Ekpe or Egbo
An African secret society that originated in the eighteenth
century in Calabar, a section of Nigeria around the Niger River
delta. The name means ‘‘leopard’’ and referred to a mysterious
forest being that could be seen only by the initiates. On those
occasions when the ‘‘leopard’’ was brought to town for ceremonies,
the people could not see the animal but could hear its tremendous
roar. Whenever an Ekpe day was announced, slaves,
women, and children would remove themselves from the area
of the ceremony, as the messenger of Ekpe, armed with a heavy
whip, went through the village and lashed everyone he encountered.
The society was divided into eleven grades, of which the first
three were not open to slaves. Members, as a rule, bought
themselves into the higher grades in their turn, and the money
thus obtained was shared among the Nyampa, who formed the
inner circle. The king was president of the society under the
title of Cyamba. Each grade had its special festival day, on
which their Idem or spirit-master exercised complete control.
The Idem was usually a hermit who lived in the distant bush,
and when he appeared it was in a fantastic guise of mats and
branches that covered him from head to foot, and with a black
mask on his face. The principals of the order were linked together
by a garb of leaves so gathered up that they seemed to
move in a connected mass. Ethnologist L. Froebenius observes
‘‘The Order of Free Egbos, is said to have originated at the
fairs which were held at a great palm-oil market in the interior,
midway between Calabar and the Kamerun. As the place became
the scene of much disorder, while the European trade
made it necessary for the maintenance of public credit that all
engagements should be strictly carried out, this institution was
formed as a sort of Hanseatic Union under the most influential
traders, for the mutual safe-guarding of their interests. Later
it acquired the political character of a Vehmgericht or secret tribunal,
by bringing within its sphere of action the whole police
of the Calabars and the Kamerun. The kings always sought to
secure for themselves the Grand-mastership of the Order, since
otherwise their authority would sink to a mere shadow. European
skippers have frequently found it to their advantage to be
enrolled in the lower grades, in order thereby the more easily
to recover their debts. A member of the Egbo has the right to
claim as his own property the slave of his debtor, wherever he
may find him, merely by fastening a yellow strip to his dress or
loincloth. Even in the interior of the continent the standing of
an Egbo is still respected and feared, and affords one a certain
immunity from molestation, such as is absolutely needed for
the extensive commercial speculations in Africa.
‘‘In the Kamerun, as a preliminary to their acceptance into
the Free Egbos, the young men are sent for a protracted period
to the Mokokos, a bush tribe in the interior; with these they live
naked in the fields, and only now and then dart out, clad in
green leaves, to have a bath in the river. All women, and especially
slaves, are prohibited, under heavy penalties, from approaching
the forest where they reside. In the Kamerun, it is
customary to pay particular honour to a visitor, above all if he
be a European, by introducing the Egbo goat, which the people
are otherwise seldom allowed to set eyes upon.
‘‘Holman reports that the whole of the Old Calabar district
is subject to the rule of the so-called Egbo laws. These are promulgated
at a secret Council, the Egbo Assembly, which is held
in the ‘Palaver-house’ erected for this special purpose. In virtue
of his sovereign rights, the head-chief presides, under the title
of Cyamab, over this assembly. Amongst the members of the
Egbo there are different ranks, which must be acquired in their
due order, one after the other. Holman quotes Englishmen
who state that Europeans have bought themselves into the
Egbo, and even into the Yampai, in order to be thus better able
to get in their money. He gives the following as the names and
prices of the different grades of Egbo
1 Abungo 125 bars
2 Aboko 75 bars
3 Makairo 440 copper bars
4 Bakimboko 100 bars
5 Yampai 850 copper bars
‘‘To these must be added rum, clothes, membo, etc. The
Yampai is the only grade whose members are allowed to sit in
Council. The sums paid for the various titles of the Egbo are distributed
exclusively amongst the Yampai, who, however, are
not limited to a single share, since every Yampai can multiply
his title as often as he can purchase shares, and these give him
a claim to the receipt of the corresponding quotas from the
profits of the whole institution.’’
The society emerged as a powerful force in nineteenthcentury
Calabar society and is still quite strong, though it must
now compete with Christianity and a host of new religions for
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Ekpe
the hearts of the people. Much of the ceremony and belief of
the society remains a secret kept from outsiders.
Hackett, Rosalind I. J. Religion in Calabar. Berlin Mouton
de Gruyter, 1989.