Editor’s Introduction: Colonial Treaties of Protection with Urhobo Communities in “Warri District”

Urhobo Historical Society


Colonial “Treaties of Protection”
With Urhobo Communities In “Warri District”


The two decades of the 1880s and 1890s were horrific ones for Africa. Unbeknownst to most of its countries and communities — with the exception of Ethiopia — important decisions on the fate of its peoples were being made in European national politics and international rivalries. The English annexation of Egypt in 1882 triggered a contest for African countries that compelled the negotiations that were carried out in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 whose main purpose was to avoid warfare over the imperial acquisition of African territories among Western European nations.

The rules of engagement that were formulated at the Berlin Conference resulted in the Scramble for Africa. That struggle for African territories among the so-called Western European Great Powers of Great Britain, France, and Germany as well as the Minor Powers of Italy, Portugal, and Spain, was by no means random. Its first installment was in the basins of Africa’s three great rivers of Nile, Niger, and Congo. The Niger Delta became an early theatre in the struggle among Western European powers to colonize Africa. Urhobo lands and communities in the western Niger Delta were thus among the first victims of Great Britain’s coerced so-called “treaties of protection.” Many of these treaties were signed as a consequence of Great Britain’s infamous gun-boat diplomacy. The treaties reproduced in these pages involved communities situated on the tributaries of River Niger, with British gun-boats parked at a menacing short distance away from the Urhobo communities.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Urhobos recognized that they were now living in a new era. Olden times (Akpo ra aware in Urhobo) were separated from the European times, designated in Urhobo as Akpo ro oyibo. These treaties ended Urhobo’s Olden Times (Akpo ra aware) and ushered in Akpo ro oyibo. From the point of view of Urhobo history, their significance was thus epochal in nature.

These standard treaties were printed in Great Britain and carried to Urhobo lands by imperial agents. It is doubtful that those Urhobo chiefs who signed these treaties, willingly or otherwise coerced, ever knew that they were signing away their sovereignty. The first article is thoroughly provocative. It claims that the agreement was being made at “the request of the Chiefs and People” of these Urhobo communities. In any case, they were the treaties that introduced British power into Urhoboland from 1891 onwards. The Urhobo side of the treaties were clearly enforced.

What about the British commitments to protect the Urhobo? Here the failures of these treaties become manifest. This is because British imperial agents were cleverly scheming to escape the burden of these treaties whenever their interests were threatened. The treaties clearly recognized that the lands of the Urhobo signatories belonged to the Chiefs and People of  the communities that entered into agreements with the British. Yet, a few short years later, the British appointed their own Political Agent, Chief Dore Numa, who surreptitiously leased Urhobo lands to the British in the absence of those with whom they entered into agreements in the 1890s. Numa was an Itsekiri chieftain who had helped the British to defeat his fellow Itsekiri strongman Nana Olomu. He also aided the British to humiliate Binis and their King in the war of 1897. The British rewarded Dore Numa handsomely, disregarding earlier treaties with Urhobos. This breach of the spirit of the British treaties is the source of the inter-ethnic conflicts that have ruined Warri City, even in our times.

Who Owns Warri?

One of the most vexed questions besieging the western Niger Delta concerns the rival claims over ownership of the tri-ethnic City of Warri. One value of these treaties is that they establish, beyond any shadow of doubt, that in the 1890s the British regarded Warri as Urhobo country. The batch of treaties reproduced in these pages were uniformly branded by the British as treaties with “Sobo” communities in the “District of Warri.” By contrast, the early imperial treaties between the British and the Itsekiri recognized the lands of the Itsekiri as lying in Benin River.

The subsequent Itsekiri attempt to wrestle Warri from the ownership of Urhobos, with whose ancestors British imperial agents signed treaties in the early 1890s, has arisen from the duplicity of British colonial policies. The Itsekiri have sought to reap benefits from the largesse and corruption that the British bestowed on the Itsekiri Chieftain, Dore Numa, by ignoring these treaties and by resting on subsequent corrupt court judgements in favor of Dore Numa, British colonialism’s prime Political Agent in the western Niger Delta.

Peter Ekeh
April 27, 2000


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