SPECIAL STORY: MEET CHIEF NANA OLOMU

CHIEF NANA OLOMU

The Itsekiri man who fought the British

When the complete history of Nigerian nationalists who resisted British and European penetration and unbridled imperialism in trade and politics is to be written, the name of Chief Nana Olomu, of Itsekiri, the fourth and last Governor of Benin River and environs will be written in gold.

 

THE ITSEKIRI PEOPLE

The Itsekiri inhabit the north-western extremity of the Niger Delta in an area bounded approximately by latitudes 5 degrees 20’ and 6 degrees N and longitudes 5 degrees 5’ and 5 degrees 40’ East. Their neighbors are the Bini to the north, the Ijaw to the south; the Urhobo to the east and the Yoruba of Ondo Province to the northwest.

According to an Itsekiri writer, William Moore, whose History of Itsekiri was published in 1936, the Itsekiris are a Yoruba race. They were normally ruled at the centre by their king, whom they called Olu and an advisory council of state. The council of state was made up of 70 titled men or Ojoye. The Ojoye dated back to the foundation of the kingdom when the Benin Prince, Ginuwa, the founder of the Itsekiri dynasty, who was said to have been accompanied by 70 sons of Bini nobles, conferred on them titles simiar to those in use in Benin. Not all the titles are now remembered, but the most prominent are the Ologbotsere, Uwangue and the Iyatsere. The Ologbotsere was the Olu’s prime minister and chief adviser; the Uwangue was the custodian of the Olu’s regalia, his chief spokesman in council and, most important of all, the person who crowned the Olu during his installation. The Iyatsere was the war captain. The Itsekiri always seek to trace their genealogy to the royal family or to one or other of the royal families. Princes and princesses of the royal house were called Oton-Olu. Strictly speaking, however, only children born to the reigning Olu were expected to use the title or name Oton-Olu. In practice, however, all those who could trace some connection between their ancestors and any of the Olu, who have reigned since the foundation of the kingdom, could do so. The Itsekiri are extremely touchy about their Ebi or family group. Inability to trace one’s genealogy satisfactorily is often regarded as evidence of a slave origin.

Ginuwa founded Ode Itsekiri, the capital, from where they began to expand to found various settlements in Itsekiriland. The Itsekiri language or dialect is very similar to the Yoruba dialects spoken by the Ilaje and the Ikale of Ondo State.

ODE ITSEKIRI

Most of Itsekiriland lies within the deltaic belt of mangrove swamps. Only on the eastern fringes is there some firm land. Ode Itsekiri, the capital of the Itsekiri kingdom, which stands on part of this firm land, is, in fact, only some 20 feet above sea level. It is not surprising therefore, that the dominant feature of the vegetation is the white and red mangrove. Itsekiriland is watered by three large rivers, the Benin, the Escravos and the Forcados, which are connected by a dense network of creeks, most of which are navigable only by small craft. The Itsekiri environment determined their mode of life – for they are primarily fishermen and like their Ijaw neighbours, are known as suppliers of fish and ‘crayfish’ to the peoples of the hinterland.

They also engaged in the manufacture of salt from earlier times. One process was by evaporation of sea water. Another widespread method was by burning the shoots, roots and leaves of the mangrove tree; a solution of the ashes was then filtered and evaporated. Salt was an extremely important article of trade in the period before its importation and even today, local salt is preferred for the preparation of certain dishes to imported one. A third industry in which the Itsekiri engaged was pottery. Salt and pottery-making being largely done by the womenfolk. Many men were, however, engaged in the fishing industry. The Itsekiri had never been great farmers, their land not being sufficiently suited to farming. They therefore largely depended on the farming folks in the north, especially, the Urhobo, for their agricultural products.

It is not as fishermen or manufacturers of salt or pottery that the Itsekiri made their name in history. Their location by the sea coast enabled them to develop into middlemen traders at an early date. Accounts by Portuguese and other early European travellers indicate that the Benin and Forcados Rivers were highways of trade from an early period. The Itsekiri took advantage of this fact and their early contact with the Europeans to be middlemen traders between the Europeans and the tribes in the hinterlands from the middle 15th Century to the early 20th Century. However, it should be stressed that only a small proportion of the populace was engaged in trading activities as trading required a lot of capital in cash and in kind. In fact, large scale trading was the preserve of the very wealthy and brave middlemen merchants, who, apart from their trading canoes, had to acquire war canoes with cannons, guns and men or slaves to handle their fleet. For those were terrible days. The middle man merchant had to be strong to protect his cargo-laden canoes from envious rival traders or local pirates.

NANA OLOMU’S ANTECEDENTS

There were two major factors which determined Nana Olomu’s rise to eminence and fall from power – one was his inheritance, while the other was the age in which he lived. Nana was the son of Olomu. Olomu’s father was Asorokun. His grandfather was Ofoluwa who, according to records, ‘was governor at Bobi at the turn of the century.’ Olomu’s family traced their descent through Ofoluwa’s father, Mufeme, to Olu Abejioye, whose son, Udefi, was Ofoluwa’s grandfather.

It would thus appear that by tracing his descent through five generations, Olomu could establish some connection with the Itsekiri royal family. Olomu’s mother was Iwereko, a daughter of the Ologbotsere Eyinmisaren.

Nevertheless, despite these connections with the two most important family groups in Itsekiriland, Olomu’s career, like that of his son after him, was determined not by family connections but by his own hard work and resourcefulness.

Olomu, it has been suggested, was born at about 1810. He grew up at the time when the trade of the Benin River was on the decline. The period immediately after the stoppage of the slave trade and the trade in palm oil was yet to pick up sufficiently. The fact of Olomu’s wealth and power is not in any doubt, for in 1851, he signed the agreement between Beecroft and the Itsekiri traders directly after Idiare, the governor and Idibofun, Idiare’s elder brother – an indication that by that time, he was already one of Itsekiriland’s leading traders.

Twenty years later, he was clearly the foremost trader in the Benin River area, for on the death of Idiare in 1870, the Consul, McLeod, wrote to the British Foreign Office, suggesting the appointment of Olomu as governor of the River as he was the only chief having the intellect and force sufficiently organised to keep peace in the area. In fact, it was not until 1879 that he was appointed governor. As in 1870, Tsanomi was appointed to the office.

Another British consul wrote of Olomu, ‘Aluma is a very clever native, he is the oldest and richest chief in the country and never gives any trouble.’ A British trader who spent over 40 years in the area, James Pinnock, also said, ‘the most powerful chief ever known to Benin River was Alluma.’

TRADE AND POLITICS IN ITSEKIRILAND (1850-84)

Nana Olomu, the last great middleman trader of the Niger Delta in the 19th Century, was born about 1852 into the Itsekiri community of Jakpa. The town Jakpa is situated on the right bank of the famous Benin River in the Itsekiri region of present day Delta State.

His father, Chief Olomu, incidentally, was also the richest and powerful Itsekiri merchant in his days. His real name was Eriomala.

The name Nana, was a pet or ‘play name’ that virtually superseded his proper name. The tendency in the Itsekiri society of the 19th Century was for the wealthy traders among them to found a settlement, peopled by his brothers and sisters, some distant relatives, close friends and slaves. And they constituted a corporate trading concern.

The founder acted as the leader or king of the settlement and helped in the management by a council of elders. The founder or his descendant remained the leading trader of the settlement and to him rested the final say in times of peace or unrest.

Historically, Itsekiriland, in July 1884, became Great Britain’s first Protectorate in the Western Niger Delta, even before the European “Scramble for African” territories which followed the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, was initiated.

The Protection Treaty that the British signed with the Itsekiri in July 1884 was by no means the beginning of the relationship between the British and Itsekiri. The Itsekiri were unknown to the Portuguese when they arrived as the first Europeans who visited the Western Niger Delta in the 1480s.

However, in four centuries of European trade in the Western Niger Delta, the Itsekiri emerged from being an unnoticed small ethnic group into a very significant people, who flourished commercially and politically, with important help from various European trading nations, beginning with the Portuguese.

Itsekiri chieftains were the middlemen who ran the European trade in the Western Niger Delta, mostly by preventing their mainland Urhobo neighbours from direct contact with the European traders and participation in the trade.

By the 1850s, the British had edged out other European trading nations in the trade and politics of the Itsekiri. This was the scenario in which Chief Nana Olomu was born and raised.

That era was dominated by the trade in palm oil, especially soon after the abolition of the slave trade that it was impossible to remove politics from trade. With the British doing everything to dominate the trade to the disadvantage of the Itsekiri middlemen and the Urhobo suppliers.

Although the slave trade seemed to be very low in the Western Delta unlike the Eastern Delta as the only record was in 1837, when a Portuguese slave ship was forced to discharge its human cargo and was eventually seized by a pursuing British schooner, the Fair Rosamund. There were also no slave trade treaties signed with the rulers of the Itsekiri country – like those signed in Brass and Bonny in the Eastern Delta after 1807.

However, in the 1920s, it was reported by one Captain Adams of the Royal Navy that there were large quantities of palm oil in the Benin River area. By the 1840s, however, there were two important Liverpool firms trading on the banks of the Benin River; Horsfall was near Bobi, while Harrison and Company were near Jakpa creek. The years after 1850 saw other firms like Douglas Stewart, Miller Brothers and James Pinnock, setting up shops.

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