History Opinion

King William Koko, Mingi VIII, the Amayanabo of Nembe: The black man who defeated the British Armed Forces in Africa

By Minaibi Ogboye

King Frederick William Koko, Mingi VIII, Amayanabo of Nembe (1853–1898), known as King Koko or King William Koko, was the Amayanabo (King) of Great Nembe Kingdom(Nembe, Brass, Akassa, Okpoma) in the ancient Oil River Protectorate, now in Nembe and Brass Local Government Areas of Bayelsa State, South-South (Niger Delta Region) Nigeria.

Note: Nembe Kingdom and King Koko played a major role in 1914 amalgamation of Nigeria. Before the arrival of the colonial masters, Nembe Kingdom was like a state (Country) of it’s own; In 1884 the white men included it in the Oil Rivers Protectorate; in 1967 it became part of old Rivers State and in 1996 it was carved out of Rivers State to form Bayelsa State.

Koko’s Early Life

Koko was born in 1853 into the Mingi royal family of Nembe, an Ijaw ethnic group in the oil-rich Niger Delta Region of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.

He was brave, intelligent, handsome and hard-working; his fishing skills and business sense had no rival within the Nembe Kingdom. He led Nembe to many wars as a warrior even before his ascension to the Mingi throne.

He was educated and spoke Nembe and English languages fluently.

Koko left the Nembe traditions and converted to Christianity and became a Sunday school teacher in the Church, which helped him to rise to power later because almost all the powerful chiefs and businessmen in Nembe Kingdom were Christians, they include – Spiff, Sambo, Cameroon etc.

Koko, the Amayanabo

In 1889, after the death of Amayanabo Ockiya, Koko, being a member of the royal family, and with the help of the leading powerful Christian chiefs, became the Amayanabo (King) of Nembe. However, there was at the same time a coparcenary king, the elderly Ebifa, who ruled at Bassambiri and was Commander-in-Chief until his death in 1894.

The Nembe Kingdom ruled by Mingi comprises of sub-kingdoms, they include Nembe main town (Ogolomabiri and Bassambiri), Akassa, Brass and Okpoma in form of a confederal state.

Koko Led Nembe To Prosperity

With the settlement of European traders on the coast, Nembe had engaged in trade with them, but it was poorer than its Bonny, Okrika and Kalabari neighbours.
Nembe was the centre of an important trade in palm oil, and it had refused to sign a treaty proposed by the British, opposing the Royal Niger Company’s aim of bringing all trade along the kingdom’s rivers into its own hands. By the 1890s, there was intense resentment of the Company’s treatment of the people of the today’s Niger delta and of its aggressive actions to exclude its competitors and to monopolize trade, denying the men of Nembe the access to markets which they had long enjoyed.

King Koko Renounced Christianity

King Koko renounced Christianity due to the ill-treatment of Nembe people by the British Royal Niger Company. January 1895, after the death of Ebifa the King in Bassambiri, King Koko led over one thousand five hundred men to raid the Royal Niger Company’s headquarters at Akassa with 22 war canoes loaded with able-bodied men and cannons, 1,500-foot soldiers from different parts of the Ijo (Ijaw/Izon) nation to attack the RNC depot in Akassa.
Royal Niger Company’s warehouses, offices, official and industrial machines, weapons etc were looted, vandalized and the entire depot burnt down. Over 70 men were said to have been captured, 25 were killed, and 40 white men were taken hostage, as part of the spoils of war to Nembe and 13 were not accounted for.

Many of the white men were later executed in cold blood at the “Sacrifice Island” and others eaten.

Attack on Nembe by Royal Navy

Koko then sought to negotiate with the Company for the release of the hostages, his price being a return to free trading conditions and on 2 February 1895, he wrote to Sir Claude MacDonald, the British Consul-General, that he had no quarrel with Queen Victoria but only with the Niger Company. Despite his move for peace, the British refused Koko’s demands, and more than forty of the hostages were then ceremoniously eaten.

On the 20th of February 1895, the Royal Navy carried out a reprisal attack on King Koko at Nembe main town which was razed and about three hundred Nembe men, women and children were killed by the attacking white men in cold blood. Many more of his people died from a severe outbreak of smallpox.

The attack on Nembe and King Koko’s forces was carried out by Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Bedford who led the British forces.

The British forces anchored off the Nembe Creek and seized Sacrifice Island, same day King Koko forces attacked with 25 war canoes, sunk 3 British ships and killed many British forces which later led to the complete burning down of Nembe main town.

On 23 March, out of love for his Kingdom and people, Koko ordered 16 of his war canoes to surrender to avoid further burning down of Villages and killings which was supervised by Sir Claude MacDonald in Brass.

However, King Koko never surrendered or was captured. In April 1895, peace and business activities returned back to Nembe, and Brass was fined with £500, an amount which sympathetic traders on the river volunteered to pay.

Koko assured the British that his part in the rising had been exaggerated and returned several cannons and a machine-gun looted from Akassa war. There was then an exchange of prisoners.

Public opinion in Britain came down against the Royal Niger Company and its director George Goldie, who was seen as having goaded Koko into hostilities.

The Colonial

Office commissioned the explorer and anti-slavery campaigner Sir John Kirk to write a report on the events at Akassa and Brass, and in August 1895, Koko came to Brass to meet MacDonald, who was about to sail for England but quickly took to the bush again. On MacDonald’s arrival at Liverpool, he told reporters that the people of Nembe-Brass were waiting for the outcome of Kirk’s report.

Sir John Kirk’s Report was presented to both Houses of Parliament by command of Her Majesty the Queen in March 1896.

One key finding was that forty-three of Koko’s prisoners had been murdered and eaten.

In April 1896 Koko refused the terms of a settlement offered to him by the British and was declared an outlaw. However, no attack came. A reward of £200 was unsuccessfully offered for Koko who was forced to flee from the British, hiding in remote villages.

On 11 June 1896, in reply to a question by Sir Charles Dilke in the House of Commons, George Nathaniel Curzon, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, said The Commissioner had in his possession a plan prepared by the chairman of the Royal Niger Company for the admitting of the Brass men into markets hitherto closed to them on the Niger.

It was, however, subject to acceptance by King Koko, which it had been impossible to obtain as, since the attack on Akassa and subsequent cannibalism of captives in his capital, he had declined to meet any of the British authorities, including Sir John Kirk. In consequence of this behaviour, he had been deposed. The settlement is now dependent upon the organization of a new native government in Brass, and will, it is hoped, very soon be arrived at.

Koko fled to Etiema, a remote village in the hinterland, where he died in 1898 in a suspected suicide. The next year, the charter of the Royal Niger Company was revoked, an act seen as partly a consequence of the short war with Koko and with effect from 1 January 1900, the Company sold all its possessions and concessions in Africa to the British government for £865,000, considered to be a very low price.

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