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  • “The Lost Province”: Neglect and Governance in Colonial Ogoja
  • John Manton


The notion that the colonial entity administered as Ogoja Province represented a Nigerian form of “the frontier” persisted right through the period of British rule in Nigeria. In a late colonial geography, Ogoja and eastern Calabar are referred to as the “pioneer fringe.”1 Marginalized by the economic geography of colonialism, as a result of its relatively low population density, in contrast to much of southeastern Nigeria, and by virtue of its terrain, crossed by unforded rivers and characterized by heavy, clayey soils which restricted wet-season travel, it could still be characterized in the 1940s as a “traceless praierie [sic]” by one of its most seasoned European observers, and as “the Lost Province” in common colonial parlance.2 Scholarly exploration has done little to address this marginalization, a fact both pivotal in the administration and development of Ogoja Province and restrictive of our attempts to understand and describe these administrative processes. The dynamics of community, trade, and migration in Ogoja, and the systematic misunderstandings to which these dynamics were subject, both constitute historical processes which call for scrutiny, and help shape development and welfare projects undertaken in the later colonial period and in post-independence Nigeria. This study investigates the problematic interaction of ethnography and administration at the colonial margin, and the implications of this both for the historical study of Ogoja and its hinterland and for economic and social development planning in the area. [End Page 327]

This section aims to discern the outlines and construction of anthropological knowledge on the Upper Cross River basin, which included the area administered as Ogoja Province, and contrasts ethnicity and trade as analytical categories for the understanding of local and regional population dynamics. The second section examines the deployment of this knowledge in processes of colonial rule, and the operative significance of anthropological ignorance in determining the structure of European interactions with communities in colonial Ogoja Province. The final section outlines the persistence of marginalization of Ogoja in the context of rapid constitutional change and political mobilization around nation and development in the late colonial era.

In the absence of a satisfactory history of colonial Ogoja Province—itself perhaps an unsuitable construction through which to examine pre- and post-colonial historical patterns, let alone the complex dynamics of colonial interactions between Africans and Europeans—I will attempt to reconstruct a demographic and economic history of the pre-colonial and early-colonial Upper Cross River basin area, interspersing this with an examination of systematic misconceptions running through twentieth-century scholarly presentations on the population of this area of Nigeria.

Much of the published material that deals peripherally with Ogoja, or with Ogoja as a periphery as in the case of Anene’s work on the international borders of Nigeria, writes of the area as characterized by an assumed ethnic and linguistic complexity, without attempting to address the historical roots or conceptual salience of this determination. Mapping fourteen non- Igbo ethnic clusters inhabiting the Cross River basin, Anene writes of the difficulty of distinguishing Bantu from Semi-Bantu language speakers.3 Crabb notes that one broad population group consisting of 14 geographically dispersed speech communities was interspersed in colonial Ogoja Province among a total, conservatively estimated, of 50 separate language communities.4

At the root of many of the depictions of demographic complexity in this area of Nigeria rests the work of P. Amaury Talbot, an early British political agent in Southern Nigeria, whose 1926 work, The Peoples of Southern [End Page 328] Nigeria, was among the first systematic attempts to reconstruct a history of the societies inhabiting the area of colonial Ogoja Province. Talbot’s multivolume construction, based on data for the 1921 Census of Southern Nigeria, has been extensively critiqued by Dmitri van den Bersselaar.5 Remarking on the abundant remains of dolmens and menhirs, as well as on mineworkings of which no local tradition was said to exist, Talbot postulated an ancient Semi-Bantu occupation of the area, and an ingress of ancient or medieval Egyptian culture which accounted for the evidence of mining.6 In order to explicate the contemporary patterning of languages and communities in the...


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pp. 327-345
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