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The Establishment and Early Growth of a Colonial Town - 1917

Author: smith on 20-09-2013, 23:00, views: 8 081

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NOTE: The boundaries shown on this map are not necessarily accurate.NOTE: The boundaries shown on this map are not necessarily accurate.At the turn of the 19th century, Ikot Abasi, then known as Egwanga, was a small village: a trading post of the Ibekwe clan frequented by Opobo (Umani) traders, and a landing place for the trade at markets up the Imo River and in the Ibibio and Anaang hinterland. It was certainly, less important than Essene situated a little distance away. Essene had been a large, populous entrepot since the days of the slave trade, and, not surprisingly, Britain established a Native Council Court at Essene Market in 1902 to serve the entire Ibibio and Anaang areas. Further evidence of the comparative insignificance of Ikot Abasi comes from the British Consul, Roger Casement, who traversed the back country up to Ikot Osong on the Qua Iboe River in May 1894. Whereas Casement took only passing note of Ikot Abasi in describing the journey, he detailed his experiences at prominent villages like Essene, Minya, Ibekwe Akpan Nya, Efa, and Mbioto II (Casement, 1894).

 

Within a decade of Casement's excursion, however, a fortuitous and dramatic change occurred in the fortunes of Ikot Abasi. This, as already indicated in chapter four, was the transfer in 1902 of the British Consulate - the seat of British colonial power and imperial expansion in this region - from Norah Beach to Ikot Abasi considered a much better (location) from the health and land point of view (Cheesman, 1932 A).

According to one narrative:

A Mess with four quarters was erected. An Assistant District Commissioner, Medical Officer, Assistant Commissioner of Police and Treasurer formed the station. Essene still continued to be the one Court. The Customs remained at Norah Beach. Government bought the land from the Ikot Abasi Chiefs (Ikpa Clan) (Cheesman, 1932 A).

 

Thus, Ikot Abasi became the headquarters of what, for the next half century, was known as Opobo District (or Division); while the town itself was variously called Egwanga, Egwanga - Opobo or Opobo Township, to distinguish it from Opobo Town (or Opobo Island) of the Umani people.

 

The Colonial Rest House buildingThe Colonial Rest House buildingOnce the colonial nucleus had thus been established, the further development of Ikot Abasi as administrative headquarters became an ongoing process. As in other British territories in Africa, much consideration was given to the establishment of administrative, communication and transportation infrastructure, and to residential segregation of Europeans from Africans. The one aimed to consolidate British rule rapidly over the district, particularly in the movement or settlement of administrative or military personnel; the other, to create a distinct area in the town where Europeans could preserve and practise their way and standard of living.

 

Accordingly, the construction of administrative buildings and staff quarters, for the expanding colonial bureaucracy was pursued with vigour. By December 1909, buildings for a District Office, Customs, Police, Treasury, Posts and Telegraphs, Marine, and Prisons Departments had been erected, as well as a European Hospital, quarters for European and African subordinate staff , and Police Barracks. All these made up what was known as the Government Station (Egwanga Book, 1904 to 1909).

 

Communication and transportation infrastructure was started in 1901 with a mail service between Ikot Abasi and Eket, using mail runners.

 

1,000 seedlings of rubber (Ficus Blasticus) were distributed in 1905 to the village chiefs by the District Commissioner in Opobo (Ikot Abasi), on the order of the High Commissioner, W. Egerton. Some were planted along the new Eket-Opobo road, on the opposite side of the telegraph line.
(Cheesman, 1932)

 

Egwanga waterfront with trading factories, late 1920's. (Source: NAI)Egwanga waterfront with trading factories, late 1920's. (Source: NAI)The mail route, running through Essene, Minya, Ukam, Awa and Ukat (and thence by water to Eket), soon developed into a bicycle tract, the first modern road in this region. By 1904, a telegraph line was established from Eket to Ikot Abasi along this tract.

 

By 1909, Ikot Abasi was linked by telephone to all the European factories nearby. And by 1911, further telegraph lines linked Ikot Abasi with Azumini; and Opobo Island with Bonny (Egwanga Book, 1904-1909; Biddell, 1909; Pryce, 1911). By September 1911, when the Ikot Abasi-Azumini-Aba trunk road was completed, Ikot Abasi had vital telephone, telegraph and road links with the surrounding region (Harvey, 1911).

 

Water communication with the creeks and the riverine areas remained predominantly by canoe. However, over the years, there were, more or less stationed at Ikot Abasi, a steam launch for the Divisional Officer's administrative tours, especially to the Andoni and Ogoni areas; a gig with an outboard motor for transporting the Medical Officer, a lighter and a gig for the Customs Department; and several Accra canoes for conveying messages (Swanston, 1920; Gibbons, 1935). Throughout the 1900's, and occasionally thereafter, the Marine Department cleared the Imo River and other waterways of fallen trees, and the banks, of trees, to facilitate navigation (Marine Waterways).

 

A view from the river at the beginning of the century. Left is the sand ramp and mono-rai line, brought from Asaba and used in reclaiming the swampy ground. (Source: NAI)A view from the river at the beginning of the century. Left is the sand ramp and mono-rai line, brought from Asaba and used in reclaiming the swampy ground. (Source: NAI)The establishment of government headquarters at Ikot Abasi and the provision of transportation and communication facilities there soon attracted European as well as African traders to the place. In May 1905, the High Commissioner, Sir Walter Egerton noted during an inspection visit that the number of European factories at Ikot Abasi was steadily increasing and their buildings were quite imposing. (Egwanga Book 1904-1909). In a subsequent visit in February 1907, Sir Egerton was even more impressed by the progress at Ikot Abasi and remarked:

The change in Egwanga in the last two years is very great. The factories in the river now rival those of Calabar in number and size; in fact several of them are larger and have finer buildings and better laid out beaches than any of the Calabar ones (Egwanga Book, 1904-1909).

 

During yet another visit in March 1908, Sir Egerton, highly impressed that Ikot Abasi was far more important than Bonny and healthier, ordered: that the divisional headquarters of all Departments should be at Ikot Abasi and not at Bonny. He also directed that a small marine workshop should be established for minor repairs and periodic painting of launches to obviate the practice of sending the launches to Akassa for those services (Egwanga Book, 1904-1909).

 

African Association traders and company employees at Fort Hareman, Egwanga, Opobo. (Source: NAI)African Association traders and company employees at Fort Hareman, Egwanga, Opobo. (Source: NAI)As the European population of Ikot Abasi increased, comprising mostly British colonial officials and European traders, a European (or Government) Reservation was created by March 1906 in accordance with a Government Ordinance proclaimed four years earlier, for exclusive occupation by European traders, with their bungalows and European factories, and other residents. The Reservation extended from Mclver's Factory, opposite the Custom's landing for some distance over the shoreline and adjacent swamps.

 

In that month, as was the practice in Nigerian towns with substantial European population, a European Sanitary (or Reservation) Board comprising the District Officer, the Assistant District Officer, the Senior Medical Officer and several representatives of the European trading firms, was set up at the instance of the colonial government, which became responsible for developing the Reservation and the effecting of sanitary work in it. Using an £ 18 annual beach tax paid by each European firm, and an occasional government grant, the Board reclaimed swamps in the Reservation, cleared the bushes, drained surface water, and encouraged the European firms to reclaim swamps near their factories. By April 1912, with the use of the Akassa monoline track, transferred to Egwanga, the Board had constructed the main Reservation Road that ran from Mclver's Factory behind the European factories to Whydah Factory on the Essene creek, had built several bridges on this road, and generally maintained the road and sanitation in the Reservation, using paid labour as well as prison gangs (Minutes, 1906-1929; Stahl, 1905).

 

The Botanical Garden at Opobo. Source: NAIThe Botanical Garden at Opobo. Source: NAIThus the European firms significantly affected the development of Ikot Abasi Township through their contributions to develop the European Reservation. They reclaimed swamps near their factories, extending the township's orbit (Bidden, 1909 B). Their beaches were used for perennial buying and selling of produce. From 1906 to 1931, the Egwanga Market - the public market at Ikot Abasi - was located at the private beach of Miller Brothers Ltd. The European firms contributed gun-powder for the upkeep of the town's time-gun, which announced the time for over three decades. During visits by high government officials, like the Governor or his Lieutenant, the European merchants usually met with them as a group to discuss the upkeep of the Reservation, colonial infrastructure, particularly the Ikot Abasi-Aba and the Ikot Abasi-Oron trunk roads (Swanston, 1920).

 

By 1917, when Ikot Abasi was formally designated a Second Class Township, the Reservation had become so prominent that it was almost synonymous with the entire Township. In his report on the town about that time, the District Officer, E. B. Wauton, described Ikot Abasi as quite a small town confined almost entirely to (the) European factories... (CALPROF 5/7/232). These factories, as was indicated earlier, numbered eight in 1909, and over fifteen by 1917. Many of them were quite imposing, with flower gardens and well-kept lawns (Biddell, 1909 B). And they occupied much of the Reservation land.

 

Besides serving as a Government Station and European Reservation, Ikot Abasi was also an important port particularly for the trade in palm oil and palm kernel. Clearly, the convergence of roads, telegraph, telephone, the creeks and the main Imo River at Ikot Abasi, coupled with the protective shield of the colonial headquarters, provided the main inducement for the flow of trade to the town. As the trade increased, so did shipping at the port. In 1922, for instance, 78 vessels entered the port while 81 cleared it. The corresponding figures for 1923 were 89 and 88 (Wauton, 1922; Murphy, 1924). Our major interest lies in the impact of this trade and shipping on the urbanisation process in Ikot Abasi.

 

Water Transport
 
Because of the shallow draught at the bars, large ocean-going steamers anchored in the sea and transferred their cargo and passengers into beach boats which conveyed them across the bar to the harbour, or unloaded at the Forcados River in the Western Delta, and from there beach steamers took the cargo through the creeks to Lagos. Opobo, etc.

Principal launch routes on the lmo River were:
Degema to Egwanga ...
                   9 hours
Bonny to Egwanga...
                   4 1/2 hours
Bonny to Opobo...
                   5 hours
Opobo to Egwanga ...
                   1 hour
Egwanga to Akwete ...
                   5 hours

 

One aspect of the impact was the provision of port facilities in Ikot Abasi. The facilities included the early construction of wharves (District officer's and

Customs, for example) and piers (like that of Miller Brothers Ltd).

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Category: Urbanisation of Ikot Abasi

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