Discussions about Biafra, almost without exception, will make reference to Chukwuemeka Ojukwu. They typically mention Nigeria’s military coups, and some even make reference to Nigeria’s colonial status under British rule beginning in1914. What is rarely even suggested is that any civilization at all existed in the region prior to the British presence and before Nigeria. What is also omitted is the origin of “Biafra”. How old is Biafra? Did it materialize out of nothing into existence in 1967 or is there more to the story? A brief examination of literary, cartographic, and institutional information reveals that Biafra not only existed before 1967, but also that it is at least hundreds of years old.
Before surveying the different sources of information, it is necessary to appreciate two basic facts:
First, the region that would later become known Nigeria was densely inhabited well before the arrival of European visitors. It comes as no surprise that there were indigenous civilizations that existed in this region such as but not limited to the Oyo, Benin, Nok, Kano, Bornu, Nri, Arochukwu, Kanem, etc. Second, these indigenous nation-states maintained economic and political relationships with their neighbors while retaining sovereignty of various degrees as independent countries do today.
Biafra is in a region of West Africa once referred to as Guinea. In figure 1 below we see a 1839 map (Mitchell) of Africa that shows Guinea demarcated into “Upper” and “Lower” regions (enclosed in a red detail box). In figure 2 is a close up image showing all of Upper Guinea and part of Lower Guinea.
In Olney’s 1830 book, A Practical System of Modern Geography1, he clarifies that “Guinea embraces a number of small kingdoms, the principal of which, are Ashantee, Dahomey, Benin, and Biafra”. He continues,
Ashantee is the most powerful, civilized, and commercial kingdom in the western part of Africa. The capital of Ashantee, is Coomassie, which is said to contain 40,000 inhabitants.
Dahomey is a powerful and fertile kingdom, and is inhabited by a savage, ferocious and warlike people. The capital of Dahomey, is Abomey, …
Benin is scarcely known to Europeans: but is represented as a fertile and well watered country, and is said to be inhabited by an industrious and humane people. The capital is Benin.
Biafra borders the gulf of Biafra, and is almost wholly unknown. Its capital is Biafra.
How authentic is the brief description? The author seems to list them in accurate order from the west to the east. Of all the nations-states mentioned, Ashantee is the westernmost (centered on modern day Ghana), followed by Dahomey in modern day Benin, followed by Benin in modern day Nigeria’s mid West, and finally Biafra in modern day Nigeria’s East. Interestingly, Olney also makes reference to a “gulf of Biafra”. This is known as the Bight of Biafra today (similar to the Gulf of Mexico, Indian Ocean, or South China Sea). It was renamed Bight of Bonny in 1975 after Nigeria’s war against Biafra. Olney became an American standard in geography. He sold millions of copies of his books.
Olney was not alone in his reference to Biafra. In Fowle’s 1849 book Elementary Geography2, he refers to Biafra as a country and defines its location. Like Olney he also mentions that at the time little was known about Biafra besides its location. Mitchell, in his A Practical System of Modern Geography Comprising a Description of the Present State of the World3, introduced Biafra in a section on Lower Guinea where he writes “Biafra, Calbongas, and Gabon lying South of the river Niger are reported to be populous countries but are seldom visited”. Figure 3 below shows a map published in 1770 (Bonne) that again locates Biafra.
The river West of Biafra is called Real Kalabar on this map but today is referred to as River Niger. Calabongas is found south of Biafra, and while Gabon is not explicitly referenced there is an east/west-flowing river named Gabon south of both Biafra and Calabongas. Bonne was an established cartographer that eventually served as the Royal Cartographer of France in 1773.
Some have remarked on the conflicting references to Biafra as in both Upper and Lower Guinea. In Smiley’s An Easy Introduction to the Study of Modern Geography4 he groups Biafra in Upper Guinea while Mitchell assigns Biafra as Lower Guinea. From figure 2, it becomes clear how this is possible. Biafra is close to the border of both regions. Some included it into Upper Guinea while others included it into Lower Guinea.
Figure 4 below shows a 1584 map drawn by Abraham Ortelius. In the region enclosed in a red square we find Biafar (Biafra). Figure 5 contains an enlarged detail.
Abraham went on to create the first modern Atlas and propose the idea of Continental Drift.
The following map was drawn in 1644 by Dutch cartographer Willem Blaeu. Here we see the state referred to as not Biafra but Biafara. Biafra does not have meaning in the Igbo language but “Bia fara” literally means “come join” in Igbo.
Blaeu was relentless in his works. He eventually published his signature work Atlas Maior which contained over 3000 pages and 594 maps.
In 1770 Rigobert Bonne published the map shown in Figure 3. Again we see Biafara. Mitchell’s 1839 map is shown in Figure 1. By the early 1900s the British had a firm foothold in the region. The map below was constructed by C.S. Hammond & Company in 1910. In 1884, twenty six years before this map was published, European states carved the continent into many of the states visible on this map (Nigeria, Morocco, Algeria, Kamerun, Liberia, etc). References to Benin, Zanfara, and Biafara gave way to “Lagos”, “Northern Nigeria”, and “Southern Nigeria”. In 1914 Fredrick Lugard managed the process by which these two “protectorates” were combined into one colony, Nigeria.
The Presbyterian Church became permanently involved with Biafra through the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland led by Rev. Hope Waddell. This church established the Presbytery of Biafra in 1858. The first synod (essentially a congress or council of clergy), called Synod of Biafra, was established in 1921 – a surprising 37 years after the 1884 Berlin Conference. This suggests that despite the evolving geopolitics that may have been imposed from external sources, Biafra’s identity persisted and was recognized by others.
It is a common misconception that Biafra began with Ojukwu in the famous declaration of independence on the 30th of May 1967, but closer inspection of history suggests a different narrative – one of a state that existed for at the very least 300 years, between the late 1500s and late 1800s, during which it traded and maintained relationships with other states in the world. That state was then forcefully subsumed into the colonial entity that we know today as Nigeria.
Olney, J (1830). A Practical System of Modern Geography. Hartford, D.F. Robinson & Co.
Fowle, W (1849). Elementary Geography. Boston, MA
Mitchell, A (1850). A System of Modern Geography Comprising a Description of the Present State of the World. Philidelphia, PA: Thomas, Cowperthwait & Co.
Smiley, T(1823). An Easy Introduction to the Study of Geography. Philidelphia, PA: Clark & Raser