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Transatlantic Slave Trade and Arochukukwu

Encyclopedia » History

              During the period of the transatlantic slave trade in Nigeria, the people of Arochukwu whose name literally means the Aro of God (as in Aro [people] of Chukwu [God]), took control of the hidden location of the Cave Temple and used it for their economic and political advantage. Over the period of the whole trade, more than 3.5 million slaves were shipped from Nigeria to the Americas. Most of these slaves were Igbo and Yoruba, with significant quantities of Hausa, Ibibio, and other ethnic groups. In the eighteenth century, two polities--Oyo and the Aro confederacy were responsible for most of the slaves exported from Nigeria. The Aro confederacy continued to export slaves through the 1830s. Meaning that the Aro's traded slaves from the 17th through 19th centuries, they extended the religious and judicial influence of Arochukwu by establishing the oracular shrines of Ibin Ukpabi in many villages and towns in Igbo land.

buiest slave market 19th century.jpg

Busiest slave market 19th century

They also established trading posts and slaveholding quarters in many towns and villages in the Aro Diaspora. Hence, there is a direct link between Aro quarters or concentric communities in Igbo land and the busiest slave trading locations in the Igbo hinterland. The subsidiary oracular shrines of Ibin Ukpabi in the Aro Diaspora became a part of the traditional judicial system of Igbo land. The Aro expectedly became principal participants in the settling of disputes. They decided when it was necessary to take cases from the Aro Diaspora to the main Oracle and the Chamber Presence in their ancestral hometown of Arochukwu. Thus the Temple Complex in Arochukwu gradually became something like the Supreme Court of Igbo land and gave the Aro's enormous influence in the area of traditional administration and politics in the interiors of Igbo land. The other major slave-exporting state was a loose confederation under the leadership of the Aro, an Igbo clan of mixed Igbo and Ibibio origins, whose home was on the escarpment between the central Igbo districts and the Cross River.


Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the Aro's built a complex network of alliances and treaties with many of the Igbo clans. They served as arbiters in villages throughout Igbo land, and their famous oracle at Arochukwu, located in a thickly wooded gorge, was widely regarded as a court of appeal for many kinds of disputes. By custom the Aro were sacrosanct, allowing them to travel anywhere with their goods without fear of attack. Alliances with certain Igbo clans who acted as mercenaries for the Aro guaranteed their safety. 

Captives for sale were tied to this surface root of the achi tree.jpg

Captives were tied to this surface root of the Achi tree

As oracle priests, they also received slaves in payment of fines or dedication to the gods by their masters as scapegoats for own transgressions. These slaves thereby became the property of the Aro priests, who were at liberty to sell them. Besides their religious influence, the Aro established his ascendancy through a combination of commercial acumen and diplomatic skill. 

St. Paul's Junction and the route to Calabar via Ihe Osu 

slave cell bende freedom

Slave Holding Cell in Bende

Their commercial empire was based on a set of twenty-four-day fairs and periodic markets that dotted the interior. Aro Resident dominated the markets and collected slaves for export. They had a virtual monopoly of the slave trade after the collapse of Oyo in the 1820s. 

Villages suspected of violating treaties with the Aro were subject to devastating raids that not only produced slaves for export but also maintained Aro influence. The Aro had treaties with the coastal ports from which slaves were exported, especially Calabar, Bonny, and Elem Kalabari. 

The people of Calabar were Efik, a subsection of Ibibio, while Bonny and Elem Kalabari were Ijaw towns. The Ijaw, who occupied the tidal area in proximity to the Igbo, had wrested a frugal living from the sale of dried fish and sea salt to the inland communities for centuries before the rise of the slave trade. Traditionally, they had lived in federated groups of villages with the head of the ranking village presiding over general assemblies attended by all the males. During the heyday of the slave trade in the eighteenth century, the major Ijaw villages grew into cities of 5,000 to 10,000 inhabitants ruled by local strongmen allied with the Aro. Their economies were based on the facilities they offered to slave traders. They were entrepreneurial communities, receiving slaves from the Aro for resale to European agents. Personal wealth rather than status within a lineage group was the basis for political power and social status. Government typically was conducted by councils composed of leading merchants and headed by anamanyanabo (chief executive), an office that was hereditary.

Furthermore, it took the British might, at the turn of the 20th century, to stop Aro imperial domination and economic control of the then impenetrable Igbo interior. The British Colonial Administration carried out a military expedition from 1901 to 1902. They mandated soldiers to go and destroy the Oracular Shrine together with the Oracle of Ibin Ukpabi in Arochukwu, which was decidedly the source of Aro imperial influence. The British claimed that they have destroyed the Temple Complex and people believed that to be truth. And believing that the Temple Complex was indeed destroyed by the British soldiers, Igbo people stopped taking cases to the Chamber Presence. Due to these events, the religious and political influence that the Aro had over the Igbo land was drastically reduced. However, the Temple Complex or the Oracle (the "Long Juju") was not destroyed. The Aro, using their surpassing diplomacy and extraordinary tact, secretly preserved the Okonto, the sacred jungle where the Temple Complex and abode of Chukwu is located. From 1902, the Aro barred even Aro indigenes from entering the Okonto. Since then, the Oracle of Ibin Ukpabi and the Chamber Presence of Chukwu have remained the best-kept secret of the people of Arochukwu. 



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Updated 7 Years ago

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