Nigeria

Arochukwu Oracle and Igbo Land in the Nineteenth Century

Written by Omolewa Taiwo, Department of History and International Studies, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, Nigeria.

Igbo Settlements

“Igbo settlement, extends east and west in the Niger-Delta region which is owned by the Middle-Belt, formerly known as Bendel, from the Old Calabar River to the banks of the Kwora, Niger River, and live in some territory at Aboh, an Igbo clan, to the west-ward of the latter stream. On the north it borders on Igara, Igala and A’kpoto, and it is separated from the sea only by petty tribes, all of which trace their origin to this great race”

Igbo Culture

Igbo land’s culture has been shaped by its rainforest climate, its ancient trade along the rivers, migration, and social history within its various clans and peoples. It has been influenced by its ancient trading neighbours, allies, and more recently by relations with Europeans.

Domains of Aro Influence and Capabilities in Igbo land

Aro traders were unarguably the driving force behind Aro success and ascendancy in Igboland. The traders owed their reputation, influence, and dominance more to an accident of geographical location than to anything else.

Location of Aro

Arochukwu was strategically located around the Enyong Creek, which links it to the main artery of the Cross River system – “the highway by which ‘light and civilization’ would penetrate the remotest recesses of the terra incognita inhabited by the Ibo, the Ibibio and the Ogoja peoples. 

Therefore, it had the advantage of commanding the gateway into the densely peopled Igbo hinterland, apart from being within easy reach of the main southeastern Nigerian coastal ports. Thus, with a location that was favourable, the Aro naturally manipulated their geographical advantage to gain high economic status.

Ibini Ukpabi Oracle

Aside from a favourable geographical location, the Aro had the advantageous influence of the authority of the widely famed Ibini Ukpabi oracle. The oracle conferred on the Aro the appellation “Umu Chukwu” (“Children of the high God”), making them almost untouchable as they traversed the length and breadth of the Igbo territory.

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Aro Military Alliance System

In addition, there was the Aro military alliance system which they relied on to protect their interests. They made use of the services of war-like neighbouring Igbo clans who, even on short notice, served to ensure the protection of Aro interests in the region.

Arochukwu Oracle. Pulseng photo

Any analysis of the factors and strategies behind Aro success and dominant influence in Igbo land is incomplete without recognizing the remarkable Aro spirit of enterprise and adventure, and their flexible social system embodied in the trinity of the trader, the diplomat, and the oracular agent.

With their array of exotic wares, wherever the itinerant Aro trader paused, prominent men literally fell over each other to host him, and even tried to lure him to establish a resting place of sorts.

Then, the readily available agent of the Aro oracle would act as a guide for consulting the oracle and also serve as a guarantee for security along hazardous routes. Finally, the presence of the Aro diplomat was necessary for ending those inter-community feuds, which were adjudged unprofitable to Aro. Interest because of the challenges of insecurity they posed to travellers.

The Presence of the Diplomat

Additionally, the presence of the diplomat was a known deterrent to attack from potential invaders because of both the fear of real or imaginary repercussion from the dreaded Aro oracle and the fear of the inevitable military reprisal that would certainly follow such action

The image of the Aro in Igbo development history hinged essentially on what constituted Aro sources of influence and capabilities, especially in the slave trade era.

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Abodes of Bush and Littoral People

It is possible to present these in five distinct domains. The first is “the domain of human social capabilities.” This embodies Aro ability to apply common-sense psychology in controlling the land and peoples of their homeland region. After mastering the regional land and river transportation network systems, Aro traders and diplomats divided the environment into two parts: the abode of “bush people,” whom they called ndu mba ohia, and the abode of “littoral people,” or ndu mba mmiri.

The Littoral and the Bush People

While the “littoral people” consisted of all those who lived close to the coast, such as the Efik and the Ijaws, “bush people” referred to those who lived in direct contact with the coast-based Europeans, the littoral communities were better armed and they were also largely organized under centralized political structures. Additionally, their men of authority occupied a strategic position in the slave trade.

By virtue of the geographic location of such communities, the Aro avoided raiding them for captives. Rather, the exchange of trade goods, which included human cargo, and diplomatic cooperation with the leaders of these communities, mainly through the instrumentality of the Ibini Ukpabi, were the defining characteristics of the relationship between these communities and the Aro.

On the other hand, seeing the “bush people” of the decentralized Igbo hinterland largely as people of “primitive tribes” that were very much uninformed about the goings-on in the coast-based Euro-African relations at the time; the Aro designated their abode as the main source of captive extraction.

The abode of the littoral people was the main destination point of captives before shipment across the Atlantic. Little wonder then that the catchphrase for punishing a recalcitrant fellow in the Igbo hinterland during that period of insecurity was simply: iresi ya ndi mba mmiri; that is, “to sell the fellow off to the littoral people” or people of the coast.

 Furthermore, the Aro, not insensitive to local cultural forms, were thoughtful and smart to appropriate and put to use the important element of trust, building it into their unequal social relations with their neighbours. To facilitate this, they dutifully adopted the dialect of their host.

The Advice of Local Men of Authority

Moreover, in recruiting professional load carriers from host communities, the Aro relied on the advice of local men of authority, whose trust and confidence they earned and to whom they gave material presents, but also a promise to provide for the load carriers’ security/protection.

Institution of Igbandu (blood pact)

In addition, they re-invented the institution of Igbandu (blood pact) to service their trade relations. Whereas Igbandu was originally used, for instance, to re-establish confidence between disputants, especially in kinship relationships, the itinerant Aro trader used it in forming friendships and alliances with alien groups.

In other words, they adapted the institution to establish strong links with non-Aro Igbo sub-groups, thereby making it possible for them to gain entry into areas where a forcible entry would disrupt trade by generating hostility or resistance.

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Thus, Igbandu removed the element of mutual suspicion, established confidence in the contracting parties, and made it obligatory for local chiefs and men of authority to keep trade routes open and secure for Aro traders to ply their business without hindrance.

The Domain of Economic Capabilities

The domain of economic capabilities under which the Aro became the major purveyors of European trade goods, including the exotic/ luxury ones, such as gun and gunpowder, obtained from within the abode of the littoral people. With such goods, they endeared themselves to the elites in the abode of “bush people,” and stimulated differences in wealth and social status in these communities.

For instance, the possession of a gun by an individual, and the firing of gunshots during ceremonies, such as funerals, soon became indicators of a high-level social status.

The Coast-bound Export Trade

Thus, the Aro depended on the coast-bound export trade to generate luxury goods with which they increased their power and prestige vis-à-vis their neighbours. As a result of exposure to what was perceived by the standards of the time as “better things of life,” expectations were raised, and this “created in these areas a new class of men anxious to acquire wealth and titles – a class with whom the Aro also allied to extract captives through kidnapping and occasional raids.

The Justice System of the Oracle

Therefore, Aro dominance was based on wealth accumulation through trade and military power, as is evident in the politico-legal domain. With the influence and authority conferred on them by their oracle, the Aro became key negotiators in local socio-political disputes, enthroning the justice system of their oracle in the abode of the so-called “bush people.” With time, the Aro justice system became fundamental to the social organization of people in various parts of the Igbo hinterland.

The Traditional Igbo Judicial System

For instance, as an integral part of the traditional Igbo judicial system, consulting with the Ibini Ukpabi oracle at Arochukwu became an effective means of achieving genuine reconciliation and of re-establishing confidence between disputants whose relationship was so strained that normalcy was impaired.

With their justice system installed, even without having to push ultimately for the acceptance of their political lordship, the Aro used the services of fighting allies to assert some quasi-political supremacy whenever the need arose. By the same token, however, the allies were also used to raid for captives in the abode of the “bush people.”

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The importance of the Ibini Ukpabi in Aro ascendancy should not be overstressed. As much as the oracle was paramount in the imposition of Aro hegemony, it operated in perfect symbiosis with the great Aro commercial acumen: the utilization of contacts made in the course of promoting it to advance Aro commercial interests, and vice versa. As pointed out earlier, the ability of the Aro to impose their authority in Igbo land also rested on their military prowess.

The exercise of the ability to implement this policy was, however, guided by tact because, as Alan Burns explains, the Aro were not a military people but owed their power to their relatively great intelligence when compared with the neighbouring groups.

The domain of Culture and Cosmology

Under the “domain of culture and cosmology,” the Aro advertised their oracular power and propagated the Ekpe/Okonko society in many parts of Igbo land, using the cult members to further expand their commercial interests.

Remarkably with time, the use to which the Aro put their oracle contributed in influencing or changing Igbo cosmology, having impacted the Igbo worldview, as Aro agents were often invited to different parts of Igbo land to help to establish local shrines, or Ihu Chukwu, of the great Chukwu, the high God of the Igbo pantheon.

For the Aro, the spirito-psychic field involving occultism and the use of charms was very useful in the very dangerous business of slaving. Though risky, under the effective protection of their dreaded oracle, and distinguished as “children of the high God,” the Aro confidently strutted from one community to the other, directing the procurement and movement of captives.

The Domain of the Physical Environment

Finally, there was “the domain of the physical environment.” With no encumbrances, the Aro travelled and traded extensively in the course of which they built up a sequence of resting places stretched out as a trade diaspora along the trade routes.

The subsequent proliferation of Aro settlements in pre-colonial Igboland was a corollary of these resting- places. According to David Northrup, the more important resting places gradually became trading centres, and finally Aro settlements.

Establishment of New Settlements

From these trading centres, new settlements were, in turn, founded owing either to the Aro initiative or the initiative of a local man of authority. This was the genesis of “Aro imperialism,” which became the foundation of effective Aro hegemony. Once a settlement was formed, as Uche Ohia notes, the Aro acquired landed property and took wives from among their host communities.

Such affinities served both to ensure peaceful co-existence and to increase the size of Aro groups since, while freely marrying non- Aro women, the Aro men at the time never permitted their daughters to marry a non-Aro.

Strategic Settlements

Thus, the Aro migrated and settled permanently in choice or strategic parts of Igbo land either to enable them to advertise and promote the powers of their oracle or simply to be better able, among other things, to tap captives from even the most isolated but well-populated hinterland communities.

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This strategy produced two types of Aro: “the Aro-uno,” the home-based Aro or those Aro who remained at home in Arochukwu, and “the Aro-mba” or “Aro- Uzo,” the Aro abroad or the Aro living outside the homeland.  In other words, the strategy led to the formation of Arochukwu confederacies, which maintained direct links with the Atlantic market even though they were not under any central authority.

With the inception of colonial rule in Nigeria, most non-Aro Igbo, for fear of domination, became determined to halt Aro expansion into neighbouring territories, an expansion that had been going on for hundreds of years.

In many cases, the Diaspora Aro soon began to be treated as “aliens,” especially under the Native Lands Acquisition ordinances of the British colonial state, notwithstanding the number of generations for which they had been settled in non-Aro areas, or the means through which they acquired titles to land.

In some cases, they were made not to acquire land, or alienate it, without the permission of their indigenous landlords.  In the final analysis, commercial reasons connected to the Atlantic trade were certainly not the exclusive motive for Aro migrations/settlement outside their immediate homeland, but they were, indeed, a powerful incentive for temporary or permanent movement of the Aro across the Arochukwu borders.

They moved across their home borders in order to bridge different contexts in the commerce of the time, or, they just left Arochukwu as fortune-hunters in search of greener pastures elsewhere.

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Accordingly, Aro migrants can best be described as entrepreneurial pioneers, as bricoleurs making the best out of the changes associated with the trade of the Atlantic community.

So, even though it is valid to say that the Atlantic trade did not shape or initiate Aro responses to changes in the region, it did set the parameters for the forms of change that took place in the area.

For the Igbo hinterland area of southeastern Nigeria, migrations by a predatory grouplike the Aro were undertaken to cope with environmental and demographic changes and demands occasioned by the slave trade and resistance to it. Thus, trade and environmentally instigated migrations resulted in the permanent geographical dispersal of the Aro in various parts of the Igbo territory.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Igbo land in the nineteenth century had been explained in the above paragraphs and through this research, we will understand more on how the Aro were the economic, socio-political overlords of the Igbo society through the domains of Aro influence and capabilities in Igbo land such as how it serves as the executive and legislative arm of the society, among others has been explained.

Cite as: Omolewa Taiwo. Arochukwu Oracle and Igbo Land in the Nineteenth Century. Tadexprof. December 14, 2021. Retrieved from https://tadexprof.com/2021/12/arochukwu-oracle-and-igbo-land-in-the-nineteenth-century/

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About the author

Tadese Faforiji

I am Tadese Faforiji, a history student of the prestigious Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State- 21st-century University, properly called. I am a blogger and an avid writer.

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