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Chapter VIII


Because it will be argued that many of the differences between the Mbembe tribes are the result of differences in their experiences during the nineteenth century we must begin by examining what we can discover about the general history of events in this period. Unfortunately, however, the reconstruction of the history of this area for the period in question presents considerable difficulty since there is almost a complete absence of documents relating to events prior to the 1880's.

Despite the importance of the town of Calabar at the month of the Cross River, and the long association of Calabar with Europeans, there were almost no attempts made by Europeans to explore the Cross River until the later years of the nineteenth century. It had not the geographical glamour sufficient to attract those bent on exploration for its own sake, and exploration by those with commercial interest was effectively discouraged by the antagonism of the strong tribes who were the jealous middle-men of the lower river. Missionaries of the Church of Scotland were active along the lower reaches of the river from the mid-nineteenth century, but despite their often recorded [1] wish to work further upstream, lack of manpower prevented them from doing so. The did not even make any reconnaisance of the Mbembe area until well into the 1890's. Such reports as exist of these trips are of very little value from an ethnographic point of view.

The one important document for the early nineteenth century is the map of the Cross River made in 1842 by Consul Beecroft who was the first European to ascend the river as far as the rapids, on what later became the borders of the Cameroons. Unfortunately his exploration was designed only to establish the course of the river and he noted the names of hardly any of the settlements and none at all for the region of the Mbembe tribes. Nevertheless he mapped the river with considerable accuracy and seems to have marked carefully the location of each settlement visible from the river, noting whether it was a "town" or a "village" thus give some idea of relative size. This in itself is valuable information and the notes published with the map, although mostly concerned with the physical features of the river banks, are in a few instances valuable because they describe some feature of the settlements. [2]

There are no further documents relating to Mbembe areas until 1888 when Consul (afterwards Sir Harry) Johnston, spent a week in an

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Mbembe village. Gratifyingly he describes the inhabitants as some of the nicest, kindliest, most friendly folk I have ever encountered in Africa", a view which may have been influenced by the fact that they received him hospitably when he was fleeing downstream in an canoe pursued by men who seemed bent on eating him. [3] Unfortunately, however, although he has left some interesting descriptive material about the village, his account of his stay contains nothing relative to either its internal or external political relations.

After 1888 there was a further gap until 1893 when the then Consul Sir C. M. MacDonald ascended as far as the rapids. From this time until the setting up of British Administration in 1900-02, the Consuls ascended the river in almost every wet season so that from 1893, there are fairly accurate records of inter-tribal wars in so far as these affected people living on the river banks. These wars are recorded because they threatened to interfere with trade, and the whole object of the Consul's annual expeditions was to keep the river open as a trade route. The reports, therefore, throw some light on the interrelationships of villages by the river, but are concerned scarcely at all with what was happening further inland.

The only documents which yield information concerning events taking place away from the river prior to this century are the records later kept by the Administration, of land disputed. Inter-village land cases in this areas have been frequent and almost every village has been involved in a case. In these land cases statements are often made about traditions concerning population movements prior to the setting up of the Administration and, although such accounts must be treated with very great reserve, these records are useful. Many of them are comparatively early having been started as far back as 1912 and so they provide some evidence as to the oral traditions of that time.

Between 1928 and 1935 a number of Intelligence Reports were written on the Mbembe, but although attempts were made by writers to collect historical material the were largely unsuccessful.

Oral traditions as the exist today in this areas are rather poor. It is possible, in certain villages, to get lists containing the names of up to twelve Avat who held office before the beginning of this century, but these lists are normally of little value for dating purposes. They are known to very few people, and it is not usual for specific events to be tied to the name of a particular Ovat. Moreover it is seldom that the name of the first Ovat in a list is claimed to be that of the founder of either the village or a patriclan. The descent groups possess ancestral shrines in which as we have seen the ancestors are represented by a number of small stones. There is no attempt, however, to claim that there is a one-to-one relationship between the stones and dead descent group heads In other words these stones are not used as mnemonic devices. Genealogies also prove most unsatisfactory tools for historical analysis since, as we know, there is rarely any attempt made to remember them accurately further back than two (dead)

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generations. Normally there is no attempt at all made to remember those of more remote generations.

It is, however, possible to get traditions of the founding of villages and movements of population, about wars and battles and the acquisition of cults and new associations, and about early traders. On the basis of such traditions and of those few documents which do exist, and of what is known to have been happening in surround areas, it is possible to infer something of the general history of the area. Summarizing all the events of the nineteenth century in two sentences, it can be said that for the Mbembe this period was significant mainly because during its course there was a crowding of different groups to the banks of the Cross River, especially the left bank. As a result of this crowding the Mbembe were forced into sharp competition with each other and with their neighbours and this competition had a very great significance for their political systems. The question that must be asked, therefore, is what was the nature of these movements and what caused this concentration of population?

South of the river the earliest population movements of which traditions exist, and which may have affected the Mbembe, were those of the ancestors of the Yakö, and of the people of Ikom and Okuni (Olulumo), villages which are now on the Cross River close to the Cameroons border. (See Map 1). These people apparently formerly lived in the same area as did the Yakö, in hill country to the south of the Cross River, possibly in the region of the Awai Peak and the Oban Hills. It is significant that although these peoples are now comparatively far apart and have little contact with each other their traditions on this point seem to coincide. The Ikom and Okuni peoples firmly assert that they originally lived south-westwards of their present sites, with the Yakö as their neighbours. A similar tradition among the Yakö villages (it is found at least among the Nko and Umor (Ugep) villages) states that their ancestors lived to the south-east with the ancestors were driven in different directions from this place by people called the Yagbo (Nko term), or Agbotai (Okuni term). It is also significant that the people of the villages of Ekukuri and Ekukuri Edondon, in the extreme south of the Okum tribe and roughly equidistant from the Yakö and the Okuni, claim to be related to the Yakö. That some such movement took place is made more probable by the fact that there is some linguistic evidence which suggests a link between the languages of Ikom and that of the Yakö. [4]

Any such movement must have taken place before 1840 for Ikom is marked by name as "Icon" on Beecroft's 1844 map. Moreover the Yakö village of Nko it seems (see p.155) must have been established by 1850, and very likely was established a good while before, and all traditions agree that the village of Umor was established well before

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Nko was funded. On the grounds of general probability, therefore, it seems likely that the movements must have been begun not later than the late eighteenth century and that associated movements were going on into the nineteenth century.

The effect of this movement was, therefore, to bring Ikom and Okuni and the Yakö to the riverain areas. The establishment of Ikom and Okuni seems to have had no direct significance for the Mbembe; the riverward movement of the Yakö, was much more important. It may have influenced the Okum people, one of whose villages was by tradition founded, just before the general introduction of guns into the area, by people driven from the southern hills be warfare (see p.134). The movement of the Yakö, however, had its greatest significance for the Adun. Competition between Adun and the Yakö village of Nko had, as we shall see, important consequences for the political development of Adun as a tribe.

After the villages of Ikom and Okuni had been founded on the Cross River they seem to have established themselves as entrepôts on the only important slave route in the area. This led probably from Calabar and also from Aro Chuku to these villages, and the routes then went on into what is now the Cameroons territory from whence the bulk of the slaves seem to have been drawn.

The evidence for the existence of route between Calabar and Okuni lies, first, in the strong traditions in this village and in Ikom that they had direct contacts with Calabar and dealt directly with Efik traders, as well as those from Aro Chuku and Agwa Aguna, before European control opened up the river to direct trade with Calaber. Slaves are said to have been the most important commodity of this trade. Informants said that the Efik and Aro traders did not penetrate further into the interior but advanced trade goods to the people of Ikom and Okuni who travelled into what is now the Cameroons and bartered the goods for slaves whom they later handed over to the traders who led them away overland. Evidence for the existence of such a route exists also in a report written in 1888 by Sir Harry Johnston, in which he states that the most important track leading inland from Calabar was one which led to the "Mbarikum Country", a term which, it seems likely, refers to Ikom. [5]

The existence of this trade route must have had some influence on the Mbembe especially the Okum, through the almost certain increased of inter-village friction which it must have occasioned, and which would have affected the settlements in its neighbourhood. Traders in general deliberately encouraged such friction, it Mbembe traditions are to be believed. The traders were so anxious for good relationships with them that the trader and his goods normally enjoyed immunity from attack. At the same time these traders, like other arms dealers before and since, are said to have encouraged the people

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to fight in order to increase the sales of guns and gunpowder. The very introduction of these articles in quantity along the trade route may well in itself have led to trouble. It seems, therefore, reasonable to connect the existence of this route with traditions that certain Okum villages moved to their present sites from the southwards, probably in the mid-to late nineteenth century, because of fighting with the Ekukuri villages, one of which in fact lat actually on the trade route.

Besides these movements to the south of what is now Mbembe country a different series of movements was going on to the north of the Cross river. These movements had much more considerable direct and indirect effects on the Osopong and the Adun and we shall examine them in detail when we discuss the Osopong. Here it is sufficient to say that the area north of the Cross River is now mainly occupied by the North-eastern Ibo (see map 3). There are, however, many traditions which suggest that formerly a considerable part of this region was occupied by the Mbembe and other Bantoid speaking peoples and also by Ibo more akin to the present so called Cross River Ibo than to the North-eastern Ibo. All these groups, it seems, were almost completely ousted from the right bank by the pressure of the North-eastern Ibo; people in some ways rather similar to the Tiv and certainly as much feared by their neighbours. [6]

The length of time over which the expansion of these North-eastern Ibo has been taking place can be judges from the fact that some Mbembe villages can point to two or three former sites further to the north-west, from which they were successively driven. There is evidence to suggest that some villages, as a direct result of this pressure, were already moving south of the river by the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is significant that Beecroft in 1844 records his surprise at seeing a village with conical roofed houses by the river. Today all the peoples of this part of the Cross River build gable ended houses, such as those already described, and it is, of course, impossible to tell if this rule held good in the 1840's but there is at least a distinct possibility that it did and that the North-eastern Ibo had already reached the river at that time.

This pressure from the north brought many groups of people, as we shall see, to take refuge on the left banks of the Cross River. The general picture is, therefore, one of a slow general movement from the south towards the river and a very much more widespread and dramatic movement of people from the north, also towards the riverain areas. A striking feature of this movement is that the northerners seem invariably to have been determined to go no further south than the river banks, indeed they showed every determination to settle very close to the river. Here they were often involved in serious fighting among themselves and with people already settled in the area. Their readiness to fight is somewhat suprising at first sight since

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they would have had, apparently, quite peaceful conditions if they had been prepared to move even a little further south away from the river. Even today the population densities a few miles to the south of the river in this area are comparatively low. The disturbances there, at this earlier period, were not very great and the fact that the refugees seeking peace and room to farm did not move into these sparsely settled areas demands an explanation.

There were, I believe, two factors involved. On the one hand the people were probably influenced by their reaction to differences in the ecology north and south of the river; on the other they were influenced by their desire for contact with the river traders who were at this time becoming increasingly important.

The ecological conditions, described in the introduction, were probably responsible for making those who came from north of the river anxious to stay as near to its banks as possible. These people were being driven from a relatively open land (even if it were not then necessarily as open as it is today) [7] into the forest and they did not like the forest. Today those from the more open areas show fear of this area and probably people in the nineteenth century felt the same emotions. Apart from this, however the forest is disliked by those from the north because far greater efforts are needed to clear farms in the forest than in the grasslands. Moreover the clearing of the forest is a task that falls almost wholly on the man, although north of the river much of the work involves only the cutting of grass. I have records of one village, now north of the river, whose fathers having been driven out of their homes by the Ibo sought refuge at first south of the river. They disliked conditions there so much, however, that after a while they recrossed the river, preferring to face Ibo encroachments rather than the hardships of forest farming. It seems, therefore, that those driven to the left bank of the river tended to cling to the more lightly forested (because already more heavily populated) river margin, even though they might have to fight for a place, rather than seek the less crowded forests.

A second factor making the river banks more popular than the areas further south was that, during the nineteenth century, river trade was becoming increasingly important. Trade in this area of the Cross River had, probably, a rather late start. Despite the early importance of Calabar and despite the apparently easy connection which the Cross River provided with that town, the are of Mbembe tribes seems to have remained something of a backwater until the nineteenth century. Not only were there no European contacts with the area but it seems probably that there were few connections at all between this area and the coast.

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The main evidence for this argument is the negative one that there are no traditions that his area has ever, except indirectly, felt the effect of the slave trade. There are no accounts, for instance, which would suggest that incorrigible rogues were sold as slaves except in very rare instances - only an occasional tale of a rogue being decoyed by foreign traders with the connivance of his relatives who wanted to get rid of him. There is some evidence that children were occasionally kidnapped by passing traders; but although such activities seem to have been recognized as dangers against which the wise too precautions they can scarcely have reached any great scale since such accounts are relatively uncommon. Further there are no traditions that the Mbembe feared being raided for slaves, nor that they raided other people for slaves to any great extent. In tales of warfare the emphasis is always laid on head-hunting, an activity which would seem incompatible with any great interest in the slave trade.

This lack of evidence for the participation of the area in the slave trade does suggest that it was not in contact with down-river traders until the slave trade had passed its peak. Nevertheless by the middle of the nineteenth century it seems probable that trade was becoming of real significance in the area and that this influence increased markedly with the steady rise of the people of Agwa Aguna, and their development of the Cross River trade; a traffic which became so significant that I suspect it exerted a substantial influence in persuading people to settle near the river.

There were, in this area, two main categories of traders, from Aro and Agwa Aguna. Of these the latter largely restricted their activities to the riverain areas; [8] the Aro on the other hand seem to have avoided the river and to have concerned themselves with the inland districts. It might seem, therefore, that trade goods could have been obtained without the necessity of moving to the river area, simply by buying them from the Aro. Evidence suggests, however, that the interest of the Aro in the Mbembe country was only slight. They did do business here. From this area they bought, according to the traditions, a certain number of easily transportable and comparatively high cost articles; small quantities of ivory and later a little rubber, dried peppers, and ground-nuts, and considerable amounts of dried meat and processed camwood. To this area they sold slaves and gunpowder and guns. Nevertheless it seems probable that the Aro were interested mainly either in those areas which were sources of slaves, or those in which the people were rich enough to buy slaves in quantity, and the Mbembe came into neither category.

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The slight influence of the Aro in this region is suggested by the attitude of the people towards the "Long Juju" of Aro Chuko. There is a considerable amount of evidence from other areas that the Aro used the prestige of this cult to gain political ends among many of the peoples with whom they traded. Where disputes broke out between rival factions, it is said, the Aro would advise the parties to the dispute to consult the oracle of Aro Chuko; and it is claimed that the Aro would then manipulate the oracle in such a way that those whom they favoured would be favoured by the oracle while their opponents disappeared.

Among the Mbembe the cult out of this oracle, known here as "Ibinokpabi Kw' Iseik" (Ibinokpabi of the earth) had very great prestige. Nevertheless, although I have recorded many traditions about those who went to consult it I have found no instance in which it seems to have been used in order to settle a political quarrel, nor indeed any instance in which it was used to settle any kind of dispute. It seems invariably to have been used as a method of ensuring the blessings of fertility upon the people who consulted it and who sent for its "medicines". This seems to suggest that the Aro, although they traded in cults among the Mbembe, were either not so closely involved in their affairs that they felt it necessary to influence them politically, or that they were present in such small numbers that they were unable to do so.

On the other hand traditions suggest that, by the river, the people had fairly frequent contacts with the Agwa Aguna traders who came more regularly than did the Aro. Moreover it is said that only the Agwa Aguna traders dealt in cloth which was becoming increasingly desired. Further, only the Agwa Aguna traders had the transport facilities that enabled them to provide a market for the Mbembe yams. Therefore those Mbembe who lived near the river had the advantage of more regular contacts with traders, the possibility of buying cloth and the possibility of selling yams which, although they may have fetched little at least provided a means whereby most people could acquire a few trade goods (the other main articles sold to the traders, dried meat and ivory were difficult to acquire in any quantity unless the individual had the control of a gun).

The river banks were, therefore, the meeting place of two different sets of pressures; of two different ecological zones, and an area possessing the attraction of having the most advantageous contacts with traders. This, at least in a large measure, is the explanation of the high density of population in this zone today; the factors described are also important if we are to consider the different experiences of the three tribes with whom we shall mainly concerned, and whose experience have undoubtedly influenced their political organization[9].

[1] In letters to the Mission headquarters, Edinburgh.

[2] Beecroft, 1844.

[3] Johnston, 1888 (a), p. 758.

[4] "The nominal prefix systems of Ikom and Oulumo, Lokö (Yakö) and Kohumuno (Bahumunu) are more similar to one another than to that of any other language". Private communication T. Winston (S.O.A.S.).

[5] See Appendix B.

[6] See Jones 1961.

[7] Johnston 1888a p.118-119) "Beyond the Hills of Afikpo the low forest land again commences but arriving at the vicinity of Atam the country assumes the usual park life open aspect". Atam is a name Johnston seems to have used to refer to a wide area of the right bank of the Cross River to the east of the actual village of Atam.).

[8]In 1893 when war suddenly broke out between Agwa Aguna and the Afikpo Ibo it is reported that "several hundred Akunas (Agwa Aguna traders) who were trading up river were caught like rats in a trap". Consul McDonald. 1893.

[9]e.g. Probyn 1902, quoted Partridge 1905, p.52.

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