Most historical records indicate towards Calabar gaining prominence during the early part of the 17th century. This was largely due to the increasing trading relations between the African tribes like the Efik and Ibibio people. Calabar turned into a major port with fish, bananas and cassava being traded among the surrounding communities. However, the increasing trade eventually caught the attention of the colonial powers which were aggressively increasing their presence in Africa during this time.

Tracing Colonial Rule in Calabar History

Calabar’s earliest colonial rulers were the Portuguese who coined the name “Old Calabar.” The name existed until 1904. The Portuguese were attracted by the rich supply of food resources. During this time, Calabar also emerged as one of busiest slave-trading depots in Africa.

19th and 20th Century Events in Calabar History

Although Calabar Kingdom is an Ancient Kingdom that existed thousands of years before Christ. In The middle of 19th century witnessed Calabar losing its position in the African slave trade. During this phase, it progressed into being a major trading port for palm-based products such as palm oil and kernels.

Calabar Kingdom was an active ancient trading kingdom. Recorded history shows that the Calabar Kingdom was the first Kingdom to use a money system in trading in West Africa. The ancient money of Calabar Kingdom was called “Okpoho”, a Calabar word for money. This money become known as the Manillas.

Somewhere around 1883, the Portuguese control over Nigerian colonies weakened due to the increased militarization by the British forces. Calabar became a part of the British regime and served as the capital city for some of the surrounding provinces from 1885 to 1893. During the early part of 20th century, Calabar lost some of its commercial significance due to the robust development at the nearby Port Harcourt terminus.

Read about The Origin of Efik

Calabar has been known to European sailors as far back as the 15th century. It has an international sea port known to the world from the 16th century. Calabar was a major slave trade port from the late 17th to 19th century. About thirty percent of the estimated 2.5 million slaves from Africa to the about 30% of the estimated 2.5 million slaves taken from Africa to the new world, passed through the Calabar sea port. Calabar once served as the seat of Government of Niger coast Protectorate, Southern Protectorate and Oil Protectorate. Calabar has one of the earliest Military barracks in Nigeria.

Early Leadership

The old Calabar Kingdom comprised of loosely governed states. The states included: Annang, Akamkpa, Efik, Eket, Ibibio, Ikom, Ogoja, (Opobo, now Ikot Abasi), Oron, Western Camaroon and the offshore island of Fernando Po (now Equatorial Guinea). Calabar was (and still is) the capital city of the Efik State of the old Calabar Kingdom. As such, the Kingdom has been known as either Calabar Kingdom or Efik Kingdom.

The Kingdom was ruled by Kings with the King of Calabar as the High King. Several years after the Kingdom became a British colony, there was an agreement between the British and the Kings in 1908 abrogating the title of King, and replacing it with the title – Obong (Edem, 2008). Thus, as Calabar Kingdom became a British colony, the British saw it necessary to not duplicate the title of the monarch (the King or Queen – of England) in their colony.

The High King (King of Calabar later known as Obong of Calabar till this present time), had a strong power in the capital City of Calabar in the Efik State with weak power over the other states in the Kingdom.

Leadership power in the Calabar Kingdom was derived from a major secret society, the Ekpe Secrete Society. The Ekpe secret society was instrumental in keeping outsiders (other ethnic groups) outside of the Kingdom and in protecting the sovereignty of the Kingdom. The Ekpe secret society of the Old Calabar Kingdom developed one of the major ancient African script, the Nsibidi written script.

The coastal ports of the Calabar Kingdom, especially the Calabar port made indigenes of the Kingdom to be the first group in southeastern parts of Nigeria to have contact with European traders and missionaries.

The Obong of Calabar signed a treaty with the British government in the 17th century that resulted in the Southern Protectorate of Nigeria with headquarter at Calabar, thus making Calabar the first Nigerian Capital City. After Nigerian independence in 1960, Western Cameroon opted to become a part of Cameroon because of the weakness and poor political leadership and relationship of people of the then Eastern Nigeria. Hence, parts of the Calabar people got divided into Cameroon.


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