Comprendre le ISUBU

 Joseph Merrick at an Isubu funeral in Cameroon 1845.                            





Total population Total: 800 (1982)[1]

Regions with significant populations Cameroon


Language Isu, Duala, Isu, Malimba, Mokpwe, Wumboko)

Religion Predominantly Christian and/or ancestor worshippers

Related ethnic groups Bakole, Bakweri, Bamboko, Duala, Limba, Mungo, Wovea

The Isubu (Isuwu, Bimbians) are an ethnic groups who inhabit part of the coast of Cameroon. Along with other coastal peoples, they belong to Cameroon's Sawa ethnic groups. They were one of the earliest Cameoonian peoples to make contact with Europeans, and over two centuries, they became influential traders and middlemen. Under the kings William I of Bimbia and Young King William, the Isubu formed a state called Bimbia.





Early population movements

The predominant Isubu oral history holds that the ethnic group hails from Mboko, the area southwest of Mount Cameroon.[2] Tradition makes them the descendants of Isuwu na Monanga, who led their migration to the west bank of the Wouri estuary. When a descendant of Isuwu named Mbimbi became king, the people began to refer to their territories as Bimbia.[3]



European contacts

Portuguese traders reached the Wouri estuary in 1472. Over the next few decades, more Europeans came to explore the estuary and the rivers that feed it, and to establish trading posts. The Isubu carved out a role for themselves as middlemen, trading ivory, kola nuts, and peppers from the interior. However, a major commodity was slaves, most bound for plantations on nearby islands such as Annobon, Fernando Po, Príncipe, and São Tomé.[4] By the 16th century, the Isubu were second only to the Duala in trade. The earliest Isubu merchants were likely chiefs or headmen.[5] Bimbia, the primary Isubu settlement, grew quickly.


Europeans traders did their best to support friendly chiefs against their rivals, adulating them with titles such as King, Prince, or Chief. In exchange, these indigenes offered trade monopolies to their patrons and sometimes ceded land.[citation needed] An Isubu chief named Bile became leader of the Isubu as King William, although Dick Merchant of Dikolo village and other chiefs eventually opposed his dominance.


British traders became the dominant European presence in the region by the mid-19th century, and the Crown used them to enforce abolition of the slave trade in the Gulf of Guinea. In 1844 and 1848, King William signed anti-slavery treaties. In exchange, the traders provided him with annual gifts of alcohol, guns, textiles, and other goods.[6] William was also asked to forbid practices the British viewed as barbaric, such as sacrificing a chief's wife upon his death.[7] With William's blessing, Bimbia became a haven for repatriated slaves and escapees from the illicit trade, which continued for many more years.


The British also endeavored to educate and Christianise the Bimbians.[8] King William rebuffed the earliest missionaries because he did not agree with their insistence on prayer and opposition to polygamy. In 1844, however, Joseph Merrick convinced William to let him open a church and school in Bimbia.[9] In 1858, the Spanish ousted Protestant missionaries from their base at Fernando Po. King William sold a portion of his domains to the missionary Alfred Saker, who then founded Victoria (today known as Limbe). By 1875, numerous missions and schools sprung up in Victoria and other settlements. Victoria came to be a mixture of freed slaves, working Cameroonians, and Christianised Cameroonians from the various coastal groups. Cameroonian Pidgin English began to develop at this time.


Isubu society was changed fundamentally by the European trade. European goods became status symbols, and some rulers appointed Western traders and missionaries as advisors. Large numbers of Isubu grew wealthy, leading to rising class tensions. Competition escalated between coastal groups and even between related settlements. Between 1855 and 1879, the Isubu alone engaged in at least four conflicts, both internal and with rival ethnic groups. Traders exploited this atmosphere, and beginning in 1860, German, French, and Spanish merchants had established contacts and weakened the British monopoly. The Duala had gained a virtual hegemony over trade through the Wouri estuary, and the Isubu had little power left. Young King William was virtually powerless when he succeeded his father in 1878.[10]



German administration

In July of 1884, the Isubu found themselves part of the German Empire after annexation by Gustav Nachtigal. Coastal territory became the heart of the new colony, but Bimbia and the Isubu lands had already passed their prime.


German arrival on the mainland meant that the coastal peoples' monopoly on trade had ended. Most Isubu turned to subsistence farming or fishing to survive.[citation needed] However, years of contact with Westerners and a high level of literacy had allowed a literate upper class of Isubu clerks, farmers, and traders to emerge in Victoria and Buea. This class were familiar with European law and conventions, which allowed them to pressure the German colonial government with petitions, legal proceedings, and special-interest groups to oppose unpopular or unfair policies.[11]



British administration

In 1918, Germany lost World War I, and her colonies became mandates of the League of Nations. The British became the new colonial rulers of Isubu lands. Great Britain integrated its portion of Cameroon with the neighbouring colony of Nigeria, setting the new province's capital at Buea. The British practiced a policy of indirect rule, entrusting greater powers to Bakweri and Isubu chiefs in Buea and Victoria. Chief Manga Williams of Victoria became one of two representatives to the Nigerian Eastern House of Assembly. He was succeeded by another Isubu, John Manga Williams.





Map showing the location of the various Duala ethnic groups of CameroonThe Isubu are primarily concentrated in the Fako division of Cameroon's Southwest Province. Their settlements lie largely along the coast or just inland, east of Limbe and west of Douala. They occupy the coast directly east of the Wovea, with their main settlement at Bimbia. The town of Limbe is a mixture of Isubu and other ethnic groups.




The Isubu today are divided into the urban and rural. Those who live in the cities earn a living at a number of skilled and unskilled professions. The rural Isubu work as fishermen and farmers, mostly at the subsistence level.




Isu is the Isubu language. In addition, many Isubu speak Duala or Mokpwe, the languages of the Duala and Bakweri respectively. Isu is part of the Bantu group of the Niger-Congo language family.[12]


In addition, individuals who have attended school or lived in an urban centre usually speak a European language. For some Isubu, this is French; for others, it is Cameroonian Pidgin English or standard English. A growing number of the Anglophones today grow up with Pidgin as their first tongue.[13]




The Isubu have been mostly Christianized since the 1930s. Evangelical denominations dominate, particularly the Baptist church. Nevertheless, remnants of a pre-Christian ancestor worship persist. Isubu belief states that the ancestors live in a parallel world and act as mediators between the living and God ("Jengu").[citation needed]




The Isubu participate in the annual Ngondo, a traditional festival of the Duala, although today all of Cameroon's coastal peoples are invited. The main focus is on communicating with the ancestors and asking them for guidance and protection for the future. The festivities also include armed combat, beauty pageants, pirogue races, and traditional wrestling.[14]




The Isubu are Bantu in language and origin. More narrowly, they fall into the Sawa, or the coastal peoples of Cameroon.




^ This is the number of Isu speakers as reported in Ethnologue. Most Isubu speak Mokpwe or Duala, so this number is misleading.

^ Fanso 50-1.

^ Fanso 51.

^ Fanso 68.

^ Fanso 73.

^ Fanso 73.

^ Austen and Derrick 66.

^ Austen and Derrick 67.

^ Fanso 102.

^ Elango 55.

^ Derrick 107.

^ "Isu", Ethnologue.

^ "Pidgin, Cameroon", Ethnologue.

^ Guide touristique 126.



Austen, Ralph A., and Derrick, Jonathan (1999): Middlemen of the Cameroons Rivers: The Duala and their Hinterland, c. 1600–c.1960. Cambridge University Press.

Chrispin, Dr. Pettang, directeur. Cameroun: Guide touristique. Paris: Les Éditions Wala.

Derrick, Jonathan (1990). "Colonial élitism in Cameroon: the case of the Duala in the 1930s". Introduction to the History of Cameroon in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Palgrave MacMillan.

Elango, Lovett Z. (1990). "Trade and diplomacy on the Cameroon coast in the nineteenth century, 1833–1879: the case of Bimbia." Introduction to the History of Cameroon in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Palgrave MacMillan.

Fanso, V. G. (1989). Cameroon History for Secondary Schools and Colleges, Vol. 1: From Prehistoric Times to the Nineteenth Century. Hong Kong: Macmillan Education Ltd.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.) (2005): "Isu". Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th ed. Dallas: SIL International. Accessed 6 June 2006.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.) (2005): "Pidgin, Cameroon". Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th ed. Dallas: SIL International. Accessed 6 June 2006.




Isubu/Bimbia Expressions and Phrases


The following thirteen phrases and expressions of the Isubu language spoken by the Bimbia people (Tiko sub-division in Fako division) originally appeared in the Isubu dictionary published by the Baptist mission in 1846-47. They were later included in," Wit and Wisdom from West Africa ; or A Book of Proverbial Philosophy, Idioms, Enigmas, and Laconisms", published in 1865 by Sir RICHARD F. BURTON, then British Consul for the Bight of Biafra and Fernando Po. The book was reprinted in 1969 by the Negro Universities Press of New York.

1. Edimo
An apparition or ghost of the dead.
N. B. The ideas of the Isubu, or Bimbia people, respecting "spirit," spiritual state, and life after death, are, as usual amongst Africans, vague in the extreme. They sometimes offer food and drink to the Bidimo (plural of Edimo), and by "Bidimo" they mean their dead friends and relatives. Sheol or Hades - the land of the Dead - is also elliptically called Bidimo ; the full phrase being "Ekombo ya Bidimo" (Country of the Dead), as opposed to "Ekombo ya Bawenya" (Land of the Living). Every person is said to go to Bidimo after death ; though the people have no definite ideas respecting future reward and punishment, they look upon it as an undesirable place. In the Dualla, or Camaroons dialect, the word Bidimo means apparitions, of which the Rev. Mr. Saker says, "Indistinctly, too, we trace Bidimo to the Sehirim of the Hebrews, and the fauns and other woodland deities of more modern days over whom Pan presided. Whatever may be the knowledge the natives possess of their own superstitions, there is no doubt as to the Panic which a supposed sight of 'Edimo' creates, nor the terror a mere report inspires. Sacrifices, too, are made to Edimo, who is supposed, in some way or the other, to preside over the wilderness and the farm, as Njengu presides over the waters." Finding no term for Hell, the missionaries Isubuized "Heli." For heaven, however, there is nothing better than "Loba," which means "the starry expanse."

2. Ilemba
P. N. of an evil spirit who, unless prevented by charms, has the power of injuring and killing people. Men and women are accused of possessing Ilemba, and must prove their innocence by a draught of the poison-water called "Kwabe." If this ordeal prove fatal, the accused are guilty ; if it is ejected, it is a sign of innocence. Almost every mishap, whether it relates to person or property, is attributed to the evil influence of Ilemba. It is the office of the Dikangga (or Diviner) to detect those possessed of this power, and the discovery is made by looking into a cup of water. Thousands of people from the interior will resort to a well-known diviner ; and the evils produced by this system of witchcraft can be understood only by referring to the state of Europe before the days of Wierus and his followers. One possessed by a demon is called "Motu was Ilemba" (a man of Ilemba - a devil-man). The ideas of the Isubus being also misty upon the subject of a "devil," the missionaries obliged them with "Devili;" opposed to "Obasi" - in the plural Baobasi - (God).

3. Mulu
The breath of the mouth ; opposed to "Wei," that of the stomach. "Wei" is that upon which life depends, - the breath of life (the Hebrew "Rauh," Arab "Ruh") ; consequently, Europeans use it as "spirit." When a person dies, the Isubus say, "Wei i mafatea" ("the life's breath is broken loose"). So the latins say, "Anima est qua vivimus, animus quo sapimus."

4. Molenga
Heart, - the word is used by translators for "conscience." Thus, "O sa beni molema o Dibungga:" literally, "Hast thou no heart in thy belly?" i.e., "Have you no conscience?"

5. Disua
A secret compact amongst the Isubus, entered into when some murderous or warlike deed is performed. The parties meet together in the woods, and, clearing a spot of weeds, sit down to take counsel. During the conference, a large pot is placed upon the fire, and in it a stone, which is supposed, superstitiously, to become, by cooking, as soft as plantain. The stone is then cut with a knife, and a small piece is swallowed by each person. Hence the idioms, "Ife disua" ("to cook disua") ; and, as Mimbo, or palm-wine, poured upon the ground, sometimes forms part of the ceremony, "Soa disua" ("to pour forth disua"). Each person of the council having swallowed his allowance, binds himself to do or to abet the deed proposed. Nothing but death nullifies the convenant ; and though years may elapse before the "dreadful thing" is effected, all consider themselves bound by an awful oath to carry out their design when opportunity offers. None but person of most approved character may take part in this council, nor are women and young people permitted to be present.

6. Dibombe
The name of a statute amongst the Isubu and through-out the adjacent districts. It originated in a dream. One Mofa ma Ile, a man residing in the Ekimbi district, inland and to the north of Bimbia, dreamed, some few years ago, that he saw a crowd of people long since dead. They warned him of the evil of taking away life unjustly, and told him that whenever a man committed murder (in another town) he was to be apprehended by the people of his own town, and delivered up to be hanged. On the other hand, if he escaped, his innocent relatives and friends were not, according to the old custom of the country, to be destroyed. Also, if one man wounded another, the offender himself, and not his family, was subject to the lex talionis. After the vision, Mofa assembled the Bushmen from the surrounding district, and related to them what he had seen : hence arose the law called "Dibombe," which has had a salutary influence in checking manslaughter.

7. Jienggu, or Njengu
The name of the deity who is venerated by the free men of Isubu. He is said by the missionaries to have, in many respects, the same rank at Isubu that Neptune held in Rome. He is a water-god, walking with feet reversed from the human position - the toes behind. Sacrifices are made to him : these and other incantations often precede fishing operations. There is an initiation in his name, and the brotherhood meet in neat little huts built outside the villages. Women are also eligible, but not slaves. Those who were being initiated wear about their necks and waists the herb Mbouggolu, which is used as a tea in bowel complaints : hence, a child born during the initiation of its mother, is called "Mokutu wa Mbouggolu." These children are supposed often to die of dropsy ; hence that disease is called "Nyambe na Jienggu."

8. Motu a Nggangga
A cunning man, i.e., a doctor. Amongst the Isubu, as with the Egyptians, those who practise the healing art are called after the diseases which form their specialties. They think - and with great truth - that one brain is incompetent to comprehend the multifarious diseases of the human frame. Hence, there are at Isubu, "Batu ba bola ekosseri," or cough doctors ; "Batu ba bola betanda," or worm doctors ; "Batu ba bola dibumbi," or dropsy doctors ; and so forth. The latter disease seems very prevalent. Besides the name above given, it is called, in the case of children, "Nyambe ya ewake" (the baboon's disease), on account of the supposed resemblance of the sufferer to that hideous animal.

9. Moesi
Mid-day. The Isubus do not divide the day into hours but into three epochs called "Idiba," "Moesi," and "Ebia moko." The term "Epoke" (Plural "Bepoke") denotes the space of time which one of these three divisions contains. Thus, the early hours of the day - our morning - would be called "Epoke ya Idiba bunya" (the morning division). From 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. it would be "Epoke ya moesi," or simply "Moesi" (light), as this noon division includes the brightest hours of the day. From 4 p.m. till night is called "Epoke ya ebia-moko" (the evening division). The missionaries have been compelled to introduce "Eora" (an hour).

10. Itambo
Chewed food generally. The sort is specified by an affix, as "Itambo la meke" (chewed plantain). The unclean custom of chewing food, and feeding children with it, is universally practised at Bimbia.

11. Sombo ya mbori
A goat with long hair. Amongst the islanders of Bimbia a person that does not possess a goat of this description, is not allowed to put his harp on his shoulder whilst playing it ; he must hold it down, or put it on his knees, and pay a fine for transgressing the rule.

12. Ba tia Nggondo or Ba taku Nggondo
They beat or shell the Uggondo-seed.
N.B. - Meaning the Pleiades [i.e., a cluster of stars - ed.]. "Uggondo" is a small white seed, like that of an orange, but flatter, the kernel of which has been eaten, when the outer shell has been beaten or picked off. It would seem that the Pleiades present, to the minds of the Isubus, the idea of the shell of the Uggondo beaten and scattered over the ground.

13. Di bi 'ma itaki l'akai o ifula iyokise la inona, ngerri, i aka ilanga
We think that poverty surpasses in desire the torments of covetousness beyond computation. (Less literally, "We think poverty infinitely desirable compared with the torments of covetousness).

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