|Igbo, Ibibio, Ijaw, Delta Ibo, Urhobo, Isoko, Itsekiri, and etc.
|Form of Government
|EzeAro (King of Aros), Chiefs, and High Priests
|Cowry shells and Slaves
The Aro Confederacy was a large slave trading network and league of Igbo and Cross River allies led by the Aro people which flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their influence and presence was distributed across parts of Nigeria's West Delta region, entire Eastern region, and Southern Igala. It is claimed that it extended through parts of present-day Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. The Arochukwu Kingdom was an economical, political, and oracular center as it was home of the powerful Long Juju oracle, the Aro King, Chiefs, and High Priests.
This Confederacy owed its origin to the rise of the slave trade in the interior. The combination of slavery with what the British (who withdrew from the Gold Coast slave trade in 1806, and banned slavery in 1833) alleged was a dangerous, cannibalistic fetish, resulted in moral outrage and efforts to annex Igboland. In the resulting Anglo-Aro wars (1901-1902) the Confederacy was dismantled, and its territory added to the British Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, formed (with the Northern Protectorate) the previous year when the Royal Niger Company was wound-up and the colonial administration was established. The following year, what the British referred to as the pacification of the Niger was complete when the historic sultanates of Kano and of Sokoto, the remaining pockets of resistance, were defeated. The office of the Eze-Aro, or King, continues and he is constitutionally recognized by the Republic of Nigeria as one of eight Paramount Chiefs. Alongside that of other Emirs and chiefs, his role is mainly ceremonial although he remains a focus of Aro pride and identity. The king’s official website describes the British attack of 1902 “on the peace loving citizens” as “unwarranted,” “pointing out that it was carried out only for the selfish economic interest of the then British Empire.” British depictions of the Aro as cannibals and blood-thirsty differ markedly from Aro self-descriptions.
The slave trading Confederacy was founded shortly after Arochukwu formed. Making alliances with several Igbo and eastern Cross River neighbors, the Aro people began slave trading activities around Igbo and Ibibio lands. Among many of the ethnic groups of eastern Nigeria, anyone who enters a shrine and begs the deity of the shrine for help instantly becomes an osu (sometimes called a "juju slave"), a slave of the shrine and a social outcast. The priests of the Ibini Ukpabi oracle (also known as the Long Juju Shrine), popular in midwest and southeast Nigeria, exploited this in order to force travelers and pilgrims into slavery, at least according to European reports. The story goes that agents of the oracle would pose as bandits and chase their victims into the shrine, hoping they would beg the intervention of the god and become osu, so the priests could then sell them off for profit. As this continued, Aro businessmen from Arochukwu migrated across southern Nigeria and also to Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea and founded numerous settlements. There they spread the Aro trading monopoly.
The Confederacy Era
This activity became very popular as coastal Niger Delta city-states became important centers for the export of slaves. Such city-states included Opobo, Bonny, Brass, Calabar, as well as other slave trading city-states controlled by the Ijaw, Efik, and Igbo. The Aros formed a strong trading network and incorporated hundreds of communities that formed into powerful kingdoms. The Ajalli, Arondizuogu, and Bende Kingdoms were the most powerful Aro powers in the Confederacy after Arochukwu. Some were founded and named after great Commanders and Chiefs like the legendary Izuogu Mgbokpo and Iheme whom led Aro forces to destroy and conquer Ikpa Ora and founded Arondizuogu.
In the late nineteenth century, European colonists moved into Igboland. Their power was not affected as Germans colonized Cameroon in 1884 and Spaniards colonized Equatorial Guinea in 1900, because either minor colonies and settlements of Aro were located there or they didn't exist. The Royal Niger Company of Britain bore friction with the Aros because of their alleged human sacrifice, trading network, and economic control of the hinterland. Aro control was threatened with Europeans pressuring their territory and populations and with Christian missionaries like Mary Slessor. This led to a war known as the Anglo-Aro War which began in 1901 with an Aro invasion of British-controlled city of Obegu. The picture that the British paint of the Aro is somewhat different from how they depict themselves. Alex Ukoh describes the Aro as a peace-loving, progressive and enlightened people with a mystical-type religion governed by chiefs and priests who served bini Ukpabi, the all powerful God and acted as custodians of His sacred shrine, the chukwu, or Chuku.
Cause of the war
The Aro Confederacy, whose powers extended across Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Cameroon, was crumbling in the late nineteenth century due to the European colonists. The Aro people felt a need to take action against the colonists who threatened their culture and sovereignty.
For the United Kingdom, it was
- "To abolish slave trade which is secretly carried on throughout the entire territories belonging to, and dominated by the Aros. To abolish the fetish of the Aros known as Longjuju, which they by superstition and fraud causes many evils among the tribes generally, and to all the outlying tribes of the entire protectorate, who continually appeal to it. Finally, to establish throughout the territories a labour market to take the place of slavery." (quote by Sir Ralph Moore, the high Commissioner of Nigerian Coast Protectorate in a dispatch to the under-secretary of State, September 9, 1899.)
The desire to extend their own power-base and client territory was therefore not far from the minds of the British, whose anti-slave policy was a convenient platform for their wider imperial agenda.
Reports of cannibalism were rarely "first hand." Most were from deeper into the heart of Africa, in the Congo. True or false, they provided another moral excuse for the Western colonial powers to intervene. Without attempting to justify the practice of eating human flesh, these reports did serve to confirm the European idea that Africans occupied a different moral universe. They required supervision, possibly on a permanent basis. Given the passage of time and the one-sidedness of reports, which contemporary Africans often deny, verifying their veracity is problematic. On balance, it seems likely that cannibalism was not unknown in Africa. On the other hand, critics point out that the charge of cannibalism has a historical legacy as a device by which one culture asserts superiority over others, and has been characterized as cultural libel. Some have questioned the authenticity of most if not all "accusations" of cannibalism.
The Aros knew that British penetration would destroy their dominance. They also opposed their religion, Christianity, which some of the Aros were converting to. Aro rulers saw the new religion as a British method of peacefully capturing Aro territories. Aro raids and invasions on many communities were conducted in order to bully those who favored the British. But the Aro invasion of Obegu around November 1901 signaled for the direct invasion of Arochukwu. 400 people died and the government of Obegu was destroyed. Obegu was a town belonging to the rival Ngwa clan which had been at war with the Aros for many years and was siding with the British. After this attack, the British would retaliate.
The Aro Expedition
Sir Ralph Moore and the Royal Niger Company, had planned the attack on the Aros and Ibini-Ukpabi since September 1899. The Aro invasion of Obegu marked their signal for the Expedition which began in 1901. The British had several allies during the war: the Aro Christians, the Ibibio and Igbo clans, and slaves who wanted their freedom. Two months of battles in Arochukwu would occur.
A formal military operation was launched against Aro and the shrine of the Long Juju in November 1901. On November 28, Lt. Col. H. F. Montanaro led 87 officers, 1,550 soldiers and 2,100 carriers in four axes of advance from Oguta, Akwete, Unwuna and Itu on a counter-insurgency campaign. The Long Juju shrine was blown up. The Aro expedition, then, was reputedly carried out by the British to stop or subdue the Aro slave trading oligarchy and its cult of human sacrifice ending months later in January 1902.
The result of the war
Serious opposition to British rule in Nigeria, however, ended with the Aro expedition, though there were still pockets of resistance in different parts of the country which called for a number of patrols. It did not succeed in securing control of Igbo territory entirely. In the years that followed, repeated "military patrols" had to be sent out to various parts of Igboland.
The Aro Confederacy officially lost its dominance and the power it had had over their neighbors and rivals. After the war, many Aro communities throughout Igboland fell to the British as a result of the war. The war had a greater impact than just Aro power dying and Arochukwu being destroyed. It made European control of the Aro people and allies much easier. Though the majority of Aros were based in Nigeria, the war affected the Aro culture, populations, and treatment not only in Nigeria but in other neighboring European colonies.
In Arochukwu, the Aros suffered badly. Leaders of the Aro resistance were arrested and hanged. The priceless artifacts were lost. Many Aros were killed from the war while Ibibio and non-Aro Igbos slaves and servants were freed. Also Christians were free to worship and they also took a major role rebuilding the city which had been burned down. Revolts led by the Eze-Aro's son and other Aros still occurred until he was crowned King. For many years, the rebuilt town suffered a poor population and land disputes. Aro dominance fell apart, and Aro culture did not revive for quite some time. There are now a number of networks of Aro people and associations dedicated to preserving Aro history and culture, many centered around the person of the current king.
The office of King, however, survived despite these revolts, as did those of the Emir of Kano and the Sultan of Sokoto, among others although their roles were more or less reduced to ceremonial functions, or in some cases to spiritual leadership. Nonetheless, the Aro can arguably trace their monarchy back across a hundred centuries. Known as the Eze-Aro, the king is “one of the eight (8) Traditional Paramount Rulers in the former Eastern Region of Nigeria, and the only one in Abia State of Nigeria, whose positions as First Class Paramount Traditional Rulers were entrenched in the 1960 Constitution of Eastern Region of Nigeria as well as in the 1963 Constitution of Eastern Nigeria when Nigeria became a Republic” according to ARO Newsonline. The king is described as the “embodiment of peace.” The title of Paramount Chief was used by the British so that only the British Queen or King would be a monarch (similarly, the Indian rajahs and maharajahs were called princes, not kings.)
- Aro raids on Anglo allies (1890s-1901)
- Aro invasion on Obegu (1901)
- Aro expedition (1901-1902)
- Ben Ezumah, Aro Society Between 1850-1892 Official Website of Arochuwu Kingdom. Retrieved May 20, 2008.
- Alex Ukoh, Aro People Umo Aro USA.
- Jennifer Oji, The Longjuju: Revisiting slavery in Aroland NigerDeltaCongress.com. Retrieved May 16, 2008.
- Some reports are available at "Here be Cannibals," Heretical.com Here be cannibals Retrieved May 21, 2008.
- Williams Arens, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, ISBN 0195027930).
- Aro Monarchy Official Website of the Aro Kingdom. Retrieved May 20, 2008.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- All-Aro National Conference, and J. Okoro Ijoma. 1998. Building on the debris of a great past: proceedings of the First All-Aro National Conference, 1996. Enugu, NG: Fourth Dimension Publishers. ISBN 978-9781564468
- Arens, Williams. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 0195027930
- Nwauwa, Apollos O. 1990. "The foundation of the Aro Confederacy: a theoretical analysis of state formation in southeastern Nigeria." Itan: Bensu Journal of Historical Studies. 1:93-108.
- Nwauwa, A. O. 1995. "The Evolution of the Aro Confederacy in Southeastern Nigeria, 1690-1720. A Theoretical Synthesis of State Formation Process in Africa." Anthropos-Freiburg-. 90:4/6:353-364. ISSN 0257-9774
- Onwukwe, S. O. 1995. Rise and fall of the Arochukwu Empire, 1400-1902: perspective for the 21st century. Enugu, NG: Fourth Dimension Pub. Co ISBN 978-9781564147
- Onwukwe, S. O. 2002. Re-discovering Arochukwu: the Arochukwu saga: 1000 years of unbroken monarchy: public enlightenment. Owerri, NG: S.O. Onwukwe. ISBN 978-9783373822
All links retrieved August 15, 2023.
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