Chief Chambers

Research into slavery in Virginia leads to honor in Africa.

By Melissa Bray

Photo by Jack Mellott.

A goat, chickens, African yams, palm wine, beer and a chieftainship. Douglas Chambers got more than he bargained for on his last trip to Nigeria.

Maybe his background — born in Nebraska and raised in Virginia from the age of 1 — is a far cry from the ancient civilization of the Igbo people of sub-Saharan Africa.

Maybe not.

Chambers’ work has taken him from researching Virginia’s African slaves, to spending time with the Igbo people, to a two-day reception that bestowed a chieftainship on him and adopted him into the founding royal family of a 1,000-year-old civilization. Subsequently he was given the responsibility of resolving disputes, mentoring people and providing guidance in times of crisis.  

This is quite a duty for Chambers (Anthropology ’83, MA, History ’91, PhD ’96), who is currently an assistant history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. He stays involved with U.Va. as a board member of The Serpentine Society.

But the world of the Igbo people’s Nri civilization, whose royal descendants bestowed the honor of chieftainship onto him, is not as far away from the South as you may think.

The links to the Igbo people, especially for Virginians, are pronounced.

Chambers wrote his dissertation on the slave trade in Virginia, and he found that a huge percentage of the slaves brought from Africa to the South came from what is now eastern Nigeria. “There were many Igbo people taken to Virginia,” Chambers discovered. “My focus on the Nri civilization is a direct result of my study of the slave trade.

“One of the consequences of the slave trade was the decline of this ancient civilization,” says Chambers, who believes it is a civilization the world needs to know about. “Their core is pacifism. The worst thing for them is the shedding of human blood in anger.” Chambers notes it is ironic, but maybe not surprising, that the Igbo were the victims of the slave trade. 

Chambers sees many echoes of Igbo in African-American culture and in the South. For example, okra is an Igbo word. “Okra almost defines Southern food,” says Chambers. “You are what you eat, so to some degree Southerners are Igbo.”

On his third trip to Nigeria Chambers was recognized for both his research and demonstrating the three virtues of a chief: courage, intelligence and compassion. This earned him the title of Chief ÒkwulúNri Òka’ómèe, Ifé Umùnná of Umunrí. He is the first white man to receive this honor.

The reception honoring Chambers was elaborate. The first of two parts took about eight hours. “I was sitting like a chief while testimonies were spoken to my virtues,” he says. The ceremony continued with singing and the breaking of kola nuts, and then Chambers was called on to dance.

The crowd was surprised. “I’d learned to dance in Igbo-style,” says Chambers. “That clinched my position. I had impressed them.”

“I was then paraded around the town,” says Chambers, “wearing a full length ‘eke’ cloth with a python skin print and carrying an ‘ofo,’ the ancestral staff of authority.” Chambers walked to the beat of a drumming band. “It was spectacular.”

Two days later the reception continued with the women of the lineage taking the goat, chickens and other gifts and preparing a huge meal. This ceremony was shorter — four hours — and again Chambers was paraded around the town. “People then started to call me by my real name.”

His role began straight away. “People started to ask me questions.” Chambers was especially touched by an old lady that visited him daily. “She was poor, but she always brought me a gift, some African apples,” he remembers. For Igbo, the apple tree can be owned but not the fruit. “It was all that she could give me.”

Chambers’ research into the Igbo people has recently been published: “Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia” (University Press of Mississippi, 2005). The book looks at the involvement of the Igbo people in the early slave society of Virginia within the context of the murder of President James Madison’s grandfather, Ambrose, by his African slaves in 1732.

Chambers thinks about 60 percent of black Americans have at least one ancestor who was Igbo. He hopes his research will inspire Americans with African lineage to research their heritage.

If this is the case, Chambers’ chiefly authority may have wider impact than he originally thought.