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 Edos, the Ezechima’s team. 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.”