History: Igbo people in the Atlantic slave trade

Slave trade: Photo credit: Getty Images

The Igbo, whose traditional territory is called the Bight of Biafra (also known as the Bight of Bonny),ecame one of the principal ethnic groups to be enslaved during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.An estimated 14.6% of all slaves were taken from the Bight of Biafra between 1650 and 1900. The Bight’s major slave trading ports were located in Bonny and Calabar.The majority of Igbo slaves were kidnapped during village raids. The journey for Igbo slaves often began in the ancient Cave Temple that was located in Arochukwu Kingdom. During this period, the three Igbo Kingdoms followed the same culture and religion, yet tended to operate very differently from each other. The Kingdom of Nri and the Independent Igbo States (confederation of independently ruled Igbo states) did not practice slavery, and slaves from neighbouring lands would often flee to these kingdoms in order to be set free. Arochukwu, on the other hand, practiced a system of indentured servitude that was remarkably different to chattel slavery in the Americas. Eventually, with Europeans beginning to encroach on Igbo territory, causing the kingdoms to desire weaponry to defend themselves. In order to obtain European goods and weaponry, Arochukwu began to raid villages of the other Igbo kingdoms – primarily those located in the Igbo hinterlands. People would be captured, regardless of gender, social status, or age. Slaves could have been originally farmers, nobility, or even people who had committed petty crimes. These captured slaves would be taken and sold to the British on the coast. Another way people were enslaved was through the divine oracle who resided in the Cave Temple complex. All Igbos practiced divination called Afa, but the Kingdom of Arochukwu was different because it was headed by a divine oracle who was in charge of making decisions for the king. During this time, if someone committed a crime, was in debt, or did something considered an “abomination” (for example, the killing of certain kinds of animals was considered an abomination due to its association with certain deities), they would be taken to the cave complex to face the oracle for sentencing. The oracle, who was also influenced by the British, would sentence these people to slavery, even for small crimes. The victim would be commanded to walk further into the cave so that the spirits could “devour” them, but, in reality, they were taken to an opening on the other side and loaded directly onto a waiting boat. This boat would take them to a slave ship en route to the Americas.

It is estimated that a total of 1.4 million Igbo people were transported (via European ships) across the Atlantic in the era of Atlantic slave trade. Most of these ships were British.


Some recorded populations of people of African descent on Caribbean islands recorded 2,863 Igbo on Trinidad and Tobago in an 1813 census; 894 in Saint Lucia in an 1815 census; 440 on Saint Kitts and Nevis in an 1817 census; and 111 in Guyana in an 1819 census.


The Igbo were dispersed to Barbados in large numbers. Olaudah Equiano, a famous Igbo author, abolitionist and ex-slave, was dropped off there after being kidnapped from his hometown near the Bight of Biafra. After arriving in Barbados he was promptly shipped to Virginia. At his time, 44 percent of the 90,000 Africans disembarking on the island (between 1751 and 1775) were from the bight. These Africans were therefore mainly of Igbo origin. The links between Barbados and the Bight of Biafra had begun in the mid-seventeenth century, with half of the African captives arriving on the island originating from there.


Haiti had many Igbo slaves. There is still the Creole saying of Nou se Igbo (We are Igbos). Aspects of Haitian culture that exhibit this can be seen in the loa, a Haitian loa (or deity) created by the in the religion.


Bonny and Calabar emerged as major embarkation points of enslaved West Africans destined for Jamaica’s slave markets in the 18th century. Dominated by Bristol and Liverpool slave ships, these ports were used primarily for the supply of slaves to British colonies in the Americas. In Jamaica, the bulk of Igbo slaves arrived relatively later than the rest of other arrivals of Africans on the Island in the period after the 1750s. There was a general rise in the number of enslaved people arriving to the Americas, particularly British Colonies, from the Bight of Biafra in the 18th century; the heaviest of these forced migrations occurred between 1790 and 1807. The result of such slaving patterns made Jamaica, after Virginia, the second most common destination for slaves arriving from the Bight of Biafra; as the Igbo formed the majority from the Bight, they became largely represented in Jamaica in the 18th and 19th century.

United States

The Igbo presence in United States goes back to the country’s earliest days and remains in the hearts of African Americans who are their modern descendants. From the mid-1600s to 1830, the US imported a large amount of Igbo slaves to the states of Virginia and Maryland in order to provide labour for tobacco plantations. The presence of the Igbo in this region was so profound that the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia decided to erect a full-scale traditional Igbo village in Staunton, Virginia. This is why the majority of African Americans, who have some ancestral connections to this region of the country, have a significant amount of genetically verifiable Nigerian ancestry. It has been hypothesized that, at least, 60% of all African Americans have at least one ancestor who originated from the Igbo kingdoms. Many African Americans are now tracing their Igbo heritage with the help of genetic testing and historical evidence. They are able to reconnect with their living relatives in Nigeria and reestablish links with their ancestral ethnic group. In the United States the Igbo slaves were known for being rebellious. In some states such as Georgia, the Igbo had a high suicide rate. (Source: Wikipedia)