Special Story: Background to the conflict with the British

 

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In 1851, the British Consul for the Bights of Benin and Biafra, John Beecroft, established the post of Governor of Benin River and gave it to an Itsekiri chief, Idiare. The governorship was intended to pass back and forth between two prominent Itsekiri families, the Emaye and the Ologbotsere. However, upon the death of his father, an Ologbotsere, the governorship was passed directly to Nana Olomu, instead of one of the Emayes.

Between 1857 and 1884, when Nana became Governor, there had been three governors – Idiare (1851-70); Tsanomi (1870-79) and Olomu, Nana’s father (1879-83). (Tsanomi’s full name was Oritsetsaninomi and which the British shortened to Chanomi, while Dogho’s full name was Omadoghogbone, shortened to ‘Dore’ by the British).

The election of a governor of the River was only one aspect of the general desire to protect the interests of the British traders in Itsekiri territory. One of the things that Idiare did as governor in 1851 was to sign an agreement with Beecroft aimed at regulating the commercial relations between the Itsekiri and the British traders. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a one-sided document tilted to favour the white traders – right or wrong. The first clause provided that the detention or molestation of any white trader on shore ‘under any pretence whatsoever’ would be regarded as an offence against Her Britannic Majesty and would involve the sending of a man-of-war to ‘protect British subjects and property’.

Article 3 made it obligatory for the white traders to pay the traditional ‘comey’ before starting to trade. But according to the provisions of Article 4, if for some reason the governor refused to accept the comey when offered, the white traders could go on and trade. Article 5 imposed a fine of one puncheon of oil per day on every ‘100 tons of Register’ on the  Itsekiri in the event of the trade of any vessel being stopped ‘upon any pretence whatsoever’ once the comey had been paid. Article 8 summed up the purpose of the agreement: “Whereas several boats have been plundered and lives sacrificed, it is deemed just and right, that all such aggressions and depredations, committed upon British subjects and property crossing the Bar or otherwise within the limits of the chief of the River Benin dominions shall be satisfactorily adjusted by the said chief.’’

While every provision was made to protect the whites against the blacks, no provision was made to protect the blacks against the white. However, despite its one-sided nature, it remained the only instrument duly signed and executed which guided Afro-British relations in the Benin River during the period up to 1866; when a new but equally one-sided agreement was signed. Not even the ‘protection’ treaty signed by Nana and other leading Itsekiri citizens in 1884 corrected the element of injustice noticeable in the 1851 agreement.

In 1884, Nana Olomu, the fourth governor of Benin River, signed a treaty on behalf of the Itsekiri, granting the British further rights in Itsekiriland. The relations between the two were peaceful until the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 and the ensuing ‘Scramble for Africa’, which led the British to try to bypass the Itsekiri middlemen in order to trade directly with the Urhobo. A further complication was that because of technical improvements in shipping, European traders could travel further into the interior than previously, thus ending their former reliance on the coastal chieftains as middlemen.

 

ATTACKS ON THE URHOBO

Following this development, the relations between the Itsekiri led by Olomu and the British began to decline. In 1892 and 1893, direct treaties between the British and the Urhobo further angered Olomu. In retaliation for the perceived bypassing of the Itsekiri, Olomu’s men attacked some of the nearby Urhobo villages which had been exchanging goods with the British. This led to the Urhobo halting their trading and the British responded by cracking down on the Itsekiri. In 1894, several other Itsekiri chiefs signed a new treaty with the British.

Chief Nana’s status was successfully built on his father’s legacy as a prodigious son. His outstanding ability in the organisation of his business empire and formidable military capacity was also acknowledged by the British imperialists and their trading companies.

He started by building on what he inherited from his father, but his own natural ability and sagacity came to the fore in his dealings with the British merchants and their colonial expansionists. The palm oil super magnate, Chief Nana Olomu, was a state builder. He built his business empire due to his effective control of the trade in palm oil.  Unlike the slave trade, trading in palm oil called for greater financial resources and organisation. Acquiring fully equipped war canoes, trading canoes and men to man them required great financial and organisational ability, even if the men are mostly captured slaves from the then perennial inter-tribal wars.

Chief Nana also developed and modernised the new capital at Ebrohimi (Brohimi), which was founded by his father on a very difficult, swampy and muddy terrain by refilling it with heaps of sand. He stationed his trading agents who were responsible for the purchase and transportation of the palm oil in the Urhobo hinterland to all parts of his trading areas. Chief Nana also had the foresight of marrying wives from all the prominent Urhobo clans with which he traded, thereby developing strong bonds between himself and his main suppliers.

In 1884, he was made the governor of the Benin and Ethiope Rivers and environs. In 1892, a British official, Gallway, who was touring the Urhobo areas had these admirable words for him: “In terms of relations with the British, Nana was the Jaja of the Western Delta. His hold on most of the Urhobo oil markets was even firmer than Jaja’s. In terms of wealth, Nana was probably much wealthier than Jaja and like Jaja was able to dictate his own trade terms and had no need for trust (loan or advance).”

Between 1886 and 1887, when the price of palm oil fell by 40 per cent, Nana stopped palm oil exports to force the European merchants to accept the terms and conditions of sale laid down by local producers and suppliers. This was a calculated way of securing  favourable prices for the Urhobo producers and Itsekiri middlemen. Nana’s influence was so strong and widespread that the British Commissioner and Consul General for Oil Rivers Protectorate, Major Claude Macdonald, in 1887 advised that it would be in the best interest of British traders, missionaries and colonialists to urgently and decisively stop Nana’s growing influence and power. He added that at a particular occasion when he met Nana at the Benin River for an important meeting, he came in a war canoe paddled by about 100 people with four or five similar canoes serving as escorts and personal bodyguards of 20 armed men with Winchester repeater rifles. The Consul General concluded that Nana was “a man possessed of great power and wealth, astute, energetic and intelligent.”

In 1891, the British, in their usual manner of dominating their environment, tried to undermine Nana’s economic interests by opening up another Vice-Consulate at Sapele apart from the one on the Benin River in order to penetrate the hinterland and reduce the trade on the Benin River – the main source of Nana’s wealth. But to the surprise of the British, he also retaliated by sending his agents to Sapele and they were in fact in firm control of the trade in Sapele – his influence was extremely strong. He was so powerful and wealthy to dictate his own trade terms, to hold up trade when it suited him for fair and advantageous prices and even refused to take trust from European firms.

The British, in order to gain more trading grounds and advantages, started treaty signings with various  hinterland tribes in order to expand their spheres of influence, but Chief Nana Olomu fully understood the import of British imperial intentions in the Western Niger Delta. Like King Jaja of Opobo, he removed clauses which stipulated free access to British traders to trade wherever they want in his kingdom. And these ‘so-called’ unco-operative tendencies on his part contributed to the Ebrohimi expedition in 1894 by the British to fully remove any opposition to their imperialistic designs.

The British were overawed by his power that he was credited with having a fleet of 200 trade canoes and 100 war canoes with the ability to muster 20,000 war boys.

After his defeat in 1884, largely through treachery from his kinsman and competitor, Dogho, who showed the British forces the safest way to reach Ebrohimi, after Nana and his men have repelled the British invaders for over three months – in the creeks and on land, the arms seized in Ebrohimi, his capital, were 106 cannons, 445 blunderbusses, 640 guns, 10 revolvers, 1,640 kegs of gunpowder and 250 rounds of machine gun ammunition. There was no doubt that his impressive military hardware by 19th Century standards, his enormous wealth and great influence were deciding factors in his virtual monopoly of the palm oil trade to the envy of even the British traders and the colonial administrators.

 

The British, in their usual manner of giving a dog a bad name in order to hang it, accused Chief Nana of disrupting trading activities in the Niger Delta, of terrorising the Urhobo and turning them against the British, of engaging in the inhuman traffic in slaves and the most grievous – of practising human sacrifice. His real offence, however, was that with his enormous wealth and power, he had considerable influence over the areas around the Benin River and the Warri district to the Urhobo hinterlands, thereby making the penetration of British traders to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. A scenario detested by the British agents and their partners, who were piqued by the bravery and business sagacity of “this black Itsekiri man.”

In 1894, the British laid siege on Ebrohimi to stop him from further blocking their imperialistic designs on the Western Niger Delta region, having earlier succeeded in tricking and kidnapping King Jaja of Opobo in the Eastern Niger Delta.

Nana intelligently fortified his capital. The resistance he gave the British invaders and their local collaborators was bitter, daring, skilful and intelligently pursued. He combined conventional warfare with guerilla warfare tactics and impressively used his superior knowledge of the creeks to his advantage, thereby making what the British thought would be an easy military expedition to be one of the most difficult and costly imperial adventures in West Africa.

His effective defensive war tactics forced the British to build a large naval and military force off the Benin River – representing virtually the entire British naval strength in West Africa and the largest collection of British forces in the Niger Delta at that time. Four British warships HMS Alecto, HMS Phoebe, HMS Philomel and HMS Widgem were sent to the warfront. And they were used infamously to bombard and destroy all the villages around Ebrohimi. Yet, Nana refused to surrender or obey the British entreaties to come for talks at the Consulate, based on the memory of the trick played on King JaJa when he agreed to such a Greek request and was kidnapped and exiled.

Consequently, all attempts to take Ebrohimi by going up the creek failed. In fact, Nana successfully repelled the British invaders on three occasions and were forced to withdraw with heavy casualties. Cutting a path through the dense swampy forest also proved impossible and dangerous because of  Nana’s cleverly hidden men. Attacking Ebrohimi by land also failed because of the heavy firepower directed against the British by Nana’s forces.

Albeit, Nana’s capital, Ebrohimi, eventually fell on September 25, 1894, mainly because of treachery by Dogho, Nana’s local rival – who provided the British with logistics and intelligence support by showing them the best route to Ebrohimi.

However, Nana was never captured in the creeks despite being pursued as far as Okotobo, where he made his last stand against the British and the British being helped by ‘friendly chiefs’ against Nana. The last of his chief aides were captured here.

Nana caused a stir when he found his way to Lagos on October 30, 1894. He put the records straight when he was interviewed by the Lagos Weekly Record – which came out on November 3, 1894 – expressing surprise about the one-sided story being peddled in the British press to justify the Ebrohimi Expedition. It condemned the British press of finding an excuse for the war than a honest and candid relation of the circumstances which led to it.

In Lagos, Nana put up with a friend named Seidu Olowu and eventually surrendered himself to Governor Carter, who provided an escort to keep an eye on his movement, but did not keep him in confinement. MacDonald was later to complain about Carter’s failure to keep him in prison. Governor Carter tried his best to keep Nana in Lagos to be tried there but MacDonald was adamant. Eventually, Nana was tried in Old Calabar, where there was no lawyer to ask embarrassing but relevant questions. At the end of what might appear to be British jungle justice, Nana was sentenced to life-long exile and loss of all his property.

Nana’s first home in exile was at Old Calabar, where he remained for two years. In April 1896, Nana addressed a petition to the Governor of the Lagos Colony, praying him to help secure his release from exile, including those of his men. His Lagos friend, Seidu Olowu, also sent a petition on his behalf for his release to the Governor of Lagos. However, in November 1896, Nana, with four attendants, was deported to the Gold Coast, where he was installed in Christianbourg Castle.

In 1897, the Aborigines’ Protection Society, through the Foreign Office, took up the question of the 1894 operations as well as the Akassa disturbances in the early part of 1895, mainly due to the efforts of the British authorities to force the natives to trade with Europeans under conditions prescribed by the latter.

However, in London in 1899, the Aborigines’ Protection Society complained to the Foreign Office about “the arbitrary treatment” meted to Chief Nana Olomu, the government’s failure to carry out thorough investigation into the charges levelled against him and appealed for him to be given liberty to conduct his commercial affairs freely even if, for political reasons, he could not be restored to his old position. A letter from Nana was also enclosed in which he complained that his maintenance was inadequate for him to support himself and five other persons.

The then Prime Minister of Britain, the Marquis of Salisbury, promised to look into the conditions of the chief’s maintenance, but ruled out the possibility of his return to his homeland. A month later, the question of his treatment was raised in parliament and the government again stated it would be unsafe to allow him return.

However, in 1906, he was repatriated by the grace of King Edward VII. When he returned to his homeland, he built the town of Koko, which his sons called “New America,” but which he himself called “Marken.” Nana died in 1916.

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