Ukara cloth

Ukara cloth
Ukara cloth detail, Etara community, Cross River State, Nigeria

Introduction: Spirit Dancers, Water Deities & Mystics in the Cross River Basin and in Cuba

Map from Teugels et al. (1992).
The Cross River Basin (CRB) is a unique ecological and cultural zone straddling Southwest Cameroon and Southeast Nigeria, two administrative regions whose border marks the division between West and Central Africa. The CRB has hundreds of tributaries that empty into the Cross River, and others that empty into the Cross River estuary in the Bakassi peninsula region. This enormous geographical region of rain forest, rivers and estuaries remains understudied to the point that a team of marine biologists reported that: “Scientifically, the Cross is the least well documented large river basin in West Africa. Discovered by the Portuguese in the late 15th century, the river beyond the coast was entirely unknown to geographers and naturalists until Captain John Beecroft’s first upstream exploration in 1836” (Teugels et al. 1992: 7).
            The cultural profile of the CRB is defined by the Ékpè ‘leopard’ society, an institution that served as the government of distinct principalities that interacted through trade and warfare along the Cross River and other pathways for centuries. The origins and geographical reach of Ékpè remain undefined, although indigenous specialists believe that this initiation society may be thousands of years old (Engr. Bassey 2015 personal communication). Variants of the Ékpè institution that are historically related are known to exist in Southeastern Nigeria, Southwest Cameroon, Bioko (Equatorial Guinea), and the Caribbean island of Cuba. Besides Ékpè, CRB communities have produced hundreds of other masking societies and initiation clubs for men and women, few of which had been well documented.

Calabarí Diaspora

During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 17th-19th centuries, thousands of people were deported through the city known to Europeans as "Calabar" and therefore became known in the Americas as  “Kalabarí, “Calabarí” or “Carabalí.” As used in slave records in the Americas from the 1650s onwards, this term referred ambiguously either to an  Ịzọn (Ijaw) speaking person from so-called "New Calabar" in the Niger Delta in the Portuguese and Dutch trading sphere, or alternatively to an Efịk speaker from so-called "Old Calabar" (the present Nigerian city of Calabar) where Dutch and English slavers were most active (Northup 2000: 9; Jones 1963: 34). After the British government started sending ‘recaptive’ Africans to Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1807, the term “Kalabarí” was used there with reference people from both origins (Fyfe 1960: 110, 113; Fyfe 2005, pers. com.).
            "Calabarí" presence was widespread across the Atlantic Americas from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina to Salvador Brazil, Kingston Jamaica and colonial Cuba (Landers 1999: 48-49; Hall 1992: 299; Wood 1974: 339). The first known European slaving vessel in the Cross River region was “The Portuguese slaver Candelaria, which disembarked 114 enslaved Africans from ‘Calabar’ in Veracruz on 25 June 1625” (Behrendt & Graham 2003: 41). At that time, “’Calabar’ was a generic term for all captives from [the bight of] Biafra,” whose major ports were "Bonny" (originally Ib.ani.) and "Old Calabar" (Nwokeji 2000: 634). In Peru, hundreds of African captives identified as ‘Biafra’ and ‘Caravali’ were recorded between 1560 and 1650, while captives from the Bight of Biafra began entering Jamaica, Barbados and Bermuda in the 1660s (Nwokeji 2010: 35). The presence of “Calabars” was recorded in early 17th century Bahia Brazil (Sweet 2003: 23; see also Verger 1976: 595). In Kingston Jamaica, “a ‘Calabar High School’ was built by the West Indian Pioneers of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland Mission who had worked in Calabar” (Oku 1989: xi).
            On the island of Cuba, significant Cross River influence is reflected in oral historical narratives which continue to be actively transmitted from one generation to another via apprenticeship and initiation in the Abakuá society, which has endured attacks by Spanish and Cuban authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many narratives memorializing places and ethnic terms of the Calabar region appear in these texts (Trujillo 1882: 364; Miller 2009).  The goal of this blog is to promote global awareness about the civilization of the Cross River region and their "Carabalí" descendants in the Americas.


Bassey, (Engineer) Bassey Efiong. 1998/ 2001. Ekpe Efik: A Theosophical Perspective. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford Publishing.

Behrendt, Stephen & Eric Graham 2003. “African Merchants, Notables and the Slave Trade at Old Calabar, 1720: Evidence from the National Archives of Scotland.” History in Africa. Vol. 30 : 37-61.

Fyfe, Christopher. 1960. “Peter Nicholls-Old Calabar and Freetown.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria. Vol. II, no. 1 December : 105-114.

Fyfe, Christopher. 2005. Letter to Miller in response to his query regarding the term Kalabari as used in Freetown, Sierra Leone in the 19th century.

Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. 1992. Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP.

Jones, Gwilym Iwan. 1963. The Trading States of the Oil Rivers: a study of Political Development in Eastern Nigeria. London: Oxford UP.

Landers, Jane G. 1999. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Urbana: U of Illinois Press.

Miller, Ivor. 2009. Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba. UP of Mississippi.

Northrup, David. 2000. “Igbo and Myth Igbo: Culture and Ethnicity in the Atlantic World, 1600-1850.” Slavery and Abolition. Vol. 21, no. 3. (December) : 1-20.

Nwokeji, U. 2010. The Slave Trade & Culture in the Bight of Biafra; an African society in the Atlantic world. Cambridge U P.

Nwokeji, U. 2000. “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Population Density: A Historical Demography of the Biafran Hinterland.” Canadian Journal of African Studies. 34.3 : 616-655.

Oku, Ekei Essien. 1989. The Kings & Chiefs of Old Calabar (1795-1925). The Association for the Promotion of Efik Language, Literature and Culture, Calabar (APELLAC) Calabar: Glad Tidings Press.

Sweet, James H. 2003. Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770. U of North Carolina P.

Teugels, G.G., G. Mcg. Reid, & R.P. King. 1992. Fishes of the Cross River basin (Cameroon-Nigeria): taxonomy, zoogeography, ecology and conservation. Musee Royale de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, Belgique. Annales Science Zoologiques. vol. 266.

Trujillo y Monagas, D. José. 1882. Los criminales de Cuba y D. José Trujillo: narración de los servicios prestados en el cuerpo de policía de La Habana. Barcelona: Establecimiento Tipográfico de Fidel Giro.

Verger, Pierre. 1976. Trade Relations between the Bight of Benin and Bahia from the 17th to 19th Century. Trans., Evelyn Crawford. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan UP.

Wood, Peter H. 1974. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Alfred Knopf.