Being a constitutional democracy, Nigeria elects its representatives, however, the hundreds of ethnic communities scattered across the country still acknowledge their own traditional rulers. It is widely accepted that out of these traditional leaders, the king (Obong) of the Efik Kingdom in southern Nigeria is one of those highly respected.
The Efik ethnic group, primarily located in southeastern Nigeria, makes up a significant number of the Calabar people. They speak the Efik language. Culturally and linguistically related to the Ibibio, the Efik migrated down the Cross River during the first half of the 17th century and founded settlements including Creek Town and Duke Town, according to one account.
Their economy was based on fishing before their area became a major trading center during the 19th century. European ships at the time would dock and trade their products for slaves and palm oil. Eventually, the Efik people became middlemen between the slave traders from Liverpool and Bristol and African traders from the hinterlands. By and by, the Efik embraced European culture. They started dressing like Europeans while following Christianity and adopting English surnames like Duke, Donald, Henshaw, among others.
Dominating the slave trade, the Efik Kingdom, which at the time included several chiefs and kings, became wealthy. Even when the slave trade had been prohibited by British law in 1807, records show that thousands of enslaved people were still leaving Calabar on British ships.
During the reign of Queen Victoria of England, there were two kings in the coastal town of Calabar — King Eyamba V of Duke Town and King Eyo Honesty II of Creek Town (although now there is only one king). After the slave trade was abolished in Britain, Queen Victoria wrote a letter to King Eyamba, asking that they stop trading in people and start trading in spices, palm oil, glassware, among others, according to Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani.
Promising inducements and protection if they continued as trading partners, Queen Victoria signed off as “Queen Victoria, The Queen of England.” An interpreter mistranslated this as “The Queen of All White Men” when reading the letter to King Eyamba. The king came to the conclusion that if he was going to accept protection from a woman, then that woman must be his wife. In his written reply, he made this known to the Queen and signed off as, “King Eyamba, the King of All Black Men”.
According to Charles Effiong Offiong-Obo, an Efik chief who is also the scribe of the Duke Town clan, “He [Eyamba] wrote to the Queen and said he wanted to marry her so that the two of them would rule the world.”
Queen Victoria acknowledged receipt of his letter without explicitly rejecting the marriage proposal. She stated that she looked forward to future trade relations with King Eyamba and sent him some gifts which included a royal cape, a sword, and a Bible. King Eyamba interpreted the sending of gifts as acceptance of his marriage offer. People started believing that their king had married the queen while the king reportedly set up a seat beside his throne, ready for his new wife, the Queen of England.
Today, in Calabar, the coronation of the Obong (king) goes according to the tradition that began after King Eyamba’s “marriage” to Queen Victoria. The first part of the coronation ceremony is performed in the community. The second part is held in a Presbyterian Church (formerly the Church of Scotland), where the Obong wears a crown and cape custom-made in England for the ceremony.
Two thrones are set side by side. The Obong sits on one while the second is left empty for the absent Queen of England. A Bible is placed on her chair. The Obong’s actual wife then sits behind him.
In 2017 when Prince Michael of Kent, first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, visited Calabar, the reigning Obong, Edidem Ekpo Okon Abasi Otu V, told him the story of the “royal marriage” while referring to the Prince as his “in-law.” He made the Prince a chief with the title Ada Idagha Ke Efik Eburutu, meaning “A person of honor and high standing in the Efik Eburutu Kingdom”.