Old Residency Calabar, Cross River State

Old Residency Calabar


In Calabar, built in 1884 on top of Consular Hill, the building is a prefabricated structure of Scandinavian red-pine wood shipped in knockdown parts from Britain to old Calabar. This building was the seat of the British colonial administration for the Southern Protectorate of Nigeria.The old colonial building in Calabar is well preserved and has been drawing tourists from different parts of the world. It was put in place about 130 years ago,and it is still in good shape and gives one a better understanding of the kind of buildings the colonial masters were staying in.

Hewett, a stern-faced man with a drooping moustache, was the first resident of what is now known as the Old Residency, a building prefabricated in Britain and then shipped to Calabar in 1884. The ground floor served as the headquarters of the expanding British Protectorate that would eventually become the southern part of the British colony Nigeria. With Nigeria's independence in 1960, the colonial rulers left, but the Old Residency remained.Its Scandinavian red-pine wood walls survived the Calabar climate (a 10-month rainy season), the Biafran War (when anything that could serve as firewood disappeared in Nigeria’s blockaded east), and dictatorial destructiveness (under the military rule of Ibrahim Babangida in the 1990s, a sister building some 100 metres away was torn down to make room for a concrete structure that, until now, serves as the presidential lodge).

Today, the colonial building houses what the Bradt travel guide to Nigeria calls "without question Nigeria's best museum."For 100 naira (50 cents), visitors can stroll through the museum’s halls accompanied by a guide.The exhibition opens with the darkest page in its history: the four centuries of Transatlantic slave trade during which the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and British shipped millions of Africans across the Atlantic to sell as slaves. Calabar used to be Britain's busiest trading post: almost one-third of the total number of Africans the British abducted from the end of the 17th century until the abolition of slavery in 1807 was shipped from here.


The trade in human beings

Thanks to Calabar's natural deep harbour close to the Atlantic Ocean, the merchant ships, mostly from Bristol and Liverpool, could dock near the riverbank. When the ships sailed in, local merchants would send out canoes into the hinterland to raid for slaves.In his book The Two Princes of Calabar, Randy J. Sparks recounts the fascination of some local traders - many of whom had taken on European names - with European goods. For example, in the mid-18th century Grandy King George of Old Calabar urinated in an English pewter pot and shaved with an English razor. To acquire coveted foreign goods like metal pots and razors as well as guns, Venetian beads and brass artifacts, these local traders sold people to the Europeans.

The copper rods in one of the museum's showcases tell their own tale of the trade in human beings: 28 to 37 copper rods would pay for a female slave, 38 to 48 for a male."Sometimes people weep when they get to this part," says heritage officer Ben Akan, who has worked at the National Museum in Calabar for 15 years. African-Americans, some of whom visit Calabar in order to trace the history of their forefathers, often find the visit especially emotional, he adds. Once in a while, somebody cries out of shame.

But not everybody likes to be confronted with the history of the slave trade, Akan explains. He quickly guides such visitors through to the second gallery of the museum's ground floor.This section covers the production of palm oil, and has on display steel oil drums, cast iron cooking pots, and the twined rope used for climbing palm trees. After the abolition of slavery, the orange-red oil became the most important export for Calabar. Not only could the oil be used as a cheap ingredient for soap, margarine and candles, it also served as a lubricant for the machinery of Britain’s industrial revolution.