Jaja of Opobo was a nationalist, merchant prince, successful businessman and founder of Opobo city-state, now a part of Rivers state in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. He was known for his astute business, political and military skills. Brought to Bonny Kingdom as a slave boy, Jaja of Opobo rose through life ranks to rule as a King and stood up to European imperialists when it was necessary.
Jaja was of Igbo descent and given the name Mbanaso Ukwaraozurumba. His exact date of birth is unknown but is presumed to be around 1821 in Umuduora Amaigbo (present day Orlu region, Imo State), Nigeria. Jaja was sold as a slave at the age of twelve in Bonny and was named Jubo Jubogha by his master and later renamed as Jaja by the British. He grew up learning the Ijaw values and practices of his new home and maximized the limited opportunities as slave to quickly grasp his master’s trade of oil palm, subsequently garnering invaluable business skills and acumen.
From Slave to King
Jaja was resold by his Bonny slave master to Chief Alali, the head of the Opubo Anna People Royal House; a sociopolitical institution functioning as the unit of a city-state. He settled quite well and soon became leader of the royal house overseeing the administration of its affairs.
The royal house grew in size and influence over the years, absorbing many other trade houses in the region. A dispute between the Anna Pepple and Manilla Pepple Houses forced Jaja and the Anna Pepple House to break away and establish Opobo city-state in 1869. Jaja declared himself King Jaja of Opobo, independent of Bonny.
He attained key status in the region and was regarded as one of the most powerful men in the eastern part of the Niger Delta. His leadership position helped boost his oil palm business. He controlled trade and politics in the region due to Opobo’s strategic location between the oil palm production areas of the hinterland and Bonny coast. His monopoly stifled 14 of the 18 other houses in Bonny to merge with King Jaja as part of Opobo. His next venture was trade with Europeans in Europe, shipping palm oil directly to Liverpool and bypassing the British middlemen which ultimately created a problem. This direct trade did not sit well with the British middlemen who tried to regain control by offering Jaja a treaty of “protection”, which would require Chiefs to surrender their sovereignty. King Jaja initially rebuffed the offer, but later reconsidered after being vaguely reassured that his authority and sovereignty of Opobo kingdom would be an exception.
As King Jaja’s wealth and influence continued to grow, he regulated trade and levy duties on British merchants even displaying the extent of his power by ordering a suspension of trade via the river channel until a defaulting British firm agreed to pay its duties and levies. This action infuriated the British who as a consul ordered Jaja to terminate such activities and threatened with invasion. The British finally secured Opobo as its territory in the 1884 Berlin Conference where European powers scrambled for pieces of Africa. Now a British territory, Opobo was forcibly claimed using the formidable British naval fleet which tilted negotiations in her favor.
Arrest, Exile & Death
Even after the Berlin Conference, Jaja did not yield to the British and continued to refuse orders to cease the taxation of British merchants. In a cunning move, a British vice-consul, Henry Hamilton Johnson, invited Jaja to negotiations aboard a warship in 1887. Jaja was arrested upon arrival and promptly sent to Accra, Ghana (then Gold Coast) for trial. He was summarily tried and convicted of “treaty breaking” and “blocking of highway trade”. Afterwards, he was taken to London for a short while where he met with Queen Victoria and was a guest at the Buckingham Palace.
King Jaja was later exiled to Saint Vincent in the West Indies, where he served his prison sentence. He appealed and fought against his wrongful abduction, ultimately convincing the Parliament to restore his freedom. In 1891, after serving four years in captivity, Jaja was allowed to return to Opobo. Unfortunately, his health was frail and he never made it home, though it was alleged that he was fatally poisoned with a cup of tea aboard a British vessel on his return to Nigeria. His body was shipped to Tenerife in the Canary Islands and buried there instead of Nigeria.
Events leading to his arrest, exile and death infuriated lots of his kinsmen back in Opobo especially since his body was never shipped back to Opobo. After much demands, his corpse was finally returned to Opobo kingdom and a two-year mourning period was declared to honor him and immortalize King Jaja as a deity.
The death of King Jaja led to the decline in power and influence Opobo. Moreover, the discovery of quinine as a treatment for malaria enabled British traders to venture inland to trade directly with oil palm producers bypassing Opobo. Chiefs and leaders of other city-states caved in to new developments, surrendering control to British authorities.
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