The origin of slave trade in Obolo land

Slave trading is the transatlantic trading patterns which were established as early as the mid-17th century. Trading ships would set
sail from Europe with a cargo of manufactured goods to the west coast of Africa. There, these goods would be traded, over weeks
and months, for captured people provided by African traders. European traders found it easier to do business with African
intermediaries who raided settlements far away from the African coast and brought those young and healthy enough to the coast
to be sold into slavery.
Once full, the European trader’s ship would depart for the Americas or the Caribbean on the notorious ‘ Middle Passage’. During
this voyage, the slaves would be kept in the ship’s hold, crammed close together with little or no space to move. Conditions were
squalid and many people did not survive the voyage. The majority of those sold into slavery were destined to work on plantations
in the Caribbean. These plantations produced products such as sugar or tobacco, meant for consumption back in Europe.
Research has shown that Obolo people never forced their people into slavery as it was forbidden by law to sell their own people
into slavery, they nonetheless, battened upon strangers living in their midst. They also turned increasingly to their hinterland
trading partners as a source of supply. They ask both the Mboko ( Ibibio), the Ikwet ( Ogoni ) and Ndokki to provide them with
with more copious supplies of slaves, and the hinterlands quickly complied. Early on this new phase of the trade, slave markets
were set up at Uruagwat and Ibegwe in Ibibio land and at Opuoko in Ogoni. Before long more markets sprang up at Essene, Ubuim
and Eket in Ibibio, and at Ohambel, Azumini and Okoloma in Ndokki.
In exchange for slaves and forest products, the Portuguese offered a variety of manufactured goods. Some of these were
substitutes for ornamental items already in use. One example was alata, others included different types of coral beads which went
under the names of alo, akolo and kalari. These rapidly replaced earlier neck ornaments made by perforating the shells of urion and
nlori or the teeth of leopards. In addition to these ornamental items, the visitors brought smoking pipes, brass, knives, gun and
gun-powder, and large iron, some more than four feet high. Exchange was both, in the form of barter, or indirect, via a currency.
The dominant currency of the period was ekwe ( manilla).
One problem pose by this new trade was that of keeping large number of unwilling slaves under secure custody pending shipping.
The first Obolo response to this problem was the digging of enem- udon ( pits ), into which they lowered slaves by means of
ladders and ropes. The pit system, however, proved costly in terms of health and life of the slaves. This was because of difficulties
in ensuring proper ventilation and in preventing inundation during the rainy season.
In search of more efficient arrangements, Obolo traders next tried out the system in which slaves were enclosed in Okwa ( Iron-
wood ) stockade. Finally, the stockades evolved into otunchit ( slave traders’ compounds ). The otunchit ( literally ” house with one
door ” ) was made up of two sections: One housing a wealthy slave-dealer, his relatives and his minions, the other serving as a
transit camp for slaves destined for export. These two sections were separated by an internal partition, the whole was surrounded
by a stockade which had a single, heavily guarded gate.
By Cliff Steven