The history of Onitsha is said to have begun with the migration of its people from the Benin Empire towards the end of early part of the 16th century as a result of a wave of unrest,war and displacement unleashed by the Islamic movement from North Africa.One version said that it was during their passage through the outskirts of Ile-Ife that they acquired the name Onitsha,a corruption of Orisha Udo. Another version has it that their migration to East of the Niger has to do with a misunderstanding that arose between the Onitsha family and Oba Esigie (1404-1550),following the slighting of their shrine,Udo,by the Oba.According to the legend,it was customary for newly installed Oba to pay homage to all important shrines in the Benin Kingdom by slaughtering a cow in the shrines enclave.But Oba Esigie is said to have refused to do this at the Onitsha people’s Udo- Shrine,hence the quarrel and the migration down towards the River Niger area and across it.The immigrant settlers from Benin were said to have been helped by the Igalas to cross the river to settle in Onitsha in the 16th century,which was originally called Ado N’Idu.It soon became the capital of an Igbo Kingdom.
In 1857,British traders in palm oil established a permanent station in the city,and Christian missionaries soon followed,headed by Bishop
Samuel Ajayi Crowther (a Yoruba) and Reverend John Taylor (an Igbo).In 1884, Onitsha became part of a British protectorate.The British colonial government and Christian missionaries penetrated most of Igboland to set up their administration,schools and churches through the river port at Onitsha.Historically,Onitsha became an important trading port for the Royal Niger Company in the mid-1850s.Following the abolition of slavery, trade in palm kernels and other cash crops boomed around this river port.Immigrants from the hinterland were drawn to the emerging boom town as did the British traders who settled there and coordinated the palm oil and cash crops trade. Areas bordering Old Market, New Market Roads,Upper Market Road,Modebe Avenue,Iboku,Old Cemetery,Old Hospital, Mbanugo Street, Emejulu Street,Obi Street,Benjamin Street,Enugu Road,Awka Road,Egerton Street,etc are known as Whitemen Quarters,so-called because the white colonial masters who first settled in Onitsha,used to live here.And,even till today, the white colonial style of buildings such as you see at Yaba,Ebute Metta and Central Lagos,can be seen existing,side by side,with the new,on these streets. But much more modern exotic architectural wonders exist in places like the G.R.A and “33” Housing Estates.
In 1965, the Asaba-Onitsha bridge was built (and opened in January 1966 by Prime Minister Alhaji (Sir) Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa) across the Niger River to replace the ferry crossing.Today, plans are said to be underway to build the Second Niger Bridge.Onitsha is made up of three groups of people.The first is the Edos,the Ezechima’s team.The second, Igalas.They were the people that were fishing at the Niger by the time Onitsha people came to settle there.The third, the Igbos who are very close to the Niger and had integrated with them.These three groups make up what is today known as "Onitsha".In fact,in the past,there were some villages in Onitsha that spoke Igala and they are made up of two villages. They are still in Onitsha.Onitsha is made up of nine villages.Two out of the nine are purely the Igalas:Ogbodu and Obigboru. So, that is how Onitsha people came to be.The ones with Edo influence are the monarchy itself.That’s the Eze Chima, that is the ruling villages.They are four in number;Umueze Aroli,Okebunabu (which include Umudei and Ogbabu) and Olosi. The present Obi of Onitsha,Igwe Achebe is the 21st Obi of Onitsha.Inter-marriages have long existed between the Igalas and the Edos.The people they met fishing at the bank of the River Niger were purely Igalas. They were following the Niger all the way from their place to Onitsha. So, they don’t normally come to the upper land. They remain there. They have their buildings in their canoes. So, the Edos attracted them into coming to the hinterlands by intermarrying with them. One of the outstanding monarchs of Onitsha,Obi Eze Aroli,the mother,Enubi,is from Igala.
Picture shows people of Onitsha, c.1910.
Credits: Chika Abanobi