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The Concept & Practice Of Slavery In The Pre-Colonial Nnewi


There was a great economic recession around 1897-1900 in Nnewi and the entire Igbo. This was the period the British Expeditionary Forces decided to annex all the local traditional authorities in Igbo hinterland, to exercise greater control of produce trade and to achieve its intention to establish a colonial government in the whole of the southeast.

British troops were sacking one town after the other and the plan was the dismantling of the government and spiritual structure of Arochukwu, publicly executing their famed leaders and dibias and also defeating the indefatigable Ohafia and the invincible Abam warriors.

Merchandising across Igbo trade lines, suffered a lull as merchants were afraid to move from one town to another.

That was the situation when my great-grandfather’s sons were becoming adolescents and were of age to marry. But, no one in Nnewi of that time married before the elder brother. Therefore, the brothers agreed that my grandfather , Nwosu Ezeechedolu should get married first.

The author, Anayo Nwosu

But there was no money to prosecute the marriage project, even when the first daughter of Okoye, the granddaughter of Dala Enyikwom in Dunu Sie (now known as Egbu) Umuenem was ready to marry him but the bride price must be paid.

Payment of a bride price in Nnewi is a measure of the ability of the groom to take care of his bride. It was never demanded for profit. Therefore, the father of the bride would usually insist on it.

Being that the economic hardship was pervasive and had affected all members of the Ezeoguine Royal family, it was said that “ego kolu Okeke kor Okafor” meaning that “everyone was affected by lack of money”.

No relation or neighbour at that period could even lend a dime to my grandfather, using his land as collateral.

It was that bad.

After waiting for another year for things to improve up to no avail, the four brothers from the same mother (namely: Ezeechedolu, Mbelu, Ifekwoeme and Adikwulu) met and decided that one of them needed to be sold into slavery to realize money to pay for the marriage rites of my grandmother.

That was how Adikwulu, the last born was sold to an Awka Etiti man on the condition that he would be redeemed after five years or by a refund of the same amount received as payment, if he would be released earlier than agreed tenor.

The much need money was realized, and my grandfather married Ada Okoye and his youngest brother Adikwulu began his life as a slave with a family in Nkolofia village in Awka Etiti.

At this period, the international slave trade had been abolished by the British Empire but the local trading of slaves subsisted.

Prior to the widening of the scope of slave trade to Europe, across Sahara desert and across Atlantic Ocean, Igbo communities sold human beings as other commodities as was practised by children of Abraham and the Egyptians.

Recall that Haggar the mother of Ishmael was an Egyptian slave owned by Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Bible also recorded that envy led the great grandchildren of Abraham( i.e the children of Jacob) to sell their brother, Joseph into slavery.

A slave is known as “Ohu or Oru” in Igbo land.

Some people in Igbo communities became slave through one of the following processes or transactions :

  1. a) Tenored Slavery Transaction : This happens when someone who had a large farm, buys a slave to help him work the farm. The tenor ranged from 5 to 15 years after which the slave would become free and could even settle down and marry the daughter of his former master or return to his fatherland. That was the kind of transaction used to raise the money used to marry my grandmother.
  2. b) Non-conformists: A man could arrange to sell any of his children or relations deemed weird or deviant to raise money to cater for others. Also, elders in an extended family could sell off a black sheep of the family to preserve the family’s dignity.
  3. c) Kidnap Victims:

There used to be a gang headed or owned and maintained by people referred to as “Ndi Ntor” or kidnappers who acted on arrangement with relation(s) of a victim who had collected in advance, a price money or as prowling marauders to overwhelm and seize their victims and sell them off to big merchants in a faraway land before the relations of their victims became aware.

Kidnapping in Nnewi was known as “ikpa or itolu mmadu”. It is still so regarded to date.

The kidnapping gang maintained human warehouses or barns at Igweocha (now known as PortHarcout) and on the bank of Oguta and Niger rivers.

Many people sold off into pan Sahara and Atlantic slavery fell within this category. So also were those bought and dedicated to various deities as “Osu” (or permanent slaves dedicated to a particular deity who owns the Osu and his descendants).

If a slave was lucky, he or she could be located and be ransomed by their relations. Some were able to work so hard to buy back their freedom from their masters.

There were records of slaves who were said to have overpowered their purchasers or masters and returned home.

There was no refund of payment to someone whose slave escaped.

But that was not the case with the contracted or tenored slavery transaction like that of my father’s uncle. In this case, the buyer or the master of the slave would undertake not to resale or maltreat the slave within the servitude period.

The relations of the slave were allowed periodic visitation to the place where their relation was serving as a slave.

It was said that my grandfather, Nwosu Ezeechedolu, being a prince of Nnewi had gathered from his cousin, Nwosu Ezeodumegwu, the then ruler of Nnewi, that the British Empire had banned any form of slavery, be it local or international and that all slaves including the recently purchased would be declared free and could return to their original land.

With this kind of privileged market information and the feeling of someone selling a product that had few days to expire, he went ahead together with his brothers to quickly conclude the sale of his younger brother knowing full well that his brother would soon be freed.

Few months into his service as a slave, Nnewi and the surrounding towns including Awka Etiti were forced to surrender to the whiteman, who announced the ban on slavery to a huge feeling of loss by the local slave masters who asked for time to comply.

But the young Adikwulu Nwosu would not wait. He could be killed by his master out of grief for losing money. So he escaped from his master’s house and ran to the house of his uncle named Okoli at Okofia Otolo Nnewi, very far from his father’s house.

He joined Christianity and was renamed Joseph Nwosu and soon after, he joined the Royal Niger Company.

Noticing his escape, Adikwulu’s master rushed to Nnewi to look for him,but was threatened by Adikwulu’s brothers with extermination, if he didn’t not return their brother after the end of his contracted enslavement.

It was then that the man from Awka Etiti realised that he had been duped.

His wise relations warned him of the implications of reporting the escape to the district officer as that would land him in jail for committing a slavery offence.

In retaliation, the aggrieved and cheated slave buyer was said to have sent some powerful dibias or witch doctors from Nnobi to curse or “chuo ochuchu akwu ani” or to “afflict with a curse of termites invasion” on the compound of my grandfather.

The curse caused a legion of termites to invade and eat up yams in the barns and wooden materials within my grandfather’s compound vicinity.

Even though, many dibias were subsequently invited to nullify the curse, the termites scourge continued until 1932 when my own father, Obiukwu Francis Nwosu, had to trace the family of the cheated slave master to compensate them.

Only then, did the prescribed rites of atonement, to end the mysterious termites’ scourge became effectual.

But not all slave transactions have been brought to finality as the one involving my grandfather.

The echos of sustained sense of loss of control by descendants of slave masters and feeling of resentment by former slaves are very detectable from Igweocha (aka PortHarcout) and other Igbo enclaves.

The former slave traders and owners who had huge stock of slaves when the whiteman decided to enforce its ban on the trade didn’t find their heavy losses funny.

But they had to free their slaves or go to jail.

Some of the freed slaves went back to their original homelands and resumed life as freeborn whilst those who chose to co-habit with their former owners and their descendants have to put up with derogatory references as Ohu or Oru.

Those of Osu were worse off as christian converts reminded them that they were not only slaves but also property of alusi or deities.

Ozubulu people, carried the resentment against the slaves too far by choosing to accept and intermingle with Osu and their descendants while discrimating against the freed slaves and their descendants.

My uncle told me about some former slaves whose ancestors refused to return to their towns of origin for fear of being killed by the same relations or slave merchants that had kidnapped and sold them into slavery ab initio.

Most of the descendants of slaves who remained in the lands of their former owners or settled on swathes of lands near the former slaves warehouses or depots, are still found in huge numbers in Port Harcourt, Onitsha, Oguta, Yenogoa and Opobo.

Whenever an Ikwerre man says that he hates an Igbo man even though he speaks Igbo and bears Igbo names, just know that he is just repeating or outpouring the venom of vengeance in the heart of his ancestors against their relations in the hinterlands who inhumanly kidnapped and sold them into slavery.

While some indigenous people of many Igbo towns still discriminate against the descendants of slaves that settled where they were enslaved, my extended family never discriminated against the slaves or their descendants we inherited as our own share from the assets of late Ezeoguine (my grandfather’s great-grandfather), the ruler of Nnewi when he died circa 1845.

In today’s Nnewi, nobody is denied access to marriage or traditional institutions on the basis of his or her heritage or ancestry.

We had to move with the world.

However, whenever an individual in Nnewi becomes troublesome by attacking the very foundation of our town, the elders would have to dig deeper to check the background of the person and would then tell the troublesome person behaving like a deity, the very wood type from which he was carved.

About the writer:

Chief Anayo Nwosu is from Okpuno Otolo Nnewi. He is a Corporate & Investment Banker based in Lagos.

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