G. UGO NWOKEJI. The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra: An African Society in the Atlantic World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

KRISTIN MANN. Chapter 1 of Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Chapter 1 is called “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port, 1760-1851,” 23-50.


The readings for this week are the last in a series of four case studies about specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. This fourth case study is about the Eastern Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra. The entire Bight of Benin stretched from about the River Volta in the west to the River Nun in the east. In the eighteenth century, its eastern half included hinterland empires like Oyo and Benin and coastal towns like Porto Novo, Badagry, Lagos, Lekki, and Mahin. Meanwhile, the Bight of Biafra picked up where the Bight of Benin terminated. It stretched from roughly the Niger Delta eastward across present-day Nigeria and then south to Cape Lopez in modern-day Gabon. New Calabar and Bonny, located in the Niger Delta, and Old Calabar, located in the Cross Rivers Region, were just a few of its most heavily trafficked slave ports. Today, the combined area of the Eastern Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra encompasses the coastline of Nigeria, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea, as well as the northern half of Gabon. The readings assigned for this week are both secondary sources. The first is a chapter from the historian Kristin Mann’s book on precolonial Lagos, entitled Slavery and the Birth of an African City. The second is the historian G. Ugo Nwokeji’s 2010 monograph The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra.

Kristin Mann’s “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port, c. 1760-1851”

In her chapter, “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port,” Kristin Mann discusses the history of Lagos from 1760 to 1851.[1] The first date represents the decade in which European traders began visiting Lagos regularly, and the second date represents the British bombardment of Lagos, a watershed moment when British military forces helped the deposed monarch Akitoye retake the lagoon city from the Oba Kosoko. In this chapter, Mann provides a brief overview of Lagos’s history prior to the rise of the slave trade in the 1760s, outlines the dimensions of the slave trade throughout Lagos’s history, and then uses local oral traditions to recreate an indigenous narrative of the Kingdom of Lagos’s political history from roughly the reign of Akinsemoyin (1760-1775) to the reconquest by Akitoye with the help of the British in 1851. In the process, Mann shows how the Kingdom of Lagos “transformed its capital into an international port linking West Africa’s hinterland to the Atlantic World.”[2] Lagos went from a locus of regional trade in the eastern Bight of Benin to a primary international port of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Meanwhile, the institution of slavery moved from the margins of Lagosian society to became a major influence on its politics.[3]

Before the 1500s, the lagoon of Lagos was settled by a group of Yoruba-speaking migrants from Isheri called the Awori. The Awori intermarried with earlier inhabitants and later lived alongside the settlements of other Yoruba-speaking immigrant groups like Aja and Ijebu. They were led by a ruler called the olófin, and they traced their heritage to the ancient city-state of Ile-Ife. Portuguese sailors became the first Europeans to trade in the lagoon area around 1500. It was them who gave Lagos its name, derived from the Portuguese word for lake. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Lagos was occupied by an Edo-speaking military expedition from Benin City in the east. By 1682, Lagos had officially become as a royal province of the Kingdom of Benin, complete with its own dynastic, oligarchic, and administrative structure. Nonetheless, Lagos became “largely autonomous by the eighteenth century.”[4] Although European traders had periodically visited Lagos during the seventeenth century, they would not begin coming regularly until the 1760s. Slave exports from Lagos were minimal throughout the eighteenth century, but they soared during the first fifty years of the nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1850, Lagos emerged as the largest exporter of slaves from the Bight of Benin and then the leading port north of the equator.[5]

After sketching out Lagos’s history from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, Mann turns her attention to a more analytical question. She asks, “What accounts for Lagos’s sudden and dramatic rise to preeminence as a slave port in the first half of the nineteenth century?”[6] Mann then identifies four contributing factors. These are trading ties between Bahia, Brazil, and Lagos; Dahomean wars in the west that push Oyo’s slave trade further east; the relative security provided by the island’s isolation; and then the collapse of Oyo Empire between 1817 and 1836. More generally, Lagos was located at a strategic crossroads between inland empires and regional trading networks, yet it also lay beyond the reach of potential invading states like Allada, Dahomey, and Oyo. As these powers vied with one another throughout the eighteenth century, the political centers of the Transatlantic Slave Trade on the Bight of Benin shifted both eastward and southward. Lagos’s rise was a part of these larger trends that had been pushing the trade eastward since the 1730s. In contrast to port-towns like Little Popo, European factors viewed Lagos as “safe and reliable.” Unlike the Asantehene or Dahomean King, the Oba’s wealth was not built on a military ethos. [7]

The most fascinating section of this chapter from Mann’s Slavery and the Birth of an African City is the final one about oral traditions and indigenous narratives. As Mann proclaims, “The traditions bear recounting because they outline the political history of the Kingdom during the era of the slave trade as locals remember it.”[8] She concludes that these narratives encode “deep-seated” political tensions. Moreover, though the Transatlantic Slave Trade shaped these tensions, it did not necessarily create them.[9] Instead, Mann finds the roots of the state’s tensions in its rapid and contested growth from the end of the seventeenth century. In particular, Mann highlights such changes as the move from compound-heads known as baálé to a system of chiefs known as ídéjo, and then to the installation of Benin’s royal dynasty with its complicated bureaucratic structure and unclear lines of succession. These changes reveal that the Kingdom of Lagos should not be understood as a centralized state but a “coalition of actors” whose interests often clashed. In a closing paragraph, Mann demonstrates how the presence of the Transatlantic Slave Trade appears symbolically in the oral traditions. Allusions to and themes about commerce, property, Islam, gunpowder, and traders like José Domingo Martinez point to the trade’s omnipresent nature in Lagosian society.

Ugo Nwojeki’s The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra

In The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra, historian G. Ugo Nwokeji has revised his dissertation from 1999 about Aro society in the Biafran frontier.[10] Today, the Aro people are a subgroup of the Igbo and they live in Igboland. In the early-modern era, however, they were a powerful merchant class that dominated the Biafran slave trade.[11] They emerged in the early-seventeenth century. They moved out from their homeland of Arochukwu, which is located in the Igbo-Ibibio-Ejagham borderland north of the Cross-River—Enyong Creek estuary in what is now southeastern Nigeria. The Aro gained momentum during the second quarter of the eighteenth century, a response to increasing Euro-American demands on the coast.[12] They controlled the Biafran supply of slaves to Atlantic markets until that trade ended abruptly in the 1840s. Most of the persons they sold to European traders were convicted criminals, kidnapped people, social deviants, or war captives taken from the Igbo hinterland. They were generally sold from Bonny, which became the most profitable local slaving port in the eighteenth century. In addition, the Aro sold a relatively high proportion of female slaves compared to other regions of Atlantic Africa. In the end, the Aro gave Biafra its dubious distinction of being the third most important supplier of slaves to the Americas in the early-modern era, second only to the Bight of Benin and West-Central Africa.[13]

The Bight of Biafra region and the Aro people present an uncommon case study for Atlantic Africa during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Unlike either the Gold Coast or Slave Coast, Biafra had no large centralized states. In addition, the slave trade had less of a demographic impact in the long run because Biafra was isolated from the Trans-Saharan Trade and able to sustain its population by in-migration. Up until the 1890s, all males in Aro society were primarily employed as merchant-traders. All of the fighting necessary for slave procurement was done by mercenaries from outside communities, often Igbo people of the Cross Rivers area. These unique factors point Nwokeji toward his central thesis. He argues that the rise and expansion of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Bight of Biafra throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries must be explained by Aro’s “peculiar organization as a [trade] diaspora” rather than as a state.[14] Even though the Aro developed some institutions that resemble imperial structures—most notably, an Aro central council called the Okpankpo—and their slave commerce brought violence to Biafran communities, they “are best seen as a trade diaspora.”[15] In this way, the Aro people recall other merchant groups like the Slatee of Senegambia, the Akani of the Gold Coast, or the Douala of Cameroon.[16]

The Bight of Biafra region and the Aro people also present a unique case study for Atlantic Africa because of source limitations. As Paul Lovejoy explains in his forward to this book, almost no documentary source material exists for Biafra before the colonial period.[17] This has made establishing any kind of chronology for the precolonial period extremely difficult. Furthermore, historical knowledge in Biafran communities functions differently than elsewhere. It is generally restricted to the inheritance rituals of secret and titled societies like ekpe. To deal with these obstacles, Nwokeji approaches his subject from an interdisciplinary perspective. He draws on previous work about precolonial Biafra from scholars like K.O. Dike, F. Ekijuiba, and David Northrup.[18] He uses contemporary published works that touch on Biafra and its diaspora by writers like Alonso de Sandoval, Jean and John Barbot, William Snelgrave, Christian Oldendorp, Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle, Hugh Crow, Isaac Parker, John Adams, William Balfour Baikie, and Olaudah Equiano.[19] He makes use of material culture, settlement patterns, export statistics and other demographic data, and lexicostatistic information. Perhaps most importantly, he makes use of oral traditions. He uses both published oral traditions and those that he collected himself from interviews with 45 respondents. He discusses his approach to source materials in a note at the end of his study.[20]

What does it mean that Nwokeji defines the Aro as a “trade diaspora” rather than as a state or an empire? According to Nwokeji, there are “five key elements” of a trade diaspora.[21] The first is the existence of a “central place.” This is the “Arochukwu metropole” for the Aro. The second characteristic is the relationship of the trade diaspora to its host communities. The Aro developed over 150 “diaspora settlements” in the Biafran interior. Some of the major ones were Arondizuogu and a group of towns called the Ndieni cluster. Although most trade diaspora ruled over their host communities by force, the Aro spread and ruled mainly through” trade, cultural prestige, and religious clout.”[22] The third characteristic is a “cultural aloofness” between the trade diaspora and its host communities. The fourth characteristic is that diasporas serve as “cultural brokers” or “carriers of culture,” even while they maintain degrees of cultural exclusiveness. Last, trade diasporas almost always practice a universalistic or a monotheistic religion. The Jews are the most well-known example in this respect, but all African trade diasporas fall into this group because they are Muslim. Examples include the Sonninke-speaking groups of Senegambia—like the Maraka, the Juulu, and the Jahaanke—as well as the Hausa. The central deity of the Aro people was Chukwu.

One key to understanding Nwokeji’s argument about the Aro as a “trade diaspora” is knowing the various state institutions and social practices that he Aro used to create unity across host communities. The major institutions include the central council of Okpankpo; the Eze Aro or Aro King, which was more of a symbolic post than an active ruler; a lineage structure comprised of branches called Otusi; a social structure composed of three classes, the amadi, amuda, and ohu; the Ibiniukpabi oracle, a temple dedicated to the main god Chukwu; and the Ekpe or Okonko confraternity, a secret society which served as a “police force and judicial outfit” and also regulated credit” among traders.[23] There was also the Ikeji or New Yam Festival, which was held annually in Arochokwu, and the Ihu rite of obeisance, performed as a way to renew relationships between members of Aro society. Other cultural elements of Aro society include the Igba Ndu, an oath or covenant that Aro traders made with their host communities, and the Omo Aro, a national emblem of the Aro people. To maintain control over trade and expand their network, the Aro also resorted to sociocultural strategies, like exogamy, the incorporation of outsiders, and the rotation of markets between Bende and Uburu to increase competition among their suppliers.[24] Collectively, what all of this amounts to is the cultural and political structure of the Aro trade diaspora.

One central theme of Nwokeji’s book is the idea that Aro society was driven by cultural as well as economic rationales. He argues that scholars have been too quick to discount the role culture plays in the organization of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.[25] As he shows, the choice to sell an enslaved person to Europeans or retain them in domestic slavery was about cultural imperatives as much as economic ones. Preferences for household slaves, for example, were built on Aro stereotypes about skills, regions, and the position of “abnormal” peoples like twins in society.[26] Another example is how slave exports were shaped by the connections between marriage, bridewealth, and debt.[27] Nonetheless, by far Nwokeji’s greatest argument relates to “indigenous conceptions of gender.”[28] In a chapter devoted entirely to gender, Nwokeji shows readers that culture can help answer a persistent question in the literature: why Biafra exported a greater ration of females than all other regions of Atlantic Africa. The contributing factors are that men dominated agriculture in Biafran society, women were also valued minimally in domestic slavery, male warriors typically beheaded men as a matter of honor, and the female-oriented Trans-Saharan Trade was almost entirely absent in the region.[29] Interestingly, cultural conceptions about the kolanut among Biafran peoples go a long way to explaining why the Trans-Saharan Trade did not become dominant there.

Another central theme of Nwokeji’s book is the idea “that Aro history makes sense only in the context of regional and Atlantic history.”[30] Nwokeji describes his text as “interactive” because it attempts to understand the Aro’s rise in both internal (read: African) and external (read: Atlantic) contexts.[31] In addition to accounting for the cultural and economic motivations of the Aro, Nwokeji acknowledges how such external factors as the rise of the plantation complex in the Americas and the ethnic and gender preferences that American slaveowners expressed shaped the contours of the Biafran slave trade.[32] Central to this interactive approach is Nwokeji’s work to create a chronology that explains the rise of the Aro in relation to the development of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the region. This task leads Nwokeji to link such phenomena as the northern and westward expansion of the Aro trade diaspora with the shift of Biafran slaving from Old and New Calabar to Bonny during the second quarter of the eighteenth century. [33] Nwokeji interprets the ascent of Bonny from 1726 to 1750 (and Biafra more generally from 1750 to 1800) as equally about Atlantic and African factors. In a unique contribution to the literature on Atlantic Africa, Nowekji uses the Transatlantic Slave Trade database to calculate the average number of slaves loaded per vessel at Biafran ports.[34] In doing so, he shows that Bonny was a high-yield port with unparalleled turnaround times.


In closing, it should be noted here that Nwokeji never denies the roles violence and warfare played in the creation and the maintenance of the Aro trade diaspora. Nonetheless, Nwokeji concludes that the Aro people “generally preferred peace to war” and that historical events such as the complete eradication of Ora were extreme cases.[35] Readers should not make the mistake of assuming that simply because Nwokeii emphasizes the roles of decentralized trade and culture over centralized statehood and economic rationales he is implying the Aro were a more fair, just, and equal society in Atlantic Africa. In fact, Nowkeji clarifies this exact point in one of his chapter conclusions: “Quite apart from economics, the choices slave holders made reflected their idea of the ideal society, even though such an idea was manifestly unjust, and the means of achieving it inherently violent.”[36] In the case of the Aro, the absence of an Empire such as that which existed for Ashanti, Dahomey, Oyo, Benin, or Kongo does not necessarily mean there was less violence. After all, the Aro and their mercenaries made Bonny “the single busiest slaving port in Africa north of the Equator” by 1750.[37] They did not do this without creating profound insecurity for regional peoples. The main takeaway here is not that the Transatlantic Slave Trade could have been facilitated in a less-harmful way, but that it did not necessarily require a central and militarized state.[38]

For historians of Atlantic Africa in the eighteenth century, Nwokeji’s The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra complicates a clear division between decentralized polities, like the Fante, and centralized polities like the Ashanti.[39] Scholars must how account for the possibility of trade diasporas, which are similar to decentralized polities but may also occupy a third space upon this sociopolitical spectrum. For historians of the Atlantic World and particularly the African Diaspora, Nwokeji’s work is a must read. While Nwokeji probably oversells the amount of attention he pays to the greater Atlantic World in his preface and conclusion, his discussion of Biafran gender is enough to give his work a special place in the historiography of the Atlantic World.[40] Atlantic World historians have long taken notice of the preference that certain slaveowners in the Americas expressed for women from the Bight of Biafra. Some historians, like Douglas Chambers and Sasha Turner, have recently explored these preferences in their works.[41] To my knowledge, however, no historian has more thoroughly investigated the African side of this gendered and ethnic debate than Nwokeji. Of course more research needs to be done on this intriguing question. Nonetheless, after reading  Nwokeji, a much fuller picture is starting to emerge. It is becoming increasingly clear that ethnic designations were not just “product labels” placed on enslaved African people by European traders. To the contrary, there was a real connection between planters’ demands for “Eboe” women and the simultaneous exportation of greater numbers of women from Biafra.


[1] Kirstin Mann, “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port, c. 1760-1851,” in Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 23-50.

[2] Mann, “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port,” 23.

[3] Ibid. 26.

[4] Ibid. 29.

[5] Ibid. 40.

[6] Ibid. 40.

[7] Ibid. 43.

[8] Ibid. 44.

[9] Ibid. 50.

[10] G. Ugo Nwokeji, “The Biafran Frontier: Trade, Slaves, and Aro Society, c. 1750-1905” (Phd Dissertation, University of Toronto, 1999).

[11] Nwokeji describes the evolution of the Aro people in a four-phase chronology (6). For this review, however, I am mainly interested in first two phases since these cover the eighteenth century. The first phase lasts from the early seventeenth century to the end of the 1730s and the second phase lasts from 1740 to the British abolition of the slave trade in 1808. A crucial period in these phases was from 1726-1750, when Bonny superseded Old Calabar as the principal slaving port. For these reasons, I have not discussed the final chapter of Nwokeji’s book, which focuses on the nineteenth century.

[12] Nwokeji writes, “Expanding trade in the eighteenth century was, in the first instance, the function of increasing Euro-American demand,” (xvii). G. Ugo. Nwokeji, The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra: An African Society in the Atlantic World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[13] Nwokeji, The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra, xiii. 13% of all captives from 1551-1850 came from Biafra.

[14] Ibid. xvi.

[15] Ibid. 206.

[16] The Accanys traders were mentioned by Bosman and the Slatee are mentioned by Mungo Park. See Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Gold Coast of Guinea (London: James Knapton, 1705), 78; see also Rebecca Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2011), 39; Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association, in the Years 1795,1796, and 1797 (London: W. Bulmer and Company, 1799), 30, 50, 81, 98, 111.

[17] Paul E. Lovejoy, “Forward,” in The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra, xxiii-xxiv.

[18] Nwokeji, The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra, 232, 234, and 252.

[19] Nwokeji take time to address the historiographical controversy about Olaudah Equiano’s origins in a “Note on Sources” at the end of his book. He concludes that, while important questions have arisen about Equiano’s authenticity, he sees no reason at this time to discount his work or to avoid using it as a source on Biafra. Ibid. 217-221.

[20] Ibid. See “Note on Sources,” 209-221. In this note, Nwokeji defends his use of oral traditions by writing the Aro people understand History to be an objective “body of knowledge and truth,” and although oral traditions often telescope History and resist chronology, they can still “embody the cosmogony of a people” and help historians establish understandings of a society’s historical trends and values, (212-213). Nwokeji also includes a helpful 41-page bibliography. A Nwokeji writes, oral traditions are the only evidence for certain aspects of this history, such as the origin of the Aro people (78).

[21] Ibid. 54-55.

[22] Ibid. 173. Nwokeji writes that the Aro sent out provincial administrators or confidants of the King, known as Mazi, to their host communities in the first phase of their expansion, but that private merchants took over by the 1740s (65).

[23] Ibid. 75. For a primary-source about Ekpe society, see Stephen D. Behrendt, A.J.H. Latham, and David Northrup (eds.),  The Diary of Antera Duke: An Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 134-219.

[24] Nwokeji writes that the Igbo have a unique word, Mmuba, for referring to this kind of “human proliferation,” (71).

[25] Nwokeji writes that one of his goals is to bring a “Cultural perspective to the study of the region’s slave trade,” (xvii). He says historians are too quick to argue that pure “profit maximization” drofe the Transatlantic Slave Trade (148).

[26] Ibid. 104.

[27] Ibid. 142.

[28] Ibid. 144.

[29] Ibid. 153, 161-165.

[30] Ibid. 21.

[31] Ibid. 207-208. Nwokeji describes this interactive approach as balancing the “African patterns of supply” with the “American patterns of demand,” and devoting attention “the sociocultural processes that underpin them” both (xvii).

[32] Ibid. 37.

[33] Ibid. 20. Other scholars have argued that the shift from Old Calabar to Bonny was due to the fact that Old Calabar had a less favorable anchorage, higher comey rates, and a higher mortality. Nwokeji argues how the shift was more about the expansion of Aro society and the development of new trading networks among the Aro trade diaspora.

[34] Ibid. 40-41.

[35] Ibid. 69-70.

[36] Ibid. 143. Nwokeji also uses the term “merchant-warlords” to describe the Aro in various places (65).

[37] Ibid. 45, 5.

[38] Ibid. 12. Nwokeji writes, “Indeed, the existence of states was not essential to the development of the slave trade,” (12).

[39] Philip Morgan touches on this distinction in his “Africa and the Atlantic, c. 1450 to c. 1820” in Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, 223- 248, edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan (New York Oxford University Press, 2009), 229.

[40] For example, in his conclusion Nwokeji mentions a couple of events in the greater Atlantic World—the War of Jenkins’ Ear and the Seven Years’ War—that affected the Biafran Transatlantic Slave Trade by “disrupting shipping,” but he does not discuss these events in more detail anywhere else in his text.

[41] See Sasha Turner, Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 59-67; and Douglas Chambers, “Igbo Women in the Early Modern Atlantic World: The Burden of Beauty,” in Olaudah Equiano and the Igbo World, edited by Chima J. Korieh (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2009), 325-341.