Jaja of Opobo: The Slave Boy Who Became King
Born in Umuduruoha, Amaigbo, Imo state in the year 1821, his actual birth name is unknown, and also the identity of his true parents. The Igbo land in the 1800s was in chaos, as it saw Europeans invade the land for slaves, in exchange for firearms, tobacco, bullets and black slave raiders were invading different regions and selling Igbo’s to slavery.
After he was kidnapped and taken to Bonny Island, Rivers state, he was renamed Jubo Jubogha by his first master, and later resold to Chief Alali, the head of the Opobu Manila Group of Houses. It was here that the British who couldn’t pronounce his name properly gave him the name “Jaja”.
From the 15th to the 18th century, Opobo, like the other city-states, gained its wealth from the profits of the slave trade. This thriving business was enough to make one rich as well as give him popularity. However, the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807 was supplanted by the trade in palm oil. Palm oil, in itself, was so vibrant that the region was named the Oil Rivers area.
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.
Later on, a power struggle would ensue among rival factions in the houses at Bonny, led by Pepple House’s High Chief Oko Jumbo leading to the breakaway of the faction led by Jaja. He established a new settlement, which he named Opobo in 1869 where he became King Jaja of Opobo. This new status saw him declare himself independent of Bonny.
Opobo soon dominated the region’s lucrative palm oil trade and became home to fourteen of what were formerly Bonny’s eighteen trade houses. Part of this success is attributed to the fact that Jaja made moves to block the access of British merchants to the interior, giving him an effective monopoly. At times, Opobo even shipped palm oil directly to Liverpool, independent of British middlemen.
Apart from the fact that he was a wealthy merchant and a very diplomatic man, he was also a man of honour and power. This is exemplified when he aided the Queen of England in a battle in the Gold Coast (The Ashanti war) and was awarded a sword of honour from Queen Victoria in 1871.
As time went on, the Oil trade business in Opobo land began to expand and the ambitions of the Europeans to dominate this market grew, thus creating a conflict between Jaja and British top sales and business tycoons. One of who was John Holt of Liverpool. While Jaja evaded attempts by Holt to penetrate Jaja’s market in Qua Ibo River, Liverpool members of the African Association were pressing for strong action against Jaja over what they described as “falling rates of profit”.
In the course of “national interest”, King Jaja dealt severe blows on the Qua Ibo people in 1881. He raided about seven of their villages, captured many, and executed about 100 people for engaging in direct trade with the Europeans. Even when the British came up with funny tricks and laws to outrun Jaja in the quest of control of the Oil region, like a game of chess he always checkmated them and this angered the British the more.
At the 1884 Berlin Conference, however, the other European powers designated Opobo as British territory, and the British soon moved to claim it. When Jaja refused to cease taxing British traders, Henry Hamilton Johnston, a British vice-consul, invited Jaja to negotiations in 1887.
By September of 1887, Johnson brought a “Warship” named HMS Goshawk to Opobo and invited Jaja on board. He assured Jaja that nothing will happen to him. When he went on board, he was given two bad choices by Johnson. One was that if he would not allow the Europeans access, he could go back and face immediate bombardment from the British navy, and the other that he goes into exile.
Jaja being a man of strong values and principles choose not to back down, the British arrested him and tried him in Accra in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) then took him to London for some time, where he met Queen Victoria and was her guest in 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.
Fight for Freedom
After years of campaigning for his freedom, Jaja was moved to the island of São Vicente, Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa, to prevent the possibility of a revolt. Jaja eventually won his liberty after years of fighting against his wrongful abduction, and it was agreed by the Parliament that he could be repatriated to his Kingdom State of Opobo. Jaja now well advanced in age longed to see his beloved Opobo land again.
Now, this is the twist. The people of the Barbados, mostly of people of African (Nigeria) descent had heard rumors that an African King was being captured and is now on his way to the Island. They all rallied themselves together to give him a befitting reception. It was quite an interesting episode of his life in Barbados. The British brought him and wanted to tried him on the Island for his “crimes”. The people of the Island felt insulted about how an African King had been subjected to such ridicule and shame. Just when the ship made berth at the water side, the people of the Island rushed and camped at the water side to avoid the British bringing Jaja to the Colonial court house, which was in the middle of the Village’s square.
They literally camped at the water side throughout the night.
The next day, which was a Sunday, the people of the Island held their church service on the water side, right by the ship. Jaja was seen looking through as the service goes on. Before the service was over, he came out and there was a loud cry amongst the women, welcoming him; a King from their ancestral mother land. The crowd went hysterically. The British feared that they may plan an escape plan for him, got their bags and sailed back to St. Vincent.
He was moved around from one place to the around the West Indies so that hnis family lineage can be traced in St. Vincent (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). It was said even at a time 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. Following his exile and death, the power of the Opobo state rapidly declined, the land was plagued with slave raids, riots and the British exploited the land for his natural resources.
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 remains are now a sacred (grave) shrine behind the Palace of the Amanyanabo of Opobo.