Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Slave Trade and its Stereotypes

Forde & Jones 1951: Western Ibo, "Aboh Ibo" (Ndi-Olu), Onitsha, and some Eastern Ibo towns
Forde & Jones 1951: Western Ibo, “Aboh Ibo” (Ndi-Olu), Onitsha, and some Eastern Ibo towns

1. Contrasting histories of Western vs. Eastern Igbo-speakers as sources of contemporary stereotypes: meanings of “igbo

[Note:  Click on any image you may want to enlarge.]

During our fieldwork, we gradually recognized that Ndi-Onicha expressions of arrogance and disdain toward “Ndi-Igbo“, while employed within the community in a wide variety of contexts, were most strongly directed outward from Onitsha Inland Town people toward those Igbo-speakers living immediately to the east and southeast, adopting that label from the perspective of their own collective historical self identification with the “Highland people” (Ndi-enu-ani) living across the River Niger to the west and who shared with them a claim of more or less direct descent from the militant precolonial kingship of Benin. In this Western Igbo-speaking region (called “Ika Ibo” and “Aboh Ibo” by systematizing mid-twentieth-century European ethnographers.1, a group of city-states link themselves in oral traditions with the name “Onitsha”, finding their origins in a legendary conflict of their ancestral king with agents of the great Bini kingdom of Edo-speakers living immediately to the west.  Defeats in this conflict led these several “Onitsha” communities to emigrate from the edges of the Benin domain eastward.2 (We will have more to say about the culture of these city-states and their kings further below.)

Most probably, the ancient center of the Igbo speaking peoples lay in the uplands to the east of Onitsha, and the populations historically located west of the Niger River moved there in innumerable waves of small migrations  over the course of many centuries (followed by later, mostly similar migrations in the opposite direction). By historical times at least, however, the regions east of the Niger have become in general ecologically very different from those residing to its west: the hills rising gradually to the east of the river have become mostly overpopulated and rather infertile, while the western uplands remained much lower in human population and generally more fertile for food production.3

During the transatlantic slave trade and then, with the rise of palm oil trade which accompanied more intense European intrusion on the Niger River prior to the colonial era, the two areas developed sharply contrasting social and cultural adaptations to these differing demographic conditions.4

On the over-populated uplands to the east of the river (and beyond Onitsha), strongly republican, dispersed village group communities (many of whom had over the centuries developed specializations in technological and other cultural crafts and trades) vied for position in the intrusive world economy of the 19th century, first by struggling to participate in the slave trade system and later by producing palm oil for export. The ultra-high human population living there provided a potential source of many slaves, and during the slave trade many of these village groups fought slave raiding wars with one another (some hiring mercenary bands of warriors from other groups or hiring out their own troops to other groups for particular battles), producing shifting patterns of conflict through the region that at times seems to have approximated an inter-village version of the Hobbesian model for war of all against all .5]

After the British-enforced Abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the nineteenth century, many of these Igbo populations specialized more in household-organized production of palm oil or in various forms of craft and trade specialization, developing cultural traditions that emphasized intensive family labor. Those living in the most overpopulated areas east and southeast of Onitsha made little economic use of slave labor, but instead generated cultures especially emphasizing systematic hard work and flexible adaptability of economic pursuits, and with the rise of Onitsha to commercial prominence early in the 20th Century, many of these people began to migrate there.6

West of the Niger, more centralized and nucleated “city states” (with whom Ndi-Onicha claim their closest precolonial relations) responded rather differently to the penetration of the European political economy. During the slave trade, these less populated but more centralized communities utilized their extensive and fertile farmlands to provision waterside entrepots of the slaving industry (while themselves increasingly employing slave labor farming teams for this purpose), and after abolition of the transatlantic trade early in the nineteenth century they invested even more heavily in slaves, whose labor was then exploited for oil palm and yam production there.7.

Differing structures of social inequality emerged in association with these contrasting economic patterns in east and west. West of the Niger, a non-manual laboring, slave-owning class of wealth producers invested their gains by taking chieftaincy titles which gave them positions of power and authority in their communities, while slaves became an exploited caste: kept in special slave villages for purposes of plantation labor, they were not allowed to organize themselves, to intermarry with the free, or to buy their freedom. As their numbers increased with the glut of the market which followed the abolition of slave exporting, and the prospect of slave rebellions amplified accordingly, their owners sought to control them by terrorizing measures that included threats (and public ritual acts) of human sacrifice . Western Igbo-speaking groups called routes lying east of the Niger “uzo-igbo“, meaning (at least to some of these Western communities) “road of slaves”8, referring to their sources of involuntary but economically valuable labor.

Terminology of this kind evidently also characterized the slave-dealing towns of Igbo speakers located along the river itself. Research in the riverine, Onitsha-related kingdom of Aboh has shown that slaves were (and are) viewed there in sharply ethnic and disparaging terms:

“A slave is sometimes designated by the not too polite term onye igbo, or simply igbo, which means no more than ‘an Igbo’ or someone from Igbo country…. The terms osu (= oru, “domestic slave” in Onitsha dialect) and igbo are today regarded by the Aboh people as words of singular indignity and are seldom used to describe a person except in the most private conversations.”9

East of the Niger, the pattern of slaveholding was very different: slaves were much more typically kept in “domestic” relations with their owners. Those female slaves who bore children to their masters became effectively free, and industrious slaves could buy their freedom. This was an overpopulated region inhospitable to influxes of additional surplus human beings, where therefore, and through the fact of continuous export, an expanding and segregated population of exploited slaves did not arise, and treatment of slaves remained more acommodative and assimilationist than was found in the west.10  While wealthy men in this region did seek power through titles, they did not become a ritually exalted social class defined largely by the extent of their slave owning, their rejection of manual labor, and their capacity to perform ritual killing of slaves in celebrating their honor (as was true of many towns west of the River). Some of these eastern Igbo-speaking people called themselves “Ndi-Igbo” evidently to designate themselves as upland dwellers in contrast to their riverain (“Ndi-olu“) neighbors .11

In 1961-2 Helen and I lacked anything approaching a strong grasp of this longstanding contrast, the dimensions of which have only become clear from subsequent research by others in other parts of Igbo-speaking country, especially in the West.12 However we did recognize that Ndi Onicha occupied an interestingly ambiguous position in their relationships between east and west: nostalgically they viewed themselves as part of the west, but their ecological position involved them much more heavily in everyday relations with those to the east. At the same time, they were engaged in a north-south axis of interchange (the Ndi-Olu axis) that neither westerners nor further-easterners shared to the same extent, but whose terms of social categorization appear to have approximated the western type (as reflected in the Aboh example quoted above): they regarded people they stereotyped as “slaves” with deep and abiding disdain.

In their largely domestic patterns of slave holding, their traditional emphasis on respect for farming labor as a mark of personal manhood, and in their practices affording slaves varied social opportunities to assimilate to free status, Onitsha people appear to have fairly closely approximated in their everyday behavior the slave-assimilating patterns of their eastern hinterland neighbors.13 But in the political centrality of their title system (and its symbolic linkage to ritual sacrifice of slaves as a means of displaying the honor of superior persons), and in a variety of other, symbolically-important ways, Onitsha more closely resembled their Western relatives (as did their geographically and historically even nearer kindred, the members of the riverain, Ndi-Olu kingdom of Aboh).

Here we largely set aside other criteria of the definition of Ndi-Igbo as applied by Ndi-Onicha, for example one quoted in Henderson 1972:41:

The upland implications of the term further connoted a lack of ready access to water:  Onitsha people refer to Ndi-Igbo as ‘Those who do not wash’, alluding to the traditional custom in the uplands of rubbing the body with palm oil as an aromatic, odor-masking substitute for bathing.”

Comments like this of course have been ill-received by many contemporary people who call themselves “Ndi-Igbo“, and when I wrote the book I hesitated to include statements of this kind, but we are talking about precolonial times, when 19th-century missionaries in Onitsha reported observations like those of the Sierra Leonean CMS agent Thomas John in 1878 regarding his recent visit to the nearby towns of Nkpor and  Umu-Oji14 In contrast, Ndi-Igbo I met in the 1960s and ’70s were impressively “modern” in a great many ways, as we shall see in more detail elsewhere in this work, and a number of them seemed to us remarkably concerned about personal cleanliness (including one young visitor to our house in Tucson in the early 1970s, who was clearly offended by the Henderson household of those days for its small-children-smeared incidence of dirt. He ostentatiously scrubbed the chair on which we had invited him to sit (and indeed it contained remnants of jellies spilled by young hands too active for busy parents to clean for them).15

That such aesthetic-cultural differences, defined in a historical past, remained significant stereotypically in more recent times is evidenced by the comments of the Onye-Onicha artist and writer Sam Ifeka, who published his ethnography Onitsha Social Heritage in the Nigerian Spokesman from May through June of 1962. From the May 38, 1962 issue on the subject of endogamy and exogamy I recorded the following (including the quotations indicated):

“Onitsha people prefer endogamy out of snobbery; clash of customs is relevant, as the Onitsha man ‘will rather risk his life across the Niger to search for a wife in the hamlets of Asaba, Onitsha Olona, Isele, or Abor, than walk a mile, in the safety of an open road, to the hinterland, for that same purpose.’  But it is not mainly kinship with those across the river, but rather that ‘among them he recognizes an appreciation of his social values: honesty and truth; reverence for social life and institutions’; ‘and above all his love of personal cleanliness.’  This latter is the source of his excessive self-esteem ‘which his neighbours find unbearable’.”

Differences in “social values” of course imply a great many things, and for the precolonial world a long list of differences could no doubt be compiled between those identifying themselves with cultures west of the River versus those who identify with the east.  In terms of the visuals of personal appearance, note a few comments by the missionary-ethnographer G.T. Basden, who lived in Eastern Nigeria during a time (the 1920s and 30s) when local (and historically remembered) differences of appearance were still prevalent. In his chapter on “Girls and Women”, beginning with those of the east, He observed that16

“Prior to the opening up of the country, women manifested very little interest in personal apparel; there was little inducement for them to do so.  There was no such thing as a manufactured garment in the country-side and not one had knowledge of sewing, or had even seen a needle….  The chief reason why women went naked, or with no more than a scanty cloth, was because the men had a rooted objection against their women-folk being covered, and legislated against their wearing cloth….

“This law of prohibition did not apply on the western side of the Niger.  The custom in that vicinity is to wear a loincloth and a larger loose cloth swathed around the body.  Most of the women use a fair-sized cloth which they wrap around them, covering the whole person from the chest to below the knees.”

The point here is not to pass judgment on one set of customary characteristics or another, but rather to emphasize that differences between people of the West and East were in precolonial times very broad-based (and no doubt in ethnocentric terms highly judgmental, from perspectives on both sides)17.

In any case, specifically regarding the status of slavery, we find a remarkable ambiguity in Onitsha perspectives (as viewed from a broader stance taking account of their inter cultural relations): an “absolute” denigration of slaves rather similar to that just described for Aboh (and Western Igbo speakers), but strong evidence for actual practices of assimilation much like those found in the towns to the east and southeast among the “Ndi-igbo” themselves. This pattern intensifies the apparent Onitsha self-contradictions previously discussed, and again suggests a deepening paradox for their communal self-identification.

2. Contrasting traditional cultures as sources of more recent stereotypes: The “Warrior- Migrant” people

“The act of migration puts into crisis everything about the migrating individual or group, everything about identity and selfhood and culture and belief.” 18

This remarkable observation opens a door to fuller understanding of the history of Ndi-Onicha in their relationships with others.  Onitsha people have long publicly affirmed oral traditions of their origin across the River Niger far to the West, in or near the great state of Benin, describing a time in the precolonial past when, after retreating from an area near Benin following their military defeat, they eventually arrived at River Niger, crossed to its east bank and settled where they now dwell by expelling the previous occupants. I outlined a version of this tradition elsewhere (including discussion of the strong grounds for accepting its generic historicity)19. These legends surely reflect real, extensive societal disruptions and movements associated with the direct impact of Portuguese stimulated expansionist military power exercised by Benin in this area beginning in the sixteenth century. Wallerstein20, and Wolf21 provide brief accounts of the world-system political economics of the slave trade in West Africa which place the traditions in these contexts.)), but  the narrative of an Onye-Onicha author  highlights some distinctive features that deserve stronger emphasis here.

Nnanyelugo S.I. Bosah22 states that Ndi-Onicha were given their name, after their “exodus from Benin”,

“by people whose territories they marched through, ravaging or plundering all that stood in their way…. The name Onitsha {he continues} means dispiser (sic, “despiser”). It reflects the manner the emigrants dealt with obstacles placed on their route by adjoining towns and villages. They were known for looking down on people other than their tribe.”

In his autobiographical My Odyssey (( )), Nnamdi Azikiwe emphasized this point, and in his maiden publication on Onitsha history23, he emphasized the ethos affirmed by the Onitsha warrior king Eze Chima by displaying it in capital letters24:


Mr. Bosah (who did some of his own ethno-historical research among the various “Onitsha” related towns west of the Niger during the 1940s and 50s) presents several versions of these travels, culminating, after various periods of settlement in Western Igbo-speaking towns by the Onitsha founder king, Eze Chima, in Onitsha people’s crossing of the River Niger, and their festive reception by “itinerant Igala fishermen” on the Eastern bank, where (Mr. Bosah continues)25:

They were sumptuously entertained and, according to legend, an “anthill” [Mkpu] sprouted the following day on the spot where they were fed. It is on this spot that the Ani-Onicha [Mother Earth Onitsha] shrine was built. The oracle saw the miraculous incident as a sign of good omen, predicting longevity, prosperity, good health and abundant children in store for the immigrants.”

The new inhabitants then fought a war with the Oze Igbo people who lived in the hills east of the River, drove them away, and settled the hills for themselves. Thereafter, they alternately dominated, fought wars against, and negotiated occasional peace with the “Igbo people” who occupied their immediate hinterlands.

An earlier written version from the 1930s by Onitsha author M.O. Ibeziako, entitled The Founder and Celebrities of Onitsha, draws strong parallels between Onitsha people and the people of Israel26):

“CHIMA was a great founder and a noble Monarch Heaven rest his soul. One can really say he was in his mission and calling a Moses of Old and an Apostle of true leadership. His ancestors had always been ready to fare forth to other lands….  CHIMA had a thirst for invasion, plunder and greed of conquest running in his veins, so that when the famous Benin war was waging fiercely along the territorial borders, he seized the opportunity. After many months of hard fighting, like Moses, the sacred call came to him to lead his people to the land that flowed with milk and honey. He retreated with his army and emigrated…. CHIMA was denied the privilege of reaching the promised land. He had seen but the glimpse of it before he laid down the mantle….”

Varying militant-heroic visions of these kinds have resonated among Ndi-Onicha for a long period of time27, and while they defined themselves as rejecting slavery for themselves, they showed no hesitation at imposing it on others.  Zik’s maiden history28 affirms that when they reached Onitsha and encountered a hostile tribe, “It took them a few days to drive them further into the interior and enslave them.”

Numerous Ndi-Onicha we knew in 1961 often described themselves as “like the Jews of old”, and clearly some interesting parallels may be drawn between Onitsha origin legends and Hebrew Biblical texts describing the invasion of Palestine by the Israelites. The distinguished Harvard Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages Peter Machinist describes the origin stories of the ancient Israelites in terms similar to those of Onitsha:  In both cases, a distinctive social and cultural group (one viewed by the narrators themselves as uniquely exalted and/or “holy”) enters, initially as an “outsider”, into a land previously inhabited by others, who (despite their prior occupancy) are deemed unfit to “contaminate” the invaders (who by virtue of their distinctive spiritual identity claim they hold a higher title to the land)29.

And both kinds of father-founder “identity” stories serve to draw very sharp boundaries between an “Us” and a “Them”, despite what careful historical research would reveal to be much more complex interactions of people.  As Machinist puts it30,

“The more sharply {these stories} affirm a boundary, the more we can be certain that the reality was muddier and more fragile.  Indeed, we may say that the sharpness was there precisely to make sense of the reality — to affirm an ‘us’ whose existence its members (at least those involved with the stories) felt was threatened, and that they may well have been hard put to distinguish from a host of ‘others’.”

And when we look at the complexity of Onitsha social involvements (and at all levels of social organization from the Kingship to the smallest village unit), these same Onitsha people will recount myriad specific internal oral traditions describing multiple, serial imigrations of people into the community from various places of origin, including a variety of Igbo-speaking towns .((See Henderson (1972): 76-102, 481-84 for some examples of these diverse village origins.))

F&J-Olu-W-IgboStill, given this historical complexity, it seems justifiable to infer (in light of the multiple yet in some sense “converging” oral-historical narratives that have been provided for the Ndi-Onicha migration from the West, crossing the Plenitude of Waters to their ultimately highly favorable location on the east bank, that some kind of planned “invasion” likely took place involving the cooperation of a number of groups.  The map at right, drawn from the Forde and Jones survey31, outlining a distribution of “UmuEzeChima” clans  in the vicinity of an area that various oral traditions label “Ado” these in turn located near the oral-historically focal town of Illah, continue to suggest that a people who “could not swim” must have found a considerable organizational support for their transfer across the river (though  riding on “the backs of manatees”, however dramatic a notion, seems much less likely than some elaborate collusion with the Ndi-Olu, the people that Forde and Jones here labelled “Aboh”Ibos).

However, while the “Mighty Warrior” oral traditions of Onitsha (and some nearby Ndi-Igbo as well) recount early tendencies toward expansion of Onitsha royal influence into the eastern Ndi-Igbo hinterlands (and elsewhere) through extensive intermarriage, farmland leasing arrangements, and outreaching conflict resolution mechanisms, by the time that European explorers entered the region in the mid nineteenth century the Onitsha community was “entirely shut up from communication with their neighbors”, oriented in a defensive military posture toward nearly all outside groups; a posture which, however, seems not to have been militarily very effective and appears to have been punctuated by treasonous disloyalties at some points. Some measure of collective desperation was evident when Ndi-Onicha so eagerly embraced the settlement of European controlled missionary and trading agencies at the Onitsha Waterside in 185732, a willingness to accept yet another group of outsiders to assist them, but who would pose new  and much more serious kinds of identity problems.

3. Contrasting traditional cultures as sources of contemporary stereotypes: modes of “killing others”

Our grasp of the “traditional” patterns of “killing the other” as modes of ethnic identification grew slowly during our stay in Onitsha and through our subsequent research.

The “Human Sacrifice” Mode

The historical connection between Ndi-Onicha insinuations of taking others as slaves and their proclaimed sources of victims for human sacrifice seemed fairly clear to us from early in our field research, but in 1960-62 their public spokesmen declared both practices to be customs of the past, and those who discussed it spoke in terms of a slave or two occasionally sacrificed upon the death of Kings. Our subsequent archival research (especially in the extended and often fairly detailed descriptions by Church Missionary Society agents during their early settlement in Onitsha from 1857 until the assumption of direct control over the city by the British in 1900) revealed a reported incidence of Onitsha ritual killing much higher than that described either by informants or in Meek’s book, leading me to infer that the pattern held a much more central position in the early historical culture than we had assumed from our ethnographic observation and questioning during the Interregnum of 1961-62.33

For example, when Obi Akazua died in 1872, a resident missionary portrayed the King’s senior son as saying that 60 people should be killed to mark the Obi’s demise. According to the mission sources, under their pressure he agreed to reduce the number first to 20 and finally to 7, though his brothers reportedly thought this small number “degrading to the father.”34 Numerous other accounts dating from the 1850s through the 1880s indicate a much higher frequency of ritual killing than Meek’s 1930s report suggested (though after 1900 when the British Government moved into Onitsha, some CMS writers for example assumed that such practices were entirely a thing of the past).35. So the process played a significant role in precolonial Onitsha sociopolitical leadership, at some points serving as a measurement of the strength of royal (and chiefly) power, of “status honor” or social centrality (measured directly in contrast to the marginality/dispensability of the “slave” or multiples thereof).

This high incidence of human sacrifice is not entirely explained by establishing its relation to standards of status honor, but requires broader understanding of the meaning of sacrifice, including its association with concepts of health and well being. The ritual killing of animals in Onitsha (and elsewhere) has meanings entailing the giving up or destruction of something of value to oneself, in order to forestall punishment of oneself by some higher being; the sacrificing of a relatively peripheral, dispensible part of oneself (for example, a possession) in order to preserve some more valued, central, composite whole (for example, the whole self or a social group) when that whole has become endangered, impure, or otherwise vulnerable. In Onitsha precolonial ritual contexts, it seems clear that the sacred leader (as symbolic of community) represented the (cosmic-linked) center of this composite whole [see Leadership Symbolism in this work] and that sacrifices of parts were required when the purity or healthfulness of this whole was threatened. For example, an 1879 report stated a rule that a human sacrifice was required if any man and woman touched each other inside the King’s palace36. Why the killing of human beings was required as a response to such threats to ritual purity becomes increasingly intelligible in light of the generalized combat modelling of internal politics as well as of external relations.

The kind of beings who were regarded as “dispensible, peripheral parts” of the whole, and thus suitable for sacrifice, tended to be identified by recent Onitsha informants as “Ndi-Igbo“. What proportion of the human sacrifices reported in the early accounts came directly from the hinterland (as Ndi-Igbo), what proportion may have been Inland Town residents of some duration (Ndi-Onicha) indeed whether the archival reports were accurate at all will never be definitely known, and an Onitsha proverb states that the Obi “kills a person on the day that one most values life” [Henderson 1972:276], which implies ideologically that anybody is vulnerable to his whim. However, the documentary evidence that does exist makes probable an inference that those persons openly defined as “dispensible, peripheral parts”, agglomerations to the greater composite whole of some more important or central individual or group (people defined as “possessions”, equivalent to domestic livestock in that sense ), were most often persons of recent Igbo descent (often females, typically foreign captives or pawns), and that these formed by far the largest proportion of victims in the ritual process. For example, in 1866 mission agent Isaac George reported that one “Saro”, “an old Ibo” man, was “fixed fast to a grove which will soon be stained with his blood.” [George 1962 68:March]. Use of an ethnic qualifier was however rather rare when victims were described in these reports, usually “a boy”, “a girl”, etc. is all the evidence provided.

Captives taken in war were the most obvious source of such persons as possessions, and the traditional Onitsha elaboration of the culture of warfare includes prominent reference to the taking of trophy heads, closely linking this process to the ritual sacrificial rights of kingship. [Henderson 1972:276 9, 319 20, 346 8, 374 7, 395 6] Thus from another perspective the question of what kind of community spirit or ancestral ghost would demand human sacrifice by its living agents seems increasingly obvious: one whose dominant values prescribe strong external militance on the part of central leaders, and who glorifies such behavior as the apex of human (at least male) achievement. The Onitsha legends of “origins” also underline this theme (which in combination with the perception of ruleless internal combat hardens the picture).

The “Cannibalism” Mode

But there is another side to the meaning of “Igbo” as defined by Onitsha people, a counterpart to Onitsha self-identification and human sacrificers, which might be called a “culture of cannibalism”. One reason Onitsha people historically held Ndi-Igbo in contempt arose from their shared traditional claim that Ndi Igbo avidly consumed human flesh (a practice that Onitsha people regarded with strong repugnance). Moreover, in several contexts third parties claimed to us that young Igbo men had boasted to them of personal commitment to this custom, even describing means of preserving the cooked meat by baking it in clay. This “cultural tradition” thus also took the form of a potential threat uttered by some Igbo people toward others.

That a historical culture of cannibalism existed in Igboland east and southeast of Onitsha (but excluding Onitsha itself) was asserted both in diverse missionary accounts of the 19th century and in ethnographic surveys undertaken during the colonial era. {{ See, for example, Crowther 1873 (C.M Record 1873 pp. 217 18), Leonard 1906, pp. 161 2, 181, Thomas 1913 (vol.1), pp. 83 5, Talbot 1926 (vol. III), 826 38, Basden 1938, pp. 126-7.)) Basden draws a sharp contrast between Ndi-Onicha and their Western relatives versus those of the “eastern interior”, stating that among the latter “The general practice was to eat all captives taken in war” and that, with widespread “meat hunger” in this region, people believed that a diet including human flesh was very significantly tonic.

In the first two years of Nigerian Independence when we did our initial field research in Onitsha, discussion of this putative cultural tradition (and related ones also strongly repugnant to Western moralists) was sufficiently tabooed among the social circles of educated Nigerian nationalists that I entirely avoided investigating it (though accidental references did occur in the form of stereotypic accusations), and I eventually omitted cannibalism in my list of criteria Ndi-Onicha traditionally used for defining Ndi-Igbo as a social category foreign to themselves.37. During that time, certain Ndi-Onicha accused me of planning to write a book detailing the “bestiality” of Nigerian people (one denounced me in a public setting, making the preposterous claim that I had already written that “our people have tails”, and in my publications I tried to write with a great deal of circumspection about such morally supercharged matters as this. Ignoring the issue of cannibalism here would however distort and blur our grasp of the sore groundings of these ethnic differences.

Partly it is relevant because in a sense this cultural stereotype of “Igbo cannibalism” may have worked two ways, may indeed have served as a political antithesis to the Onitsha culture of human sacrifice: if the latter (or the threat of it) may be viewed as a ritual form emphasizing disciplinary social control applied from above (from a “centralized authority”, prototypically kingship), cannibalism (or the threat of it) may be regarded in this intersocietal context as a kind of disciplinary social control applied from below, an expression of the contempt of the disadvantaged toward their would-be superiors in warfare (or from a more positive or emulative perspective, a goal of directly incorporating the power of previously threatening others into themselves)38

While the significance of this pair of symbols — human sacrifice vs. cannibalism — as a categorical contrast framing an ethnic opposition should not be exaggerated, its relevance to this equation of antagonism now seems clearer to me than it did in 1960-62. Although in the context of more than a hundred years of Christian missionization in this region both cannibalism and royal human sacrifice had become subjects of widespread moral rejection, in 1961 several Onitsha people I worked closely with privately displayed, when I proposed we make visits to some nearby hinterland town, a paralyzing fear of being seized and eaten by the Ndi-Igbo, and “boastful threats” of cannibalism may well have had a problematic reality status comparable to those of Onitsha human sacrifice described for arrogant Ndi- Onicha youths elsewhere.39. Some people on each side apparently used such imagery to draw a drastic distance between themselves and the other in order to polarize opposition by defining the other as mere “means” to “our” own ends. And discourse of this type has more than momentary consequences: it can intensify and polarize present-day oppositions that grow out of mainly contemporary conflicts of interest.

The Aro-Chukwu complication! “Eating” by slave-export

(Map here of that side;

see Iweka-nuno on Obosi connection to Aro;  Nnewi connection; clearly Aro  encroaching…..

Stevenson et al book on Igbo State-formation; must be in library; should be read…..

  1. Forde & Jones 1950 []
  2. See Henderson 1972:45-46, 76-82, which also lists some of the earlier accounts of the legend. []
  3. Henderson 1972:39-43 provided an overview of these issues that can still stand (with modifications from later scholarship. []
  4. While Henderson 1972 outlined some of these ecological/economic contrasts, the following account relies considerably on more recent research, for example works by Northrop 1979, Martin 1988, and Ohadike 1991. []
  5. See Henderson 1972:499-501, for a brief account of these processes in the immediate Onitsha hinterland. []
  6. For example, see Martin 1988:17-35. This account presents another aspect of the well known Ndi-Igbo “adaptability to change” so insightfully formulated by Ottenberg 30 years earlier. (1958). []
  7. Ohadike 1990:31 40 []
  8. Northcote Thomas 1914: 118 []
  9. Ogedengbe 1977:140 []
  10. Northrup (1979:7 9). This suggests that most Ndi-Igbo communities of the eastern Palm Oil belt maintained quite limited patterns of household slavery throughout the 19th century, rapidly assimilating these slaves to free status. See also Ohadike. []
  11. See Obi 1963:2 for discussion of this geographic basis of terminological contrast (which Chinua Achebe, a native of Ogidi, also employed in his works). []
  12. For example, Martin (1988), Northrup (1979), Ohadike (1990), Okpewho  . []
  13. See Henderson 1972:425 6 for an outline of the traditional assimilation process. []
  14. After noting the scarcity of water in these towns, he stated that women there grease their bodies with oil, lacking chance to bathe, and they stink.  (He went on to observe that he saw at least 1,000 people in  Nkpor central market, including visitors from Onitsha and other towns.  Palm oil coming from far in the interior was the main article being traded.) CMS Archives CA3/022/2. []
  15. He did not deal with us again, a disappointment to us because he was clearly a very bright young man. []
  16. Basden 1938:204-205. []
  17. Basden, by the way, was a remarkably astute ethnographer considering his primarily Christian-missionary background.  We are lucky to have him for source materials, gathered in those lost days of the early 20th century, that look back into the misty past. []
  18. Salman Rushdie, 2012, “The disappeared”, The New Yorker Sep. 17, p. 37. []
  19. Henderson 1972:78-82. []
  20. 1974:87- 90. []
  21. 1982:195-220. []
  22. n.d.:3-4 []
  23. Azikiwe 1930 []
  24. page 475 []
  25. See Henderson & Umunna 1988 for extended discussion of the profound symbolic meaning of termite hills (the “anthill” referred to here) in relation to Onitsha community identity. []
  26. Ibeziako (1937 []
  27. One describes their crossing the Niger on the backs of Manatees, thus dispensing with the need for assistance from Ndi-Olu), since as we have noted, they proverbially “do not swim”. []
  28. Ibid, p. 476. []
  29. Machinist 1994 p. 49. []
  30. Machinist p.51 []
  31. 1951: end map. []
  32. see Henderson 1972:472 []
  33. These historical materials may be found in the CMS Archives, London. In Henderson 1972 I cited these sources under the names of the authors who wrote the reports. []
  34. n.s. 3 Romaine, W., 1873, 230 31. (CM Record vol 44, 2nd []
  35. For example, Frances M. Hensley, Niger Dawn. Note also Henderson 1972:Appendix D, pp. 546 48, which presents an old list of royal installation sacrifices putatively required of the new King until the break after “Government made him Obi.” []
  36. Williams 1879 []
  37. Henderson 1972:40 41 []
  38. see Donald Black, 1984, on these and other dimensions of social control. How I wish Black’s work had been available (during my 1960s fieldwork. []
  39. For example, Basden 1938:127 reported an Igbo pattern of “derision and boasting against an enemy, ‘Beware, lest we eat you!'” []
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