Slavery among the Igbo
The reminiscences in this reading reach back to events at the turn of the twentieth century or earlier. It raises a number of issues about how the traditional economy operated and the role of slavery within that world. It is also important to note which people were made slaves and which people were exempt from that possibility.
From: Elizabeth Isichei, Igbo Worlds An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Descriptions (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978) 30-34
Nkwonto Nwuduaku, aged c.60 in Urunnebo, Enugwu-Ukwu 16 October 1974
Our people, especially my village, Urunnebo, are called Owaofia wapulu ezi, meaning people that travel into distant lands. This is because our people were long distance traders. They also went to different places to cleanse abominations, as well as to confer Ozo titles on people. My village Urunnebo migrated from Agukwu and we carried with us these traditions and customs, and have been exercising them until now. Thus, as I have said, we were long distance traders, and traded in various commodities like slaves, ufie, a red substance people rubbed on their skins, livestock, salt, iron implements, and, later, palm produce.
Our people traded extensively in slaves. It was a dangerous trade, but very profitable. It was dangerous, because you must be strong enough to overpower your victim. Secondly, you must be prepared to risk your life, wresting children from their parents, and so on. In fact, slaves were obtained in various ways - by kidnapping, through wars, through punishment for crimes and breach of taboos, for failure to pay debts. Parents even sold their children, for want of food.
My father told me that one occasion he followed his father on one of these expeditions that took them from Enugwu-Ukwu to Agbaja, and thence to Ubulu, and then to Eke Imoha in Abakaliki. When they came to Agbaja, one man wanted an .Ozo title to be conferred on him. He said that the members of his age grade were deriding him because he had not taken an .Ozo title. This man had to sell two of his children in exchange for the Ozo title. There was another episode when a man had so many children, and he had to ask them to buy one of his children in exchange for one cow.
But whatever the case was, these children were not told that they had been sold. Their parents would ask them to help their family friends convey their goods to market. These children were pampered until they got to Afo. Nkwuleto market, in Ubulu., where slaves were sold openly.
My father, continued that when they arrived with these children in this market, they were asked to look after a few worthless commodities. Then the slave dealers, mostly Aro people, would pretend that they were pricing those goods, when they were really surveying the children. They then came back to my father and grandfather, and a price was fixed -some items of European goods. My father said that after they had received these goods they disappeared, and that was the last he saw of these children.
In fact, the destination of our slave trade depended on the age of the slaves. For instance, kidnappers did not carry their victims far because of the fear that they might be caught, or that their victims might overpower them. In such cases, you know that the slave dealers must have tipped the kidnappers and would be waiting in a nearby place. But those who committed crimes, or breaches of taboos, were carried off by the agbridu people (law enforcement officers) and sold at Ifite Nibo market, near Awka.
Our people had no internal market for slaves. You know we belong to Umunri and it would be contrary to our tradition for slaves to be sold in our market. Yes, at times our people kept slaves for domestic purposes. In such a case the owner of the slave might sell one of the children of the slaves.
In olden days, our people traded in ufie (camwood). It was very important to our people. This ufie was got from a variety of trees, like aboshi, akpalata and even .ukpaka. What happened was that the dealers in this commodity often went about scraping the bark of these trees. Il the inner parts of these trees were scarlet, they were cut down and allowed to dry. These trees, now completely red, were cut into different sizes and brought to market. Ufie was a very costly commodity.
It was used as a sort of pomade, by both young girls and elderly women, before the coming of the Europeans, and even after they established their presence. Our people believed that it not only made the body smooth but also acted as a blood tonic.
It was also used for burial purposes, especially in burying titled men and elders. The body of the deceased was rubbed with ufie before burial, and after the burial, umu ada (his daughters) as well as his wives would continue to wear ufie for iu ili na ato (two native months). It was also rubbed in by nursing mothers, and any woman who wanted to perform the izu afia nwa (when a mother would come to the market to let people know she had a new child). The woman would rub on this ufie and come out on Nkwo day, and people would give her gifts. It was also used by wrestlers. As I said earlier, people believed that it gave them blood and strengthened their bones. Hence, before a big wrestling match, our young men would indulge in rubbing this ufie all over the body until the wrestling match was over.
Thus from all its uses, you will see that ufie was a costly material. It was sold at Ubulu, Eke Imoha, and other markets in Abakaliki Our people often bought it, and sold it to our neighbouring towns.
Our people traded in various types of livestock. The most important of these were horses and cows. Both were used for funeral obsequies. Horses were very rare and costly. The horses were bought from Agbaja and Ubulu. The people of these areas told us that horses were imported from Akpete. and Igala. Our people did not trade regularly in horses, except when somebody died. For that reason whenever an .Ozo man or wealthy man was seriously sick, his people often travelled to Agbaja to buy these beasts beforehand. On the other hand, if a wealthy man, or an elder, or an .Ozo man died, he was not buried until his people bought a horse. In view of this, whenever our people saw horses being driven into the town, they often reminded them that some important personality must have died, and they would start asking questions. But this does not mean that horses were not sold to other towns - our people often sold horses to other Umunri towns, as well as to Nimo, Abagana, Ukpo, Aba, Isu and other neighbouring areas.
Our people do not eat horse meat. Not only is it rare and costly, but mainly because it was associated with the dead. However, trade in horses brought a lot of wealth to our people.
Cows are also very important. They were mostly used for taking Ozo titles and for burial purposes. A man's wealth was measured by the number of cow skulls he displayed in his obu. Cows were mostly bought at Eke Imoha in Abakaliki. These cows are the local breed, and not the so-called efi awusa (zebu cattle). We sold these cows to neighbouring towns. ...
The ritual cleansing of abominations, and the conferring of Ozo titles in other parts of Igboland was the most important aspect of our economy, before the coming of white men. You small children may not understand the importance of Umunri, or the impact our people made on Igboland. As I said earlier, my own village migrated from Agukwu to Enugwu-Ukwu and we became part and parcel of Enugwu-Ukwu. We are direct descendants of Nri, and therefore had the right to cleanse abominations, and confer titles on people. Agukwu, we could carry out the ceremony. ...
In fact this cleansing of abominations brought a lot of wealth to us, and brought us into contact with different parts of Igboland. For instance if the abomination was committed in any Umunri town except Agukwu, we went there, and the offenders would bring all the items necessary for the ceremonies, depending upon the gravity of the offence.
For instance, if a boy had sexual intercourse with his sister, it was an abomination. In such a case, the items included a she-goat that had borne offspring, fowls, three yams and so on. The people concerned did not touch these things. They often handed them over to the man who would perform the ikpu alu (ritual cleansing). After the ceremony, the men would take some of the items, and would also be paid in kind. Thus, in one trip to any Umunri town, our people were often laden with livestock, and other essential commodities, and this made them very rich. Their areas of operation on this ipu ije (journey of cleansing) as they called it, included Isu, Mgbakwu, Ebenebe, Nkanu, Agbaja and Abakaliki areas. In fact most of the wealthy men in our town, especially in my village, grew rich as a result of this kind of occupation. ...