KING JAJA OF OPOBO: The sad history of a brave leader

Who was King Jaja of Opobo?

King Jaja of Opobo was the charismatic and brave leader of Opobo, a city-state in modern-day Rivers State, who fought against the penetration and domination of British trade in the Igbo hinterland.

Jaja was a Nkwerre man, born around 1821 in Umuduruoha in Amaigbo. His real name was Mbanaso Okwaraozurumba; he later took up the name Jaja because of his dealings with the British. For cutting his top teeth which is an abnormal and evil phenomenon in Igbo tradition, he was sold off to a wealthy man, Iganipughuma Allison, of the Delta town of Bonny which as at then was populated by Igbo slaves.

In Bonny, Jaja was given the name Jubo Jubogha and was ranked on the lowest rung of slaves which included the ones born outside the town, and because he was difficult to control, Jaja was gifted to Chief Madi of the House of Anna Pepple by his own master.

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While in the house of Anna Pepple, Jaja earned respect and rank with his skills in trade. He was admired by the leading members of the house and was later elected head of the house. This did not go well with some of the slaves in the house, so Jaja was later confronted with obstacles. An envious influential ex-slave named Oko Jombo battled and defeated Jaja with the help of King George Pepple. JaJa fled for his life and settled at a site close to the Ikomtoro River where he, as a talented trader, blocked the flow of Palm Oil to Pepple in Bonny.

On the 4th of January, 1873, Jaja signed a treaty with the British crown because of his dissatisfaction with a commercial agreement initiated by king George of Bonny. The treaty recognized Jaja as the king of Opobo and gave him the sole monopoly of trading except only in the White Man’s Beach.

This treaty was interpreted otherwise by the newly dispatched Consul to the British Queen, E.H. Hewett, who denied that the treaty granted a monopoly of the market to King Jaja of Opobo. The decision to impede the white man from proceeding higher up the river of Opobo, Hewett argued, was for sanitary reasons only.

The treaty of 1873 appears to have been finally superseded by the treaty of the protectorate of the Berlin Conference on the 19th of December, 1884 which puts the Niger District under “Her Majesty the Queen.”

For intrigues made to preserve his believed trade rights, King Jaja was accused of obstructing trade and infringing the agreement made at the Berlin Conference. King Jaja, failing to understand the full import of the establishment of a protectorate for the district in which his kingdom was part, sent a deputation to the Foreign Office in London to plead his case to the Earl of Roseberry.

The Consul decided to get rid of King Jaja of Opobo and thus persuaded the King of Bonny to repudiate him. He isolated King Jaja politically and asked for permission to remove him “temporarily” to Gold Coast, now Ghana.

Before King Jaja of Opobo was banished to Accra, Gold Coast, the Foreign Office demanded a third party opinion but still couldn’t stop the banishment which was effected on the 30th of September, 1887. An inquiry into King Jaja’s activities was held in Accra under a senior naval officer, Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty. It appeared that King Jaja’s actions against free trade was out of his ignorance, misinterpretation and later, objection to the Treaty of Berlin.

The Foreign Office had been unaware of this. However, the Admiralty found no proven case against King Jaja, the accused posed threat to penetration “to that only part of the country which is worth exploitation” was severe.

King Jaja was sent to exile for the benefit of free trade in the hinterland. Although King Jaja pleaded in a letter to be exiled in Accra, he was refused as he was thought capable of reasserting his authority from a place so ‘near.’

King Jaja lived the rest of his life in St. Vincent Island in the West Indies. However, in 1891, the British decided that King Jaja could return to his kingdom but on his way back, King Jaja of Opobo died of what many thought was poisoning. JaJa’s death, two decades later, was followed by the Aro War which will open up the entire Igbo hinterland to colonial power.

KING JAJA OF OPOBO: The sad history of a brave leader
Boat regatta during Opobo day celebration

By Teslim Omipidan (First published 2019)

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