Esan carving traditions, Ubiaja

Detail of carved door panel, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909.
Detail of carved wooden door panel, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja, present-day Edo State, Nigeria, 1909.(NWT 1027; RAI 400.17422).

Northcote Thomas visited the Esan (or Ishan) towns of Agbede, Irrua and Ubiaja in August 1909. At the royal palace in Ubiaja, Thomas photographed some remarkable carved doors and house-posts. 71 years later, in 1980, the art historian Carol Ann Lorenz conducted research in Esanland as part of her PhD project Ishan Sculpture: Nigerian Art at a Crossroads of Culture (Columbia University, 1995). In this article, we revisit Lorenz’s unpublished notes about the Ubiaja carvings in the light of our own research as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project.

Carved houseposts, Obirrra's house, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, ,1909.
Detail of Northcote Thomas’s photograph of sculpted house-posts at ‘Obiria’s house’, Ubiaja palace, 1909 (NWT 1007; RAI 400.17390).

In 1980, Lorenz was able to document the remains of what she termed ‘figurated house-posts’ – or orẹ in the Esan language – in a number of towns, including 75 in Uromi, a short distance from Ubiaja. These sculptural posts supported the verandas of palaces and noble residences, providing a visual statement of the owner’s status and authority. At the time of Lorenz’s fieldwork, such posts were no longer made and those that survived were in a very poor state – some no more than mere stumps. Although the examples in Ubiaja were no longer in evidence, Lorenz noted the importance of Thomas’s photographs insofar as they provided a rare documentation of an assemblage of complete posts in situ.

Ubiaja palace complex

Lorenz was unable to find any oral traditions about the carvings in Ubiaja. She did, however, learn from the ruling Onojie (king) of Ubiaja, HRH Abumhenre Ebhojie II, that a fire had destroyed the palace in 1902. Evidently unaware that Thomas visited Ubiaja seven years later, in 1909, Lorenz made the incorrect assumption that he had photographed the palace sculptures prior to their destruction in the conflagration. It appears, rather, that the house-posts that Thomas photographed were part of a new palace, built after 1902, or of buildings that had not been affected by the fire. Indeed, we know from Thomas’s photograph register that he photographed at least two different buildings within the palace complex.

The palace, Ubiaja, Edo State, Nigeria
The Onojie’s new palace, Ubiaja, 2020. Photograph by Paul Basu.

When we visited Ubiaja as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, a brand new palace had recently been constructed for the reigning Onojie, HRH Curtis Idedia Eidenojie. Adjacent to this impressive new concrete structure are various generations of earlier earthen-walled palace buildings, many in a ruinous state. It was not possible to say with certainty if any of these were the remains of the palace that Thomas photographed in 1909.

Ruins of old palace, Ubiaja, Edo State, Nigeria.
The ruins of earthen-walled buildings that formed a courtyard in the palace complex. Each new Onojie has built a new palace, and different generations of palace buildings sit alongside one another. It was not possible to ascertain if any of the ruins corresponded to the buildings Thomas photographed in 1909. The roof of the new palace can be seen rising above the ruins. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Thomas visited Ubiaja during the rule of Elabor, who reigned between 1876 and 1921. By 1909, however, Elabor was elderly and suffering from ill-health. In these circumstances, a power struggle existed between a senior member of the royal household, Prince Obiyan, and Elabor’s eldest son, Prince Ugbesia, over who should act as the Onojie’s regent. Thomas photographed Elabor alongside a man he labelled ‘Obiria’. During our fieldwork in Ubiaja, the name Obiria was not recognised and it was felt that this was an incorrect transcription of Ugbesia. Some of the doorposts photographed by Thomas and discussed by Lorenz are, according to Thomas’s photo register, from ‘Obiria’s house’.

King and Obirrra, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909.
Left: ‘King and Obiria’. The figure on the left, ‘Obiria’, is thought to be the king’s son, Ugbesia. The figure on the right is the Onojie (king), Elabor. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 999, RAI 400.17389). Right: ‘King and Obiria’. Elabor and Obiria (probably Ugbesia) sitting in front of sculpted house-posts at the palace. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1000, RAI 400.17391).

House-posts

Lorenz provided descriptions of each of the house-posts photographed by Thomas. Regarding the house-posts in the photograph above right (NWT 1000), the sculpture on the left depicts two kneeling figures, one above the other with a platform between them. Lorenz reported that this configuration was unique in her survey of Esan sculptures, although it was common in Yorubaland. The sculpture on the right depicts a figure carrying a fowl or bird on a head tray, possibly representing an intended sacrifice.

Carved houseposts, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909
Left: ‘Figurine in court’. Sculpted house-post at palace, photographed by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1002; RAI 400.17393). Right: ‘Figurine’. Decorated plank and sculpted house-post at ‘Obiria’s house’, photographed by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1003; RAI 400.17394).

The house-post in the photograph above left (NWT 1002) is described as ‘depicting a female figure touching her breast with one hand and her full belly with the other. Her abdomen is decorated with incised patterns’. Lorenz described the house-posts in the photograph above right (NWT 1003) as ‘depicting a painted snake image on a plank post, and a three-dimensional trumpet blower’. While Lorenz identified all these sculptures as belonging simply to ‘the palace in Ubiaja’, those in the photograph above right (NWT 1003) can be identified in the photograph below, which Thomas’s labelled ‘Obiria’s house’. Although not the main palace, it is likely that this was located in the palace complex.

‘Obiria’s house’. Photograph of a high status house with sculpted posts supporting the veranda. During our fieldwork in Ubiaja, the name ‘Obiria’ was not recognized and it was thought that this was an erroneous transcription of the name ‘Ugbesia’, the son of the king, Elahor. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1007; RAI 400.17390).

Lorenz described the sculptures in the photograph of what we now know to be ‘Obiria’s house’ (NWT 1007) as depicting (from left to right): ‘a naked male figure, a swordsman carrying a severed head, a warrior with a shield and spear, a man with a pith helmet, a trumpet player, and a seated king’. There is a strong formal consistency in the four central carvings (the swordsman, warrior, man in pith helmet and trumpet player), suggesting they were made together and were the work of a single artist or workshop. They also appear to be relatively recently carved, due to the lack of weathering or insect damage.

Although Lorenz did not comment on it, the post on extreme left of this photograph – that depicting ‘a naked male figure’ – is perhaps more interesting than it at first appears. Firstly, it has no head. Instead of a head, the post continues merely as a flat ‘plank’ to the roof joists. Could its head possibly be that held by the swordsman sculpted from the adjacent pillar? Secondly, the figure appears to be shackled around its neck and left leg to a pillar beside it. Pure speculation, but perhaps this figure represents the body of a vanquished enemy? Stripped, shackled and finally beheaded?

Although we cannot be absolutely sure that Obiria is the king’s son, Ugbesia, it is interesting to note that Ugbesia was known to be despotic and tyrannical. The Esan historian, Christopher Okojie, writes that with the decline in Elabor’s powers, ‘the light of the Ruling House of Ubiaja went out’ and was ‘replaced with darkness in which hatred, confusion, suspicion and bipartisan warfare’ reigned. As noted above, at the time of Thomas’s visit, there was conflict between Ugbesia and his competitor for the regentship, Prince Obinyan. This quarrel evidently split Eguare (the palace quarter) into two warring factions, which had a profound effect on the wider Ubiaja community. In 1914 Ugbesia was formally recognized as regent, but the following years were also spent embroiled in conflict until, in 1919, he died in ‘mysterious circumstances’, predeceasing his incapacitated father by two years.

King's wives bathing, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909.
‘King’s wives bathing’. Courtyard at the palace in Ubiaja with carved house-posts. It is likely that this is the quarters of the king’s wives. Each wife would have a room accessed through the doors between the house-posts. When we were shown the ruins of later palace building, this same arrangement of wives’ rooms around a courtyard was pointed out. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 994a; RAI 400.17385).

In her notes on the above photograph of a palace courtyard (NWT 994a), Lorenz describes the house-post figures as depicting, from left to right, ‘a seated king, an ekpokin box bearer, an ujie group, two swordbearers, and a female figure nursing a child’. An ekpokin is a box used to carry gifts or tributes to the king. Ujie is music/dance genre in Esanland associated with royalty. According to Lorenz, these were common motifs in Esan sculpture.

Door panels

In addition to house-posts, Thomas photographed other sculptural forms in Ubiaja, including a number of carved doors and an agbala stool. The door carvings are quite distinct from the styles either of Benin or Igboland, of which Thomas photographed many examples. Lorenz argues that they are strongly influenced by Nupe door carving styles from the north, with discrete relief figures arranged in vertical rows. The Nupe had invaded the region to the north of Esanland earlier in the 19th century, and their influence extended to the Esan towns such as Irrua, Agbede and Ubiaja that Thomas visited. Unlike Nupe doors, however, the Esan examples include many representations of human figures, as well as the more typical representations of animals and inanimate objects.

Relief door carvings, photographed by Northcote Thomas at the palace in Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1025; RAI 400.17419 and NWT 1027; RAI 400.17422).

Lorenz interprets the figure at the top right of the photograph above left (NWT 1025) as being a male noble (okpia) holding a segmented ukhurhe staff. He is positioned above a female figure (okhuo), below whose feet a horizontal female figure lies. Lorenz observes that this door appears to have been repaired. The centre panel featuring a human figure, profile of a monkey and a lizard, has, she suggests, been carved in a different style to the two panels that flank it. She also observed that this and the left-hand panel were placed upside down when the door was reassembled. The larger male figure at bottom left should be at the top, holding the royal symbols of ada and eben aloft.

Thomas’s photograph above right (NWT 1027) features scenes of violence, which Lorenz argues is a common theme in Esan carving. At the bottom right is an equestrian figure (ohenakasi), depicted in profile, wielding a double-edged sword (agbada). The male figure at top left, interpreted by Lorenz as a warrior, carries a grid-like shield, known as asa in Benin. The shield was made of sticks or palm ribs, which, as Lorenz argues, ‘would not offer much physical defence’. They were, however, ‘fortified with protective medicine (ukhumun), which enabled it to repel or catch enemy weapons’. This door also features a leopard (bottom left, recognizable from its tail which arches over its back), a crocodile eating another animal (top right), and a ceremonial eben sword – all three emblems are associated with royalty.

Agbala stool

Lorenz devoted a whole chapter of her thesis to a discussion of a type of courtly furniture, the agbala or stool of office. Like other items of regalia, the stool illustrate both similarities and differences between Esan and Benin City, where the equivalent stool is known as agba. Lorenz argues that Esan elites ‘appear to have required a locally carved stool of office which was similar enough to the Benin agba to retain its association with prestige and authority, but divergent enough to be a distinctively Esan product’.

Such stools are used exclusively by the Onojie or other hereditary chiefs on ceremonial and ritual occasions. Lorenz notes that it is particularly forbidden for the owner’s senior son and heir to sit upon them. The stools are kept in the ancestral shrine room and often serve as a focus of offering to the ancestors. Thomas photographed one of these agbala stools in Ubiaja, and noted that they were equivalent to ukhurhe rattle-staffs, used to commemorate and honour the paternal ancestors.

Stool used for worship of father, Ubiaja and end of stool, Irua. Northcote Thomas.
Left: Agbala stool photographed by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja in 1909 (NWT 1039; RAI 400.17436). Right: Side panel of agbala stool collected by Northcote Thomas in Irrua in 1909 (NWT 1-2564; MAA Z 12815).

Lorenz was able to locate nearly 30 examples of Esan agbala stools and was able to identify three distinct styles. The example photographed by Thomas in Ubiaja is typical of what she terms the ‘ridged figural’ style, which feature highly-geometricized caryatid figures, carved in relief on the stretchers, often – as in this case – with arms upraised. The side panels also feature relief carvings, with a semi-circle cut away at the base to form two legs. Unfortunately, the design on the seat of the stool is not clear in the photograph.

Thomas did not photograph examples of wood carving in the other Esan towns he visited. He did, however, collect the side panel of another agbala stool in Irrua. This is an example of what Lorenz defines as an ‘openwork’ style, associated with the town of Uromi. Indeed, by comparing this panel with other complete stools, she argues that it was likely made in Uromi, even though it was collected in Irrua.

Esanland at a crossroads of culture

Through her analysis of Esan sculpture, including the examples documented by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja in 1909, Lorenz’s main thesis was that Esan culture was essentially hybrid in nature. It was the mixture of Benin, Nupe, Yoruba and Igbo traditions that gave Esan art its unique character, as evidenced in these remarkable sculptural house-posts, carved doors and stools of office. Alas, these arts are no longer practised, and, due to the ephemeral nature of the materials, susceptible to decay and insect damage, and to collectors (Northcote Thomas included), very little of this sculpture has survived. We found not even a memory of it at the palace in Ubiaja.

Perhaps a new generation of contemporary Esan artists will one day discover Thomas’s photographs of these amazing sculptures and revive – or reinterpret – the tradition?

Further reading

  • Lorenz, C. A. 1995. Ishan Sculpture: Nigerian Art at a Crossroads of Culture, Unpublished PhD thesis, Columbia University.
  • Okojie, C. G. 1960. Ishan Native Laws and Customs (Yaba: Okwesa)
  • Ukpan, J. A. 2010. History and Culture of Ubiaja (Benin City: Obhio)

Traces of conflict in the archive

Men displaying fighting techniques, Awka. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911.
Display of traditional fighting techniques, Awka, 1911. Photograph by Northcote Thomas. NWT 2135; MAA P.30533.

Working through the photographs, sound recordings, artefact collections and written accounts that constitute the archive of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa, the turbulence of the times in which these materials were assembled is not immediately apparent. Of course, it can be argued that the archive as whole is a trace of colonial violence. As the historian Nicholas Dirks reminds us, colonial conquest was the result not only of military force but was made possible and sustained through ‘cultural technologies of rule’. Regardless of whether they actually achieved their governmental objectives, Thomas’s surveys were certainly intended to contribute to the consolidation of British ‘indirect rule’ in what were then the Protectorates of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

It is perhaps indicative of the thoroughness with which local resistance to colonialization had been quashed that Thomas was able to travel around so freely over the six years of his surveys between 1909 and 1915. Thomas worked in the towns of Somorika, in 1909, and Agulu, in 1911, both a mere five years after they had been ‘pacified’ through British military operations; he travelled extensively in areas of Asaba District that, until two years previously, were centres of anti-colonial resistance in the Ekumeku wars; his research in Sierra Leone took place in locations that had seen violent conflict in the Hut Tax War of 1898; and he spent months working in Benin City, just 12 years after the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897. Thomas did not, of course, travel alone – his entourage would have included porters and assistants, and we know from correspondence that, at least some of the time, he was accompanied by a member of the police force. There is just one photograph, from Thomas’s 1910-11 tour, in which a uniformed police officer can be seen – we don’t know whether he was ordinarily stationed at the location, or accompanied Thomas there.

A police officer caught in the background of a panoramic photograph taken during Northcote Thomas's 1910-11 tour of Awka District
A police officer caught in the background of a panoramic photograph made by Northcote Thomas during his 1910-11 tour of Awka District. Detail. MAA P.39412.

The years prior to the formal British colonisation of Nigeria and Sierra Leone were also turbulent. Conflict was ever present; often driven by competition for land, resources (including slaves) and control of trade routes. Much of this conflict was directly or indirectly connected to the Transatlantic trade in enslaved people and other commodities, but also resulted from antics of expansionist states in the interior (the incursions of Samori Toure’s Wassoulou Empire into northern Sierra Leone, for example, or Nupe raids into the north of present-day Edo State in Nigeria). Traces of these conflicts – sometimes mislabelled as ‘inter-tribal wars’ by the colonists – are more evident in the materials Thomas assembled during the anthropological surveys.

Fortified hilltop towns

The longue durée of conflict in pre-colonial Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone is evident in the very location of many of the communities that Thomas visited. Town sites were often selected so as to make use of the natural features of the environment so that the community could be more easily defended against attack. This is most obvious in settlements in upland areas, for example those located in what were known at time of Thomas’s surveys as the Kukuruku Hills in the north of present-day Edo State, Nigeria, or in Koinadugu in north-eastern Sierra Leone. Many of the towns that Thomas visited and photographed in these areas occupied fortified hill-top locations. As a result of the ‘imposed peace’ that accompanied British colonisation, these settlements were subsequently abandoned and the towns moved to more accessible locations.

Oba Sule Idaiya pointing out the old site of Somorika, Edo State, Nigeria
HRH Oba Sule Iadiye, the Imah of Somorika, pointing out the original hill-top location of Somorika, Edo State, Nigeria. In a strenuous but very rewarding excursion, the Imah himself took us around the various quarters of the old town and we were able to identify many locations photographed by Thomas in 1909. Photograph by Paul Basu.
Chief Amadu Baio Conteh at Old Yagala, Sierra Leone
Section Chief Amadu Baio Conteh standing in the site of his old family home in the hill-top settlement of Old Yagala in Sierra Leone. Thomas visited the site when it was still inhabited in 1914. It was finally abandoned in 1954 and a new town created in a more accessible location at the bottom of the hill. Photograph by Paul Basu.

When we have brought Thomas’s photographs back to places such as Somorika, Okpe, Otuo and Afokpella in north Edo, or Yagala in Sierra Leone, community members are usually very interested to see what their old hilltop towns looked like when they were inhabited. In some cases, such as Yagala, the old towns were not abandoned until the 1950s and elderly members of the community have childhood memories of the places. Most community members, however, have known the old sites only in their abandoned state and through the many stories that are told about them. Many such stories relate to the heroism of warriors or the ingenuity of the community in repelling attack. The Imah of Somorika, HRH Oba Sule Iadiye, for example, regaled us with stories of the British attack on Somorika in 1904, which, while ending in defeat, is regarded as a moral victory.

In Yagala we were told the story of the famous warrior Suluku, from Bumban, who came with a war party, threatening attack. As they climbed one of the roads to the hilltop town, they came upon an old woman knitting. Suluku informed the woman that they had come to collect payment from Yagala. She gave him her knitting and said ‘Here it is, take it’. Suluku continued on his way to the town. Afterwards, he left by another route only to find the same old woman by the side of the road. He asked how she came to be there before them. ‘This is my place’, she answered, ‘I am not an invader like you’. Suluku thought that she had special powers and asked her for help. She agreed to help, but only in return for gifts. Suluku agreed, and said he would send his brother, Pompoli, from Bumban, with the gifts. Pompoli duly returned bearing the gifts and the old woman gave Suluku some of her magical powers. Incidentally, while Suluku died in 1906, Thomas photographed Pompoli when he visited Bumban in 1914.

Defensive structures

In the lower lying, forested areas of Awka District, which was the focus of Thomas’s 1910-11 tour, Thomas took several photographs of fortified watchtowers. They are known in Igbo as Uno-aja. None of Thomas’s fieldnotes survive from this tour and he did not publish anything about these structures, so we don’t know if he collected any information about them. Oral traditions about the towers survive, however.

Watchtowers, Awka, 1910-11. Photographed by Northcote Thomas.
Defensive watchtowers (uno-aja) photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka, 1911. Left to right: NWT 1990 (MAA P.30422), NWT 2016 (MAA P.30442), NWT 2057 (MAA P.30480).

These towers were typically two or three storeys high and were accessed through a small doorway on an upper floor, reached by a ladder. They served as both a look-out tower and a refuge, particularly for women and children, when a settlement was under attack. Some were rectangular in plan, such as those in the photographs above, others circular, as in the example at Awgbu (see below).

Professor Anselem Ibeanu, currently head of the Department of Archaeology at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, did some research on these watchtowers in the 1980s. While the majority had long-since collapsed or been pulled down to make way for new buildings, he managed to locate a small number that had survived, even though in ruinous condition. One of these was called Okpala Obinagu in Awgbu, supposedly named after the founder of the community who erected it. The tower can be seen in the background of one of Thomas’s photographs of the obu (meeting house), probably of Chief Nwankwo of Awgbu, who Thomas also photographed.

Obu and watchtower, Awgbu, Nigeria. Photographed by Northcote Thomas, 1911.
Left: Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the obu and watchtower in Awgbu, 1911 (NWT 2340, RAI 400.15967). Right: drawn reconstruction of the watchtower in Awgbu based on oral history accounts collected by Professor Ibeanu (Ibeanu 1989: 28).

Professor Ibeanu was able to speak to the elderly great-grandson of the builder of the tower, and was able to draw a reconstruction of what it had once looked like based on the oral accounts. This matches Thomas’s photograph with surprising accuracy, particularly its construction from concentric mud courses, each of which was allowed to partially dry before the next course was added, and the small apertures for windows. Interestingly, in Thomas’s photo register, he captions the tower a ‘storehouse’, suggesting that it was repurposed once the threat of attack subsided.

Re-enactments of warfare

Thomas seems to have struggled to obtain information about the conduct of war – perhaps his informants didn’t want to give away military secrets to the colonialists! He did, however, photograph men in ‘war dress’ and witnessed demonstrations of ‘mock battles’.

Left: chief clothed in war dress, Sabongida, 1909; right: Ebisua dance, Fugar, 1909.
Left: Chief in war dress, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Sabongida, 1909 (NWT 883c, MAA P.28902). Right: Ebisua dance, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Fugar, 1909 (NWT 1058a, MAA P.29138).

There is a wonderful photograph taken in Sabongida in 1909 of a ‘chief’ (unfortunately Thomas doesn’t name him) posing with a magnificent dane gun and wearing war dress. The chief’s gown is covered in amulets, and the protection it offered was more magical than physical. Later the same year Thomas witnessed the annual Ebisua dance at Fugar. Community members in Fugar readily identified the photographs of this event when we visited. Ebisua is a war dance performed annually by the Uruamhinokhua age grade in honour of the war god Ituke. The men clothe themselves in their war dress for the dance, and, brandishing their weapons, reenact their valiant acts of the preceding year. It is an opportunity for the fighting men to show off their strength and military prowess. We were told that, in times of war, men would display the severed heads of enemies they had killed.

Warriors parading at a funeral while spectators look on, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka, 1911. (NWT 2118, RAI 400.16068.)

Thomas photographed another interesting event in Awka in 1911. According to the sparse notes accompanying the photographs, they were taken at a funeral of a man killed in war. (We do not know if this was a re-enactment staged for Thomas, or an actual funeral.) Before an assembled crowd, a group of warriors parade in their war dress, carrying swords and shields. In some of the photographs they appear to be staging a mock fight (see the photograph at the top of this article). Probably during this same event, Thomas made a wax cylinder phonograph recording of ‘Igbo war shouting’.

Wax cylinder phonograph recording of ‘Igbo war shouting’. Recorded by Northcote Thomas in Awka on February 2, 1911, perhaps at the same event that he photographed. (NWT 438, BL C51/2681)

Thomas also appears to have arranged for some of the participants in the funeral to pose for him to demonstrate traditional fighting techniques.

Demonstration of fighting techniques, Awka, 1911
Men demonstrating traditional fighting techniques and displaying war dress, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka, 1911. (Left: NWT 2132; MAA P.30531; Right: NWT 2127; MAA P.30528.)
Shields collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria
Shields collected by Northcote Thomas similar to those in the photographs above. The example on the left was collected in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, in 1911 (NWT 244, MAA Z 14099), the example on the right was collected in Okpe, present-day Edo State, in 1909 (NWT 1865, MAA Z 13191).

Memories of Okoli Ijoma

Not all traces of conflict are so legible in the archive; some traces only reveal themselves in the unexpected comments of community members in response to particular images. This was especially apparent in our fieldwork in the area around Awka, in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. In virtually every town in which we conducted fieldwork, the archive photographs provoked stories of wars with the notorious Okoli Ijoma (‘Okoro Ijomah’ in the Aro dialect). Indeed, it was often because of the threat of attack from Okoli Ijoma and his mercenaries that towns formed alliances with the British, which resulted in a more insidious form of colonisation.

Okoli Ijoma was a powerful warlord from Umuchukwu in Ndikelionwu, a few miles to the south-east of Awka. Ndikelionwu had been founded in the eighteenth century as part of the expanding Aro empire. The Aro, with their homeland at Arochukwu in present-day Abia State, had established a major slave trading confederacy with a powerful military base, often supported by mercenaries. They settled throughout Igboland, forming alliances with some communities, while preying upon others. They are credited with introducing firearms into the region.

Uno Nko Nko with its large ikolo drum, Nibo
Left: Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the ikoro drum in the obu in Nibo, 1911 (NWT 3089a; RAI 400.16463). This would be sounded to warn the community of attack. Right: the ikoro drum today. (Photograph by George Agbo).

Conflict with Okoli Ijoma’s forces would have still been fresh in the memory of communities around Awka at the time of Thomas’s anthropological surveys, and the photographs he took of both people and places still bring to mind that dangerous time – even after 110 years. In Nibo, for example, we were told how the great ikolo drum would be sounded as an alarm of impending attack. It was a signal for the women and children to disperse to refuges, and for the men to gather in preparation for the fight. To save Nibo from further attack, Ezeike Nnama Orjiakor of Nibo formed an alliance with Okoli Ijoma, arranging for his younger sister to marry Okoli’s son, Nwene Ijomah. Nnama became a deputy in Okoli Ijoma’s court, but, later, as the threat of reprisals from the British mounted, he switched allegiance, while Okoli Ijoma fought on.

Divided allegiances. Left: Portait of ‘Obuana of Egwoba’, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Amansea in 1911. This was identified as Chief Nwaobuna, who is said to have protected Amansea from the attacks of Okoli Ijoma. (NWT 3452, RAI 400.20006.) Right: Portrait of Nwene of Amansea, 1911. He is said to have sold children into slavery. (NWT 3448, RAI 400.19999.)

In other towns, allegiances were similarly divided. In Amansea, for example, community members were able to identify a photograph of Chief Nwaobuana, a well-respected leader who later became a Warrant Chief. He is credited with curbing the excesses of Okoli Ijoma and defending the town from attack. Another man, Nwene, was also identified, however. Nwene was the ‘black sheep’ of the community, and was known to take stubborn children from their parents and sell them to the Aro traders. The era of Aro slave trading was brought to an end with the British attack on Arochukwu in 1901. Okoli Ijoma died in 1906.

Read more about Okoli Ijoma and the ‘Ada wars’ at the Ukpuru blog, which is also illustrated with photographs from the Northcote Thomas archives.

Pax Britannica?

The coming of the British must have been met with ambivalence. On the one hand, alliance with the Europeans offered protection from local aggressors. On the other hand, of course, this led to the imposition of British colonial rule and the transformation of culture and society. Thomas’s anthropological surveys were carried out during this transformative moment, when new freedoms of the ‘British Peace’ could be appreciated, while the loss of self-determination under colonial rule was perhaps not yet fully apparent.

Some of the stories recorded by Thomas speak powerfully of this time of change and are therefore important historical sources. When local community members in Okpekpe, in the north of present-day Edo State, helped us translate recordings Thomas made there in 1910, it was interesting to listen to their interpretations. One recording compared past and present, celebrating the fact that children could now wander about freely and the town was now safe. We were told this related to the British defeat of the Nupe in 1897, who had, it was explained, on the one hand, brought Islam to Okpekpe, and, on the other hand, captured its people and sold them into slavery.

Left: Children at Okpekpe, 1910. Note the high defensive walls and the cactus, which was planted in dense clumps around towns in the region as a further deterrent to attack. Photograph by Northcote Thomas (NWT 1582, RAI 400.18518). Right: Godwin Gejele and Abdulnur Anidu translating Northcote Thomas’s sound recordings made in Okpekpe. Photograph by Paul Basu.
Recording made in Okpekpe by Northcote Thomas in 1910, thought to be the speech of a town crier. (NWT 302, BL C51/302.)

Godwin Gejele, from Okpekpe, provided the following translation of the recording from the Ibie language:

Eyia bhe amho
We’re coming today

Imiegba ana mhia je, ukha la mhi ayo tse we namhe
I’m going to Imiegba. If you get over there, extend my greetings

Ukha lamhi Imiakebu tsa Adogah na mhe tse we khu namhe, vhe wegbe omo mose ali omo kposo
When you get to Imiakebu extend my greetings to Adogah. I really appreciate him. I pray that God will bless their male and female children

Eye bi na agbo nele ali ona uhiena ono gwuo so mhi ne. Omo ovhe lasa ne na now li vho, ogbo kho oshie yele asha kha sha
In the olden days or in the present, which one is the better to live in? We can see in the old days, a child is not allowed to go out anywhere. Now one can go everywhere. Everywhere is safe.

Oso mhi ni bo, omue mhe gbe
We’re grateful to the white man who had come to teach and taught us many things

When we discussed this recording, elders explained that the speech was delivered in the style of a town crier. This raises the question of whose message the speaker was communicating. Does the speech convey a genuine sense of gratitude to the ‘white man’ for removing the threat of Nupe slave raids, or is this propaganda dispatched from the new invaders?

Further reading

  • Cohn, B. S. 1996. Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge. Princeton University Press. (Foreword by Nicholas Dirks)
  • Falola, T. 2009. Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria. Indiana University Press.
  • Ibeanu, A. M. 1989. ‘An Igbo Watch Tower (Uno-aja)’. Nyame Akuma, 31: 28-9.
  • Ohadike, D. C. 1991. The Ekumeku Movement. Ohio University Press.