope were engaged in slave dealing. I arrested them, freed their slaves. (Oct 79). [IT George said Palmer had 24 slaves, Astrope 40, Ogoo 50. Most from higher up river, a few from Eboe country.]

The Consul was announcing the full engagement of British officials in Onitsha affairs, during an event where impending disaster became real: the local Onitsha Christians, one of whose wives had born twins, refused to expose them to the obligatory death required by Onitsha native law (humans have only single offspring; if more are borne at one time, all the newbornes must all be exposed to die.). Instead, the Christians

One native reported the scene: “500 or more armed men came for the children in three groups: one in front of compound, 1 behind, one ambushing road toward wharf. They got into (locked) compound, seized livestock, properties of converts, shot two converts who died. I was beaten by matchets; Simon Jonas Mbanugo kept them from seizing him by holding fire to a keg of powder.” ” Another group met to seize 2 redeemed slaves from the Christian compound for sacrifice; Reverend Perry bought them off by promising 40 measures = L14 . {The] Archdeacon left for Lokoja, taking the twins.”

1879, Nov: The “Christians of Onitsha” write to Reverend: we are scattered, part in Asaba, part here. (names given Simon Mbanugo and Isaac Mba and Samuel Okosi and 10 others)

.Acting Consul Easton: Nov. ’79: Burr, myself, Capt MacIntosh of United Companies now trading in the Niger called meeting of all British subjects; (Oct 79). Traders agreed to remove goods, dismantle facotries, guard sent to assist them; natives fired on party, wounded Capt Wallace. Next day, I sent notice to King of Onitsha, demanding James Ambeefa and Andrew [two men who had been observed physically harassing European agents] be given up to me, that he guarantee safety of all white men in Onitsha; Chiefs to attend meeting in a factory 26 Oct. These demands treated with contempt. So: Europeans removed, town bombarded; we marched to the inner town, burned it Oct. 30; lKing fled into the bush. Levelled all walls standing in the lower town. Now all factories down, all goods removed.

Captain Burr provided a separate report November 1879: numerous slaves of 3 arrested S.L. men freed; same evening MacIntosh, I,, Consul Easton talked with chiefs of the inner town, “in consequence of their having control of both places.” [RNH: note this assumption! It is presumed that the Onitsha authorities actively control the Waterside area.] Report continues: We demanded they give up the 2 men they treated us with contempt. Even while we were consulting natives seized several cargoes of UAC; next morning removed their goods to ship, under cover of our guns, then dismantled factories (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 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 info 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 Gatling gun and rocket tube. Attacked all 5 villages. Natives made stands but Gatling gun dispersed. Destroyed the town King’s palace was furthest point completely destroyed it.

The Mission had previously been doing well statistically — 260 people at Iyawo church the sunday before, and large bible classes at Umudei station. Crowther reported that the two twin children (of Christian natives) had been saved — Crowther and others held mob at bay around compound while missionaries with their newborn twins escaped to the steamer and across the Niger to Asaba and saftey.

Nov 1879: King chiefs, ladies, and whole Onitsha people beg for peace. Have driven culprit and family from town.We fear more burnings by MacIntosh. (ltr from Isaac Mba to George on behalf of these parties)

This was the situation for which Crowther’s 1880 report (outlined above) was designed to explain: neither the King nor his chiefs possessed the authority to deliver the two culprits who the British authorities demanded.

Goldie Taubman, the organizer of the amalgamated company, sent the following message in 1879 to Marquis of Salisbury, UAC London: thanks for prompt action on the Niger last year, alarming symptoms of violence required uniting of the four independent firms then trading on the river; mass of natives favorable to us, but “we find everywhere a knot of turbulent chiefs, who hope to enrich themselves by plunder”, stirring up the idle part of the populace. In close alliance with these, a small number of colored British subjects, mostly former sub agents discharged by the trading firms, who turned to slave dealings. (note: the earliest alienated stratum of onitsha has been a whole series of these) These are the ones who cause most disputes cause of the need for a gun boat. (8) Many outrages this past year factories broken into, plundered, agents beaten, threats.

The now-amalgamated trading company (to become the Royal Niger Company when it was formally recognized by the British authorities) moved their operation to the southern fringes of Onitsha at a location that became known as “Obosi Beach” (Otu-Obosi, or Abutshi wharf,) and began efforts to redirect their trading activities there while blockading Onitsha proper. Bishop Crowther and his agents sought to re-connect with the Onitsha authorities, who sat in a kiind of limbo.

The residing dominant British figure at the time, George Taubman Goldie, officially commented: The Government and council do not consider it wise to reopen Onitsha trade for the present, “in view of the turbulent character of the people, as shown in the history of the past twenty years, during which this petty tribe has given more trouble and had to be more often chastised by her majesty’s gun boats than any other tribe of the Niger territories.” (15)

Crowther to Edw. Hutchinson: in reply to your question, Onitsha best place to move to interior of Ibo country while Africa Co. denies it has been attacking Onitsha often after the gunboat’s punishment, some of their agents have been doing it without provocation. Ask them to cease this. Waterside market existed before we landed in 1854.

Oct. 1880: Crowther: Perry is back in Onitsha. Count de Semelle has applied to King of Onitsha to allow him to open a factory; McIntosh making arrangements with King and chiefs to reopen a factory.

Dec 31, 1881: SA Crowther attacks the United African Co. Ltd and Mr Taubman, trying to manipulate mission agents by controlling their travel along the river. Onitsha station would not have been reoccupied, because their steamers fired on the people there. But I arrived and landed in 1880, to find us hailed with joy and gladness. They have subscribed casks of palm oil to aid in new building. Now the Niger Union Company has tried to monopolize all the river frontage, but mission agents have worked to stop this.

1882 (CMS N 3/1) Agreement between Chiefs of Umuase (incl Odikabue) about burial of late Omodi, King of Umuasele & Iyawo accept one bullock and 1 keg of Gunpowder given by Owelle, in lieu of any human life to be sacrificed.

1883L Striking reports of Archdeacons Crowther & Johnson: just 6 years ago, Onitsha a scene of barbarous cruelty by 2 native ex agents; now King, formerly hostile, suddenly commanded observance of Sunday, and service at his own court leading chief been buried without human sacrifices; Onitsha Christians spontaneously visiting nearby towns to tell the story of the gospel (310) large numbers waiting to hear it. Niger mission was “weeded of unsatisfactory native agents.”

6. CMS declines; Roman Catholics Transform

In 1885, the Onitsha kiong Anazonwu arranged for French Roman Catholic missionaries to establish themselves on the northern side of the Waterside are, and a new form of Christian intrusion now emerged in force, one which (unlike the Church Missionary Society) was not subservient to the British government. This new presence — Frenchmen were soon replaced by equally non-subservient Irish Catholics — considerably transformed the sociopolitical situation, as the newcomers immediately took advantage of the post-1879 disarray of the CMS, winning over their previous native agents to the Church and emphasizing the teaching of English without regard to the Anglican’s previous emphasis on slow-change of the native, requiring them to first learn the Biblical truths in the Igbo vernacular.

Bishop Crowther visited Onitsha during the interim, finding the local people eager to have their agents return, but complaining that the current leadership of the now-amalgamated British trading organizationwas bent upoon trying to control the missionaries’ behavior.

Soon after, in 1890, the CMS in London responded with a substantial influx of whitemen (some of them advocates of the well-entrenched British operational racism of that time) overturninng the previous leadership of Bishop Crowther. He was abruptly replaced (and died soon afterward), while a set of overtly racist European Anglicans took control of the CMS enterprise. One of their mebers, Archdeacon Dennis, thought he could enliven the translation of the Bible into the Igbo vernacular by introduciong an Esperanto form of Igbo devised by himself with the aid of some nativee pastors. (Apparently, Mr. Dennis had little repect for Igbo as a language, thinking that much of its communication was faciltiated by the elabgoraate facial expressions being made by its speakers.)

At the time, D.C Crowther, son of the Bishop, was proposing the use of the “Isu-Ama” dialect of Igbo to serve for the proposed biblical translation, but — in the Anglican racist worldview of the time — his suggestion was discarded and the Esperanto project of Reverend Dennis was activated. As a long-term result of this misguided project , no extant form of operational written Igbo exists today: the Esperanto version was “spoken by nobocy” and ultimately failed.

CMS Intelligencer. 1891: Need more European missionaries! Mission in lamentable state, ignorance of Divine Truth; Archdeacon Johnson withdrawn, European replaces him; Archdeacon D. C. Crowther’s suspension “is not confirmed”.

In 1900, the Onitsha King Anazonwu died, and — with a Roman Catholic Commmissioner well-placed in the British Administration emerging in Asaba at the time — the Roman Catholics were able to successfully present one of their new charges, Samuel Okosi of the Okebunabo side of the Royal family, into the Kingship, replacing what had been a centguries-old domination by the royal branch Umu-Eze-Aroli. The CMS redverend Dennis reported as follows: “according to custom, his son should have taken his place, but this was apparently not pleasing to many of the Onitsha people and three other claimants came forward. District Commissioner was appealed to,, so the various would be kings have been to Asaba in order that the D.C. might arbitrate. He decided in favor of a man named Okosi, who as late as 1895 was a communicant member of our Waterside congregation. For the past few years he has been nominally with the Romanists. He has always been a resident of the Waterside,.”. (Journal of Rev. T.J. Dennis.)














  1. The following narrative is drawn entirely from Hallett, Robin, ed., 1965. []
  2. pp. 221-25 []
  3. Ibid., 224-230. []
  4. Ibid., pp. 232-33. The Image below is copied from that source (originally from the Landers journal), p. 244. []
  5. p. 233. []
  6. Ibid. p. 234 []
  7. p. 235 []
  8. p. 236 []
  9. p. 237-38 []
  10. pp238-39 []
  11. Presumably these were Kirree market women. []
  12. ibid. []
  13. 240 []
  14. Ibid. []
  15. (p. 241 []
  16. 1972:65-73 []
  17. 1960:53 []
  18. see Forde and Jones 1950, attached map showing “Aboh Ibo”; Henderson 1972:66-72 .  According to Nwabuani 1999:96-7, Aboh people called Ubom/Kirree by a term approximating “Igara Landing”. []
  19. Trimingham 1959, pp. 138-140 []
  20. See  Black, ed., 1984. []
  21. I draw the following account from Laird, & Oldfield, 1971 (1837). []
  22. See Vol. 1, pp.183-224 []
  23. p. 408 []
  24. p. 449 []
  25. p. 138 []
  26. See Henderson 1972:65-75, 494-97 for analysis of the riverain social order at this time. []
  27. Vol. I, pp. 124-25. []
  28. Ekechi 1972:9-10. []
  29. Page 1909: p. 50. []
  30. See Dike 1962 and Curtin 1964, pp 298-304, for accounts of the preparations. []
  31. Crowder p. 126. []
  32. Baikie FO 2-3 vol 2 1856 []
  33. see Crowther ltr to Venn 1857 []
  34. This was an idea which soon dissipated (along with the growing of cotton itself) with the importing of English goods. []
  35. They are unaware that this land lies directly across from Oda-Atagbusi, the medicinal protective gateway “owned” by the mythical female power source, who is said to control the behavior of large local wild beasts in the interests of protecting Ndi-onicha from hostile outside forces.   Presumably Atagbusi will be able to assess the quality of the newcomers’ behavior and will act accordingly. []
  36. Ekechi 1972: 5-6 []
  37. Crowther himself, having set up the CMS situation at Onitsha, proceeded on northward to the station at the Confluencemce, where he turned his primary attention to setting up a translation of the Gospel into the Nupe Language. []
  38. Crowther & Taylor 259, 268, 274- 5 []
  39. Crowther and Taylor 1859:251 2, 258 59, 268, 274 5, 276 9, 283]., 247, 265, 267- 70, 276 80, 284, 288 9, 373 []
  40. [Ibid. 273, 281 4, 288 9, 291 2, 312 15, 331 []
  41. [Ibid. 262 3, 315, 344 46, 354 56, 372 []
  42. Crowther & Taylor 432, 435 []
  43. see Ekechi page 10-11 []
  44. Crowther & Taylor . 336, 355 56, 367, 271-72 []
  45. 1960 []
  46. Nwabara 1971 []
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