Onitsha, port and market town in Anambra state, southern Nigeria. The town lies on the east bank of the Niger River just south of its confluence with the Anambra River. Founded by adventurers from Benin (nearby, to the west) in the early 17th century, it grew to become the political and trading centre of the small Igbo (Ibo) kingdom of Onitsha. Its monarchical system (rare among the Igbo people) was patterned after that of Benin. An Onitsha obi (“king”) negotiated in 1857 with William Balfour Baikie, a British trader, for the establishment of a British trading post in the town.
William Balfour Baikie, (born Aug. 27, 1825, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scot.—died Dec. 12, 1864, Sierra Leone), explorer and philologist whose travels into Nigeria helped open up the country to British trade.
Educated in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Baikie entered the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon in 1848 and served on several ships as well as on land (1851–54). In 1854 he joined an expedition up the Niger River and, on the death of the ship’s captain, took command of the expedition. With a crew made up chiefly of Africans, he explored the Benue River, the main tributary of the Niger, penetrating 250 miles (400 km) farther than any European had before. He published his Narrative of this expedition in 1856.
In 1857, with the rank of consul, Baikie embarked on another Niger expedition, but his steamer was wrecked in rapids. At Lokoja, where the Benue joins the Niger, he founded a trading settlement, where he practiced medicine, compiled African vocabularies, and translated parts of the Bible into the Hausa language. In 1862 he ventured some 250 miles northward to Kano.
Onitsha remains the chief entrepôt for goods coming upstream from the Niger River delta and those transported downstream from towns on the Niger and Benue rivers. Roads lead to the town from Enugu and Owerri, and the completion in 1965 of the 4,606-foot (1,404-metre) bridge across the Niger River to Asaba provides Onitsha with a direct road link to Benin City and Lagos. Palm oil and kernels are the most important local exports, but yams, cassava (manioc), corn (maize), citrus fruits, palm produce, rice, taro, fish, and beef also are traded in the Onitsha market. The market building, one of the largest in Nigeria, was destroyed in 1968 in the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70), but it was rebuilt.
The town is the site of the Roman Catholic Holy Trinity Cathedral (1935) and the Anglican All Saints Cathedral (1952). Its oldest secondary schools, including the Dennis Memorial Grammar School (1925; Anglican), St. Charles Teacher Training College (1929; Roman Catholic), and Christ the King College (1933; Roman Catholic), are noted for their academic excellence. Onitsha is also known for the annual Ofala Festival, which honours the obi.
Onitsha’s industries include tire retreading, sawmilling, printing, and soft-drink bottling. A textile plant is located on an industrial estate south of the town near the bridge. Pop. (2006) local government area, 261,604.