In 1909, an expeditionary force of British explorers led by geologist Albert Ernest Kitson stumbled upon what might have been the most resounding discovery of 20th century Igbo history. In a mineral-rich valley of land in northern Igboland occupied by the Nike and Udi peoples, the group had discovered coal: the crucial natural resource which powered their contemporary, industrialized world. The region was assessed to have an estimated 72 million tons of the much-sought-after resource (the largest in West Africa, aside from that in the North), and after much negotiations, the British signed a contract with the local landowners and acquired the land, laying the foundations for the town of Enugwu—which is known in the Igbo language as “the hilltop”. By 1916, a nearly 150-mile rail network was built to transport coal from Enugu Coal Camp to the sea at Port Harcourt, a port settlement that had been built for this sole purpose, from where it would be shipped to Lagos and various other destinations. The railway directly catalyzed the emergence of other towns such as Aba-Ngwa and Umuahia, which sat on its route, and attracted numerous adventure-seekers and young, employment-seeking men to the mines.
At first, the mines were worked solely by local indigenes, but as demand for labor quickly outgrew availability, the British imported miners from other Igbo-speaking areas, who in-turn attracted legions of market-women and traders. By 1938, Enugu had been made the administrative capital of Eastern Nigeria and boasted a population of ten thousand, which would swell exponentially to sixty thousand just twelve years later.
As promising as it was, life in the mines was gruesome. For the most part, miners were crowded into poorly-built government-owned housing facilities and conditions were deplorable and dangerous: mine pits were hot, suffocating and unsafe, wages were low, and work accidents and mishaps occurred far too regularly. As if things weren’t bad enough, competition was fierce. The surfeit of eager, able-bodied migrant workers made colonial officials indifferent to the pleas and demands of miners, and in 1945, Enugu’s coal miners followed