This interesting former colonial port is a relaxed city set in attractive hillside scenery.
The capital of Cross Rivers State in the extreme southeastern corner of Nigeria, Calabar is a pleasant town in a beautiful setting high on a hill above a curve in the Calabar River. It was originally called Old Calabar to distinguish it from another town called Kalabari. It has a long history of being Nigeria’s eastern port on an estuary of the Gulf of Guinea, and an estimated third of the slaves who left Nigeria were transported through Calabar. The town is also the cultural centre for the Efik people who dabbled in the slave trade as middlemen. It’s made up of the old Efik settlements of Creek Town (Obio Oko), Duke Town (Atakpa), Old Town (Obutong) and Henshaw Town (Nsidung).
Calabar is well known as the home of the Scottish missionary Mary Slessor, who arrived in 1878 from the United Free Church of Scotland. It grew as an important Niger Delta trading state in the 19th century, thanks to the lucrative palm oil trade, and today rubber and timber pass through Calabar’s port; tyre manufacturer Dunlop has rubber plantations around Calabar. It’s surrounded by saltwater swamps and dense tropical forest, and the markets are full of fish, pineapples, bananas, plantains, cassava and palm oil. For a short time (1893–1906) it was the capital of the British Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, before the capital was moved to Lagos, and was the region’s principal port during the early colonial days before it was eclipsed by Port Harcourt.
The older part of town along the Calabar River has some beautiful colonial buildings but they are in various stages of decay. These were shipped from Liverpool frame by frame, with the carpenters, and were not only used by the colonial offices; many of the local chiefs liked the British architecture so much that they ordered their own houses and period furniture from England and this architecture became the hallmark of Old Calabar. These chiefs even took British names: there were the Dukes, the Jameses, and the Henshaws. The best place to explore Calabar’s history is in the excellent museum.
By contrast, Calabar today is also home to two interesting conservation organisations (Pandrillus and Cercopan) that are doing something worthwhile to help Nigeria’s primates in the nearby Cross River forests. In 2007 okadas were banned from the centre of the city. This was initially a temporary measure following disturbances due to motorcycle operators in disagreement with the state government’s introduction of a mandatory motorbike registration fee. However, the ban was never lifted. Whilst this makes for a pleasant reduction in noise in much of the city, it does reduce the available transport options around town.