Trader from Timbuctou and Rich Trading Woman, Onitsha. c. 1889

HomeCultureTrader from Timbuctou and Rich Trading Woman, Onitsha. c. 1889
Trader from Timbuctou on the right and Rich Trading Woman on the left. Pitt Rivers Museum. Photographed by G. F. Packer, c. 1889
Trader from Timbuctou on the right and Rich Trading Woman on the left. Photographed by G. F. Packer, c. 1889. Image source: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

This photograph was taken by G. F. Packer in 1889 and is housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum. It features a trader from Timbuktu and a rich trading woman, who who might be a member of the Onitsha women’s Otu Odu society, or an Omu, the female counterpart to the king, of Onitsha. The image offers a look into the world of Igbo commerce and the long-standing trade connections across West Africa.


In the late 19th century, the markets of West Africa were hubs of activity, where traders from diverse backgrounds converged to exchange goods, culture, and ideas. Among these traders were two intriguing figures captured in a photograph by G. F. Packer in 1889: a trader from Timbuktu and a rich trading woman. Let’s delve into their stories and explore the fascinating world of Igbo commerce.

Women and Trade in Onitsha

On the left side of the photograph, we encounter a woman adorned with large ivory anklets. She may well be a member of the Onitsha women’s Otu Odu society, also known as the “ivory group.” These female traders played a crucial role in the local economy. Their attire and accessories, including those distinctive ivory anklets, signaled their membership and status within the group. Remarkably, these anklets continue to be worn by modern-day Otu Odu members, bridging the gap between past and present.

It’s also possible that she is an Omu – a powerful female leader in Onitsha society. The Omu held a position akin to the king’s counterpart, overseeing commerce and marketplace activities. However, this leadership role extended beyond Onitsha; other Igbo communities west of the Niger River had their own Omu figures. These women were instrumental in maintaining trade networks and ensuring the flow of goods across regions.

Trans-Saharan Trade Routes and Cultural Exchange

The man on the right, identified as a trader from Timbuktu, adds depth to the photograph. His presence serves as a visual reminder of the ancient trade routes that connected the West African forest regions with the Sahel and beyond. The Trans-Saharan trade network facilitated exchanges of goods, ideas, and cultural practices. Timbuktu, renowned for its scholarship and commerce, played a pivotal role in this network.

Archaeological discoveries from Igbo Ukwu, dating back to the 9th century, corroborate the existence of long-distance trade. Among these finds are unique glass beads, some originating from as far away as Venice and India. These beads symbolize the extensive reach of trade networks. Horses from the Sahel were exchanged for coveted items like ivory from the southern regions, creating a dynamic exchange of wealth and culture.

1100 year old glass beads for the anklets or armlets of the body of an elite found in a burial chamber in the family compound of Richard Anozie, present day Igbo Ukwu, Anambra State, Nigeria.
1100 year old glass beads for the anklets or armlets of the body of an elite found in a burial chamber in the family compound of Richard Anozie, present day Igbo Ukwu, Anambra State, Nigeria. Image courtesy: Ukpuru on X 

In the second photograph, we glimpse 1100-year-old glass beads – exquisite adornments for anklets or armlets. These beads were discovered in a burial chamber in the family compound of Richard Anozie in present-day Igbo Ukwu, Anambra State, Nigeria. Their intricate craftsmanship attests to the sophistication of Igbo artistry and the significance of personal adornment.

Market Governance and Influence

In Onitsha, the Queen and her senior councilors wielded authority over market operations. They ensured fair practices, settled disputes, and regulated prices. Before other traders displayed their wares, the Queen and her councilors had to be present. Foreign traders paid homage to the Onitsha market women, emphasizing the interconnectedness of trade and social structures.

This photograph encapsulates a rich tapestry of history, commerce, and female empowerment. As we reflect on these figures, let’s consider our own communities’ past – were there powerful female leaders like the Omu? Share your insights and stories in the comments below!


References

  • Isichei, Elizabeth Allo. Igbo Worlds: An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Accounts. Newark: African Studies Program, Rutgers University, 1977.
  • An African Popular Literature: A Study of Onitshamarket Pamphlets by Emmanuel Obiechina

    Title: An African Popular Literature: A Study of Onitsha Market Pamphlets Author: Emmanuel Obiechina Publisher: Cambridge University Press Publication Date: August 31, 1973 ISBN-10: 0521200156 ISBN-13: 978-0521200158 Language: English Print Length: 256 pages

    Review: Emmanuel N. Obiechina’s “An African Popular Literature: A Study of Onitsha Market Pamphlets” is a pioneering work that captures the essence of a unique literary culture that flourished in the Nigerian market town of Onitsha. This scholarly text provides an in-depth analysis of the pamphlets that were widely circulated and read by the masses, offering a vivid portrayal of the social, cultural, and literary landscape of Nigeria during the mid-20th century.

    Content Analysis: Obiechina’s meticulous research sheds light on the origins, themes, and linguistic styles of Onitsha market literature. The study goes beyond mere documentation, offering critical insights into how these pamphlets reflected and influenced the evolving societal norms and values in a rapidly modernizing Nigeria.

    Cultural Relevance: For Igbo Archives, this book is particularly significant as it represents a form of literature that is deeply rooted in the Igbo community. It serves as a historical record of the Igbo people’s adaptability and creativity in the face of urbanization and cultural shifts.

    Conclusion: “An African Popular Literature” is not just an academic resource; it is a celebration of African ingenuity and a testament to the power of literature as a medium for education and entertainment. It is a must-read for enthusiasts of African literature and those interested in the transformative power of storytelling.

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  • Henderson, Richard Neal. “Women’s Roles in Traditional Onitsha Society: The Queen (omu) and her Council.” In The Social Basis of City Life in Nigeria, edited by Barbara Staudinger, 221-258. Ibadan: University of Ibadan Press, 1970.

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Onyeka Nwokike
Onyeka Nwokike

Onyeka Nwokike, a graduate from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and a writer at Igbo Archives, is working to challenge common misconceptions and broaden understanding. He has curated a collection of historical photographs and artifacts for Igbo Archives, which helps to fill the educational gaps left by mainstream media and school curricula. His commitment to the celebration and conservation of Igbo heritage has made Igbo Archives an essential resource, cultivating a strong sense of pride and cultural identity within the Igbo community.

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