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King Jaja and his Trading State of Opobo

Author: nick on 14-09-2013, 17:00, views: 6 385


An important factor in the development of trade in Ikot Abasi and an incident that led to the establishment of Opobo District, was the establishment of the trading state of Opobo by Jaja (Crowder, 1966: 179). Jaja, regarded universally as an Igbo slave sold to King Opubo of Anna Pepple (Canoe) House in Bonny and later head of that house and founder of Opobo Town, was probably an Ibibio man. Sir Udo Udoma asserts that the late Chief Ntuen Ibok of Essene insisted that Jaja was an Ibibio man, born at Minya in Ikot Abasi area to one Etuk Ufi (Udoma, 15/4/96).


At birth, Jaja was given the name, Akpan, and thus became known as Akpan Etuk Ufi. As he grew up, he became sportive and restless, and people gave him the nickname, Yoyo. Soon, the name Yoyo eclipsed his parental name, Akpan. And since he was also insubordinate, troublesome and aggressive, his father sold him to an Igbo slave trader from Nkwere who, after experiencing for some time his mischief, resold him to King Opubo of Bonny. At Bonny, his nickname, Yoyo, was corrupted to Jojo and then to Jaja, probably by European traders. Applying his energies to trade, Jaja became a prosperous trader and subsequently, head of Anna Pepple Canoe House and a leader of one of the Bonny war factions. Fleeing from the civil war in Bonny in 1869, he founded the town of Opubo, corrupted to Opobo (Udoma, 15/4/96).


It is difficult for us to accept or reject Chief Ntuen Ibok's story about Jaja's connection with the Ibibio people. Perhaps, in support of the account, it can be accepted that the name Jaja is probably a corruption of the Ibibio name, Yoyo. For one thing, the name of his Igbo father is unknown. Again, the fact that Jaja, after leaving Bonny moved eastwards to establish his settlement in an area later claimed by the Ibibio as their land, is an indication that he was well familiar with the place and hoped to gain active support from his Ibibio kinsmen. The assistance, later given by the Ibibio to the Opobo in their dispute with the Andoni over the ownership of the Island in 1927, goes further to uphold Jaja's alleged Ibibio ancestry. Nevertheless, further research is needed to establish the truth of the matter.


All the sources of Jaja's rise to power, however, agree that it was the 1869 Civil War in Bonny, between Jaja's Anna Pepple House and Manilla House, that forced him out to establish his own state of Opobo. Jaja built and fortified his new settlement and continued the trade in palm produce. He was supported in this transaction by European traders in Bonny, the first to do so being Charles de Cardi (French) and Arthur McEchean, a Scottish trader and Miller Brothers partner. Both men immediately established trade at Opobo, buying palm produce from Jaja and evacuating it by steam ship. They were soon joined in this by the Miller Brothers, Cooper and Company, Johnson, and Stewart (Livingstone, May 16,1870), traders to whom Jaja owed a total of 2,000 puncheons of palm oil at Bonny (Jaja, 1991: 2). Miller Brothers bought the barque Hannah Salved at an auction at Fernando Po in 1870 and towed her to Opobo to use as a hulk (Pedler, 1974: 71).


Jaja subsequently diverted trade from Bonny and built an extensive commercial empire whose hinterland trading posts included Essene, Ibeno, Ndoki, Azumini, Ohambele and Akwete (Udoma, 15/4/96; Jaja 1991: 4). He ruled it with foresight, shrewdness and an iron hand, tempered with justice (Cowan, 1935).


King Jaja of Opobo in ritual outfit (Source: Ejituwu, 1991)

King Jaja, the most powerful middleman in the Eastern Delta
His position here is now one of great power and his will is law. He possesses a number of Krupp and other guns, both breech and muzzle-loading, and is well supplied with Sniders and other breech-loading rifles. He prohibits all intercourse between Europeans and the producers, although they are but a few miles apart, enjoying thereby a monopoly by which he is enabled to build up his power, which at times he exercises in the most arbitrary manner towards both natives and Europeans.
A British merchant at Opobo-Egwanga (in Ofonagoro, 1979: 4)

For some time Jaja remained in good terms with the British Government and its agents and was treated with considerable sympathy. For instance, the Livingstone Treaty of 1873, which ended the civil war in Bonny, gave control of the trade route from Bonny to Essene and the Qua Iboe markets to Opobo. Jaja's men traded in palm produce in all the places and acted as middlemen between the hinterland palm oil producers and the European traders. In 1875, Jaja sent a contingent to aid the British in the Ashanti War and was rewarded with a sword by Queen Victoria (Crowder, 1966: 196; Jaja, 1991: 26).


But in an era of the New Imperialism, Jaja's monopoly of trade was an anachronism in an area, regarded as vital to British commercial interest and constantly threatened by the French and German colonial interests.


Thus, it was Jaja's opposition to direct European trade in areas he considered as his sources of supply; and his swiftness in punishing the African collaborators with European firms, that brought him into conflict with the British firms and consular authorities.


In April 1881, Jaja's men invaded Ibeno and devastated the area for trading with George Watt. Consul Hewett immediately warned Jaja that his territory did not extend to the area and asked him to withdraw from the area, formally declaring Ibeno a British protectorate. And to deal effectively with the matter, Hewett transferred the British consulate from Fernando Po to Calabar in 1882.


In 1884, the consul pressurised Jaja to sign another treaty placing his country under the protection of the British Crown. And following the British victory in the Berlin West African Conference of 1884-85, a protectorate was declared over the Niger Districts with headquarters at Calabar.


The 1873 Treaty with King Jaja of Opobo which sanctioned his control over the hinterland trade:
Opobo, January 4, 1873
1. In the name of Her Britannic Majesty's Government, we hereby acknowledge Ja Ja King of Opobo, and fully entitled to all consideration as such.
2. The British traders in the River Opobo shall pay the same amount of comey as British traders in Bonny. No other tax or impost shall be placed on them. Any disputes which may occur with Ja Ja's people are to be referred to Her Britannic Majesty's Consul for settlement.
3. After April 5, 1873, the King of Opobo shall allow no trading establishment or hulk in or off Opobo Torr, or any trading vessels to come higher up the river than the white man's beach opposite Hippopotamus Creek. If any trading ship or steamer proceeds further up the river than the creek above mentioned, after having been duly warned to the contrary, the trading ship or steamer may be seized by King Ja Ja, and detained until a fine of 100
puncheons be paid by the owners to King Ja Ja.
Signed on board Her Britannic Majesty's ship Pioneer, off Opobo Town, on the 4th day of January. 1873.
J. E. COMMERELL. Commodore. Commanding-in-Chief Her
Britannic Majesty's Naval Forces on the Cape of Good Hope
and West Coast of Africa Station.
CHARLES LIVINGSTONE. Her Britannic Majesty's Consul for
the Bights of Biafra and Benin.
D. C. WILEIAMS, Secretary.
We the Undersigned, Agents in Opobo River, are perfectly willing to move our establishments down to a healthy part near the mouth of the river, and agree to do so before the 1st day of March, 1873.

Source: Herslet, Treaties, 1880

Consul Hewett to King Jaja,
May 8th, 1891

In order to put a stop to your interference with the trade of the Qua Ehos and to end the slaughter of the harmless and innocent people of that country, I deem it necessary to inform you that for the present they were to be considered as under British Protection, and until I have had an interview with Commander Sir Fred Richards or the Officer commanding Her Majesty's ships on this division of the Naval Station, on the subject of your cruel treatment of those people, you are still to look at them as so protected. In my letter to you of May 24th, I called on you at once to withdraw from the Qua Ebo country any force you might have there. This, I understand, you have not done but that since your canoes are still there and the crews of these have continued to harass the people of that country, I warn you that this may bring you consequences you may bitterly regret...
(Jaja. 1991: 73)

In 1887 Jaja was trading directly with England in competition with the British traders. When the British Consul intervened by withdrawing the comey paid to him, Jaja again imposed severe economic sanctions against the British firms on the river and negotiated with other nations' companies (French and German) to establish at Opobo. This independent action prompted his forceful removal by the British Consul.


In his continued conflict with Jaja, Consul Hewett accused him, among other things, of trade monopoly in the Niger Delta and of forcing his chiefs and people to interfere with the free trade. Though Jaja denied the charges, not being obliged to allow free trade on territories recognised as his markets, the Acting Consul, H. H. Johnston, deported him to Accra, where he was tried and convicted on the charges and exiled to the Caribbean Island of Saint Vincent on an annual pension of £ 800, taken out from the revenue of the Opobo trade. His trading partners, Miller Brothers, who were also sanctioned by the Consul, organised an international campaign in his defence.


In 1891 Jaja was released and allowed to return home on the request of the European traders in the Niger Delta. But he never reached his home alive (Crowder, 1966: 198).

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Category: Early History and Trade Contacts

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