On 25 February 1874, British Consul George Hartley crowned Ensa (Nsa) Okoho as King Eyo Honesty VII of Creek Town. The impressive ceremony took place in the Presbyterian Church; Creek Town was considered part of the Scottish Presbyterian mission work in Calabar from the time the mission began in 1846.
A period of confusion and disagreement followed the death of King Eyo VI in 1871, concerning who his successor should be. Ensa was chosen to serve as regent that year, but not until 1874 was he elected to serve as king. Ensa demanded two conditions for his service: First, the king must govern and the people agree to be governed “according to the will of God, so far as made known in the Bible.” Second, “all the towns under him” must promise their allegiance to him. (Creek Town consisted of three parts, which biographer and missionary Hugh Goldie claimed was “a hindrance to the work of the Mission.”)
In his address to the people at the coronation celebration, the new king begged the people and the Consul “to aid him in doing good,” and asked the missionaries to “cease not day nor night to win sinners to Christ.”
Ensa Okoho was a boy when the Scottish Presbyterians began their mission in what would later become the country of Nigeria. Like many boys of the era, he spent time on a ship in the Calabar River in order to learn English and business. Since boys placed on ships often carried the names of their captains, Ensa Okoho became known to the English as Henshaw Tom Foster long before he became king. Hugh Goldie baptized the young man and received him into the church in September 1858.
Before he retired, Hope Masterton Waddell, one of the founders of the mission, wrote that Ensa was “of high country family, of mild and pleasing manners, and more than ordinary good conduct, for whose soul I have watched these many years past.” Dr. Alexander Robb, said of him, “I have seen many gratifying things in his character…and his one great desire is to know and follow the will of God in everything.” Mission visitors from Scotland wrote in 1881 that the king was “a big soncy man…with a pleasant countenance, of an unaffected dignity, quiet, sagacious, capable of shrewd remarks, and relishing a joke.”
In the occasional internecine squabbles and wars that broke out in the area, King Eyo VII strove to be a peacemaker. During his reign, he had to withstand opposition from those who clung to old superstitions and customs, and he continued to stand firm in his faith when ridiculed by those in his own community who opposed him, as well as by some of the English traders and British officers. Goldie wrote, however, that Eyo was “much respected by his people for his integrity and skill in counsel, so that he was frequently sought as a judge in important cases between parties,” and that his influence extended far beyond his home territory. When chiefs came from the interior of the country to seek the king’s protection, he wrote to missionary William Anderson, “They spoke of the good things of this life, and I took the opportunity of speaking to them about something far better–the welfare of their souls for ever.”
Ensa was elected an elder in the Creek Town church, acted as clerk of session, served as superintendent of the Sabbath School, and in his later years sometimes led worship services. “He had an extensive and accurate acquaintance of scripture truth,” wrote Goldie, “and was very much a man of one book, and that book was the Bible.”
King Eyo VII ruled in the style of Nehemiah of the Old Testament, and Goldie suggested that others who had authority over nations or cities would do well, “if they did not transfer the laws of the Jewish legislator to their own measures, [they at least] drew nearer to them.” Ekei Essien Oku writes in The Kings and Chiefs of Old Calabar, “It was difficult to distinguish the difference between his duties as king and as a Churchman or Christian.” The king did claim that he signed the treaty with Consul Hewett in 1884 only because of “assurance that there was no intention of disturbing their social condition,” (which turned out to be a hollow promise, at best), and because the treaty would bring British protection against the French.
When the first church building at Creek Town became too crowded, the king wrote to the Foreign Mission Committee in Scotland requesting help to obtain a new church. Together with the people, the king pledged donations and labor to help with the new building, then thanked the committee for a grant and loan. (When all was done, the people not only repaid the loan but also the grant.) When the new, ready-built, church arrived, it could accommodate 500 to 600 people “comfortably.” Its dedication on 9 July 1879 was cause for celebration. Missionary wife Mrs. Samuel Edgerley wrote, “Flags were flying, and guns were fired in the early morning by the King, to intimate to the people that it was a day of glad tidings, and at ten o’clock the new church bell rung out, calling all to the opening.” About a thousand people attended, despite heavy rain.
Shortly after the dedication of the new church building, Eyo wrote to retired Hope Waddell, noting the changes that had occurred since the coming of the mission, but “even until now, the evil customs are still gradually dying away, and my desire and hope is, that the whole work of Satan may be destroyed in Old Calabar.”
Hugh Goldie was touched by the king’s friendship and concern. It was Eyo who prepared the grave when Goldie’s wife died in 1891. He also befriended missionary Mary Slessor, and at times provided his own canoe for her transport.
Ensa Okoho, King Eyo Honesty VII, died on 26 March 1892. He suffered various ailments until he apparently had a stroke, which left him paralyzed and unable to speak. He was remembered throughout southeastern Nigeria for his long life of faith and service.
Eyo had written earlier to Hope Waddell that
a real Christian should know first that he could not be able to do a single thing of his own power without the help of God. And thus I see that as long as a man of God keeps nearer and nearer to Him, he is able to make the heathen ones submit to him whether he is a king or is not.
He concluded with, “May we all meet in Heaven to part no more from each other.”
All quotes are from Memoir of King Eyo VII of Old Calabar, except as otherwise noted.
Efiong U. Aye, Old Calabar Through the Centuries (Calabar, Nigeria: Hope Waddell Press, 1969).
——–, The Efik People (Calabar: Glad Tidings Press Ltd., 2000).
Donald M. McFarlan, Calabar: The Church of Scotland Mission, 1846-1946 (Toronto and New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1946).
Hugh Goldie, Memoir of King Eyo VII of Old Calabar: A Christian King in Africa (Old Calabar: United Presbyterian Mission Press, 1894).
Ekei Essien Oku, The Kings and Chiefs of Old Calabar (1785-1925) (Calabar: Glad Tidings Press Ltd., 1989).
This article, received in 2003, was researched and written by Jeanette Hardage, member of Peace Presbyterian Church, Goose Creek, South Carolina.