Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

Memories of British West Africa



I was born on August 23, 1954. Then it was said that the sun never sets on the British Empire. The "Union Jack," or flag of the British Empire flew from India to Hong Kong, from Ireland to the Caribbean islands, and from Egypt to South Africa.

My country, Nigeria, belonged to what was then called British West Africa.

Sir John McPherson (and Sir James Robertson) were the Presidents (called Governors) of Nigeria in that year. The Queen Elizabeth II of England was the Head of State of Nigeria.

The Union Jack (British flag) flew in offices and schools. The most common cars on the roads were the British Morris Minors. I was born in British West Africa.

One of my fondest travel trips was from Sapele to Onitsha, in 1957. Dad was on annual leave. We boarded a colorful truck called mammy-wagon or "gwon gwo ro." Most wagons were identified with a colorfully decorated inscription. Popular inscriptions include: "All Around The World There Is No Place Like Home," "We Never Lose Hope," "No Condition is Permanent," and "I Don't Care Until Your Trouble Meets Me."

Mom, my one year-old brother and I boarded first-class, which meant that we sat in front with the driver. Dad stayed in the second-class passenger section, a narrow constriction constructed from a wooden plank. The third-class section is crammed with people, goats and chickens.

It took us all day to travel from Sapele to Asaba, a town on the west side of the River Niger. We then boarded a stern-wheel paddle steamer, driven by wood-fuelled boilers. The steamer can tow up to six barges. The barges were ferrying cars across the River Niger.

COMING: James Africanus Horton

Edward Wilmot Blyden who described himself as "a true son of the Eboe tribe."

Igbo heritage. Captured and sold into slavery at the age of 11. Equiano's autobiography, "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, Written by Himself, 1789 " was an international bestseller and earned him the title "father of modern black literature."




Excerpts from "The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African"

Equiano's Description of the Igbos

The dress of both sexes is nearly the same. It generally consists of a long piece of calico, or muslin, wrapped loosely round the body, somewhat in the form of a highland plaid. This is usually dyed blue, which is our favourite colour. It is extracted from a berry, and is brighter and richer than any I have seen in Europe. Besides this, our women of distinction wear golden ornaments; which they dispose with some profusion on their arms and legs. When our women are not employed with the men in tillage, their usual occupation is spinning and weaving cotton, which they afterwards dye, and make it into garments. They also manufacture earthen vessels, of which we have many kinds.

How Equiano Was Captured

" My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and a sister, who was the only daughter. As I was the youngest of the sons, I became, of course, the greatest favourite of my mother, and was always with her; and she used to take particular pains to form my mind. I was trained up from my earliest years in the arts of agriculture and war; and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors. In this way I grew up till I was turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my happiness in the following manner....

Generally, when the grown people in the neighbourhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighborhood's premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us; for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize.

One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound; but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time."

Equiano First Impression of the Slave Ship

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.

Their complexions, too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.

When I looked round the ship too, and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believed were some of those who had brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair. They told me I was not: and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine glass, but, being afraid of him, I would not take it out of his hand. One of the blacks, therefore, took it from him and gave it to me, and I took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me, as they thought it would, throw me into the greatest consternation at the strange feeling it produced, having never tasted any such liquor before. Soon after this, the blacks who brought me on board went off, and left me abandoned to despair.

Equino's Experience Inside the Slave Ship

"I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a greeting in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.

The white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.

The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. The wretched situation was again aggravated by the chains, now unsupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable."

Equiano's Recall of his Arrival at the New World

At last, we came in sight of the island of Barbados, at which the whites on board gave a great shout, and made many signs of joy to us. We did not know what to think of this; but as the vessel drew nearer, we plainly saw the harbor, and other ships of different kinds and sizes, and we soon anchored amongst them, off Bridgetown.

Many merchants and planters now came on board, though it was in the evening. They put us in separate parcels, and examined us attentively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, signifying we were to go there. We thought by this, we should be eaten by these ugly men, as they appeared to us; and, when soon after we were all put down under the deck again, there was much dread and trembling among us, and nothing but bitter cries to be heard all the night from these apprehensions, insomuch, that at last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people. This report eased us much. And sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages.

Equiano's on Cruelty Towards Slaves

One man told me that he had sold 41,000 negroes, and that he once cut of a negro man's leg for running away. I told him that the Christian doctrine taught us to do unto others as we would that others should do unto us. He then said that his scheme had the desired effect - it cured that man and some others of running away.

Another negro man was half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison a cruel overseer. Thus, by repeated cruelties, are the wretched first urged to despair, and then murdered, because they still retain so much of human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their misery, and retaliate on their tyrants. These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, but not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes.

Equiano on the Taboo of Inter-Racial Love Affairs

While I was thus employed by my master, I was often a witness to cruelties of every kind, which were exercised on my unhappy fellow slaves. I used frequently to have different cargoes of new Negroes in my care for sale; and it was almost a constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves; and these I was, though with reluctance, obliged to submit to at all times, being unable to help them. When we have had some of these slaves on board my master's vessels, to carry them to other islands, or to America, I have known our mates to commit these acts most shamefully, to the disgrace, not of Christians only, but of men. I have even known them to gratify their brutal passion with females not ten years old; and these abominations, some of them practised to such scandalous excess, that one of our captains discharged the mate and others on that account. And yet in Montserrat I have seen a Negro man staked to the ground, and cut most shockingly, and then his ears cut off bit by bit, because he had been connected with a white woman, who was a common prostitute. As if it were no crime in the whites to rob an innocent African girl of her virtue, but most heinous in a black man only to gratify a passion of nature, where the temptation was offered by one of a different color, though the most abandoned woman of her species.


  1. Acholonu, Catherine Obianuju, "The Home of Olaudah Equiano -- A Linguistic and Anthropological Search," The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 22 (1987).
  2. Isichei, Elizabeth. "The Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano." Journal of African History 33.1 (Jan 1992): 164(2).
  3. Kennerly, K. The Slave Who Bought His Freedom; Equiano's Story. NY: Dutton, 1971.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther. (1806--1892)

A Yoruba enslaved at the age of 12, freed and re-settled in Sierra Leone. Brought the CMS (Church Missionary Society) to Onitsha in 1857.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Edward Wilmot Blyden were the premier public intellectuals of that predated the British West Africa. First African to become Bishop of "Western Equatorial Africa."

Herbert Samuel Heelas Macaulay (1864-1946)
Born on November 14, 1864 in Lagos. Grandson of slaves of Sierra Leonean descent. Grandchild of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a pioneer missionary. The first Nigerian civil engineer and a Pan-Africanist. Considered a founding father of Nigerian nationalism and the Gandhi of British West Africa.

[Image from "Herbert Macaulay: Nigerian Patriot", by Tekena N. Tamuno. Heinemann, London, 1975]

[Ref: Thomas, Isaac B. Life History of Herbert Macaulay, 3rd ed. (Lagos: Tika Tore Press, 1946).]

A Shaman Holds a Rattle, Nigeria

A shaman wears his mask and costume, and holds a rattle. Onitsha, Nigeria. Paul Almasy/CORBIS

Photographer: Paul Almasy

Location Information: Onitsha, Nigeria

Masquerade Dances With Children, Nigeria A shaman performs a ritual dance with a group of children, while adults play percussion instruments. Onitsha, Nigeria. Paul Almasy/CORBIS

Photographer: Paul Almasy

Location Information: Onitsha, Nigeria

Children Perform as Musicians and a Dancer, Nigeria A group of children perform in a field together. One dances as a ju-ju in a ceramic and straw mask. Others in the group play various types of percussion instruments. Eastern Nigeria. Paul Almasy/CORBIS Photographer Paul Almasy Location Information Eastern Nigeria

Dancer Performs in Mask, Eastern Nigeria A young dancer performs as a ju-ju in a ceramic mask. Eastern Nigeria. Paul Almasy/CORBIS Photographer Paul Almasy Location Information Eastern Nigeria

Dancer Performs for Crowd of Children, Nigeria A dancer performs folk dance in traditional mask and costume for a crowd of children. Nigeria. Paul Almasy/CORBIS Photographer Paul Almasy Location Information Nigeria

A Man Dances as Ju-Ju, Nigeria Dancer performs in the costume of Ju-Ju. Eastern Nigeria. Paul Almasy/CORBIS Photographer Paul Almasy Location Information Eastern Region, Nigeria

The coins in use in my early years

I was born in British West Africa, as indicated in these coins.

Nigerian Children Welcome the Queen Elizabeth II
A group of children stand with their Union Jack flags at the ready to welcome Queen Elizabeth II to Lagos as she attends Sunday service at the city's cathedral. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS Date Photographed January 31, 1956 Location Information Lagos, Nigeria

The Queen in Nigeria
Olubunmi Jibowi bows and looks at the camera as she presents a bouquet to the Queen during her visit to Nigeria to inaugurate the Federal Court at Lagos. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS Photographer McKeown; Joseph Date Photographed February, 1956 Location Information Lagos, Nigeria

A Man Sits in Front of His House, Nigeria
A man sits in front of his farmhouse in Toro, Nigeria. House features thatched roofs and decorated silos. Paul Almasy/CORBIS Photographer Paul Almasy Location Information Toro, Nigeria

The sister of my paternal grandmother and her husband. (Odoge Village, Onitsha, Nigeria. Circa 1920s or 30s)

My father James Nnemeka Emeagwali (5th from left of second row) at an all-boys Catholic school (Christ the King College, Onitsha, Nigeria. Circa 1945)

James Nnemeka Emeagwali (first from left on first row) and school mates. (Christ the King College, Onitsha, Nigeria. Circa 1946)

My maternal uncle Orofo Balonwu (far left) and friends escorting a masquerade. (Umuasele village, Onitsha. Circa 1950s)

My paternal aunt Mrs. Okwuosa a.k.a. "Nne Magdalene." (Onitsha, Nigeria. Circa 1950s)

My baby photo
(Bright Studio, Palefa Street, Akure, Western Region, Nigeria. Circa November 1954 )

The church I was baptized as "Philip."

I was baptized by Reverend Father William Obelagu at Saint Mary's in November 1954.

One of my earliest memory of attending Sunday services was at Saint Marys Catholic Church, Onitsha, in 1959.

Reverends Obelagu and Cyprian Tansi were ordained at Holy Trinity on December 19, 1937. Tansi is expected to become the first Nigerian saint. (Saint Mary's, Onitsha, Nigeria)

My mother (Agatha Emeagwali, left front row) and her friends --- Mabel Ifejika, Clara Chude, Modupe. (Burutu, Nigeria. Circa April 1958)

Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor