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People sold here

A display at the Slave History Museum (Handout)

History

People sold here

A Nigerian port city bears sober testament to the transatlantic slave trade 

Nigeria’s Cross River state is one of the country’s prime tourist destinations, with its lush green trees, dew-covered hills, and cool tropical climate.

Located on Nigeria’s southern coast, Cross River is home to multiple resorts and attractions. In Calabar, the state capital, a bronze statue of a fisherman with his hook in the mouth of a fish symbolizes the vibrancy of the port city.

But the waterways also speak to a dark history. The Calabar River served as a transit point during the transatlantic slave trade that began early in the 15th century.

The riverfront is now occupied by a resort, with attractions like a cinema and waterside bar. Near the mouth of the river, the Slave History Museum stands in a rectangular building. 

The museum once served as a barracoon, or holding cell, for captured slaves. According to a tour guide, traders held slaves for days without food so they could fit into the slave boat. 

The transatlantic slave trade involved European merchants who sailed into the region with gifts of gin bottles, guns, and wooden mirrors for the local leaders. In exchange, the leaders provided the slave buyers with access to their people.

Sellers offered slaves at markets like one in the nearby town of Akpabuyo. Today, people still gather there every Saturday to barter goods as a symbol of remembrance.

One of the museum’s first displays is a replica of a slave boat. The lowest two levels include life-size models of captured slaves lying like sardines in narrow shelves, their hands and feet shackled. 

The top deck of a slave ship might have held barrels of palm oil and boxes of garlic and other spices. The items offset the financial losses from slaves who either fell sick or were cast into the sea when the ship faced rough weather. 

It’s a 30-minute boat ride down the Calabar River to the Atlantic Ocean. The slave buyers sailed for four to six months to transport their human cargo to the Americas. 

Once sold, the slaves went on to work indoors or in fields of tobacco, sugarcane, and cotton. The European merchants concluded the final step in the slave trade cycle, carrying the agricultural products from the Americas back to Europe.

According to historians David Eltis and David Richardson, from 1662 to 1863 nearly 200,000 Africans were sold as slaves from Calabar, the second-busiest slave-trading port in the Bight of Biafra.

A short drive from the slave museum is Government Hill, where the governor and senior state officials live. There, a two-story European building now serves as a National Museum. The “Old Residency” building was prefabricated in Britain and served as headquarters for the British colonial leaders in 1884, when Calabar was the capital of the southern protectorate. Today, its historical exhibits testify to the slave trade and to major exports such as palm oil.

On the second floor, one of the colonial master’s offices remains intact, with a white-and-black linoleum floor covering, a metal water dispenser, and an old winding telephone on the desk. The dining hall has candles on the table and a large gramophone in a corner.

The building also had an attached prison beneath what formerly served as the kitchen. The prison once held Ovonramwen of Benin, a local African leader who resisted the British takeover of his kingdom.

After Nigerian independence came in 1960, officials focused on setting up a government and, in the subsequent years, creating local states. Each state also adopted a slogan to represent the state spirit. Cross River’s slogan is “The People’s Paradise.” 

The slogan fits the region’s image of a happy tourist destination. It has also helped Nigerians turn a page on a not-so-happy history.