King Jaja of Opobo – England’s Affair With Him And The End Of It


Born in Umuduruoha, Amaigbo in Igboland and sold as a slave to a Bonny trader at the age of twelve, he was named Jubo Jubogha by his first master. He was later sold to Chief Alali, the head of the Opubo Annie Pepple Royal House. Called Jaja by the British, this gifted and enterprising individual eventually became one of the most powerful men in the eastern Niger Delta.

In the nineteenth century—after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807—the trade in slaves was supplanted by the trade in palm oil, which was so vibrant that the region was named the Oil Rivers area.

The Houses in Bonny and other city-states controlled both the internal and external palm oil trade because the producers in the hinterland were forbidden to trade directly with the Europeans on the coast; the Europeans never left the coast for fear of malaria.

Astute in business and politics, Jaja became the head of the Anna Pepple House, extending its activities and influence by absorbing other houses, increasing operations in the hinterland and augmenting the number of European contacts. A power struggle ensued among rival factions in the houses at Bonny leading to the breakaway of the faction led by Jaja. He established a new settlement, which he named Opobo. He became King Jaja of Opobo and declared himself independent of Bonny.

Strategically located between Bonny and the production areas of the hinterland, King Jaja controlled trade and politics in the delta. In so doing, he curtailed trade at Bonny and fourteen of the eighteen Bonny houses moved to Opobo.

In a few years, he had become so wealthy that he was shipping palm oil directly to Liverpool. The British consul could not tolerate this situation. Jaja was offered a treaty of “protection”, in return for which the chiefs usually surrendered their sovereignty. After Jaja’s initial opposition, he was reassured, in vague terms, that neither his authority nor the sovereignty of Opobo would be threatened.

Jaja continued to regulate trade and levy duties on British traders, to the point where he ordered a cessation of trade on the river until one British firm agreed to pay duties. Jaja refused to comply with the consul’s order to terminate these activities, despite British threats to bombard Opobo. Unknown to Jaja, the Scramble for Africa had taken place and Opobo was part of the territories allocated to Great Britain. This was the era of gunboat diplomacy, where Great Britain used her naval power to negotiate conditions favorable to the British.

Lured into a meeting with the British consul aboard a warship, Jaja was arrested and sent to Accra, where he was summarily tried and found guilty of “treaty breaking” and “blocking the highways of trade”.

Jaja was forced into exile at St. Vincent, as a political prisoner, and placed on annual income of 800 pounds which was far below estimated at 50,000 pounds income per annum in Opobo, and where he enjoyed a lavish life style, in his three storey pre-fabricated house imported from Liverpool. He was to remain is St. Vincent, against his will, for three years, and for four additional month in Barbados, from where it was decided he should return home to Opobo from exile.

Meanwhile, Jaja’s health in exile began to deteriorate to the extent that his doctor in St. Vincent reported in 1899 that, the more Jaja was retained in St. Vincent the nearer he would approach his grave. Jaja report was threatening to commit suicide unless he was allowed to return.

It took another two years for Jaja to be evacuated from St. Vincent , from where in February, 1891, he was transferred to Barbados. He was to remain in Barbados for another three months before he was conveyed to Spanish colony of Teneriffe, instead of Sierra Lone, on May 11, 1891. The plan was for him to remain there until the arrival of the British consul, Macdonald who was to take him back to Opobo, but, due to an outbreak of epidemic in the island, Macdonald did not arrive in June as expected.

Consequently Jaja waited hopelessly and in abject misery, soon contracted dysentery from which he died on July 7, 1891, after nearly four years in exile. His body was buried at Teneriffe. But in October, 1892, his body was exhumed and taken to Opobo where on October 12, it was received by a fleet at 60 war canoes each carrying each of the old warriors of King Jaja.

Years after his exile in St. Vincent Jaja, is still remembered in anecdotes, today in the West Indies, as he stays there made the land favourable impact on the people of St. Vincent and Barbados. To them Jaja remained a legendary figure. He is remembered for upholding the diginity and self respect of the African even in the most difficult conditions in which he found himself while on exile in Caribbean.

Based on the illegal exile of King Jaja of Opobo in the Caribbean, the situation in the Delta today is not different. The same vicious struggle for the control of the oil resources in the Delta has continued in a post colonial and independent federal Nigeria. The British Buccaneers have been replaced by non-indigenous local predators, that in collusion with the big foreign-owned oil companies have seized control of vast oil resources in the Delta area in a manner that can not be said to serve the economic interest of the people of the Delta. Like Jaja, the people of the Delta want to control their own resources.

This is what is responsible for the rebellion of the people of Niger Delta and the continuing violence in the area. What the situation call for is some restitution with the people of the Delta through real fiscal federalism.

Legacy

King Jaja was exiled for many years in Barbados, the West Indies. Then due to immense civil unrest caused by the presence of King Jaja by the enslaved people of Barbados and after years of campaigning for his freedom. Jaja was moved to the island of San Vicente, Cape Verde, West Africa. To prevent the possibility of a slave revolt.

When Jaja eventually won his liberty after years of fighting against his wrongful abduction and consequent exile by the British. It was agreed by Parliament that he could be reunite to his Kingdom State of Opobo. Jaja now an old man and after years in exile in San Vicente, his health had deteriorated but this did not deter him from embarking on a British vessel bound for Opobo.

His health had failed and on his way back to his beloved Opobo Jaja died due to ill health. He was then shipped instead to Tenerife where he was buried. Due to the anger and fury felt by his people on the chain of events that had preceded, Opobians made the demand for the body of their King which was promptly exhumed and transported back to Opobo where Jaja was buried.

As a loved King his people never forgot about him nor gave up hope that one day he would return. When his body was returned they proceeded to honour him in a manor befitting a much loved & Powerful King (Amayanabo) with 2 years of mourning and with a ceremony immortalising Jaja as a deity.

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