Sights And Sounds From Calabar’s Ship Of Slaves
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IT was an irony that the slave ship was named ‘Welcome.’ The story goes that it sailed from Britain to ferry 201 slaves out of Calabar. Its captain was John Elliot. It welcomed the slaves from the hinterland and took some of them on a tortuous voyage to bondage. Elliot took the slaves to Barbados.
Thereafter, another captain, one Branfill came on the same mission to export slaves. Branfill succeeded in taking 278 slaves from the port in Calabar to Jamaica. That was in the 17th century when British slave traders took over Niger –Delta slave trade from the Portuguese.
Calabar had been an important slave port since 1493 when a Portuguese known as Diego Sam visited the estuary.
519 years later, I stood at a point near the estuary to feel the horror, pain, and the shame those victims felt during the harrowing voyage to lands where they would be lost.
I went to the museum to learn more about what happened in those days. I became saddened. I walked with pain through “the Slave History Museum at Marina Resort, Calabar in Nigeria” for two hours to experience how our ancestors were traded for inconsequential items in this part of Africa located on latitude 50 50’ north of equator and longitude 80 20’ east of the Greenwich Meridian.
Earlier, I had gone to the beach at Akpabuyo and other places, which were used as markets where slaves were traded from the early 1400 after the Portuguese colonised the Island of Fernando Po and Sao Tome and Principe along the Bight of Biafra on the Atlantic Ocean where it flowed to South Africa. At a place called Esuk Mba, I observed the spots where the old slave markets could have existed.
Down the estuary and inside the thick forest, I focused my lens to capture the landscape. Suddenly, a voice screamed from the thicket “Don’t take any picture here!”
I was smitten with fear as able-bodied men appeared from the forest. One of my guides said I should not be afraid. I soon discovered that the guys emerging from the thicket were oil thieves. They are the locals who have now replaced the old time business of slave trade with crude oil bunkering.
The following day, I returned to the slave History Museum at Calabar estuary. Mr. Paul Adula, my new friend in Calabar, had taken me through the Marina area of port city where the voyage to slavery in the Americas actually began and we saw where human beings were packed like frozen fish and sardines in layers inside the ships.
We later met an official guide, who began to explain to us that ancestors of the present day America had used feeble Indians to mine gold until their population depleted rapidly from one million to 60,000 within 15 years.
In order to save the Indians from extinction Cardinal Ximenses in1509 began a system of importing slaves from Africa.
Our guide, a lady took us from one chamber to the other. It was a delicate and emotional journey into a past of sorrows and tears, reflecting man’s inhumanity to man.
IN a voice laden with emotion, she showed us a chamber where we saw a replica of the ships used to transport the slaves. We were enveloped in the dark, but the lighting and other special effects helped captured the evil of slavery in bold relief.
There were effigies of slaves arranged in the make-believe ship. Their heads and legs barely showed. They were arranged, one atop the other. The guide told of how a certain slave ship captain, while giving evidence at an enquiry declared that during transportation to the Americas, the slaves were as comfortable “as a man might be in a coffin.”
This implied that many slaves would have lost their lives, even before leaving the shores of Africa. Another harrowing story was also told of how a particular captain poisoned his human cargo when he was held by bad weather.
I gathered that a number of indigenes of Akpabuyo were direct offsprings of slaves, that were on the verge of being shipped before the heinous trade in human cargo was abolished.
Interestingly, the Esuk Mba Market in Akpabuyo, where slaves from the hinterland were sold, is one place where trade by barter is still being practised in Nigeria.
The most poignant moment in the slave voyage through the history museum was the dramatisation of the process of auctioning slaves in the Americas.
I wondered what it would feel like to be put on sale and a corresponding price tag slammed on one.
From the excursion into the past, it was revealed that a male slave, for instance cost between 38 to 48 copper rods. Female slaves were cheaper, costing between 28 to 37 copper rods in Calabar area.
Male slaves were said to be costlier than the females because they were considered stronger.
The most agonising and depressing part of the tour, was when we were taken to the chamber where slaves were branded with red hot iron. This was done for the purpose of identification before the slaves were sold off or sent out to work in the plantations. This cruelty was also dramatically enacted. As the slaves were being branded in the drama, scream in Efik language rent the air with the words, “Ekpa pa mi o!”
I found those words unbearable, and highly emotional. The words sounded like the Yoruba language of the southwest of Nigeria “Won pa mi o!”
The meaning of this painful cry is “They have killed me o!” in English language.
With these words from dying slaves; tears rolled down my cheeks. I wished I had brought my friends and relations sojourning in America to witness the scenes unfolding in the slave history museum. I left the museum more educated but saddened.
According to P. Curtis’ From the Atlantic Slave Trade Census, the Volume of English Slave trade from Africa between 1690 and 1807 was 2,579,500. From Senegal and Gambia, 141,300 slaves were taken away representing 5.5 per cent. Sierra Leone was less with 111,600 slaves. At Windward Coast, they took 299,300 slaves while in Gold Coast, now Ghana, 473,800 (18.4 per cent) slaves were shipped to the Americas.
At the Bight of Benin and Bight of Biafra in modern day Benin Republic and Nigeria, 1,069,100 million slaves were taken away representing 41.1 per cent of the total number shipped out of Africa.
In Angola and Mozambique, the slave merchants took 468,300 persons representing 18.2 per cent away. From other unknown sources, 16,100 slaves were exported. West Africa suffered the most in the hands of the slave traders.
I was asked to look across the Waterfront to behold the forest where Africans who thought twins were evil were killing such babies. The old belief was that those who gave birth to twins and their kids were products of evil and they must be eliminated. Many twins were killed in that region until Mary Slessor a Christian missionary came and preached against the practice and got it eradicated. She was called the “Lady with the lamp” and the huge replica of her lamp stands at the city centre in Calabar. That forest across the lagoon was also a “point of no return for many twins.”