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The History Of Onitsha



The history of Onitsha is said to have begun with the migration of its people from the Benin Empire towards the end of early part of the 16th century as a result of a wave of unrest, war and displacement unleashed by the Islamic movement from North Africa. One version said that it was during their passage through the outskirts of Ile-Ife that they acquired the name Onitsha, a corruption of Orisha Udo.

Another version has it that their migration to East of the Niger has to do with a misunderstanding that arose between the Onitsha family and Oba Esigie (1404-1550), following the slighting of their shrine, Udo, by the Oba. According to the legend, it was customary for newly installed Oba to pay homage to all important shrines in the Benin Kingdom by slaughtering a cow in the shrines enclave. But Oba Esigie is said to have refused to do this at the Onitsha people’s Udo-Shrine, hence the quarrel and the migration down towards the River Niger area and across it.

Ukpabi disagrees with the Oba Esigie angle and posits that the misunderstanding and migration was rather as a result of “a fight over a farmland. These other people fighting over farmland with the others and interest started coming. And because of interest, bitterness ensued and the two brothers decided to go their separate ways. One said, no, ‘I will now leave you, I’m going to Ado N’Idu.’ ‘Ado’ means border. ‘I will leave you and go and settle down on my own. I’m no longer going to be with you.’ That’s the issue. So, the two brothers had to separate.”

Onitsha, capital of Igbo Kingdom
The immigrant settlers from Benin were said to have been helped by the Igalas to cross the river to settle in Onitsha in the 16th century, which was originally called Ado N’Idu. It soon became the capital of an Igbo Kingdom. In 1857, British traders in palm oil established a permanent station in the city, and Christian missionaries soon followed, headed by Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (a Yoruba) and Reverend John Taylor (an Igbo).  In 1884, Onitsha became part of a British protectorate. The British colonial government and Christian missionaries penetrated most of Igboland to set up their administration, schools and churches through the river port at Onitsha.


Historically, Onitsha became an important trading port for the Royal Niger Company in the mid-1850s. Following the abolition of slavery, trade in palm kernels and other cash crops boomed around this river port. Immigrants from the hinterland were drawn to the emerging boom town as did the British traders who settled there and coordinated the palm oil and cash crops trade.

Colonial relics and post-colonial architectural wonders
Areas bordering Old Market, New Market Roads, Upper Market Road, Modebe Avenue, Iboku, Old Cemetry, Old Hospital, Mbanugo St, Emejulu St, Obi Street, Benjamin St, Court, Enugu Road, Awka Road, Egerton, etc are known as Whitemen Quarters; so-called because the white colonial masters who first settled in Onitsha, used to live here. And, even till today, the white colonial style of buildings such as you see at Yaba, Ebute Metta and Central Lagos, can be seen existing, side by side, with the new, on these streets. Onitsha is made up of three groups of people. The first is the Edo.The second, Igalas. They were the people that were fishing at the Niger by the time Onitsha people came to settle there. The third, the Igbos who are very close to the Niger and had integrated with them. These three groups make up what is today known as Onitsha.”

“Their tradition is blended with the three peoples, first the Edos, second the Igalas”, Ukpabi says. “In fact, in the past, there were some villages in Onitsha that spoke Igala. And they are made up of two villages. They are still in Onitsha. Onitsha is made up of nine villages. Two out of the nine are purely the Igalas: Ogbodu and Obigboru. So, that is how Onitsha people came to be.

“The ones with Edo influence are the monarchy itself. That’s the Eze Chima, that is the ruling villages. They are four in number. Umueze Aroli, Okebunabu (which include Umudei and Ogbabu) and Olosi. The present Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Achebe is the 21st Obi of Onitsha.”  Inter-marriages, says Ukpabi, have long existed between the Igalas and the Edos. “The people our ancestors met fishing at the bank of the River Niger were purely Igallas. They were following the Niger all the way from their place to Onitsha. So, they don’t normally come to the upper land. They remain there. They have their buildings in their canoes. So, we attracted them into coming to the hinterland. We started intermarrying with them. One of the outstanding monarchs of Onitsha, Obi Eze Aroli, the mother, Enubi, is from Igala.”

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Ile Ife, otherwise called Ife, is an antiquated Yoruba city in the southwestern piece of Nigeria. Ile Ife is said to be gone back around 500 B.C. when it was established and is the most seasoned Yoruba city. It is by and by part of Osun State and has an expected populace of 501,000 individuals. Ife is home to one of Nigeria’s most esteemed colleges, Obafemi Awolowo University, and also the Natural History Museum of Nigeria. Ife is likewise a noticeable provincial rural community for an encompassing territory that produces vegetables, grain cacao, tobacco, and cotton.

Ile Ife is where the Yoruba trust their human progress started and in addition the area where the divine beings plunged to earth. The name, Ile Ife, actually implies place of scattering. As per Yoruba tradition, Ife was established by the divinities Oduduwa and Obatala when they made the world. Obatala formed the primary people out of earth while Oduduwa turned into the main perfect ruler of the Yoruba individuals.

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Chronicled proof, be that as it may, recounts an alternate story. As indicated by students of history,the region was initially populated by the Igbo individuals when Oduduwa and his armed force attacked the city from the north, pushed the prior tenants toward the east, and set up the main Yoruba kingdom. After the demise of Oduduwa, his children and different relatives spread out from Ile Ife to establish other Yoruba states. In the end the Yoruba wound up one of Africa’s biggest ethnic gatherings. They likewise remain by far most of Ife’s tenants. The present regal line of Ile Ife is more than eight centuries old. Alayeluwa Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II, the present ruler, moved toward becoming Oba (King) in 1980.

Have You Read about The History OF BENIN EMPIRE?

Ife is world celebrated for its craft. Somewhere in the range of 700 and 900 A.D. the city started to create as a noteworthy masterful focus. By the twelfth Century Ife craftsmen were making bronze, stone, and earthenware molds, some of which are discovered today in exhibition halls in Nigeria, Europe, and North America. The masterful generation of Ife started to wind down in the 1500s as political influence and riches moved to neighboring kingdoms, for example, Benin and Oyo.

Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), one of the main scholarly establishments in West Africa, is the real organization of higher learning in the city. Established in 1962 as the University of Ife, it was rechristened by the Federal Military Government of Nigeria as the Obafemi Awolowo University on May 12, 1987, out of appreciation for one of its most recognized establishing fathers, famous patriot and previous chancellor, Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo (1909– 1987).

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Have you heard about The Nok tribe of formerly plateau state but now in kaduna state?

The NOK people, the people of iron age, The maker of terracotta heads.

Excavations at Taruga revealed the oldest known Nok culture settlement, inhabited between the 5th & 2nd century BCE. The Nok culture, named after the settlement of the same name, flourished in southern West Africa (modern Nigeria) during the Iron Age from the 5th century BCE to the 2nd century CE. Famous for the distinctive terracotta sculptures of human heads and figures, Nok was the first known culture in West Africa to produce such art and perhaps the first sub-Saharan culture to perfect iron-smelting technology.


Located east of the Niger River and north of the Benue River in what is today northern and central Nigeria, the Nok culture is named after the town where the first artifacts were discovered. These were mostly fragmentary sculptures, buried under some 8 metres (26 ft) of sand and earth, which were tossed up during local mining operations for tin in the first half of the 20th century CE. The Nok culture prospered to iron-smelting technology which permitted the manufacture of iron tools. Nok culture provides the earliest example of iron-smelting technology in sub-Saharan Africa which may have come from Carthage to the north or, perhaps more likely given the formidable barrier of the Sahara desert, from Nubia in the east. It may even have been an indigenous invention but, unfortunately, there is very little evidence to support any of the three theories above the other two. Wherever the ideas came from, it permitted Nok to jump straight from the Stone Age to the Iron Age and skip the Bronze Age stage that is typical of developments elsewhere.

The remains of perhaps 13 iron-smelting furnaces were discovered at Taruga alone (55 km southeast of Abuja). Durable iron tools such as hoes, hand-axes and cleavers were put to good use to boost agricultural efficiency. Nok farmers were able to grow cereals like sorghum and such vegetables as pumpkins (which were represented in terracotta). Excavations at Taruga revealed the oldest known Nok culture settlement, inhabited between the 5th and 2nd century BCE according to radiocarbon data off charcoal found within the iron furnaces. Despite the arrival of iron technology, stone tools were still used, particularly larger tools, a fact which suggests that metal was always a rare commodity. Nok housing consisted of wattle and daub huts, which do not survive well, but many were built on a foundation consisting of a ring of stones, and these do survive in situ. Archaeology continues in the 21st century CE in the region and is pushing back the time period of the Nok culture, perhaps as early as 900 BCE.


The Nok culture spread through central Nigeria, perhaps covering an area as large as 78,000 square kilometres (30,000 square miles) or approximately the area of Portugal. There are, however, regional differences in both the types of tools and pottery made at various Nok sites. Finds of iron arrow- and spearheads would suggest, too, that life was not always peaceful amongst the Nok and with their rival tribes. The reason for the Nok Culture’s decline around 200 CE is not known but is evidenced by a sharp drop in pottery production. The usual culprits may have been overexploitation of natural resources, a period of adverse climate change, civil wars, the arrival of rival kingdoms or a combination of all four.


The Nok culture produced sculptures of human heads and figures of humans and animals in terracotta, the earliest such sculpture produced in sub-Saharan Africa. Near life-size terracotta heads were often part of a fuller figure but this portion has usually been lost. Indeed, most terracottas were damaged upon discovery and had been displaced by water action so that their original context is difficult to determine. When a hollow terracotta figure is fired in an oven, the gases and water vapour which build up and expand within it can cause a figure to crack or even shatter completely. A solution is to make vent holes in the figure and Nok potters did this but with an artistic flare. The eyes, mouth, nostrils, and earholes were all given natural-looking apertures and so the overall aesthetic effect of the figure was not compromised. In contrast to the larger sculptures, smaller figurines are solid.

Figures were carved to give features and linear decoration, seemingly when the clay had partially hardened but before firing. Many full figures are seated or standing on a base which represents an upside-down pot. A common posture is a seated figure with one arm resting on one raised knee (as in Auguste Rodin’s celebrated ‘The Thinker’ sculpture). A number of figures carry weapons, but most seem to represent participants in rituals as they sometimes wear particular clothing and almost always a great deal of beaded jewellery and pendants not likely to have been worn every day. Male figures typically have a short square beard and curious moustaches which only grow at the corners of the mouth. There are also a number of figures which are neither human nor purely animals but an imaginative mix of the two. For example, there are humans with a bird-like beak, tail, and legs, and the head of an elephant with very human eyes and forehead. Nok pottery vessels included shallow bowls with flat bottoms which were decorated on the inside with deeply scored lines, although the scoring may have been to permit the bowl to function as a grater. Chemical analysis of the clay from all Nok pottery shows that it came from the same source (as yet unknown) and so suggests that the industry may have been centralised and under royal control.


Nok art, and culture in general, may well have influenced later cultures in the Niger River forest areas, notably Igbo-Ukwu (at its zenith in the 9th century CE) and Ife (11-15th century CE). Certainly, the discovery of the fine artworks produced by the Nok culture provided a helpful precedent that convinced any lingering doubters that the works of those later cultures were indeed that of indigenous black Africans. As archaeology makes its slow and methodical additions to our knowledge and extends the time periods of key West African cultures, then perhaps the at-present tentative links between them will be more firmly established.

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Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1809-31 December 1891) was a linguist and the first Anglican bishop in Nigeria. Born a freeman, sold as a slave and later regained his freedom in his mid twenties, Bishop Ajayi Crowther developed interest in languages and he was inspired to take up the task of translating the bible into an indigenous Nigerian language for the first time ever.

Samuel was born in 1806 in Osogun near Oyo in present day Oyo State and not Abeokuta as is reported by many. At 12 years old he was captured along with his mother and toddler brother and other family members, with his entire village, by Muslim Fulani slave raiders in 1821. the whole slaves were shared amongst soldiers and Crowther was then traded for a horse.

He stayed with the master who bought him in exchange of a horse at Dadda for about a month and was resold to in the open market at Ijayi where he was bought by a Muslim woman who lived in Toko. At this point he attempted suicide and the woman got worried and resold him at the slave market to a Portuguese merchant who aboarded a Brazilian ship on April 7, 1822.

However, before his slave-ship left the port, it was boarded by a British Royal Navy ship under the command of Captain Henry Leeke, and Crowther was taken to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he was released. After two and half months, he arrived Freetown, Sierra Leone, a freed slave.

Grew under the care of a Christian Missionary Society (CMS) Schoolmaster. He was taken to London in 1826, schooled briefly in Islington, becoming the first Nigerian to train with English children. In 1827, he enrolled at the Fourah Bay Institute of the CMS. He worked as Teacher (1830-1834) at his Alma mater. He got married in 1829 to a fellow free slave girl converted to Christianity. He was an unusually gifted man. He wrote the account of his captivity on request from the CMS in 1837, 15 years after he had been living in Freetown. It was published in the church missionary Record in October, 1837

Standing probably on the spot where Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther was first buried at the then ‘Ajele Cemetery’ but today a part of that cemetery is now been used as secondary school “Eko Akete Grammar School” and the other part is now Campos Mini Stadium Igbosere.

Dr James at the Burial Place of Bishop Ajayi Crowther

Ajele Cemetery was a major cemetery on Lagos Island demolished by the Lagos State military government under Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson in December 1971. Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther’s body was later exhumed for proper burial now at the CMS Cathedral Church Compound.

The Bible Translated by Bishop Ajayi Crowther

Samuel Ajayi Crowther was ordained in 1843, after his graduation at the Training Institute at Islington. He was the first black Anglican Pastor. He translated the English Bible in Yoruba in 1889, the Yoruba version was available in single volume in 1890. In the course of the translation, he said….“I am so absorbed in the problem of translation that I sometimes found it difficult to concentrate in worship”.

And in the course of translation, the need to capture the essence of meaning without alternation, nevertheless is an uphill task, and Crowther said “How should this passage be translated, which is the most suitable word, the most correct rendering etc. These varies though about the translation soon take the place of meditation”. His Lokoja and Benue expedition followed in 1854 up to Ibi and reached Jebba in 1857. The principle behind the Niger expedition was co-operate effort of the Church and the state in promoting Christianity, commerce and civilization in a joint move to combat slave trade. He visited Britain in 1877 and the Royal Geographical Society honoured him with a golden wrist-watch.

His personal sacrifice and toils for the establishment and expansion of Christianity in Africa cannot be underrated. Twice in 1859 and 1871, his boat was grounded, he had to trek all the way back to Lagos. In 1888 four years after Crowther became Bishop, the Egba expelled European Missionaries from Abeokuta as a reprisal against the policies of the colonial administration in Lagos. Crowther, accused the European that they were more interested in wielding power than in evangelization. Bishop Crowther, on leaving Osogun, said;Farewell, place of my birth, the play ground of my childhood, and the place which I thought would be the repository of my mortal body in its old age. On June 29, 1864 he was consecrated the Bishop of Western Equatorial Africa by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1843, a grammar book which he started working on during the Niger expedition was published; and a Yoruba version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer followed later.

He also compiled a vocabulary of the Yoruba language, including a large number of local proverbs, published in London in 1852. He produced a primer for the Igbo language in 1857, another for the Nupe language in 1860, and a full grammar and vocabulary of Nupe in 1864(so was his extensive knowledge about Nigerian languages).

In 1864, he was ordained as the first African bishop of the Anglican Church; he was consecrated a bishop on St Peter’s day 1864, by Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury at Canterbury Cathedral. He later received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from the University of Oxford.

Source from Dr Raphael’s Blog

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