Although it focuses on Abia State, this does not overlook the need for the broader, national tourism potential study.
Ichie Ticha Akuma Kalu Njoku
In 2002, I traveled to the seaports in Calabar and Bonny to retrace the 18th century Igbo slave journeys. It became evident that many slave journeys to Bonny and Calabar started from Arochukwu. Hidden deep in the rainforest of Arochukwu is an ancient cave temple complex, which was the most secret slave dealing location during the Atlantic slave trade. Arochukwu slave dealers took Igbo captives into the cave for judgment and ritual processing during which some victims were symbolically presumed dead, but were sold onto slavery. This ancient cave complex was the very beginning of many hinterland slave journeys to ports in Old Calabar and Bonny before the Middle Passage.
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Along the hinterland trade routes to the Arochukwu cave, there are lots of slave trade related objects in private homes. The biggest collection of such items of the material culture is stockpiled as hoarded wealth in a one-room storehouse (Ogbiti Okoro Oji) in Ujari, Arochukwu. What is astounding about the Arochukwu collection is the large number of luxury goods in it. Merchants took manufactured goods from Glasgow, Scotland to Igboland in exchange for slaves, which they sent to North America to produce tobacco, and then return with the tobacco to Britain. This tripartite account, though factually accurate, is an incomplete historical record if left to stand exclusively by itself.
Data from Abia State demonstrate that the material culture of the Atlantic slave trade in the hinterland slave routes, if historically preserved and culturally conserved, may have a greater capacity to be useful in historically, economic and educationally significant ways than as functional and/or decorative objects.
This article uses the trade goods hoarded as wealth in the family house of Okoro Oji at Ujari Arochukwu as a case study. I have self-consciously established a particular trail from the shipping port in Bonny through former interior slave markets and slaveholding quarters in Azumini, Uzuakoli, Bende, and Ututu, to the Ancient Cave Temple Complex in Arochukwu.
The Main Parts of the Temple Complex: a Descriptive Outline
1. A six-foot gully, though now covered in a thicket, is the main covert entrance of the Ancient Cave Temple, in the forest of God.
2. Two checkpoints or minor shrines
3. The Main Oracular Shrine of Ibin Ukpabi and by which stands as if on guard the statue of Kamalu the Warrior God.
4. An altar (the kitchen area)
5. A waterfall (the loud sound of which from a distance is regarded as the prophetic voice of Ibin Ukpabi).
6. The Dark Chamber Presence (“the Holy of Hollies) and Throne of Judgment.
7. A Hill of Rags. That is the place where the condemned were required to undress and leave their clothes before they disappeared into the tunnels around the hill of rags.
8. The Tunnels of Disappearance—the dark tunnels into which the victims disappeared. Actually, one of the tunnels leads to a point where the meandering Red River becomes the Iyi Eke (Python Stream). Iyi Eke — an outlet from where the victims now blindfolded walk to “Onu Asu Bekee” (the European Beach, which later became the Government Beach). And from there, waiting boats took the enslaved to Calabar for onward transmission to Ala Bekee.
9. The Red River: As the victims disappear, the Aro would color the river red to give people the impression that the condemned had died. And the red water flowing down the stream would be a signal to the relatives that the victims were dead.
The following of the landmarks and relics found on the trail from Arochukwu to Azumini:
The idea of slave dealing in the Temple of God and direct link from the Temple to Shipping Ports is fascinating. Entering the Chamber Presence and facing the exact place to which the slave dealers took their victims for judgment and ritual processing. So too the exact place where probably thousands African slaves entered and symbolically died is breathtaking. Also is heartrending is following the tunnels of disappearance to the trade routes leading to the point where the Atlantic Ocean ends in a twilight zone. The experience can be overwhelming and story bitter, but it is the truth that must be told in order to heal the deep wounds of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic.
Some of the homes on the slave routes should be preserved to house the materials in Ututu, Ohafia (Eke Kalu), Obu Nkwa in Asaga Ohafia, Bende (the mud house in Ndi Mgborogwu and the two cells built by Omenuko), Uzuakoli (Iheukwumere), and the shelters in Arochukwu and Azumini. These house museums will become important information centers and places where tourism products could be sold. The relics in the villages and towns where these houses are should become storage spaces for the relics in their areas. The house museums could also provide programs on heritage education and oral history, especially to school children and inform eco-tourists about Abia State’s natural environment. For a people that under consume their history, this is very important.
The project would serve a local population of over two million including visitors from neighboring states. Not to mention many of the hundreds and thousands of pilgrims following trail from Blue River in Azumini to the Temple Complex in Arochukwu. This will be significant for the regeneration and healing the ritual quest will inspire.
The Abia State model for cultural conservation and historic preservation might serve as a basic paradigm for sustainable tourism development in the greater Igboland. A more in-depth research into the diverse local traditions of slavery and experiences of the slave trade is required. Eventually, a more broad based regional or nationwide research is necessary for the development of eco-tourism in the former Slave Coast of Bight of Biafra. Such an undertaking calls for a multi-state multidisciplinary effort.
I recommend a more elaborate and inclusive study that should focus on the collection of the folklore and material objects along carefully established trails. The thinking here is that the collection of folklore and historical narratives about the route and related objects along the trails should precede the collection of the oral communal histories of the event, which would entail thicker ethnographic descriptions and thus, a more inclusive research method.
The findings of the completed first phase of this project support the generalization that oral tradition and material objects in the cultural landscape can provide valid historical evidence.
Although it focuses on Abia State, this does not overlook the need for the broader, national tourism potential study. Even the Abia State Government that provided some financial and technical support recognized the need for a regional project. While one would welcome the opportunity to undertake such a project on a regional scale, this should not necessarily preclude the preservation and further development of the present project that focuses on Abia State. A national project makes sense because the slave trade that anchors the project was part of the interactions that existed long before Nigeria and its federating states, including Abia, came into being.
A national project is desirable; however, the practical realities of Nigeria and the logistical demands of the project — among other considerations — require keeping the Abia Statewide or eastern regional project in view.
There is a need for an inclusive historical account of the experiences of the communities who were most directly affected by that tragedy of the Atlantic slave trade on both sides of the Atlantic. By an inclusive historical account, I mean one that complements the oral accounts of the hinterland routes with the Middle Passage accounts and vice versa. But when all is said and done, the most complete history or a very close approximation of a complete history will be written only after journeying back to Africa.
Furthermore, even though the descendants of those millions of enslaved Africans are free in the Americas, the story of freedom is not complete if it does not lead back to state of freedom that was before the forced migration of their ancestors to the New World. It will take such a journey, ritual quest or pilgrimage to bring a lasting healing to the wounds, which are deep-seated on both sides of the Black Atlantic world. People need this kind of pilgrimage to relieve perpetrators on both sides of the Atlantic from the cycle of guilt.