The story of Jaja of Opobo is one of many complexes and often fraught relationships between African societies and European colonial powers during the 19th century and of the many challenges faced by those who sought to resist colonial domination and exploitation.
His Life and Struggles
Jubo Jubogba, also known as King Jaja of Opobo, was a Nigerian merchant prince and founder of the Opobo city-state in the late 19th century. He was born in 1821 in Úmuduruõha, Amaigbo village in the Orlu district, now Imo State of Eastern Nigeria.
Different oral sources suggested Jaja was bought by Chief Iganipughuma Allison of Bonny, by far the most powerful city-state on the Atlantic coast of Southeastern Nigeria before the rise of Opobo. Until the end of the 19th century, the Delta communities played a crucial role in European and American trade with Nigeria. Acting as middlemen, these communities carried into the interior markets the trade goods of European and American supercargoes stationed on the coast of basically palm oil. Delta is dominated by saline swamps and crisscrossed by a labyrinth of creeks and rivers.
The Delta Society is composed of a wealthy merchant (its founder), his family, and the numerous slaves he owns. A home could comprise a thousand free and bonded, with hundreds of trade canoes. In this intensely competitive society, leadership is by merit, not birth or ascriptions. Any person with charisma and proven ability could rise to leadership but can never become king.
Chief Allison found Jaja too headstrong and gave him as a gift to his friend Madu, a chief of Anna Pepple House. Jaja was put into the lowest rung of the Bonny slave society ladder as a paddler on his Madu’s great trade canoes. His exceptional abilities and business acumen won the hearts of the local people and those of the European supercargoes. He transitioned from a canoe paddler to a trader through honesty, business sense, and amiability.
Christianity was introduced to Bonny in 1864. It further polarized society and caused division among the people while King William Pepple died the following year. With these, the contest for the throne took on a monstrous posture and would further ravage Bonny in three years. Following the conflict, Jaja relocated to the seaboard at the mouth of the Imo River, the highway of trade between the coastal communities and the palm-oil-rich Kwa Iboe and Igbo country. He survived the initial problems of a virgin settlement as well as the incessant attacks of his Bonny enemies.
In 1870, feeling reasonably secure, Jaja proclaimed the independence of his settlement which he named Opobo.
He ruled his kingdom with firmness and remarkable sagacity. He strengthened his relations with the hinterland palm oil producers through judicious marriages and blood covenants which bound the parties into ritual kingship. He armed his traders with modern weapons for their defence and that of the state. He thus monopolized trade with the palm-oil producers and severely punished any community that tried to trade directly with the European supercargoes.
The British recognized him in 1873 as king of independent Opobo, and Jaja reciprocated by sending a contingent of his soldiers to help the British in their war against the Ashanti kingdom in the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Queen Victoria expressed her gratitude in 1875 by awarding him a sword of honour.
Having sent his two sons to school in Scotland to acquire only secular education, he established a secular school in Opobo and employed an African-American, Emma White, to run it.
In the 1880s, his rise to prominence as a successful trader of palm oil and other goods made the British colonial authorities see him as a threat to their economic interests in the region. British imperialism began to assert itself forcefully; increasingly ignoring indigenous authorities, and trading directly with the hinterland palm oil producers. They proclaimed the Oil Rivers Protectorate which included Jaja’s territory and directed the European firms not to pay Comey to Jaja anymore because he was shipping his produce directly to Europe without going through the British.
The British saw Jaja as a threat to its interests in the region, particularly to their control of the palm oil trade. They accused Jaja of obstructing British trade and of breaking a treaty he had signed with the British in 1884. By September of 1887, Henry Johnson brought a “Warship” named HMS Goshawk to Opobo and invited Jaja on board which he initially turned down but later accepted after he was promised a safe return. The British reneged on their pledge, arrested, and exiled him from Nigeria. They accused him of breaking a treaty he had signed with the British, in which he had agreed to pay taxes in exchange for their protection. They also accused Jaja of interfering with their trade in the region and undermining their authority. He was taken into custody and eventually deported to the Gold Coast, tried, and declared guilty of actions inimical to Britain’s interest.
With the exit of Jaja, the most formidable obstacle to Britain’s imperial ambition in Southeastern Nigeria had been removed. Among the indigenous population, it left a deep and lasting scar of suspicion of Britain’s good faith and, for a long time, trade in the area all but ceased.
Jaja was taken to London for some time, where he met Queen Victoria and was her guest at Buckingham Palace. No one knew what transpired between him and the Queen but after some time, he was finally deported to the West Indies. While in exile in the Caribbean, his presence was alleged to be the cause of immense civil unrest among the people of Barbados. The people of Barbados, mostly people of African (Nigeria) descent had heard rumours that an African King was being captured and is now on his way to the Island. They all rallied together to give him a befitting reception. The people of the Island felt insulted about how an African King had been subjected to such ridicule and shame. They camped at the waterside to avoid the British bringing Jaja to the Colonial courthouse, which was in the middle of the Village’s square. They held their church service on the waterside, right by the ship. When Jaja came out, there was a loud cry amongst the women, welcoming him; a King from their ancestral motherland. The British feared that they might plan an escape plan for him, got their bags and sailed back to the island of São Vicente, Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa.
He was moved around a lot and it was said that he got married and had children. “Jaja” in the West Indies (Barbados and St. Vincent) is a common slang for someone who is arrogant and carries himself or herself with an air of pride and dignity. Coined after the way King Jaja himself held his head up high while he was on the island.
In 1891, Jaja was granted permission to return to Opobo but died en route, allegedly poisoned with a cup of tea in June. His body was shipped instead to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where he was buried. After many years of clamour and protest his body was properly exhumed and sent back to his beloved Opobo Kingdom where he was laid to rest.
His death was a great loss to the people of Opobo and to many Nigerians who saw him as a champion of their rights and a symbol of resistance against colonial oppression. He had several wives and children, many of whom continued to live in Opobo after his exile. Jaja’s son, William Jumbo, became a prominent figure in the Niger Delta region and played a key role in the establishment of the Opobo Native Authority, which was a form of local government that was recognized by the British colonial authorities.
Jaja’s descendants continue to live in Nigeria and elsewhere, and many of them have become influential figures in their own right. Jaja’s legacy of self-independence and self-determination continues to inspire many Nigerians and Africans today, and he is remembered as one of the great heroes of Nigeria’s symbol of resistance against colonialism and oppression. His remains are now a sacred (grave) shrine behind the Palace of the Amanyanabo of Opobo.