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The River

Author: nick on 24-08-2013, 17:00, views: 4 519


Century Portuguese CaravelThe lower portion of the big Imo River, known variously as Rio de pew de Sintra by the Portuguese (Talbot, 1926, 1: 182), River Loitomba or Compotora by the Dutch, Nkontoro and Otunkong by the Obolo (Eneyo, 1991: 32; Ejituwu, 1991:7 5, 138, 141) and Opobo or Jaja's River by the European traders, but now referred to as Ikot Abasi River, provides a natural harbour for all types of water-craft in its 10 kilometre-long and opens directly to the Atlantic ocean estuary. Its deep navigable channel allows easy high-tide access to canoes, launches and engine boats into the hinterland creeks.


The early memories in the area are of Potoki (Portuguese) caravels, anchored offshore, beyond the river sandbar, which sent boat crews to procure slaves from the big markets and coastal baracoons (bamboo enclosures for slaves), and to exchange metal bars, manilla, clothes, tobacco and rum for ivory, timber, and agricultural products.


They often conducted slave raids on the nearby settlements in order to complete their cargo. Eket oral traditions tell how African children were lured aboard ship with food delicacies and fanciful presents, and, when a good crowd of them had been gathered, the ship suddenly lifted anchor and sailed off, amid the kids' wailings (Nkereuwem, 1994).


A boom of canon gunfire announced the arrival of a slave supercargo, causing a great excitement on shore, and a flotilla of local canoes streamed to it, bringing fresh vegetables, fruits and other objects of trade for exchange. Fast topsail schooners and brigs, Dutch, French and English, continued the slave trade until it was declared illegal at the beginning of the 19th Century.


The oil hulks had to spend upwards of a year on the coast, until they had disposed of their stocks and replaced them with full palm oil casks for the return journey. To avoid delays, from the 1870's, cask houses were built on rented land, while the Supercargoes (European traders) remained on board ship. At some places, old ship hulks were brought and sunk at the beach, their masts dismantled, sides repainted, decks roofed with thatch, and were attached with cables and a swinging bridgeways at the anchorage. They served as a paramount trading station and storage warehouse under the supervision of a resident agent and one or more Kru assistants and their presence exerted subtle influence on the life pattern of the neighbouring communities.


Palm oil hulkPalm oil hulkThe new, lighter and flat-bottomed oil hulks and steamships were able to penetrate upriver into the big Egwanga, Essene and Azumini creeks, but fear of sickness, the swamps and the hostility of the numerous agricultural and self-sufficient communities along the banks, restricted direct European contact to the coastal areas. From there, large Bonny, Andoni, Ogoni, and (after 1870) Opobo canoes paddled along the innumerable creeks and water channels, interlacing the Imo, Qua Iboe and Cross River basins, and traded imported goods and local produce up to the Benin river and the Lagos lagoon to the west, and as far as the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Fernando Po islands along the coast.


Canoe carrying palm oil (Source: QIM Archives)Canoe carrying palm oil (Source: QIM Archives)During the 19th Century, palm oil canoes, loaded with casks and puncheons of palm oil, yams, plantain, and other food items, came down the creeks and rivers from far distances, some at several days' journey, to the trade beaches at Essene, Egwanga and Ete, from where Jaja's middlemen handled the trade with the European trading ships at Bonny and later, at the Imo River estuary. Then the canoes paddled back upriver, loaded with marketable in the hinterland items - cloth, gin, tobacco, gunpowder and guns, household and hardware goods, usually taken on credit, to be exchanged for palm oil and food with the numerous small producers inland. The regular appearance of European steamships on the Imo River had been prompted by the huge commercial potentials of its hinterland, although King Jaja, in order to protect his monopoly over the lucrative export trade, and, after securing his strategic position at the estuary, banned the European ships from going upriver beyond Opobo island and brutally punished the people at any hinterland market that attempted to trade with the Europeans directly.1


In the height of the palm oil season, from March to September, trains of large trade canoes, belonging to the Opobo houses, passed continuously up and down the river, to and from their trading depots in the big hinterland markets.


Government gunboat, Jackdaw, patrolling the rivers in 1904 (Courtesy: Irene Brightmer)

They were guarded by war canoes with a big thing (canon), mounted at the bow to protect the cargo and announce the arrival of its master, who, when on board, sat under a gigantic multicoloured parasol; his passage accompanied by the echo of drumming and singing and the flurry of buntings. For canon boom and flags were a passion on the Oil Rivers, where every ship, trading post or self-respecting chief possessed a few and made the best use of them at all possible occasions, especially at the colourful canoe regatta displays, offered to all visiting dignitaries.


The Opobo presence attracted frequent visits by the British warships, HMS Pert, Pioneer, Rattlesnake, Flirt and Goshawk, showing the flag in the 1870's-1890's to warn against molestation of the white man's trade (Jaja 1991: 18-19, 49-50).


Iron canoes or steel boats, stern-propelled and appropriately armed and protected by removable side screens and tarpaulin awnings, were used by the British Consuls and the marine forces to patrol upriver, oversee the trade and persuade the local chiefs to sign the infamous protection treaties. Some of these boats belonging to government or trading companies and identified by the colour of their paint, canvass roof and flag, can still be been, sunk along the water banks.2

The Iron Canoe
The European traders and protectorate officials used steel boats known as iron canoes (ubom ukwak), to patrol the risers and trading stations, to move personnel, deliver mails and tow barges and lighters with goods and troops up and down the river, effecting their commercial and military penetration. Such boats, about 60 feet long and paddled by 12 to 15 paddlers were made of prefabricated metal plates, welded at the marine workshops on the coast, fitted with removable side screens against shore attacks and shaded with tarpaulin. A passenger's cabin was usually constructed in the middle for the master's comfort, while servants, police escort and luggage were sheltered under native thatch roofing. The Opobo District Commissioner had an iron canoe, which included the usual compliment of a 3-man band, for only small boy travelled without music, which announced their presence, directed the paddling rhythm and entertained passengers and on-lookers from the shore.


The navigation channel of the river, charted by the British naval survey vessels and warships in the early 1800's, and marked with buoys and floats by the steamship companies' liners, carried a heavy traffic. Surf boats, wooden lighters and launches, belonging to the trading factories or local boating firms, and propelled and steered by Kru boys, taking advantage of the tides, handled the cargo between the beach market collection points, the company beaches and the ocean-going ships. Small lighters were towed to the trading beaches upriver and left there until loaded, or until the next steam launch passed, to tow them down stream to the waiting ships.3 Government or company gigs, paddled by 6 to 12 boys in brightly coloured loincloths, singlets and red caps, crossed from ship to ship, and to the shore, carrying mails, goods and people to the sea-going vessels and mail boats. Government launches, the Vigilant and Snipe from the naval base at Calabar patrolled the coast, surveyed the water channels, conveyed government officials, load and troops. The Marine Department sailing ships, Pathfinder and Dayspring, offered services along the coast up to Cameroon, while the SB Tortoise provided regular services between Opobo, Bonny, Degema and Brass and was supplemented by ferry ships and pontoons, connecting Egwanga to Opobo and from there to Kono, Azumini and other government stations and major markets upriver. By 1934, UAC boats replaced the Elder Dempster ship services, transporting oil in bulk (Gibbons, 1934).


Steamship on the riverSteamship on the river

By 1910 the Opobo (Ikot Abasi) port was first in significance in the Oil Rivers and well known for its ability to handle any cargo. In the busy pre- and inter-war years, up to 30 ocean-going ships are said to have, at times, lined up at the river bar, waiting their turn to off-load at the port, their bright lights seen in the night sky from as far as the Edem Aya villages.4 Desolate buildings and abandoned piers on the old trade beaches - the African Association, Maclver, Oil Nuts and Co., UAC, Newberries, Whydah - still line up the Ikot Abasi river bank. Opposite them, the small Whydah island, with its fine white sand and tall coconut trees provided a beautiful spot for recreation for both Europeans and children from the nearby settlements.


Upriver, close to Essene Creek's mouth and opposite the Ogoni Channel, there was a small landing place for boats, wishing to spend the night or to avoid an unfavourable tide, when going down to the Egwanga factories. Behind it, close to the nearby market, a large expanse of flat land was initially earmarked for the Aluminium project. A new housing estate is to rise soon in that area.


With the closure of the port in the late 1940's and the successive governments' nonchalant attitude in the face of persistent international pressure for the payment of the Opobo Town compensation claims, and of the Udoma-led political dissension aiming at self-determination, all activity gradually declined, and stopped completely after the heavy Civil War destruction.


The intrusive Nypa palm, introduced by High Commissioner W. Fosbery in 1906 to check the Government Beach erosion (Ejituwu, 1991: 205), has colonised completely the abandoned waterside. Overgrown beaches, bombed and ruined buildings, decay and abandonment met the eye along the Ikot Abasi river front, where only fishermen and the occasional passenger boat crossed the water.


Then, in the 1990's, new motorboats, belonging to the oil-prospecting companies, and modern vessels, supplying equipment for the construction of the Aluminium Smelter Plant, appeared on the river. The private sailboats of the expatriate company staff sailed its estuary. By 1995, barges and boats converged on the scene; sand-dredging machines, sky-scraping cranes and pier-hammering hydraulic equipment began land reclamation and pier construction behind the river bend, where the new ALSCON harbour rose from the waterbed, in readiness to bring a new lease of life to the old town.


The small town
has come alive,
busy all night and all day
At night,
the sky is lit up,
light radiates and revolves
At night,
the small emerging city is a
beautiful sight to behold, at day time,
it's simply awe-inspiring.
From: Welcome to Aluminium City a poem by U. L. Fingisi; culled from ALSCON News, vol. 1 no. 2,1995




1 Talbot, 1926, vol. 1: 206; Ejituwu, 1991: 135-140; Jaja, 1991. De Cardi and McEakin, European trade agents, moved to trade on the river immediately after Jaja's occupation of Opobo Island in 1869 and were joined there by the trading ships and representatives of other firms - Miller Brothers, Cooper and Co. and Johnson, Stewart and Douglas, which action, together with the Jaja/British treaties and his flying of the British flag, gave credence to his claims on official British backing to his dealings with the interior groups.

2 In 1904 the Egwanga government station had a steel lighter, 4 oared gigs, a mail canoe and a surf boat in its shallow draft fleet (Egwanga Inspection Book), but by 1921, the station's steam launches the Hawk and SL Curfew, alternated carrying load and passengers, while the Medical Officer toured in his motor launch Butterfly (Swanston, 1920; Purchas, 1921).

3 In the 1940s, 40-inch metal casks, weighing 17 cwt each, were decanted directly into Lever Brothers' ship tanks, the empty drums were then sorted and returned to their respective beaches (Avezathe, 1972).

4 Four British and four German shipping lines, most prominent of which were the Elder Dempster and the Woermann lines, maintained regular communication with Liverpool (fortnightly), London (monthly), Hamburg and Rotterdam (thrice monthly) and provided passenger and cargo services along the coast at the beginning of the century (P. N. Davies, 1973 pp. 147, 218-219). DO's annual reports recorded 110 ships for 1937 and 76 vessels, entering the harbour in 1940 (Dewhurst, 1938; Hartley, 1940).

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Category: Ikot Abasi

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