KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future

Slave dealing and underground slave routes in the Temple of Chukwu in Igboland: A groundbreaking research find


J. Akuma-Kalu Njoku, Ph.D.

Western Kentucky University


Sunday, May 21, 2006


I am writing to inform the visitors of of my groundbreaking primary research. So far, my research has confirmed that there is a cave system that provided a network for underground slave-dealing activities in Southeastern Nigeria during the Atlantic slave trade.  The biggest cave in the system is an Ancient Temple Complex located in Okonto Ovia Chukwu (the Evergreen Forest of God) in Arochukwu.  The Forest of God was the most sacred and secret slave-dealing location in the area known as the Slave Coast.  As such, the Temple Complex was a definite beginning point of many slave journeys from the hinterland to the shipping ports in Calabar and Bonny.


The Igbo in their folklore and oral traditions talk about the caves and their connections with the Atlantic slave trade. They talk about the large scale trade in human beings, as a covert deal. The Aro admit that it should have been illegal, but say they (Aro perpetrators) made it look otherwise. The Aro took the captives from slave raids to the Ancient Temple Chukwu for ritual processing after which they (the victims) were considered symbolically dead, thereby absolving the Aro of any guilt. It was a very complicated process. Anyway, the existence of such a cave system is not well known to scholars.


Slave Dealing in the Temple of God

The Ancient Cave Temple Complex, which is believed to be the abode of Chukwu (God) is also the location of Ibin Ukpabi (the prophetic Oracle of Chukwu). In pre-colonial times, the people of Arochukwu (the Aro of God) were the only ones that could enter the dark Chamber Presence (the Holy of Hollies) to interpret the voice of Chukwu and through the Oracle bring back the word of God. At that time the Oracular Shrine of Ibin Ukpabi served as the highest court in Igboland as people from other villages and towns went to the Ancient Cave Temple Complex to hear judgments through Ibin Ukpabi (the Oracle). Those found guilty were either sold on to local slavery or put to death, depending upon the degree of their offence and the judgments of Chukwu. Those who received the death penalty were ritually and thus legitimately killed and their blood colored the running stream in the cave red.


During the peak of the Atlantic slave trade, the Aro extended the religious and judicial influence of the Oracle by establishing oracular shrines of Ibin Ukpabi along trading posts, especially in large slave-holding towns and villages all over Igboland.  Backed by the Oracle (Ibin Ukpabi), Aro traders had an uncontested monopoly of the hinterland trade and an imperial authority over a wide area of the Igboland. The Ibin Ukpabi became so influential that without its overt permission non-Igbo slave traders found it almost impossible to travel into the Igbo hinterland. And travel, up until the turn of the 20th century, was also hazardous for colonizers and missionaries.  It took the British Military Expedition of 1901 to 1902, to stop Aro imperial domination and economic control of the then impermeable Igbo interior. The British Colonial Administrators claimed that they destroyed the Temple Complex and the oracular shrine of Ibin Ukpabi, which they called the “Long Juju.”


The Best Kept Secret

Thinking that the British soldiers had indeed destroyed Ibin Ukpabi (the so-called “Long Juju”),  Igbo people stopped taking cases to the prophetic Oracle in Arochukwu. But the Ancient Cave Temple Complex was not destroyed. The shrine of Ibin Ukpabi is still intact.  Truth is that the Aro, using their surpassing diplomacy, mislead the British soldiers to destroy a different cave.  And from 1902 to 2002, by an extraordinary tact and traditional restriction, the Aro secretly preserved the Temple Complex and abode of Chukwu in the Evergreen Forest of God (Okonto Ovia Chukwu). They even barred Aro indigenes from entering  Okonto Ovia Chukwu. Thus, for precisely 100 years, the Oracle of Ibin Ukpabi and the Ancient Cave Temple Complex have remained the best-kept secret of the people of Arochukwu.  To some, the “Long Juju” is a myth and to others it has become a legend in their minds.  


Today, when visitors go to retrace the slave routes in Arochukwu, Aro escorts, either because they were forbidden from doing so or as a part of their traditional know-nothing mechanism of secrecy, simply would not talk about their so-called “Long Juju.” And for some reason scholars have had the tacit assumption that nobody dares to ask. To the rest of the Igbo people of Nigeria, including the Aro indigenes in the Aro Diaspora, the Oracle of Ibin Ukpabi or “Long Juju” has remained (and still remains) a mystery.


A Descriptive Outline of the Ancient Temple Complex of Chukwu

A six-foot gully, though now covered in a thicket, leads into the Ancient Cave Temple. Inside the Temple Complex proper are:

  1. The Main Oracular Shrine of Ibin Ukpabi and by which stands as if on guard the cult statue of Kamalu, the Warrior God

  2. An Altar (the kitchen area)

  3. A waterfall (the loud sound of which from a distance is regarded as the prophetic voice of Ibin Ukpabi)

  4. The Throne of Judgment—the Dark Chamber Presence (“the Holy of Hollies.) Those who were not found guilty walked into dark tunnels and those found innocent returned to their relatives.

  5. A Hill of Rags. That is the place where the condemned were required to undress and leave their clothes before they disappeared into the tunnels around the hill of rags.

  6. The Tunnels of Disappearance—the dark tunnels into which the victims disappeared

  7. The Red River—as the victims disappear, the Aro would color the river red to give people the impression that the condemned had died. And the red water flowing down the stream would be a signal to the relatives that the victims were dead. Actually, one of the tunnels leads to a point where the meandering Red River becomes the Iyi Eke (Python Stream).

  8. Iyi Eke—an outlet from where the victims now blindfolded walk to “Onu Asu Bekee” (the European Beach, which later became the Government Beach). And from there, waiting boats took the enslaved to Calabar for onward transmission to the Americas.


The six-foot gully (Uzo Nkoro) that leads to the entrance to the Evergreen Forest of God (Okonto Ovia Chukwu), as well as the cave tunnels with outlets in Iyi Eke, and another outlet in Ututu were the underground slave routes.  They are the exact routes from the hinterland through the trade routes and coastal towns to the points where the Atlantic Ocean ends in the twilight zone into which millions of enslaved Igbo people disappeared.  


To learn in 2002 that after all the British did not destroy the Oracle of the Great Ibin Ukpabi was a groundbreaking knowledge for me. Even more breathtaking was the experience of entering the Cave Temple Complex; the exact place where the slave dealers took their victims for judgment and ritual processing. That is the exact place where probably thousands upon thousands of my fellow Igbo victims entered and symbolically died.


Meanwhile, I am working collaboratively with distinguished cave researchers from Western Kentucky University, the Aro community, the National Commission on Museum and Monuments, and Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Abia State of Nigeria to develop the Ancient Temple Complex and study the Cave System in Arochukwu as tourism destination.  My ongoing research on the folklore and material of the Atlantic slave trade in Nigeria will provide the background for the broader collaborative project.  The collaborative study and production activities will include:


  1. Mapping, surveying, identifying, dating, conserving, and ethnographically documenting the Temple Complex and interpreting the material culture and shrine objects in it

  2. Planning and presenting an exhibition both in Nigeria and in the United States on the Ancient Cave Temple Complex (ACTC)

  3. Nominating the ACTC as a World Heritage Site

  4. Mapping, surveying, exploring the other caves in the cave system and assessing their statuses as existing cultural properties

  5. Determine the possibility of coordinating them for tourism development in the area

  6. Preserving the outcome of the project and their knowledge for posterity through digital imaging, publications, symposia, internship and student exchange programs, etc.


The Immediate and Longtime Outcomes

1.  The immediate outcome of the project will be the successful nomination of the Ancient Temple Complex as a world heritage site.

2.   The longtime goal is economic growth in the region through ecotourism.

3.   The economic import of the project framed on the Atlantic slave trade could be national in scale and this must be kept in view, because the slave trade that anchors the Abia State project was part of the interactions that existed long before Nigeria and its federating states, including Abia, came into being.

Simply surprise yourself yonder