An Igbo Slaver’s Descendants Reckon With History

LONDON - MARCH 29: HMS Northumberland (L) escorts a replica 18th century wooden square rigger ship 'The Zong' (R) on a choppy River Thames on March 29, 2007 in London, England. Today's events form part of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade act. The Zong was at the centre of a court case in 1783, after 133 slaves were thrown overboard in an insurance scam. The resulting public outrage led to the rise of the Abolitionist movement. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

For the New Yorker, author  dives into the history of her great-grandfather, an Igbo slave trader and palm merchant who participated in the transatlantic slave trade. “African intellectuals tend to blame the West for the slave trade, but I knew that white traders couldn’t have loaded their ships without help from Africans like my great-grandfather,” the author writes. She reveals a complex caste system that pre-dated European influence, and shows how current generations of her family are accounting for their ancestor’s relationship to the suffering of many.

On the first day of the fast, members of my family met in small groups in London, Atlanta, and Johannesburg. Some talked on the phone, and others chatted on social media. Thirty members gathered under a canopy in my parents’ yard. With tears in his eyes, my father explained that, in Nwaubani Ogogo’s day, selling and sacrificing human beings was common practice, but that now we know it to be deeply offensive to God. He thanked God for the honor and prestige bestowed on our family through my great-grandfather, and asked God’s forgiveness for the atrocities he committed. We prayed over a passage that my father texted us from the Book of Psalms:

Who can understand his errors?
Cleanse me from secret faults.
Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins;
Let them not have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
And I shall be innocent of great transgression.

During the ceremony, I was overwhelmed with relief. My family was finally taking a step beyond whispering and worrying. Of course, nothing can undo the harm that Nwaubani Ogogo caused. And the ohu, who are not his direct descendants, were not invited to the ceremony; their mistreatment in the region continues. Still, it felt important for my family to publicly denounce its role in the slave trade. “Our family is taking responsibility,” my cousin Chidi, who joined from London, told me. Chioma, who took part in Atlanta, said, “We were trying to make peace and atone for what our ancestors did.”

On the final day, my relatives strolled along a recently tarred stretch of road to our local Anglican church. The church was established in 1904, on land that Nwaubani Ogogo donated. Inside, a priest presided over a two-hour prayer session. At the end, he pronounced blessings on us, and proclaimed a new beginning for the Nwaubani family. After the ceremony, my family members discussed making it a yearly ritual. “This sort of thing opens up the mercy of God,” my mother, Patricia, said. “People did all these evil things but they don’t talk about it. The more people confess and renounce their evil past, the more cleansing will come to the land.”

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