‘My African great-grandfather sold slaves, but should not be judged by current standards’, says black writer

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Amid the global debate over race relations, colonialism and slavery, some Europeans and Americans who made a fortune in the slave trade saw their legacies reevaluated, their statues toppled and their names removed from public buildings.

Nigerian journalist and novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani writes that one of her ancestors sold slaves, but argues that he should not be judged by current standards or values.

Check out her testimonial.

My great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, was what I prefer to call a businessman, an Igbo ethnicity from southeastern Nigeria. He traded a range of goods, including tobacco and palm products. He also sold human beings.

“Your great-grandfather had agents who captured slaves from different places and brought them to him,” my father told me.

Nwaubani Ogogo’s slaves were sold through the ports of Calabar and Bonny, in the south of what is now known as Nigeria.

People from ethnic groups along the coast, like Efik and Ijaw, used to act as dockers for white traders and as intermediaries for Igbo traders as my great-grandfather.

They loaded and unloaded ships and provided food and other supplies to foreigners. They negotiated the prices of slaves in the interior and then collected royalties from sellers and buyers.

About 1.5 million Igbo slaves were sent across the Atlantic Ocean between the 15th and 19th centuries.

More than 1.5 million Africans were shipped to the so-called New World – the Americas – through the port of Calabar, in Bonny Bay, making it one of the biggest outlets during transatlantic trade.

The only life they knew

Nwaubani Ogogo lived in a time when the strongest survived and the bravest stood out. The concept of “all men are created equal” was completely foreign to the traditional religion and law in their society.

It would be unfair to judge a 19th century man by the principles of the 21st century.

Assessing the people of Africa in the past by today’s standards would compel us to portray the majority of our heroes as villains, denying us the right to fully honor those who were not influenced by Western ideology.

Igbo slave traders like my great-grandfather did not suffer any crisis of social acceptance or legality. They needed no religious or scientific justification for their actions. They were simply living the life in which they were raised.

That was all they knew.

Slaves buried alive

The most popular story I heard about my great-grandfather was how he successfully faced British colonial government officials after they seized some of his slaves.

Slaves were being transported by intermediaries, along with a shipment of tobacco and palm products, from the hometown of Nwaubani Ogogo, Umuahia, to the coast.

My great-grandfather apparently did not consider it fair that his slaves had been captured.

The purchase and sale of human beings among the Igbo had been taking place long before the arrival of the Europeans. People became slaves as punishment for crime, payment of debts or prisoners of war.

The successful sale of adults was considered a feat for which a man was acclaimed by troubadours, similar to exploits in wrestling, war or hunting animals like the lion.

Igbo slaves served as domestic servants and workers. Sometimes they were also sacrificed in religious ceremonies and buried alive with their masters to attend to them in eternity.

Slavery was so ingrained in the culture that several popular Igbo sayings refer to it:

  • Whoever has no slave is a slave to himself
  • A slave who watches while a fellow slave is tied up and thrown into the grave with his master must realize that the same can be done with him someday
  • It is when the son receives advice that the slave learns

The arrival of European traders offering weapons, mirrors, gins and other exotic products in exchange for humans has increased demand enormously, leading people to kidnap others and sell them.

Resisting Abolition

The African trade continued until 1888, when Brazil became the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish it.

When the British extended their dominance to southeastern Nigeria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they began to enforce abolition through military action.

But, using force and not persuasion, many local people, like my great-grandfather, may not have understood that abolition was about the dignity of humanity and not a mere change in economic policy that affected demand and supply.

“We think this trade should continue,” said a local king in Bonny, infamous in the 19th century.

“This is the verdict of our oracle and our priests. They say that their country, however big it is, can never prevent a God-ordained trade.”

As far as my great-grandfather was concerned, he had a commercial license from the Royal Niger Company, a British company that managed trade in the region in the last quarter of the 19th century.

So, when his properties were confiscated, Nwaubani Ogogo, offended, courageously went to see the responsible colonial officers and handed them his license. They released their goods and their slaves.

“The whites apologized to him,” said my father.

Slave trade in the 20th century

The acclaimed Igbo historian Adiele Afigbo described the slave trade in southeastern Nigeria, which lasted until the late 1940s and early 1950s as one of the best kept secrets of the British colonial administration.

But if international trade ended, local trade continued.

“The government was aware of the fact that coastal chiefs and major coastal traders continued to buy slaves from the interior,” wrote Afigbo in his book The Abolition of the Slave Trade in Southern Nigeria: 1885 to 1950 (The Abolition of the Slave Trade in Southern Nigeria: 1885 to 1950, in free translation).

He added that the British tolerated ongoing trade for political and economic reasons.

They needed the heads of the slave trade to ensure effective local governance and for the expansion and growth of legitimate trade.

At times, they also closed their eyes, instead of jeopardizing this advantageous alliance, as it seems to have happened when Nwaubani Ogogo’s slaves returned.

This incident led Nwaubani Ogogo to gain God’s status among his people. Here was a man who successfully faced white powers from abroad. I heard the story from relatives and read about it.

It was also the beginning of a relationship of mutual respect with the colonialists that led Nwaubani Ogogo to be appointed supreme chief by the British administration.

He was the government’s representative for the people in his region, in a system known as indirect imperialism.

Records from the UK’s National Archives show how the British desperately struggled to end the internal slave trade for almost the entire duration of the colonial period.

They promoted legitimate trade, especially in palm products. They introduced English currency to replace goods, like brass, merchants depended on slaves to load. They prosecuted offenders with prison sentences.

“In the 1930s, the colonial establishment was worn out,” wrote Afigbo.

“As a result, they expected the removal of trade on the corrosive effect over time from education and general civilization.”

Working with the British

As supreme chief, Nwaubani Ogogo collected taxes on behalf of the British and earned himself a commission in the process.

He presided over cases in native courts. Provided workers for the construction of railway lines. He also voluntarily donated land for missionaries to build churches and schools.

The house where I grew up and where my parents still live is on land that has been with my family for over a century.

It was once the location of Nwaubani Ogogo’s guesthouse, where he hosted visiting British officers. They sent him envelopes containing wads of hair to let him know when they would arrive.

Nwaubani Ogogo died sometime in the early 20th century. He left behind dozens of wives and children. There are no pictures of him, but apparently he would have remarkably clear skin.

In December 2017, a church in Okaiuga, Abia State, southeastern Nigeria, was celebrating its centenary and invited my family to receive a posthumous award in their name.

Their records showed that my great-grandfather had provided an armed escort for the first missionaries in the area.

He was known for his business prowess, remarkable boldness, strong leadership, vast influence, immense contributions to society and the advancement of Christianity.

Igbo people do not have a culture of erecting monuments for their heroes – otherwise, one dedicated to him could be somewhere in the Umuahia region today.

“He was respected by everyone around,” said my father. “Even whites respected him.”

How slaves were traded in Africa

  • European buyers tended to stay on the coast
  • African vendors brought slaves from the countryside on foot
  • Trips could be up to 485 km
  • Slaves were typically chained in pairs by the ankle
  • Captured slaves were tied in single file by neck ropes
  • 10% -15% of the slaves died during the journey

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

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