KING JAJA OF OPOBO: NATIONALIST, FIRST NIGERIAN RICHEST MAN AND THE MOST ACCOMPLISHED ENTREPRENEUR OF THE 19TH CENTURY WEST COAST OF AFRICA
Jaja of Opobo (full name: Jubo Jubogha; 1821–1891) was the first known Nigerian richest man, nationalist, a merchant prince and the founder of Opobo city-state which now forms part of Nigeria`s River State. Jaja whose real name was Mbanaso Okwaraozurumbaa was also a savvy political and military strategist, brought to the Bonny Kingdom as a slave, who was perhaps the most troublesome thorn in the flesh of 19th-century British imperial ambition in southern Nigeria.
EARLY LIFE AND BACKGROUND
Jubo Jubogba, also known as Jo Jo Ubam by the Igbo and as Jaja of Opobo, first, by the
Europeans and later by most people, was born about 1821 at Úmuduruõha, Amaigbo village in the Orlu district, now Imo State of Eastern Nigeria (Isichei 1976:98). At birth he was given a native Igbo name Mbanaso Okwaraozurumba and was the third son of his parents, the Okwaraozurumba.
|Painting of Jaja of Opobo,|
According to different oral sources, Jaja was sold into slavery in the Niger Delta under circumstances which are far from clear. One version of the oral traditions says that he was sold because, as a baby, he cut the upper teeth first, an abominable phenomenon in traditional Igbo society. Another version claims that he was captured and sold by his father’s enemy. Regardless, he was bought by Chief Iganipughuma Allison of Bonny, by far the most powerful city-state on the Atlantic coast of Southeastern Nigeria before the rise of Opobo.King Jaja Of Opobo And Wives In The 1870s
To follow the Ja Ja story or, indeed, revolution, an explanatory note is necessary. Until the end of the 19th century, the Delta communities played a crucial role in European and American trade with Nigeria. Acting as middlemen, these communities carried into the interior markets the trade goods of European and American supercargoes stationed on the coast and brought back in exchange the export produce of the hinterland, basically palm oil. As the Delta is dominated by saline swamps and crisscrossed by a labyrinth of creeks and rivers, the canoe was indispensable for trade.
The Delta society was organized in Canoe Houses. A Canoe House was the pivot of social organization and also, notes K.O. Dike, “a cooperative trading unit and a local government institution.” It was usually composed of a wealthy merchant (its founder), his family, and numerous slaves owned by him. A prosperous house could comprise several thousand members, both free and bonded, owning hundreds of trade canoes. In this intensely competitive society, leadership by merit – not by birth or ascriptions – was necessary if a house was to make headway in the turbulent, cut-throat competition that existed between houses. Any person with the charisma and proven ability, even if of servile birth, could rise to the leadership of a house, but could never become king. Ja Ja would achieve this, and much more.
Finding young Ja Ja too headstrong for his liking, Chief Allison made a gift of him to his friend, Madu, a chief of the Anna Pepple House, one of the two houses of the royal family (the other being the Manilla Pepple House). Ja Ja was slotted into the lowest rung of the Bonny slave society ladder, that of an imported slave, distinct from that of someone who was of slave parentage but born in the Delta.
As a youth, he worked as a paddler on his owner’s great trade canoes, traveling to and from the inland markets. Quite early, he demonstrated exceptional abilities and business acumen, quickly identified with the Ijo custom of the Delta, and won the hearts of the local people as well as those of the European supercargoes. It was unusual for a slave of his status to make the transition from canoe paddling to trading, but Ja Ja – through his honesty, business sense, and amiability – soon became prosperous.
For a long while, Ja Ja turned his back on Bonny politics, concentrating his immense energies on accumulating wealth through trade, the single most important criterion to power in the Delta. At the time, Bonny politics were volatile as a result of the irreconcilable and acrimonious contest for supremacy between the Manilla Pepple House and the Anna Pepple House to which Ja Ja belonged. Coincidentally, both houses were led by remarkable characters of Igbo slave origins – Oko Jumbo of the Manilla House and Madu (after him Alali his son) of the Anna House.
In 1863, Alali died, bequeathing to his house a frightening debt of between £10,000 and £15,000 owed to European supercargoes. Fearing bankruptcy, all of the eligible chiefs of the house declined nomination to head it. It was therefore a great relief when Ja Ja accepted to fill the void. With characteristic energy, he proceeded to put his house in order by reorganizing its finances. Conscious that the palm-oil markets in the hinterland and the wealth of the European trading community on the coast constituted the pivot of the Delta economy, he ingratiated himself with both sides. In a matter of two years, he had liquidated the debt left behind by his predecessor and launched his house on the path of prosperity. When less prosperous and insolvent houses sought incorporation into the Anna House, Ja Ja gradually absorbed one house after another.
LIFE HISTORY AND LEGENDARY WORKS
By 1867, his remarkable success had become common knowledge throughout Bonny. The British consul to the area, Sir Richard Burton, had cause to remark that although Ja Ja was the “son of an unknown bush man,” he had become “the most influential man and greatest trader in the [Imo] River.” Predicted Burton: “In a short time he will either be shot or he will beat down all his rivals.”
Burton’s words proved prophetic. Ja Ja’s successes incurred the jealousy of opponents who feared that, if left unchecked, his house might incorporate most of the houses in Bonny and thereby dominate its political and economic arena. Oko Jumbo, his bitterest opponent, was determined that such a prospect would never materialize.
|Statue of King Jaja|
Meanwhile, two developments occurred in Bonny, serving to harden existing jealousies. First, in 1864, Christianity was introduced into the city-state, further polarizing the society. While the Manilla House welcomed the Christians with a warm embrace, the Anna House was opposed to the exotic religion. Not surprisingly, the missionaries sided with the Manilla House against the Anna House. Second, in 1865, King William Pepple died and, with this, the contest for the throne between the two royal houses took on a monstrous posture.
Three years later, in 1868, Bonny was ravaged by fire, and the Anna House was the worst hit. In the discomfiture of his opponent, Oko Jumbo saw his opportunity. Knowing that the fire had all but critically crippled Ja Ja’s house, he sought every means to provoke an open conflict. On the other side, Ja Ja did everything to avoid such a conflict, but, as Dike states, “Oko Jumbo’s eagerness to catch his powerful enemy unprepared prevailed.”
On September 13, 1869, heavy fighting erupted between the two royal houses. Outmatched in men and armament, though not in strategy, Ja Ja pulled out of Bonny, accepted defeat, and sued for peace with a suddenness that surprised both his adversaries and the European supercargoes. Peace palaver commenced and dragged on for weeks under the auspices of the British consul. This was exactly what Ja Ja planned for. It soon became doubtful if the victors were not indeed the vanquished.
Ja Ja had sued for peace in order to gain time to retreat from Bonny with his supporters with little or no loss in men and armament. A master strategist, he relocated in the Andoni country away from the seaboard at a strategic point at the mouth of the Imo river, the highway of trade between the coastal communities and the palm-oil rich Kwa Iboe and Igbo country. There, he survived the initial problems of a virgin settlement as well as incessant attacks of his Bonny enemies.
In 1870, feeling reasonably secure, Ja Ja proclaimed the independence of his settlement which he named Opobo, after Opubu the Great, the illustrious king of Bonny and founder of Anna House who had died in 1830. As Dike writes:
[I]t is characteristic of the man that he had not only a sense of the occasion but of history… . Kingship was impossible of attainment for anyone of slave origins in Bonny. Instead he sought another land where he could give full scope to his boundless energies.
Long before the war of 1869, Ja Ja had been carefully planning to found his own state. The war merely provided him with the occasion to implement his design.
In naming his new territory Opobo, Ja Ja was appealing to the nostalgia and historical consciousness of his followers while giving them the impression that he was truly the heir of the celebrated king. That this impression was widespread and accepted by most Bonny citizens may be judged from the fact that of the 18 houses in Bonny, 14 followed Ja Ja to Opobo.
To no avail, the British consul tried to coerce Ja Ja to come back to Bonny. Against the admonition of the consul, and in the face of Bonny’s displeasure, many British firms began to trade openly with Opobo while others transferred their depots there. By May of 1870, the Ja Ja revolution had driven the death-knell on Bonny’s economy. British firms anchoring there are said to have lost an estimated £100,000 of trade by mid-1870. The city-state fell from grace to grass as Opobo, flourishing on its ashes, became in Ofonagoro’s words, “the most important trade center in the Oil Rivers,” and Ja Ja became “the greatest African living in the east of modern Nigeria.”
For 18 years, Ja Ja ruled his kingdom with firmness and remarkable sagacity. He strengthened his relations with the hinterland palm-oil producers through judicious marriages and blood covenants which bound the parties into ritual kingship. He armed his traders with modern weapons for their own defense and that of the state. He thus monopolized trade with the palm-oil producers and punished severely any community that tried to trade directly with the European supercargoes.
In 1873, the British recognized him as king of independent Opobo, and Ja Ja reciprocated by sending a contingent of his soldiers to help the British in their war against the Ashanti kingdom in the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Queen Victoria expressed her gratitude in 1875 by awarding him a sword of honor. It seemed a honeymoon had developed between Opobo and Britain.
Ja Ja’s reign has been described as a striking instance of selective modernization. He retained most of the sociopolitical and cultural institutions of Bonny, such as the house system, and stuck steadfastly to the religion of his fathers, arguing that Christianity was a serious ferment of societal destabilization. While recognizing the value of Western education and literacy, he objected to its religious component. Thus, he sent his two sons to school in Scotland but insisted they acquire only secular education. He established a secular school in Opobo and employed an African-American, Emma White, to run it. An Englishman who visited Opobo in 1885 stated that the standard of the pupils in the school compared quite favorably with that of English children of the same age.
The honeymoon between Ja Ja and the British turned out to be meteoric: the ultimate ambitions of the two ran at cross-purposes. Ja Ja guarded his independence jealously, had a tight grip on the interior markets and confined British traders to Opobo, away from these markets. He made sure that the traders paid their comeys (customs and trade duties) as and when due.
But in the 1880s, the clouds of British imperialism were closing in menacingly on Opobo, the overthrow of indigenous sovereignties having been initiated by John Beecroft, the first British consul to Nigeria (1849-54). British imperialism had begun to assert itself forcefully; British officials on the spot were increasingly ignoring indigenous authorities, while British traders had begun to insist on trading directly with the hinterland palm-oil producers. Ja Ja tackled these formidable problems judiciously and with restraint.
In July 1884, fearing German intrusion in the Delta, the British consul, Edward Hewett, rushed to the area, foisting treaties of protection on the indigenous sovereignties. With a veiled threat from a man-of-war, Ja Ja too was stampeded into placing his kingdom under British protection. But unlike the other African monarchs, this was not before he had sought explanation for the word “protectorate,” and had been assured by the consul that his independence would not be compromised. Hewett wrote to Ja Ja informing him, inter alia (among other things), that:
the queen does not want to take your country or your markets, but at the same time she is anxious that no other nation should take them. She undertakes … [to] leave your country still under your government; she has no wish to disturb your rule.
At Ja Ja’s insistence, a clause providing for free trade in his kingdom was struck off before he agreed to sign the treaty.
The following year, European powers entered into the Treaty of Berlin which set the stage for the scramble and partition of Africa among themselves, without regard to the wishes of Africans. The treaty provided for free navigation on River Niger and other rivers, such as the Imo, linked to it. On the basis of this, the British consul asserted that British firms were within their rights to trade directly in the interior palm-oil markets. That same year, 1885, Britain proclaimed the Oil Rivers Protectorate, which included Ja Ja’s territory. Sending a delegation to the British secretary of states for the colonies to protest these actions by right of the treaty of 1884, Ja Ja’s protest fell on deaf ears. A man of his word, he was shocked at Britain reneging on her pledge.
Worse times were yet to come as political problems were compounded by economic dispute. The 1880s witnessed a severe trade depression that ruined some of the European firms trading in the Delta and threatened the survival of others. The surviving firms responded to the situation in two ways. First, they reached an agreement among themselves, though not with complete unanimity, to offer low prices for produce. Second, they claimed the right to go directly to the interior markets in order to sidestep the coastal middlemen and reduce the handling cost of produce.
As would be expected, Ja Ja objected to these maneuvers and proceeded to ship his own produce directly to Europe. The British consul directed the European firms not to pay comey to Ja Ja anymore, arguing that in shipping his produce directly to Europe, he had forfeited his right to receive the payment. Once again, Ja Ja sent a delegation to Britain to protest the consul and the traders’ action. Once again, this was to no avail.
Under a threat of naval bombardment, Ja Ja signed an agreement with the British consul in July 1887 to allow free trade in his territory. By now, he knew that Britain’s imperial ambition was growing rapidly, and he began transferring his resources further into the Igbo hinterland, his birthplace. But as Elizabeth Isichei points out, “he was confronted with a situation where courage and foresight were ultimately in vain.”
Harry Johnston, acting vice-consul, a young hothead anxious to advance his colonial career, imagined that Ja Ja would be a perfect stepping-stone to attain his ambition. Arriving at Opobo on a man-of-war, Johnston invited Ja Ja for a discussion on how to resolve the points of friction between Opobo and the British traders and officials. Suspicious of Johnston’s real intentions, Ja Ja initially turned down the invitation but was lured to accept with a promise of safe return after the meeting. Said Johnston:
I hereby assure you that whether you accept or reject my proposals tomorrow, no restrictions will be put on you – you will be free to go as soon as you have heard my message.
But again the British reneged on their pledge: Ja Ja would not return to his kingdom alive. Once on board the warship Goshawk, Johnston confronted him with a deportation order or the complete destruction of Opobo. Nearly 18 years to the day when he pulled out of Bonny, Ja Ja was deported to the Gold Coast, tried, and declared guilty of actions inimical to Britain’s interest. Still afraid of his charm and influence on the Gold Coast, even in captivity, Johnston saw to it that he was deported to the West Indies, at St. Vincent Island.
With the exit of Ja Ja, the most formidable obstacle to Britain’s imperial ambition in Southeastern Nigeria had been removed. But the circumstances of his removal left a sour taste in certain British mouths. Lord Salisbury, British prime minister, could not help criticizing Johnston, noting that in other places Ja Ja’s deportation would be called “kidnapping.” Michael Crowder describes the event as “one of the shabbiest incidents in the history of Britain’s relations with West Africa.” Among the indigenous population, it left a deep and lasting scar of suspicion of Britain’s good faith and, for a long time, trade in the area all but ceased.
In exile, Ja Ja is said to have borne himself with kingly dignity. He made repeated appeals to Britain to allow him to return to Opobo. In 1891, his request was granted, belatedly as it turned out: Ja Ja died on the Island of Teneriffe en route to Opobo, the kingdom built with his sweat and devotion. His people gladly paid the cost of repatriating his body and spent a fortune celebrating his royal funeral.
Today, an imposing statue of Ja Ja stands in the center of Opobo with the inscription:
A king in title and in deed. Always just and generous.
The story of Jaja recounts a man of servile status hurdling intimidating odds to attain wealth and power, and founding in the latter half of the 19th century the most prosperous city-state in the Delta area of Nigeria. He has rightly been described as, perhaps, the most enterprising and accomplished of all African merchant princes on the west coast of Africa in the 19th century (Fajana and Biggs 1976:137-138). He first traded in Bonny but later founded a new flourishing trading settlement in 1869 in Opobo, a site where he felt he could best control the traditional sources of supply of palm oil in the region (Cookey 1974).
As far as Nigerian nationalist historiography is concerned, Jaja`s greatness could be found in his principled resistance to foreign political control. Indeed, Fajana and Biggs (1976:137) describe Jaja as the first Nigerian nationalist of the nineteenth century. Thus, Jaja’s principled oppositions to British influence in the Niger Delta has largely been interpreted by some historians as the precursors to Nigeria’s nationalist struggles.
However, Rotimi and Ogen (2008) argued that Jaja just like Nana Olomu of itsekiri`s stiff opposition to foreign penetration and the fierce resistance against British imperialism were essentially informed by their fervent desire to protect by all means their considerable commercial interests. Contrasting Jaja and Nana with their contemporaries such as Sultan Attahiru of Sokoto, Oba Ovonramwen of Benin and Awujale Aboki Tunwase of Ijebuland, to mention but a few, who fought relentlessly to defend the corporate existence and political sovereignties of their respective kingdoms (Crowder 1968:134-136; Oduwobi 2004:34-36; Ayandele 1992: 21), Rotimi and Ogen (2008) concluded that “the wars that Jaja and Nana fought were basically trade wars meant for the protection of their trading monopolies. Hence, their greatest significance lies in their roles as entrepreneurs cum super-merchants and not as proto-nationalists.”
Whether Jaja was supporting his business interest by fighting against the British or was genuinely fighting for the total emancipation of Opoboland, the end result was that Jaja succeeded in creating serious troubles for the British imperialist by proving that an African is capable of standing up to any man in whatever field of endeavor, irrespective of their race.
Jubo Jubogba, also known as Jo Jo Ubam by the Igbo and as Jaja of Opobo, first, by the Europeans and later by most people, was born about 1821 in Amaigbo village in the Orlu district of Eastern Nigeria (Isichei 1976:98). Though he was originally an Igbo enslaved person, he became acculturated into Bonny society so successfully that even his enemies agreed that his state was one of the best administered entities on the west coast of Africa during the pre-colonial era (Crowder 1968:119). Apart from his outstanding business acumen, he had a keen understanding of Western values. He was fluent in English and even sent one of his sons to a Glasgow school. He also set up a secular school in his capital and lived in a European-style house, as did his chiefs. Jaja’s secular school was under the tutelage of a Kentucky born African American, Emma White who relocated to Opobo and even changed her name to Emma Jaja (Isichei 1976:98; Ayandele 1966:81). In fact, Crowder (1968:119) states that “Jaja, ruler of a small but rich state, was clearly in the process of modernizing it independently of European rule”. A British palm oil merchant, Alexander Cowan
went to Opobo for Alexander Miller Brother and Company in 1887 and made the following
“There can be no doubt Ja-Ja was the most powerful potentate the
Oil Rivers ever produced. He was just as shrewd and fore-seeing
as he was powerful…He could be stern, and he was strict, but he
was always just, and the form of government he set up was as near
perfect as anything of its kind could be. Every man had the right
of appeal, and, though in effect his own authority was never
questioned, he conformed to his own rules, and governed through
his council of chiefs (Pedler 1974:74).”
“Opobo: King Jaja’s wives.” Circa 1870 – 1888. (Niger Delta, Nigeria, Opobo) by John Parkes Decker. A group of women sitting and standing in front of a house. The caption states that these women are king Jajah’s wives. Three of the women sitting in the front row wear Western (Victorian) style clothes.
Interestingly, Jaja was a man of prodigious ability with a gifted and telling acumen. Within a few years of the foundation of Opobo, he rapidly drew the palm oil trade away from Bonny in his role as middle-man between the European merchants and the produce sellers in the interior (Pedler 1974:75). He also cleverly aligned with only Alexander Miller Brother and Company at the expense of several other British firms trading in the Niger Delta. This move led to fierce commercial rivalries among the British firms.
In 1884 other British firms apart from Alexander Miller felt that Jaja was profiting unduly at their expense. They thereafter came together and unilaterally fixed the price of produce. Thus,Jaja retaliated by breaking into the export trade, hitherto an exclusive preserve of the European firms. He succeeded in shipping his palm oil to Birmingham, thereby becoming the first Nigerian direct exporter of palm oil (Gertzel 1962:361-6; Pedler 1974:76). Furthermore, Jaja effectively pioneered Nigeria’s indigenous produce export trade.
He utilized his immense wealth from the palm oil trade to acquire enormous political cum military power to the extent that in 1875 he sent some of his soldiers to help the British during the prosecution of the Ashanti War in the then Gold Coast. For this wonderful support, Queen Victoria showed her appreciation by presenting him with a sword of honor (Fajana and Biggs 1976:138).
The trade depression in England from the 1880s galvanized the British traders into assuming that their profits would increase phenomenally if they could checkmate Jaja’s middle-man’s role in the eastern Niger Delta (Isichei 1976:99). In order to achieve this objective, they systematically sought the assistance of the British Consul. Thus, in 1884, Consul Hewett asked Jaja to sign a treaty placing his territory under British protection. Jaja agreed, but only on the condition that the clauses which stipulated free trade and free access to all parts of the territory for Europeans traders should be expunged (Cookey 1974). Consul Hewett reluctantly agreed and deleted the offensive clauses, but a year later the British declared a Protectorate over the territory of the Gulf of Guinea. Apart from frowning at this Declaration, Jaja completely rejected the provisions for free trade (Pedler 1974:76-77 and Fajana and Biggs 1976:138).
Thereafter, the British accused Jaja of terrorism, of organizing armed attacks and of obstructing trade and the waterways. In 1887, the new Vice-Consul, Harry Johnston recommended his deportation which was immediately approved by the British Foreign Office. Johnston later invited him to a naval vessel for discussions and promised that Jaja would be free to leave whenever he wished, but he dishonorably broke his pledge. Jaja was taken to Accra where he was tried. The sentence was deportation for five years in the West Indies. Jaja appealed against the deportation order through the assistance of a British Officer, Major Macdonald who felt that Jaja had been unjustly treated. He won the appeal, and his sentence was revoked but his anticipated triumphal home-coming could not be actualized; he died on the way (Fajana and Biggs 1976:138-9; Pedler 1974:76-7). Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister deeply regretted the treatment meted to Jaja, and insisted that in civilized lands, those that deported him would have been tried for kidnapping (Crowder 1968:121).
Jaja’s novel and entrepreneurial prowess is significant in many respects. Though political historians are ready to situate his resistance to British imperialism within the purview of the history of Nigeria’s nationalist struggles, and to underscore the fact that he was the first Nigerian nationalist of the nineteenth century (Fajana and Biggs 1976:137); this present study is, however, more interested in Jaja’s display of a remarkably high quality of economic wizardry and entrepreneurship. As noted earlier, he was daring and adventurous in his decision to ship palm oil direct to England. He also refused to allow British traders any access to his hinterland markets and insisted on levying duties on British merchants trading in his kingdom. At a point, there was complete stoppage of trade with British traders in his kingdom until one British firm,
Alexander Miller, agreed to trade on his terms (Crowder 1968:120; Pedler 1974:76-7).
His trading policies alarmed other British firms trading in the Niger Delta with the exception of Alexander Miller Brother and Company, which prospered and had stations throughout southern Nigeria partly because it co-operated with Jaja. It is, however, instructive to note that the other eight firms that were virulently opposed to his policies ‘ganged’ up to form the African Association which was incorporated in 1889. Hence, it was this African Association and a few other firms that eventually formed the United African Company (UAC) in 1929 (Pedler 1974:1, 78 and 139). Thus, the history of the origins of the UAC would not be complete without adequate reference to the intense commercial rivalries between Jaja and the firm of Alexander Miller who were contemptuously referred to as the agents of Jaja by the other firms, on the one
hand, and the other eight British firms in opposition to Jaja, on the other (Ogen 2006:20).
Reference: Rotimi K and Ogen O (2008). “Jaja and Nana in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria: Proto-Nationalists or Emergent Capitalists,” The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2008 vol.2, no.7.
|PHOTO OF SIX WOMEN FROM OPOBO BACK THEN|