by Ian McCall

Chapter 6 - JAJA (1) The Produce Trade and Traditional Authority

The story of King Jaja of Opobo is a microcosm of developments in the world of palm oil production and distribution for export in the nineteenth century. Palm oil was by far the first of the commodity exports and gave the name of `Oil Rivers` to the Niger delta. It was many years later followed by crops like cocoa and groundnuts from what was to become Nigeria. Jaja`s life illustrates the tensions that arose between the white traders and African middlemen after centuries of working together amicably and how these interacted with the growing authority of the consuls overseeing the ‘informal’ empire, the sole legal legitimacy of which was based on an agreement signed by the European powers at the end of a conference in Berlin in 1885. Prior to that date individual powers had taken it on themselves to keep a watching brief on the interests of their traders in West Africa. The Berlin Conference agreed to areas of influence. Subsequent boundaries were the result of the ambitions of individuals and national groups, power plays and negotiation.

As a youth, Jaja, an Ibo by upbringing, was snatched by strangers and sold to the Aro, a tribe notorious for having an extensive network of alliances that enabled them to sell slaves along routes which they controlled. The Aro sold him on to new owners. He was bought by a trader from the royal canoe house at Bonny on the Imo River just east of the Niger Delta and connected to it by means of a series of creeks. A canoe house was a trading and fighting unit capable of manning and maintaining a war canoe. It was also a social and administrative system within a grouping of canoe houses that made up the so-called ‘city states’ of the eastern delta with names like Brass, Nembe, Bonny and Akassa. These grew and thrived in the era of the slave trade because they had an advantageous position near the sea-coast and possessed a good anchorage. By offering slaves the rights of the house and granting them advancement on the basis of individual merit subject to their giving their allegiance in return, they were readily integrated into the community. Each canoe house had rules for the behaviour of its members and was responsible for ensuring that the members met their obligations to the city state which might include supplying labour for a special project like erecting defences or serving when needed in the war canoe. A war canoe could contain up to 50 persons.

Jaja became a noted trader on behalf of his house while still a young man. He had the confidence of the head of the canoe house who recommended him to one of the European traders who in turn entrusted goods to him. The wealth of the area was founded on the ‘trust’ system. This was the practice by which the captain of a trading vessel, or a person designated as the manager of the enterprise, handed over goods to the local trader, usually a chief or the chief`s nominee, on which prices had been fixed. In return the chiefs were expected to deliver quickly the value in slaves, or, after the abolition of slavery in British spheres of interest, palm oil to an equivalent value. So successful was Jaja that no one was surprised that he was offered the headship of the Annie Pepple House on the death of the incumbent. The Ibo slave was now a Bonny chief responsible for a war canoe. Jaja set about surrounding himself with able young people whom he as chief would introduce to the European traders from the ships. These entrepreneurial young men would then set forth perhaps fifty miles up-river and either buy palm oil in exchange for the goods or use some of the trust goods to sub-contract purchases. In addition, Jaja began to think strategically. He established a special relationship with neighbouring communities like the Ogoni and the Ibibio whose goodwill he might need in the future for the advancement or the protection of his trade.

But further change was already taking place that would alter for ever the structure of trade in the Delta economy. Bonny’s ‘open door’ policy meant in effect that while it was thriving on the increasing sales of palm oil fuelled by the new industrial processes being developed in the United Kingdom, it chose at the same time to provide with slaves those nations which had not yet abolished the trade like France, Brazil, Portugal and the United States of America. As a result of a treaty between Spain and Britain, British warships could seize Spanish slave ships north of the equator if carrying slaves or the equipment of slavery like manacles. Under this agreement a warship of the British West Africa squadron seized four Spanish ships in Bonny waters. This was during the minority of the King of Bonny. The Regent ordered the arrest and imprisonment of the British party which was having a parley on shore with some traders and the Spanish slavers for what he saw as unwarranted challenge to the city-state’s sovereignty. When various other ships of the West Africa squadron arrived the Regent ordered the release of the prisoners. The British government eventually paid compensation to Bonny for loss of the slave trade. As a result a British consul was appointed to regulate relationships with local rulers. His remit was to further the interests of the British commercial community which can be seen as a first step to what Bonnymen would see as a series of actions increasingly prejudicial to their own interests. The man appointed was called Hewett. He had been a successful European trader.

Meanwhile Jaja’s success as a chief attracted impoverished canoe houses to seek affiliation with his. This earned the antagonism of the dominant Manilla Pepple canoe house whose adherents perceived the Annie Pepple canoe house as overbearing and as offering a direct challenge to their traditional supremacy. The young king, a first among equals, was not strong enough to keep the competing factions apart nor was the British consul who was ignored. The situation was exacerbated by a fire which destroyed most of the living quarters of the Annie Pepple house which prompted Jaja to move outside Bonny with many of his followers. Again, Jaja’s strategic nose had directed him to a location which commanded the route followed by the Bonny trading canoes on their journeys to and from the important markets of the Imo River to the extreme annoyance of the Manilla Pepple house. A bloody war broke out between the factions in which Jaja and his forces were beaten. He decided to secede from Bonny and its political instability to allow trade to develop. In leaving Bonny, he retained the support of the other chiefs against the Manilla Pepple faction by agreeing to share all revenues levied on the European trading community including the ‘comey’, that is the agreed amount paid by them in return for the custom of the chiefs. He then negotiated with the Andoni clan to legitimise his move into their territory and at the same time to promote their interests. He knew that if he could build a new settlement there, his control of the canoe traffic to and from the abundant palm oil markets would be absolute. He called the place Opubo after the chief of the canoe house who had taken him in as a slave, a name quickly and unknowingly corrupted to Opobo by European traders, missionaries and administrators and perpetuated by the cartographers.

Luck was with Jaja too. He had made friends with two independent European traders who were finding it difficult to compete with the larger companies. They put forward the view that if he could find an outlet to the open sea navigable to ocean-going ships, it should be possible to attract the ships to transport the palm oil to the advantage of both parties. Soundings made by one of the traders showed that the bar was passable at high tide and a white flag was planted at an appropriate spot to inform ships’ masters that Opobo was open for trading. And the ships started to arrive at Opobo in increasing numbers. Intelligence, together with a strategic view and running with his luck, had helped Jaja to create victory out of defeat. In Bonny he had gone as far as he could go due to the opprobrium of his being an ex-slave. There was no such drawback in Opobo as he was the founder of the town. At just over fifty years of age Jaja had gone from slave to chief and from chief to king. His status was recognised in the agreement made between King Jaja and the British government in 1873 in which he received a guarantee that ships would not proceed further up the creek than Opobo town under pain of a heavy fine in rum puncheons. This ensured that the palm oil trade for the area had to be channelled through Opobo so ensuring that comey and other payments came to him.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003