by Ian McCall

Chapter 8 - JAJA (3) The Fight to Maintain Traditional Trading Practices

Against this background of dynamic change, King Jaja was busy consolidating the position he had achieved in the 1873 agreement. He demonstrated Opobo’s power by holding regattas to show how each Opobo canoe house was prepared for war and punished individuals of other tribes who undertook activities opposed to his interests. There was one incident recorded in which he had the skin stripped from a recalcitrant prisoner of a minor tribe while he was still alive. By such means and by his earlier alliances with neighbouring tribes, he protected the hinterland on which Opobo’s wealth relied. He encouraged Europeans to come to Opobo for he knew they were central to the prosperity of his kingdom but discouraged them from influencing its traditions by requiring them to move away from the banks of the river opposite his settlement. Jaja fitted in well with the free trade spirit of the century - and the free use of military power that accompanied it. His militant entrepreneurship was encouraged by the fall in oil prices in the 1880s and the trade rivalries it created. Africans were hit at a time when they could not achieve economies in production and transportation. The European companies were hit at a time when their profit margins had already been reduced by increased competition.

Examples abounded of a new aggressiveness on the part of the companies and there was a further deterioration of relationships between them and the locals. Jaja was caught up in these commercial activities and associated political machinations. He opposed strongly the penetration of the hinterland by European traders stiffened in their resolve by the knowledge that the consul and the forces at his command could be called on to assist them as necessary. He believed that African as well as European interests should be served in any cooperative activity. By that he meant the interests of the chiefs which he would maintain was the interests of the people. When a trader called Watts set up on the Qua Eboe River over which Jaja had long assumed control, he organised a punitive expedition against the Ibenos who had provided Watts with the facilities. He destroyed their crops and took away 100 prisoners who were killed and exhibited at Opobo. That Jaja had taken vengeance on the people rather than the new factory is an indication that he was only too aware that the latter action would have brought down on his head the wrath of the Royal Navy. He showed that he knew his people well enough to appreciate that the best way to stop foreigners trading in the markets of the hinterland was to frighten the local inhabitants and so dissuade them from entering into contracts with the European and Krio traders. The German philosopher Nietzsche admired the way the powerful could be ruthless, not because they enjoyed it but to preserve their commanding place at the forefront of affairs. Jaja was no different.

But Jaja reckoned without the prejudices of Consul Hewett, Her Britannic Majesty’s representative in the Delta. Hewett had found Jaja a handful, perhaps because he realised the considerable intelligence of the man, but had to acknowledge him as king. He appeared to want to bring to a halt what he considered to be Jaja’s disruptive influence in Opobo, namely his threatening to bypass the European traders and sell direct to the markets. No doubt he was also influenced by the demand of some of the merchants for a more active policy. As early as 1883 he had recommended Jaja’s deportation to the Foreign Office which quickly reminded him of Britain’s obligation to Jaja under the treaty of 1873. However, the Berlin International Conference of 1885 which, among other matters, declared that the Niger and its tributaries would from then on be controlled by Britain as an international waterway giving free navigation to ships of all nations, took precedence over the 1873 agreement with Jaja. It did not rule on the right to free trade.

When Britain, following the conference, declared a protectorate over the area in 1885, the trading companies, encouraged by the acting consul, felt themselves at liberty to trade upstream. Jaja tried to repeat his earlier tactics of intimidation of the interior producers, but this time the odds were stacked against him. The matter was referred to the consul who declared the traders had the right to trade anywhere in Jaja’s kingdom, freely interpreting the agreement made in Berlin. Harry Johnston, the vice-consul, in the absence of his master Hewett on leave, further undermined Jaja’s position when he forbade European traders from doing business with him on pain of a fine of £500 until he agreed to the conditions earlier outlined by Hewett. This included Jaja’s agreement to the cessation of the payment of comey. Jaja sought the assistance of the Foreign Office, but events moved too quickly for him. Legally, it could have been put forward that Opobo was at the mouth of the Imo River and unconnected directly with the Niger river system which was the subject of international navigation rights. Johnston took it upon himself to set a trap to snatch Jaja, a course of action proposed by Hewett and later deplored by the British prime minister. Johnston sent Jaja a note requiring him to parley with him on his launch and assuring him that if he came he would be free to go when he had heard what he had to say.

Johnston’s assurance was good enough for Jaja who knew about the word of an English gentleman. Contrary to his firm expectations he was taken prisoner and conveyed to the Gold Coast so that an enquiry could be heard. Despite the support of a number of European traders the enquiry became a trial and the court exiled Jaja to the West Indian island of St Vincent on a pension of £800 per year which, while substantial for a pension at the time, was as nothing compared to the £300,000 a year he was estimated to have received in comey payments. When he had spent four years there and his friends had continued their efforts to secure his return to his home, his release was authorised after he had given a written undertaking not to cause any trouble on his return to Opobo as a private citizen. He took ship for home but died in Santa Cruz in Tenerife in 1891. He was reported to have retained his dignity as a king to the end. His death marked the end of the imperial era and heralded the beginning of the colonial one. The chiefs who had signed the model treaties putting themselves under the protection of Queen Victoria thought they were doing just that. They found in the event that they had signed away their birthright, not because of any duplicity on the part of the British government representatives (Harry Johnson’s deception apart) but because of the external forces we have looked at. It would take two or three decades to undo the damage done by Johnson`s action to the trust people had in the British administration in the area.

A tale similar to this could have been told in the Western Delta with somewhat different social organisation and commercial practices. The Itsekiri chief Nana Olomu took actions similar to those of Jaja. The chiefs of the area elected him Gofine or Governor of the Benin River not because of his inherited royal connections, but because of his success as a trader. This position was affirmed by the consul. The duty of the Gofine was to collect the comey. Like Jaja he attempted to exercise and defend his traditional authority and eventually suffered a similar fate at the instance of the same consular officials who had dealt with Jaja. He was exiled to the Gold Coast as the old order gave way to the new. The old legitimacy within which traders had worked for well over 200 years was being eroded away and kings like Jaja and Nana found their authority undermined and eventually displaced.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003