An Outsider's View of the Igbo People (1840)

Glimpses from Afar
Hermann Koler: Bonny and Igboland in 1840

Koler was a German doctor who spent four months in Bonny in 1840. He made good use of his time there, collecting word lists, and recording detailed observations about many aspects of Bonny life. This study' s significance for Igbo history lies in the light it sheds on Bonny/Igbo relations, and the role of Igboland as an exporter of agricultural produce, and metal goods. It has been curiously neglected by historians. Introduction by Elizabeth Isichei (ed.), Igbo Worlds An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Descriptions (Philadelphia, 1978), p. 14.

Background: European justifications for colonization include the idea that the qualityof life of colonial subjects will be improved by the presence--and guidance--of Europeans. This view holds that life before European colonialism was Hobbesian in the sense that organized life was not possible and that life itself was "evil, nasty, brutish and short." What does this reading say about the quality of life in Igboland? This is a difficult question to answer because these folks do not have autos, TVs, or Disney World. At the very least we need to remember that Europeans did not have those things at that time either. Although the Igbo lived inland from the coast, what images of Igbo life emerge from this reading? What evidence do you have for European "presence" in Africa in this early period? What was the relationship between Igboland and Bonny?

The reading:

Of all these, Ibo is the language which is most widely spoken. This is not only because Iboland, through its position at the sources of the Delta, has a natural link with all the coastal tribes in its lower part. It is also due to its power, its extensive area, its richness in products, and the fact that it has developed industries to a greater extent than the people living on the coast. It is also due to the trade of its people, which extends from the sea coast to the far interior, and to their warlike nature, which makes a significant impact on their neighbours. This meant that their language, too, won a certain supremacy among the neighbouring tribes, and the knowledge of it has spread generally. One meets individuals in Bonny who speak all these languages, which they learn during their frequent trading trips to the areas concerned. The Bonny language is the mother tongue of only a section of the Bonny people; for the others it is only an adopted language, for a large part of the coastal peoples, especially at Bonny, consists of slaves who are purchased or seized by other tribes, sometimes from a great distance. Most of these people who were not born in Bonny are either slaves from Iboland, or, were, at least, brought here by the Ibos from the interior. This partly explains the general knowledge of Ibo in Bonny. A further explanation can be found in the circumstances that Iboland is the main destination for the trading expeditions of the coastal people. The majority of the goods imported by the whites find their way to Iboland. Some of them go from there still further into the interior. There, too, is where most of the Bonny canoes go, to purchase provisions for the coastal inhabitants, and goods for barter with the Europeans ....

They call Iboland Igbinni. It lies at the sources of the Delta, and is full of great forests and mighty trees. It is very rich in natural products--maize, rice, yams, oil palms, dyewoods, cotton, horses and elephants. The numerous inhabitants are industrious, and make cotton cloth (egrabetta), [Italicised African words in this extract are not Igbo but Igbani] iron knives, daggers, spears and musical instruments. At the same time they are warlike, wild, and rapacious, and some of them are cannibals. Therefore they have to put up with being spoken of, by the Bonny people, as they would speak of sharks, lboman wawa too much, "Ibo people are very wicked" . . .


With the exception of bows and arrows, which only a few people use, the weapons are not made in Bonny, but are purchased partly from the Europeans, and partly from the lbo people, as the Bonny people themselves have no knowledge at all of metal working. . . . Instead of this European knife [kinggi], one often sees a dagger [abreba] in use which is made in Iboland. Its iron blade is seven inches long, and an inch wide at the handle, and tapers, until it is half an inch wide in the middle, and then tapers still further into a long sharp two edged point. The wooden handle is four and a half inches long, and in order to afford a good grip, is of uneven width, with ring shaped deep cuts in it, and decorated with nail heads. The scabbard takes the form of the blade, and is decorated like that of the knife in common use. There are also spears of different sizes and shapes... The main weapon, however, is the flintlock gun [Flinte], a weapon which has become so common that even the inhabitants of Iboland are beginning to lose their respect for it ....

Markets and provisions

One normally finds here only the ordinary provisions, and the few fruits which grow in the woods round Bonny, the negligible quantity of goods produced by their own craftsmanship, and goods imported from Iboland, or goods imported by the whites. One sees seldom more than strings of glass beads, ordinary knives, a certain amount of tobacco and some pieces of calico.

As far as provisions go, they consist mainly of vegetables, and maize, [biappa], which is brought from Iboland, and which is, for the majority, the staple foodstuff and quite indispensable. Some of it is roasted, and some of it is cooked with yams, chicken, palm oil and an aromatic vegetable, [kanneh], into delicious soup. Even the inner cob, which remains after the grains have been removed, is put to good use by the Bonny people. After maize, come yams, [buru], the general dish. There are some in the woods round Bonny, but insufficient for her needs, and due to the swampy soil, they are of very poor quality. Therefore they are imported from Iboland, Brass and Andoni. These are always a yellowish colour, and, at the ends, often greenish and speckled with violet. They are some-times bitter and tough... At Bonny, a piece of yam from Iboland the size of your fist costs one manilla. A piece the size of two fists costs two manillas

Extracts from Hermann Koler, Einige Notizen uber Bonny (Gottingen, 1840), translated by Uche Peter Isichei in Elizabeth Isichei (ed.), Igbo Worlds (Philadelphia, 1978), 14-17.