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(PART 7 – EPILOGUE Section 3)

“Between Orok Edem and Theophilus Danjuma”
continued from

  June 21, 2003


And, now we come to the aspect of the Minister’s speech that upset Orok Edem and provoked his rejoinder, which in turn set the stage for this investigational epilogue.    Many others have since sent in e-mails echoing his complaints.


General Danjuma said,


a.      “The following Nigerian Navy Barracks are to be renamed as follows:




(3) NNS URHIAPELE - Nigerian Navy Engineering College (NNEC) Sapele

(4) NNS KAMANU - Nigerian Navy Finance and Logistic School (NNFLS) Owerrinta

(5) NNS AKASO - Nigerian Navy Basic Training School (NNBTS) Onne




(9) Naval Medical Centre - Obisesan Naval Medical Centre, Apapa Mobil Road, Apapa”






Let me begin my commentary by clarifying the meaning and significance of each affected name:










NNS Olokun  (Naval Operational Base at Apapa, Lagos)

The waters of the Atlantic in which the Navy’s western Naval command operates have been known for centuries as the “Bight of Benin.”  In ancient Benin mythology/ cosmology, Olokun was the God of the Sea (regarded as a Goddess in certain jurisdictions outside Benin). [Equivalent to Poseidon, Greek God of the Sea, brother of Zeus.] Certain Yoruba subgroups celebrate Olokun as "owner of the sea", a spirit of the Ocean linked to Yemoja. Olokun is also acknowledged in Cuba and Brazil.


According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, the port of Lagos Island (known as ‘Eko’ meaning “Prisoner of War camp” in Edo language, was founded by Benin warriors in the 15th/16th century (specifically Oba Orhogbua, son of Esigie).  Orhogbua’s son, Ehengbuda (circa 1578 AD), died during a naval expedition to Eko (later renamed Lagos, after the Portuguese phrase Lago di Kuramo.)


Indeed, according to a UN website, “The original settlers of Lagos, or Eko as it is called by the indigenous population, were of Benin and Awori Eko heritage. The city began in the fifteenth century as a Portuguese trading post exporting ivory, peppers, and slaves. It subsequently fell into the hands of the British….“


Olokun is also the traditional Edoid name (from time immemorial) for the Ethiope River, which was renamed “Ethiope” by John Beecroft in 1840 in memory of his Steamer the Ethiope.


Based in Fernando Po, John Beecroft later became the British Consul of the Bight of Biafra from 30 Jun 1849 - 10 Jun 1854. It was as the Consul of the Bight of Biafra, encouraged by missionaries at Badagry and eager to control Lagos-Ibadan trade, that he bombarded Lagos into submission in December 1851. The political cover was a request by ex-Oba Akitoye to help him regain the throne from his rival, the Portuguese backed Oba Kosoko, who had earlier refused to sign a so-called anti-slavery trade agreement with Britain. The UK later annexed it (by threat of force) in 1861.

Edoid, Yoruba, African Diaspora in the Americas

NNS Umalokun (Naval operational base in Warri)

From Umale Okun,  meaning Masquerade/ Spirit/ Deity of the Sea or River


NNS Urhiapele (Naval Logistics Base at Sapele)

Traditional Urhobo name for “Sapele”. According to A. Salubi, Sapele ‘is the European rendering of
"Urhiapele" which is the Urhobo name for the village.
It is a combination of two words "Urhie" and "Apele".
"Urhie" means river or stream, and "Apele" was the
name of the Juju of the Urhobo owners of the village.
"Urhiapele", therefore, means the "River or Stream of
the juju, Apele". ‘


NNS Kamanu (Naval Finance and Logistic School, Owerrinta, near Aba, in Ngwa area of Abia State)


Deity of Thunder and Lightning (Also called Kamalu or Amadioha in some Igbo dialects. Great dispenser of justice.)


Incidentally “Kamanu” is a local Hawaiian name for a species of Fish called the Rainbow Runner.


NNS Akaso (located at Borokiri, near Port Harcourt, a naval training and Hydrographic school base)

Sea Goddess or Deity


NNS Onura (Naval Basic Training School, Onne, near Port Harcourt. Formerly a 4-year Nigerian Naval College Onura at Onne Eleme

 leading to commission as sub-Lt)

Sea/River Deity


NNS Anansa (Naval operational base in Calabar)

Named after Anansa ikang obutong, one of several sea deities (Ndem) of Calabar, specific to the location of the Base.



NNS Okemini (Eastern Naval Command Operational Base near Port Harcourt)

A large body of water or Sea


Naval Medical Center, Apapa


Not applicable. Renamed after a distinguished and pioneering  former Naval physician







However, the following Shore establishments were unaffected:






NNS Quorra (Training Ship/facility, also at the Naval Base, specifically Harbour road, Apapa. Also houses a computer school.)


Named after the “Quorra”, a British steam ship owned by the Birkenhead firm of shipbuilders, fitted out in Liverpool and under the orders of R. Sanders & Co. Laird MacGregor used the ship for a commercial expedition to the River Niger in 1832, 1833, and 1834. The sister steam ship that took part in that expedition was known as the “Alburkah “. Among those who accompanied Laird on that journey was Richard Lander, who, along with his brother, had earlier used a canoe to reach the mouth of the River Niger in Nov. 1830, from Bussa.


“River Quorra” is also a geographic feature (see next column)


“Quorra”, is a former African (ancient Egyptian) name for the River Niger – before it was renamed “Niger” by the Greeks.  In other local dialects Quorra is also written and pronounced as ‘Kwari’, ‘Kwarra’, ‘Kwara’, ‘Kworra‘ etc… (as in Kwara State)




Navy Town, Ojo (NNS Ojo, later NNS Wey)


(Huge complex encompassing Navy Helicopter Squadron, Naval Hospital, Navy Secondary School, Navy Underwater Warfare School, at Ojo village, near Lagos)

Name retained.  Renamed after Rear Admiral Joseph Edet Akinwale Wey, 1st indigenous Chief of Naval Staff and civil wartime Naval Commander.


Not applicable. Ojo was the name of the geographic location.

Nigerian Navy Supply School, Calabar



Not applicable

Nigerian Navy Technical Training Centre (Engineering College), Sapele



Not applicable



It is usually difficult to construct a counter-argument against an unknown argument.  The MOD left few clues as to why it took it upon itself to change the names of nearly all Naval Shore facilities.  However, based on the initial terms of reference given to the committee, and the ministerial declaration that “All names of barracks in existence during the colonial era up to the Nigerian Civil War shall be retained “ one can draw some preliminary conclusions.


It may be surmised that the initial rationale for the change of NNS Olokun (in particular) is that it used be known as NNS Beecroft before the civil war. It continued to be known as NNS Beecroft until the Shehu Shagari regime (1979-83). A reliable source hinted that then Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral Akin Aduwo (rtd) got the approval to change the name to NNS Olokun.  Apparently the name change ceremony took place on the same day that the former flagship, NNS Nigeria, became the NNS Obuma.  Those changes heralded the consolidation of an era in which various indigenous Nigerian languages became standard for naming Nigerian warships by a variety of other names, as a supplement to “Town Class” boats.


If this assumption is correct, then it is possible that once NNS Olokun was changed to its previous colonial name, it brought the entire group of “Olokun Class” shore facilities into focus.  This would mean that similar shore bases named after traditional coastal Nigerian deities of the sea became vulnerable.  Such an outcome may have transpired either because an effort was being made to avoid appearing to be singling out “Olokun” or because the committee or the Minister or the C-in-C, singly or jointly, were misguided by other considerations, known and unknown.


Nigeria's navy was formally created by an act of the British Parliament out of the old Nigerian Marine Department (NMD) in 1958, two years after its men and boats were consolidated into an embryonic naval entity.  The NMD was itself the result of a merger of the northern and southern marine detachments in 1914.    In 1964, independent Nigeria formalized the role of the Navy by an Act of Parliament.  


The question of whether ‘Beecroft’ is even an appropriate name for a Nigerian Naval Base is open to debate – whether or not it existed in colonial times, perhaps inherited from the NMD.  I did write in one of my previous articles that ‘In my view, names inherited from the colonial era “that have now been abandoned” should be revived – as long as the colonial names did not supplant already established pre-colonial names, if any.‘  Later on during this essay, I shall answer the question, “Who was Beecroft”?  In that summary it will be evident that the name “Olokun” precedes Beecroft in the naval and maritime history of Lagos and the history of the so called “Ethiope” river which was one of his claims to fame.  Suffice it to say, for now, that “Beecroft” is not the name of an ‘important battle or campaign where Nigerian Armed Forces participated’, and thus, even by colonial standards it is an unusual name for a military base in British Nigeria.  The resurrection of that name is akin to Ghana deciding to change the “Burma” camp in Accra to “Giffard” camp.  Furthermore, Beecroft does not meet the standard we have set for indigenous Nigerian individuals after whom bases can only be named post-humously ‘for purely military professional excellence.’  


The new guiding principle appears to be that “Naval bases are to be named after geographical features or to reflect technical duties performed at the bases.  They may also be named after deceased personnel who contributed immensely to the development of the Nigerian Navy.”    What is unclear is whether, other then colonially bequeathed names, the ‘new principle’ is without exception, preceded the changes or came after, since the MOD did not explain its thinking. For example, the announced criteria for “Army Barracks” did not include geographical features, and yet two prominent Army Barracks in Abuja were named after geographic entities – the River Niger and the Mambilla Plateau.  That leaves its actions with respect to the Naval bases open to all sorts of interpretation, not to mention the hurt feelings of many coastal minority nationalities.


“Okemini”, for example, in Ikwerre means a “large body of water or sea or ocean”.   Is that not a geographic feature?  The Ethiope River in the western Niger-delta used to be known locally as the “Olokun” River.  Is ‘Olokun’ not, therefore, also a geographic feature?   That the names are indigenous certainly cannot justify their being changed, in a country where all surface naval vessels have local names, the Army’s motto is written in Arabic type Ajemi letters (character), internal security operations go by names like Operation ‘Hakiru I’ and ‘Hakiru II’ or Operation ‘Anansa’ etc.  The word ‘Hakiru’ means “patience” in Hausa. The village of Odi was destroyed during Operation Hakiru II. 


Based on the foregoing, barring hypocrisy, the issue was unlikely to merely be a question of language.  What then?  Readers have pilloried me with questions.  Did someone think African deities are not a credible source of professional military or naval names?  Were naval operations or professionalism undermined by the names?  Was this a power statement by a few Christian and Islamic fundamentalists eager to liquidate the primordial African template of our people?  Was it a power statement linked to the onshore-offshore dispute between some ‘ethnic minority’ States and the Federal Government?


Fascinating as these unproved hypotheses may be, they will not constitute the primary thrust of my analysis because the government has not actually explained its motivation beyond issues of military professionalism.




What is the process for naming Naval Ships in other countries?


It is important to consider this angle because those who recommended the recent changes in Nigeria are all former Army Officers – assuming the idea originated at committee level. There was no Naval or ex-Naval member of the committee. The Chiefs of Naval and Defence Staff, (both of whom were Naval Officers at the time) probably had an opportunity to make input.  This could have been to the Committee or at Defence Council level, assuming it was actually discussed in that setting and that they had a free hand to do so once the preferences of their political masters became known.  However, as noted by a reader, there was no representation of the south-south coastal minority states at committee or ministerial level. Lastly, there was no publicized parliamentary input in the process and the general public had no opportunity to make contributions at formal hearings or by invitation.  The latter oversight, in my opinion, was an error because it denied the MOD an opportunity to get buy-in at a time it was projecting itself as an agent of improved civil-military relations.


In the United Kingdom, there is a ‘Ships’ Names and Badges Committee (SNBC)’ which meets several times a year.  It has permanent as well as ad-hoc members.  The Head of the Naval Historical Branch represents the Controller of the Navy as the Chairman. The secretary is the Admiralty Librarian.  Other permanent members are the senior Regional Naval Officer, as well as the Norroy and Ulster King of Arms, said to be the naval adviser on heraldry. From time to time ad-hoc members are brought in.  For example, if the ship to be named is a submarine, the office of Rear Admiral (Submarines) will be asked to send a representative. The Controller initiates the process.  Based on guidance from the First Sea Lord and Admiralty Board he gives the SNBC a theme, or “Ship Class”.  An initial list of many names is generated from multiple sources, including the public. It is then narrowed down by the SNBC (based on numerous considerations) to a short list, submitted through the Controller, the First Sea Lord and Defence ministers, to the Queen for approval. The process is open.  The public is encouraged to send suggestions to the Chairman of the Ships’ Names and Badges Committee (Head of the Naval Historic Branch), 3-5 Great Scotland Yard, Whitehall, London SW1A 2HW. By tradition, once approved by the Queen, the name of a ship or base is not open to change by the whim of some future government.


In the United States, Navy ship naming traditions have evolved over the years. Congress authorizes the three ceremonial occasions associated with keel laying, launch and christening, and final commissioning.  It was on the basis of an original 1819 act of Congress that the Navy Secretary got the authority to name Naval Ships.  The Law does not now set the sources of names in stone – although it used to be so at one time. It has evolved, based on traditions and exigencies – and the Navy Secretary keeps Congress informed, sometimes asking for permission to make unusual changes to established principle. The process begins at the level of the Naval Historical Center, which compiles a list of names (based on suggestions from active duty sailors, ex-Navy veterans, as well as the public).  The names are then sent through the Chief of Naval Operations to the Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary combines the submitted names with those he has received from multiple other sources, and then makes the final selection.    Carriers are typically (but not always) named after very famous men, old Naval Ships or historic battles.  Cruisers are usually (but not always) named after cities.  Submarines are often (but not always) named after sea creatures and famous men, while destroyers are typically (but not always) named after heroic servicemen and women and former Secretaries of the Navy. 




What is the connection between ancient deities and modern naval forces?




Before proceeding with a general discourse of amphibious deities and modern naval forces, let me comment on NNS Kamanu, since the Igbo deity of thunder (and justice) concerned is not amphibious. Some may wonder what the name “Kamanu” has to do with the Navy – other than the typically superficial Nigerian observation that some of the most senior Igbo officers in Nigerian naval history come from the area Kamanu is known. 


First I shall show below that deities of thunder have indeed been used in naming warships of western countries (such as the American naval ships USS Thor and USS Zeus).  Secondly, maritime history teaches us that the Vikings (of modern Denmark, Sweden and Norway), were the greatest military seafarers at one time, taking Europe by storm between 800 and 1050 A.D. when they carried out numerous amphibious landings on distant beaches in vast naval armadas – without the aid of compasses.  They even discovered North America before Columbus, touching down circa 985-1000 AD in what is now known as Newfoundland. 


Also known as the Norsemen, their type of warfare (and origin of the word “Viking”) was called "go a-viking."  Vik in Norse means "harbor" or "bay."  Mythology was a key element of Viking military doctrine and was a huge factor in the risks they were willing to take out in the open uncharted seas without compasses.  The chief god of the Vikings was called Odin.  He was in charge of Valhalla, the warrior's heaven. Death in battle was considered the highest form of honor.  Indeed, only by death during war could a Norseman gain entry into Valhalla.  The Norse god of Thunder was known as Thor.  He was a war god and patron god of Viking warriors, hence the connection of the “god of Thunder” to the heritage of modern naval forces.


Sailors, Myths and Superstition


Deities and myths are as old as mankind. Historically, deities (predating Christianity and Islam) have existed since time immemorial in numerous cultures all over the world.  For example, certain deities are believed to govern sporting/competitive events.   Better known examples include Apollo, the Greek god of Archery, after which an entire series of American Space Rockets (aimed at the moon) were named and Nike, the Greek god of Victory, after which a highly successful American Sports shoe company is named.  Victoria, the Greek goddess of Victory is a commonly used name all over the world.  In Africa, Anyigba is a Togolese goddess of Hunting, as are Atida of Uganda, and Dorina and Kyanwa of Nigeria.  Coti and Wagadu are also African Goddesses of prowess and hunting.   Ogun (as in Ogun State and Ogun River) is the Yoruba god of Iron, War and Hunting.   Ogun is also an Edo god of iron and war.


Internationally well known gods and goddesses of War include Mars (Roman) – after whom the month of March (Martius) and the common name ‘Martin’ is derived. In other cultures he is known as Vulcan (Roman), Ares (Greek and Spartan), Bishamonten (Buddhist), Tyr (Norse), Begtse (Mongolian), Laran (Etruscan), Maahes  (Egyptian), Ab Kin Xoc (Mayan), Ain/Aine (Irish), Kuang Yu  (Chinese), Attar  (Saudi Arabia), Adrastea (British), Aruna (Hindu), Futsu-Nushi-No-Kami (Japan), Amaterasu (Japan), Neto (Iberia) etc.  Ashtar, Beher, Meder and Mahrem were Ethiopian Gods of war.  Other African gods of war include Shango (Yoruba), Isango (Edo), Econg (Ibibio), Bo (Ewe), Ilankaka (Zaire), Iruwa (Kenya), Muhingo (Bunyoro), Kibuka (Buganda), Na (Ngutu), Nyambe (Zambia) etc.


Sailors are by nature highly superstitious.  Those who have never sailed the high seas or gone to its depths simply cannot understand the way sailors think. Their customs and traditions (all over the world) are very old and deep. Sailors generally regard changing the names of their ships and facilities as a bringer of bad luck – unless elaborate precautions are undertaken.  Those interested in more information about maritime customs can read more about it at To whistle on a ship, start a voyage on a Friday, bring a black bag aboard, kill a sea-gull, porpoise or albatross, use the word “drown”, etc is considered ill omen.   Even ceremonial gun salutes like the 21-gun salute, which originated in antiquity, are always fired using an odd number of shots (eg 19 or 21) because of an ancient naval superstition about even numbers.  If one was to hear an approaching ship fire a gun salute with an even number of shots, it implies that the Ship’s captain is dead.


Sea deities in particular are very dear to sailors. The word “Ocean” comes from the Greek sea-god Oceanus, son of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaea (Earth).  The word “Marine” comes from “Mari” an ancient Roman goddess of the sea.  Marine means ‘Mari’s house’.  Other terms like ‘Maritime’ are also derived from “Mari.”   In Space terminology, the lava "seas" on the Moon are called ‘Maria’, after ‘Mari’.


In fact many other English words in daily usage derive from ancient myths.  The days of the week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, for example, come from Tiw, Odin and Thor – all gods of war in ancient pantheons.   Mexico (a Catholic country) is named after the Aztec war god. Nemesis is the Greek goddess of Retribution. Leicester in England is named after Lir, a mythical god.


In Greek mythology, the chief god of the sea is called Poseidon, known in Roman pantheon as Neptune. Zeus, Pluto and Poseidon were all brothers who dethroned their father, Kronos, and shared his jurisdiction. Poseidon took the sea.  His weapon was the Trident.  Poseidon is known in Hindu as Kasyapa and in Hebrew as Sidon.   In western civilization, his Roman counterpart (Neptune) is often referred as the inventor of Horse racing because according to tradition, he turned himself into a stallion to woo the goddess Demeter when she became a mare.


The national flag of the independent island of Barbados contains a broken Trident said to belong to the Roman mythical sea god Neptune (Poseidon).   The original seal of the British colony of Barbados had a complete Trident.   When the country became independent, the shaft of the colonial Trident was broken to illustrate its separation from Britain.


In Africa, the ancient Ethiopians (called Axumites), who were at one time the pre-eminent naval power in Africa, dominating the Red Sea, the Indian Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, also worshipped Poseidon. Lake Tritonis in the Libyan Desert was named after Triton, the son of Poseidon.


Other amphibious gods and goddesses include Lir alias Llyr Llediarth, the Celtic god of the Sea, Manannan Mac Lir, the sea-deity of Ireland, Tethys, Titan wife of Oceanus also called Thallassa, fish-mother and creator of all sea life, Oannes, Babylonian Sea god, Nereus, an ancient Greek Sea god, Amphitrite, an ancient Greek goddess of the Aegean Sea, Cybele of Asia Minor, also known as the "Magna Mater", or the great queen mother goddess, a concept that evolved into Catholic Mariology, Fuxi of China, said to have founded Chinese civilization around 3,322BC  and Yu-qiang, Chinese God of the sea (also the four dragon kings/gods of rain and the sea,  Ao Chin,Ao Jun, Ao Kuang and Ao Shun).   To the list can be added Tien-Hou - the Chinese Ocean goddess, Matsu – of Taiwan,  Nammu – a  Sumerian sea goddess, Aphrodite – a Greek goddess of the Sea, Aneta - a Celtic water goddess, Aufruvva – a Finnish (Saami) mermaid goddess, Vishnu – a Hindu god-man who was half-man, half-fish, Wata-tsu-mi, Ryo-Wo, Susanowo and Suitengu – all Japanese sea gods, Benten - the Japanese Queen of the Sea, Sedna - the Inuit Sea goddess of Alaska, Rusalka and Vodyany, Russian female and male water spirits, Bangputys (meaning "He who blows the waves”) – the Lithuanian god of the sea, and Anky-Keleis - the god of the sea among the Chukchi of eastern Siberia.  Sjora is a Swedish sea goddess and, as previously noted, Mari, the Roman Goddess of the Sea. Galatea, Thetis, Triton, Calypso, Proteus, Orion etc were all lesser gods and goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology. 


In Africa, Farr Ingmo is the river deity of the Ga of Ghana. The phrase ‘Eze nwaanyi Mmili’ is used among some Igbo of Nigeria as well areas of Ghana. Susu is one of the languages spoken in Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.  "River goddess" is called "Kuyeh Badu" in that dialect.   The river spirits Adroanzi were children of the Adroa of the Lugbara tribe of Zaire and Uganda.  In other parts of Africa there are sea/river deities like Agwe, Banga ( Ngbandi of northern Zaire), Domfe (Kurumba), Faro (Bambara of Mali), Kalunga (Congo, Angola), Mami Wata, Mamlambo (Zulu), and Mugasha (Bazabi). 



Examples from Nigeria include Ndem, the Efik goddess of Water.  Gunuko is a Nupe deity still worshipped in Brazil to this day.  Among the Yoruba there are Olorun (Supreme), Olokun (waters), Yemoja (waters), Osun (as in Osun State) etc. Yemoja is the mother of waters known as Imanji or Yemanji in Brazilian Macumba and Yemaya in Cuba. Brazilian Umbandists regard Yemaja as the patron saint of shipwrecked victims.  Olokun lives in a huge underwater palace served by both humans and fish.  Chukwu is supreme among the Igbo.  The riverain Igbo Spirit of the rivers is called Imo miri (or Mmuo Mmili) but it goes by many other names in various dialects.   For example, it is called "Onishe " in Asaba dialect.   The traditional Igala name for the river deity is Alijenu (or Ajenu in some parts.) Olukun is the river deity among the Okpe of Delta State.  It is also called Anansa in Efik, Onura in Eleme, Akaso in Kalabari, Benikurukuru in Ijaw (certain dialects) and Umalokun in Itsekiri.  Among the Edo, Osalobua is the Supreme Deity while Olokun is the god of the Sea and Wealth.  Olokun worship is derived from the Iso religion of the ancient proto-Edoid Ogiso era.  It is common to virtually all Edoid groups in the country.


Western Navies, mythical gods and goddesses


In his concluding remarks, the Minister said he hoped the renaming process would help re-establish “professionalism” in the Armed Forces.   I wondered, therefore, if it was unusual for a highly professional western Navy to name its ships after mythological entities or engage in traditional ceremonies of ancient mythical origin.     





Since the United Kingdom originally created the Royal Nigerian Navy, her ship naming practices are of academic interest as the former colonial power.


As an introduction, let me quickly debunk the notion that shore establishments cannot bear the names of ships.  In the United Kingdom, British Naval Shore Establishments for Training include BRNC Dartmouth, HMS Raleigh, HMS Excellent, HMS Collingwood, HMS Dryad, HMS Sultan and HMS Temeraire.


The HMS Dryad offers training in Maritime warfare, Underwater Warfare, Mine Warfare, Maritime Trade, Applied Oceanography and Meteorology, Navigation, Point Defence Weapon Systems and Ceremonial training.   The word “Dryad” is derived from Greek mythology. It refers to wood nymphs – lesser goddesses in the Greek pantheon.  (Interestingly, the HMS Temeraire, which houses the Royal Navy Physical Training Center, is derived from the name of a small French ship that was captured off the coast of Lagos in 1759.)


The HMS Neptune was a British battleship cruiser during World War 2. The HMS Poseidon was a British submarine that operated in the China Sea until 1931.  Neptune and Poseidon are Roman and Greek gods of the sea respectively.  Other Royal Naval Ships named after Greek myths, gods and goddesses include the submarine H.M.S. Thetis  (mother of Archilles), HMS Thermopylae, HMS Bellona (Roman goddess of war), and HMS Erebus (Greek son of Chaos).  Also included are HMS Doris (Greek sea nymph), HMS Hercules (Greek strongman that performed the 12 great labours), and the former aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Greek messenger and herald of the gods).   Indeed, an entire Leander class of Frigates was named after HMS Leander (the young man who drowned while visiting Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite).  These include HMS Aurora (Roman goddess of the dawn), HMS Euryalus, HMS Sirius, HMS Andromeda, HMS Scylla, HMS Phoebe, HMS Argonaut, HMS Cleopatra, HMS Arethusa, HMS Diomede, HMS Apollo, HMS Achilles, HMS Ariadne (the woman who helped Theseus escape from the labyrinth) etc.  Other ships named after myths include HMS Polyphemus (the cyclops who temporarily imprisoned Odysseus before he was blinded), and the HMS Daedulus among others. 


Be that as it may, the most interesting aspect (from the point of view of this article) of British Naval Tradition is the “initiation” called the “Crossing of the Line Ceremony.”  A Marine Corps dictionary describes it as,

“An allegorical ceremony performed aboard ship whenever the ship crosses a navigational line such as the equator or into another ocean. Very colorful and usually involves an initiation of those who have never crossed the line before”


It originated in the days of the Vikings and is still practiced in the British, Canadian and US Navies among many others (including Nigeria). In the maritime world, the line in question is usually the Equator.  But the Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn, Cape of Good Hope, International Date Line or the Arctic may be involved if it represents a transition to previously unexplored waters.   Sailors who have previously been initiated (a.k.a. shellbacks) assume the roles of King Neptune, Queen Amphitrite, the Royal Baby, the Royal Barbers, the Royal Constables, and lesser sea entities like the Tritons.  They then initiate new sailors (a.k.a. wogs).  In this manner the new sailors are deemed to have performed essential rites of passage when crossing certain parallels, straits and narrow passages in the oceans and seas of the world.


During the ‘summons’, the following passage, which was used aboard the HMS New Zealand in 1919, is typical:


The Equator.


Neptune, by the grace of Mythology Lord of the Waters, Sovereign of all Oceans, Governor and Lord High Admiral of the Bath, etc.


Whereas it has pleased Us to convene a Court to be holden on board His Majesty's Ship " New Zealand, " on the upper deck thereof, at the hour of 9.30 a.m.


By these presents We summon you …….……………(name) to appear at the said Court to tender Us the usual homage, and to be initiated into the mystic rites according to the ancient usages of Our Kingdom.


Hereof nor you, nor any of you may fail, as you will answer at your peril, and to the delight of Our trusty Bodyguard.


Given at Our Court on the Equator this Eighth day of May, in the year One thousand nine hundred and nineteen of Our Watery Reign.


I have it on authority that this ceremony is conducted on Nigerian naval Ships whenever they cross the equator.  In fact a certificate – signed by “Neptune” - is issued to commemorate the occasion.  A senior Nigerian Naval officer who once acted as “Neptune” described the ceremony to me.  For all practical intents and purposes he was acting as “Olokun” or “Umalokun” or “Akaso” or “Onura” or “Anansa” and did not seem the least bothered by it. 




The US Navy is certainly the most powerful and probably the most professional Naval Force in the world.   I wondered, therefore, what attitude this ‘highly professional’ Navy which is “reprofessionalizing” the Nigerian Navy had toward sea myths, gods and goddesses.


US Navy Submarine Insignia

The official insignia of the United States Navy Submarine Service has Dolphins on it.  According to an authoritative source, "The submarine insignia, adopted in March 1924, is a bow view of a submarine proceeding on the surface with bow planes rigged for diving, flanked by dolphins in horizontal position with their heads resting on the upper edge of the bow planes. The dolphins on this insignia are symbolic of a calm sea and are the traditional attendants of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea.....Regardless of the color of the pin or the insignia at the center, dolphins are worn with pride by members of the Submarine Force "


'Operation Neptune'

"Operation Neptune" was the naval component of the invasion of Europe - via Normandy - during WW2.  Neptune is the Roman equivalent of Poseidon, god of the Sea.


Neptune's Web

The US Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command runs a website called "Neptune's Web."  Neptune is the Roman equivalent of Poseidon, god of the Sea.


US P2V-7F 'Neptune'

During the Cold War, there were Naval Anti-Submarine Warfare and Maritime Patrol aircraft called the P2V-7F 'Neptune' - based at the Whidbey Island base. Neptune is the Roman equivalent of Poseidon, god of the Sea.


USS Neptune

The USS Neptune (ARC-2) was originally built as a Cable Ship for the Army Signal Corps in 1945/46. Acquired by the US Navy in 1953, it later helped to lay deep ocean cables for SOSUS  - the SOund SUrveillance System (SOSUS) used during the Cold War for tracking Soviet submarines by their signature acoustic signals. In 1973 the ship was seconded to the Military Sealift Command and became the USNS Neptune (T-ARC-2). She was finally decommissioned in January 1991. 


USS Poseidon

The USS Poseidon (ARL-12) - named after the Greek god of the sea  - was initially a Landing Ship Tank (LST). She was later converted to a landing craft repair ship and was very active during WW2 fixing battle damaged naval landing vessels for numerous amphibious landings during the Pacific war.  She was decommissioned in November 1946. 


Polaris Missile

Polaris in Greek means Satan. However, it was the name given in ancient Greek astronomy to the North Star (the "pole star" in Ursa Minor - Alpha Ursae Minoris). The word is of Latin origin.  Ancient sailors determined their direction at sea using Polaris.  The first U.S. Navy Fleet Ballistic Missile system in l956 was called the Polaris missile.  The A1 version was upgraded over the years to A2 and A3, before given way to the Poseidon missile.


Poseidon Missile

The second generation of submarine launched Intercontinental ballistic missiles in the US inventory (after the Polaris was phased out) was called the Poseidon missile, named after the Greek god of the Sea.


Trident Fleet Ballistic Missile

Trident is the weapon of Poseidon, Greek god of the Sea. It is a three-pronged spear.  The latest generations of submarine launched Intercontinental ballistic missiles in the US inventory are called 'Trident I' and 'Trident II'.


Other Ships in US Naval History


The USS Krishna (ARL 38 ) is a name sake of the Hindu lover, hero and destroyer of demons, known as the eighth avatar or reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.  She was a landing craft repair ship during the Vietnam War.  The USS Satyr is a namesake of the mythical Greek animal with pointed ears and the lower body of a goat. 

The USS Sphinx took its name from a Greek mythological creature with the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the head and breast of a human female. The USS Indra is a namesake of the Hindu god of the atmosphere, storms, rain, and battle.  The USS Myrmidon, a Tank Landing Ship and later Auxiliary Repair, Landing craft, active at Iwo Jima, took its name from a Greek warrior of the Thessalian tribe who followed Achilles to the Trojan War. 


The USS Atlantis, namesake of the mythical lost continent, was an Oceanographic Research Ship.  The USS Neptune (AS 17) was a Submarine Tender.   The USS Helios (ARB 12) was a Battle Damage Repair Ship named after the Greek God of the Sun.  The US Hercules (PHM 2) was a missile patrol boat.  The USS Mercury (AKR 10), named after the Roman messenger god, was a Vehicle Cargo Ship.   The USS Midas (ARB 5), named after the myth of King Midas, was a Battle Damage Repair Ship.   The USS Minotaur (ARL 15) was a Small Ship Repair craft.   It was named after the Greek mythological creature with a man's body but a bull's head born to Pasiphaë, the wife of Minos of Crete after he offended Poseidon.   The USS Orion (AS 18) was a Submarine Tender. Orion was the son Euryale (a Gorgon) and Poseidon. The USNS Saturn (AFS 10), a combat storage ship, was named after Saturn, a Greek God known as the "Sun of the night."  USS Sphinx (ARL 24) was a Repair Ship named after a Theban monster with the body of a lion and the upper part of a woman.   The USS Thor (ARC 4) was a Cable Repair Ship named after Thor, Norse God of thunder.  The nuclear powered submarine USS Triton (SSN 586) was named after a lesser Greek God of water and son of Poseidon. The USS Victoria (AK 281) was named after Victoria, Goddess of Victory while the USS Vulcan (AR 5) – was named after the Roman god of fire.  The USS Zeus (ARB 4)  - a Battle Damage Repair Ship  - and USS Zeus (ARC 7) – a Cable Repairing Ship – were named after Zeus, Greek King of the gods, who also functions as god of skies, lightening, thunder, and storms. 




The Australian Navy has a modern secure computerized tactical message handling system called the POSEIDON, which is installed on most of its ships




The Greek (Hellenic) Navy has a Type 209 – 1200 Submarine, which goes by the name S116 Poseidon. Other submarines in the Glavkos class include S110 Glavkos, S111 Nereus, S112 Triton, S113 Proteus, S117 Amfrititi, S118 Okeanos and S119 Pontos.  These names are not coincidental.  The Hellenic navy also has a “Thetis” class of ships that are tasked with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) duties.  There is also an “Andromeda” class of patrol boats including the P196 Andromeda, P198 Kyknos, P199 Pegasus, and P288 Toxotis. 




The popular and highly effective German submachine gun called the MP-5 has a naval variant called the Poseidon 76 adapted for sea borne commando operations.




Poseidon Sweden is a highly successful company that makes diving equipment patronized by U.S., German and Swedish navies.






The Indian Navy is of interest as one of the non-Western navies looked upon with respect by many.  Indeed many Nigerian sailors have undergone training in India and our ships have taken part in Indian Naval Fleet reviews.


According to a website dedicated to the history of the Indian Navy,


“In Indian mythology, Varuna was the exalted deity to whom lesser mortals turned for forgiveness of their sins. It is only later that Indra became known as the King of the Gods, and Varuna was relegated to become the God of Seas and Rivers. The ocean, recognised as the repository of numerous treasures, was churned by the Devas and Danavas, the sons of Kashyapa by queens Aditi and Diti, in order to obtain Amrit, the nectar of immortality. Even today the invocation at the launching ceremony of a warship is addressed to Aditi. (Italics mine)” 


Among the numerous ships and submarines of the Indian Navy, some are named after Hindu deities – or are namesakes of deities.  The Talwar class (modified Krivak type) frigates include the INS Trisul, which means ‘God’s weapon.’  The Brahmaputra (improved Godavari) class large frigates include the INS Brahmaputra (‘God’s son) – which, like Olokun, is also the name of a river.  Sukanya class offshore patrol vessels including Sukanya, Subhadra, Suvarna, Savitri, Sharda, etc, all of which are sacred female names from the Vedas.  (The Vedas are ancient texts of Hinduism that are also associated with Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism).     The INS Amba is a submarine tender.  Amba means ‘goddess’.  The Gaj class fleet tugs are called Matanga and Ambika, both of whom are also, goddesses.  Shakti, as in Shakti (Deepak class) fleet oilers means “energy” but Shakti is also a Hindu deity.  The INS Krishna is a training frigate, which was originally a Royal Navy Leander class Frigate called HMS Andromeda. She got her name from INS Kistna, a sloop sailing yacht previously in the service of the defunct Royal Indian Navy. But Krishna is a Hindu deity.




Japan has a long and proud maritime and naval tradition.


The majority of the names of post-World War 2 Japanese ships are based on surrounding mountains, rivers, cities, islands, and flow-related and weather-related phenomena.  However, some are based on ancient deities, temples and myths.


The Hiei is a Haruna class anti-submarine-warfare destroyer named after a famous temple - one of the most famous temples from HEIAN (9th century) period.  Haruna itself is a sacred mountain in the Gunma prefecture. Located within the mountain is the Enryaku-Ji temple with a long history of powerful priests presiding over religious and political ceremonies.  Among the Hatsuyuki class frigates is the Matsuyuki, named after the "Matsu", a traditional tree located along seasides, and symbol of luck.  Among the Abukuma class ASW frigates are the Jintsu and Ohyodo, symbolic of supernatural and omnipotent powers connected to the Japanese god. 


Based on these observations one can safely conclude that mythical names (amphibious or otherwise) are not unusual in highly professional navies. 



When the MOD announced that it had changed the name of NNS Olokun back to to NNS Beecroft, many younger Nigerians wondered who Beecroft was.  This is a good time to answer that question.


John Beecroft was a British naturalist, explorer and sailor  [Dyke, K.: "John Beecroft, 1790-1854", Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, volume 1, 5-14 (1956)].  He was born in 1790.  The French imprisoned him between 1805 and 1814 after being captured in a coasting vessel. He later commanded a transport vessel in an expedition to Greenland.  In 1829, he became the Superintendent of works at Fernando Po, after which he acted as Governor of Fernando Po (the island portion of Equatorial Guinea) from 1830 to 1832.  The British later pulled out of Fernando Po in 1833 but he remained as a defacto governor in a private capacity.  Beecroft took part in many voyages aimed at clarifying the course of the lower Niger and the Niger-delta for the western world.  In 1835, he went 300 miles up the River Niger in a steamer called the Quorra.   In 1836, starting off at Old Calabar, he went up 120 miles along the Cross River.   In 1840 he went up the Benin River in a 30 horsepower steamer called the Ethiope to see if it could be used to get to the main body of the River Niger, bypassing the swamps of the Niger-Delta.  In 1939, his employer, a Glasgow based merchant by the name Mr. Robert Jamieson, named one of the tributaries of the Benin River (leading to Sakponba) Jamieson River.  This time Beecroft decided to rename another major tributary after his ship. That is how the centuries old Olokun River became known as the Ethiope River to western civilization.  In fact in 1841, he published an article titled "On Benin and the Upper Course of the River Quorra on Niger" in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. That same year, he went up the Cross-River once more. When he returned he assisted in withdrawing an unsuccessful Niger expedition in the steamer Ethiope.     The following year (1842) he went up the Cross-River again.


When Spain reasserted its control over Fernando Po in 1843, it asked Beecroft to act as Governor without pay.   However, because of his intimate knowledge of riverain navigation in the Bights of Benin and Biafra, the Royal Navy decided to employ him on contract for political missions along the coast and inland. He played this role from 1844 to 1849 when he was formally made the British Consul to the Bights of Benin and Biafra.  It was in this capacity that he engaged in the shenanigans that resulted in the British take-over of Lagos. Encouraged by missionaries at Badagry and eager to control Lagos-Ibadan trade, he ordered a naval bombardment of Lagos into submission in December 1851. The political cover was a request by ex-Oba Akitoye to help him regain the throne from his rival, the Portuguese backed Oba Kosoko, who had earlier refused to sign a so-called anti-slavery trade agreement with Britain. The UK later annexed it (by threat of force) in 1861.


John Beecroft died on Jun 10th 1854 and is buried in Fernando Po. 


The important thing to realize is that Beecroft did not discover any Nigerian river, nor did he discover or found Lagos, nor did he found the Nigerian Navy.  He wasn’t even a Naval Officer.  He was an agent of the British Royal Navy who made it possible for them to subsequently annex the colony of Lagos (although he may not have intended that outcome originally).  If they named a base after him before Nigeria became independent, it was for mercantile service to the Queen or King.  The path of the Benin River and its many tributaries had been known locally for centuries.  What he and his employer did was navigate it for the purposes of British trading and political interests, publish their findings in Europe and then confer their own names.  Naval expeditions from Benin down the Benin river and via the Lagos channel were going back and forth to Eko (Lagos) hundred of years before Beecroft was born.  This is well documented.


The story gets more interesting.    The word “Ethiope” from which the name of Beecroft’s ship (and thus the Ethiope River) was derived, comes from the Greek word Aithíops.  "Ethiope" derives from a combination of aíthô, meaning "burn," and óps, meaning, "face."  In other words, “Burnt faces” which is how Negroes (or black people) were viewed.  Indeed, Shakespeare used the phrase in Romeo and Juliet.  When the word is traced back, it reveals itself in Greek mythology.  Cassiopeia was known as the Ethiope Queen. She was the wife of Ethiopian King Cephalus (not modern day Ethiopia, but the island of Lesvos in the Aegean Sea) at one time called “Ethiope” because of its darker skinned inhabitants. 


Poseidon sent a sea monster called Cetus to ravage the island after Cassiopeia claimed to be more beautiful than the sea goddess nymphs or Nereids. It will be recalled that her daughter Andromeda (described as having a dark complexion), was chained to a rock for purposes of sacrifice to ward off the sea monster.  She was, however, rescued by Perseus the son of Zeus on his way back from the killing of Medusa the Gorgon – and they got married.  The Persians (who are relatively dark skinned) are said to have descended from Peres, first child of Perseus and Andromeda.


Poseidon later changed Cassiopeia into a constellation of stars. She looks like she is in the position of being seated on her throne, with her head pointing towards the North Star (Polaris). As the earth revolves it appears as if she spends half of every night upside-down.  The constellation is called the Celestial "W" and Celestial "M".  She is known in Arab mythology and astrology as “the Lady in the Chair.”


In an effort to escape from the inescapable African myth of Olokun, the god of the Sea of the first settlers of Eko, we may have settled for a British sailor that sailed our shores hundreds of years later in a ship named after the Greek myth of “burnt faces”.




Having established the international credibility of myths and deities as a traditional mechanism (among others) for naming ships and shore facilities, it would be a good exercise to review historical naming practices in the Nigerian Navy.  This is important because there are probably some readers wondering whether the use of local dialects is recent, unique to the languages and dialects so far reviewed, or peculiar to Nigeria.


The following table illustrates the names of many (but not all) Nigerian Naval Ships since Independence.  Most are no longer operational, but that is not the focus of this article.







NNS Nigeria

Former FlagShip, later renamed “Obuma”



Note:  Flagship means either “the ship that carries the commander of a fleet  or subdivision of a fleet and flies his flag” or “the finest, largest, or most important one of a series, network, or chain”

Federal Republic of Nigeria


(see NNS Obuma below)


Town Class Patrol Craft


NNS Ibadan


Ibadan, capital of Western region, Western State, now Oyo State


NNS Kaduna


Kaduna, capital of Northern region, North Central State, now Kaduna State


NNS Benin


Benin, capital of Midwestern region, Midwest State, Bendel State, now Edo State


NNS Enugu


Enugu, capital of Eastern region, East Central State, Anambra State, now Enugu State


NNS Calabar



These are just a sample of many other “Town-Class” craft in the Naval inventory (current and historic). They are (or were) named after many different towns from all over Nigeria.


NNS Brass


NNS Hadejia


NNS Lokoja


NNS Sapele


NNS Ogoja


NNS Bonny


Other category


NNS Penelope

In Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, telling the story of the Trojan war, Penelope was the daughter of Icarius and a first cousin of Helen of Troy. She was also the wife of Odysseus and was famous for her loyalty because for twenty years she resisted all entreaties by local suitors at Ithaca and faithfully awaited his return from the Trojan war.   This is the background to its motto, 'Constantia Et Fide' (With Constancy and Faith)



Since the first Royal Navy Penelope of 1778, many ships in the Admiralty inventory have gone by that name, always resurrected to honor the previous ships that had been destroyed in battle.  Some are very famous, like the Royal Navy ship that was sunk in 1944 by german torpedoes during the amphibious assault on Anzio, in world war II


From the Nigerian perspective, however, it is the 5th HMS Penelope that is relevant.  The paddle steamer was mostly based along the coast of West Africa after 1843 and took part in the intimidation and bombardment of Lagos in 1851.


The NNS Penelope appears to have been named after that ship.

Greek Mythology


Thunder Class Frigates


NNS Obuma




NNS Aradu



Also, the current Flag Ship of the NN (see definition of Flag Ship above)



Acquired Craft from Civil Sector


NNS Ruwan Yaro

Little River (or small

Water or children’s water)



Also Ruwan-yara


Landing Ship Tank (LST)


NNS Ambe




NNS Offiom




Also Ibibio


Fast Attack Strike Craft






NNS Ayam




NNS Damisa




NNS Siri




Also Ijaw/Igbani (Opobo/ Bonny)


NNS Ekpen




NNS Ekpe

Tiger /Leopard*


(also a famous masquerade)



NNS Ekun




Mine Counter Measure Vessel  (Mine Sweepers)


NNS Ohue



Also Hunter

Esan (Edoid dialect)




NNS Barama




Cat Class multi-purpose Buoy Tenders


(Maritime Law Enforcement, Training, Search & Rescue)


NNS Ologbo


(Formerly US Coast Guard Cowslip )


Edo, Yoruba etc.


Also called Ovbieden in Edo or Ologini in Yoruba


NNS Kyanwa


(Formerly US Coast Guard Sedge)



Also, Kyanwa is the Goddess of Hunting in parts of  NigerRepublic




Also called Muzuru, Mage in some Hausa dialects



Note: There are five- (5) additional ex-US Coast Guard Boats expected to be donated to Nigeria shortly.  They are all named  “Cat” in various Nigerian languages.



Hippo Class Corvettes


NNS Enyimiri




NNS Erinomi




Also Esin omi, Esin odo, or Akako in some dialects.


NNS Otobo



Also Manatee (Sea Cow)

Trichechus senegalensis


Also, Hippopotamus






Ijaw, Igbani (Opobo/Bonny), Kalabari


NNS Dorina



[Also, North African mythological dorina, the rhinoceros that swallowed an alligator]


Also, Goddess of Hunting










*Most current and former naval officers I contacted when preparing this article claimed these ships were indigenously named after the Tiger.  Except in captivity, however, Tigers are not indigenous to Africa.   The indigenous "big cats" of Africa are the Leopard (Panthera pardus), the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), and the Lion (Panthera leo leo).  Therefore, except in reference to those unnaturally bred in captivity, when one hears references in indigenous Nigerian languages to a 'Tiger' what is actually implied (in indigenous knowledge) is a Leopard. In some dialects the differentiation from either a Cheetah or Lion is vague.  Thus the popular wisdom about a "Tiger” in Nigeria or any African country is a misnomer. The only "Tigers" in Africa are African tiger bitterns (Tigriornis leucolophus) - a type of bird, African tiger fishes (Hydrocynus vittatus) and African tiger lotuses (Nymphaea maculata) - a type of flower. [While on the subject, the Nigerian Army's 2nd Mechanized Division has a "snarling Tiger" as its emblem.  There is no doubt that bared teeth in African cosmology symbolizes ferocity and aggression - and that is obviously the intent of that mascot.  However, a "snarling Leopard" may be more accurate].




For completeness I have included a review of names of ships belonging to Naval forces of some African countries. 


CAMEROUN has patrol boats like the Bakassi, named after the Bakassi peninsula, and the L'Audacieux, a french word meaning ‘audacious’ or ‘bold’.  CONGO once had a group of small patrol boats called “Les Trois Glorieuses” or “The glorious three” none of which are now operable. GABON has large patrol boats named after famous or pioneering military figures - General D'Armee Ba Oumar, Colonel Djoue Dbany and General Nazaire Boulingui.  Its landing ship is known as President el Hadj Omar Bongo named after the current President.  A sample of GHANAIAN warship names is presented in a tabulated summary below.  IVORY COAST has vessels with french names like Le Valeureux, L'Ardent, L'Intrepide, and a small landing ship called ElephantKENYAN warships are presented in a tabulated summary below.  NAMIBIA has a large patrol boat called the Tobias Hainyeko.   Hainyeko was the first Commander of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).  He is revered as one of those who initiated Namibia's armed struggle on August 26, 1966.   He died in battle on May 18, 1967 during a confrontation with then apartheid South Africa’s Defence Force along the Zambezi River.  The other patrol boat is called the Oryz, part of the Oryx class of boats, named after a type of endangered antelope or gazelle. The Indian Ocean island of SEYCHELLES has a patrol boat called the Andomache.  Andomache (also spelled Andromache) was a famous Trojan female personality.  She was the wife of Hector, son of Priam, a distinguished leader of Troy.  During the Trojan War, Archilles killed Hector.   Andromache’s sorrow after the Greeks finally entered Troy – and sentenced her son Astyanax to death - is one of the great literary classics about women in war. (The NNS Penelope, a naval boat that took part in the Nigerian civil war, was also named after a female figure from the Trojan War)




South African submarines and ships also have interesting names and they indicate great effort to reflect the multiplicity of ethnic and racial heritage in that country.  Unlike Nigeria, South Africa has a large resident White citizen class.


The Maria Van Riebeeck class of submarines is named after Maria, wife of Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch merchant (and first European)  – on commission for the Dutch-East India Trading Company  - to land in Cape Town on April 6, 1652.  However, the subs themselves are called Umkhonto and Assegai.  Umkhonto means ‘Spear’ in Zulu and refers to the more traditional long Zulu spear before the advent of Shaka the Zulu.   Assegai (also Zulu) refers to the short stabbing spear Shaka the Zulu designed, which revolutionized warfare in that region.  [‘Umkhonto We Sizwe’, meaning ‘Spear of the Nation’, was the ANC’s military wing created in December 1961].


The Jan Smuts class large missile boats are named after General Jan Christian Smuts, a famous Boer guerrilla leader (and lawyer) who initially fought against the British during the Boer War, but then helped to make peace with them.    He was a Defence Minister in Louis Botha’s government but later put back his uniform and led South Africa’s military campaign against the Germans in East Africa during WW1. He subsequently joined the Imperial War Cabinet in the UK and helped in creating the Royal Air Force.  Smuts helped to negotiate the Versailles Treaty and returned to South Africa where he later became Prime Minister twice, first from 1920-24 and then 1939-48.  Not only was he present when the League of Nations was created, he also helped in creating the United Nations after WW2.  The missile boats are named after diverse figures like Adam Kok (a Griqua leader in Transorangia who confronted the first Boer settlers), Issac Dyobha, Rene Sethron, and Galeshewe. Others include Makhanda (a Xhosa prophet and 19th century military leader) and Job Masego, a Lance Corporal in the Native Military Corps who won the Military Medal when as a Prisoner of War during WW2, he single handedly sank a German  "F" boat in the Tobruk Harbour. 


Mine Countermeasures Vessels are named after coastal towns (and Naval Bases) like Walvisbaai (Walvis Bay), East London, and Windhoek.  The Kimberley is a coastal minehunter, named after the Northern Cape Provincial capital of Kimberly, site of a famous Boer war siege. It is also a diamond-mining town surrounded by five of South Africa's largest rivers.  Inshore minehunters like the SAS Umhloti, SAS Umzimkulu, SAS Umgeni and SAS Umkomaas are all named after rivers.  Logistics and support ships like the Outeniqua and Drakensberg are named after Mountains.  The survey ship Protea is named after Protea Banks, a famous tourist destination south of Durban on South Africa 's East Coast. Protea itself is a type of flower. 


Lastly, let us review a sample of names of warships from two former British colonies.









KNS Nyati



KNS Simba



KNS Ndovu



KNS Chui



KNS Madaraka

“Self Government”


[June 1st , 1963]



KNS Mamba



KNS Harambee

"Pulling all together at once"


 (Former President Jomo Kenyatta’s political slogan)


KNS Jamhuri

Republic Day (Full Independence)


[December 12 , 1963]


KNS Nyayo



(Former President Arap Moi’s

political slogan)


KNS Shujaa

Brave. Also Hero.


[Dedicated to Kenya’s Independence war heroes like General China (Waruhiu Itote), Brigadier Nyamaduru (Paul Mahehu), Stanley Mathenge, Dedan Kimathi, Karari Njama, Muraya Mbuthia, JM Kariuki, General Kago, Bildad Kaggia, Kungu Karumba, Ochieng Oneko, Jomo Kenyatta, Paul Ngei na Fred Kubai etc.]


KNS Shupavu



KNS Umoja




[Also first principle of Kwanzaa, an African-American cultural holiday]



KNS Galana

Major River in Kenya which flows into the Indian Ocean


KNS Tana

Major River in Kenya which flows into the Indian Ocean










GNS  Achimota    



“Achimota” means “Chief “or “Appalachian”.  In Ga myth, it also means a person who appears when his name is mentioned.    The vessel was originally named after Achimota College, Ghana’s elite College. It was also late President Kwame Nkrumah’s one time official yacht

and Ghana Navy’s flagship.


GNS  Anzone



GNS Yogaga

‘High Mountain’


It is a mountain in the Eastern Region on the way to the Hydroelectric Dam town of Akosombo.



Note:   ‘Yogaga’ also means “Big Mother”.   (Ghanaian culture is matriarchal)



GNS Sebo



GNS Bonsu



GNS David Hansen

David Anumle Hansen was the first indigenous Chief of Naval Staff of the Ghana Navy. He was trained at Eaton Hall Officer Cadet School in the UK and commissioned in 1963.


GNS Dzata  







The symbolism of animals in African mythology, cosmology and folklore is very deep.  In Egypt, crocodiles were sacred to ancient Gods like Ammut, Sobek etc. One can even find evidence of mummified crocodiles.  Sacred Egyptian cats include Bast and Ra.  In the Gambia, the Katchikally Crocodile Pool at Bakau is revered as a sacred place.  Coming closer to home, Adjakpa, the sacred Crocodile Spirit, is a water deity in the Mami Wata tradition. In Benin cosmology animals - such as fish, snakes, leopards and crocodiles - were also symbols of deities. Some specifically projected the power of the State, personified in the Oba. The Leopard was a royal symbol (and totem).  Crocodiles were respected as the 'policemen of the waters', and, along with pythons, were associated with Olokun, the god of the seas/rivers and wealth.   The manatee, common along the West African coast, used to be thought by sex-starved European sailors to be a mermaid.


Many totems are animal based.  Therefore, quite apart from the physical and behavioral characteristics of one animal or the other in relation to the intended use of a Ship, the psychic imagery and spirituality in African society is very significant.  Sacred crocodiles, Hippopotamuses, cats, bulls, antelopes, falcons, beetles, chameleons, birds, and even insects like the praying mantis, etc have all been described all over the continent all the way back to ancient Egyptian days.  In Nigeria, many traditional art forms from different parts of the country illustrate this principle.  A bronze figure of Olokun, for example, shows him in royal coral bead regalia holding a crocodile, using mudfish legs to position himself on turtles.



This is not to say that the practice of naming Ships after animals is peculiar to African navies or that every ship named after an animal is so named primarily for mythical or spiritual reasons. In the 19th century Royal Navy the HMS Crocodile was in service.  During the First World War, the HMS Tiger was active.  American submarines are often named after fish and other marine animals - so called “denizens of the deep”.  One example is the sea wolf.   The Royal Navy has a line of submarine launched torpedoes called the “Tiger Fish.”  They hit world headlines back in 1982 when used to sink Argentina’s General Belgrano during the Falklands war.





In conclusion, the use of sea/river deities and ancient myths as a mechanism for naming warships, naval bases or naval weapons is neither peculiar to Nigeria nor unprofessional.  Long before the arrival of European traders, sailors and colonialists, nationalities that are now part of Nigeria had a proud marine tradition.   Those traditions are part of the canvas of modern Nigeria and cannot be wished away. 


Long before the compass was discovered and became widely available, those of our ancestors who dared to sail or row the dangerous waters off the coast of Nigeria were doing what no ‘modern’ Nigerian sailor will attempt.  They were armed with little more than their modest boat constructing, sailing and swimming skills, intense courage, adventurism and an abiding respect for they regarded as the spirit of the sea.  Like the Vikings of a different era and time, cosmology and mythology played a central role in the doctrine and success of pre-colonial African maritime activity – and still does.  This is the context in which commemorative names like the NNS Olokun, NNS Umalokun, NNS Urhiapele, NNS Kamanu, NNS Akaso, NNS Onura, NNS Anansa etc should be viewed.  ‘Olokun’ and ‘Okemini’ are also geographic names.  Olokun River existed hundreds of years before John Beecroft showed up in Africa.   ‘Okemini’ is none other than another local name for the Atlantic Ocean.  ‘Urhiapele’ is the correct indigenous spelling and pronunciation of the riverside town the white man calls ‘Sapele’.


There is no escaping the fact that we are who we were.  When in the early eighties, then Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Akin Aduwo (rtd), with the approval of then President and C-in-C, Alhaji Shehu Usman Shagari, changed the name NNS Beecroft to NNS Olokun, the Naval Hierarchy was on solid historical ground.  The deference to local names of ancient mythological entities and original names of anglicized Nigerian cities in the naming of other naval shore facilities was a positive development in civil-military relations.  The recent renaming exercise threatens to unravel that bond by coming across as spiteful to entire communities as well as naval tradition.


Based on this author’s review of the subject matter, therefore, barring a full exposition of convincing counter-arguments by the government, one substantially concurs with the concerns raised by Orok Edem.  I recommend that the Naval Base issue be revisited by a panel of Nigerian Naval Officers, former and current, the MOD, and/or the appropriate committees of the National Assembly  – after which the Executive arm of government should retrace its steps.   Alternatively, based on the arguments put forth, the C-in-C can and should contemplate a change of heart and restore the status quo ante without further much ado.








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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.