Chapter One of Mukoro Mowoe’s Biography

Urhobo Historical Society
1890 – 1948
Second Edition  
Obaro Ikime

On Mowoe’s tombstone outside “Providence House,” Warri, we are told that he was born in 1890 – 4 April 1890.1 We do not know for sure how this date came to be fixed. In 1890 there was not a single school in the whole of what later became Warri Province. The Urhobo usually use memorable events for dating purposes. All the elders interviewed claimed that Mowoe is said to have been born before the “Nana War” and before, Iyibo (Europeans) came into Urhoboland. The “Nana was fought in 1894. The first exploratory journey by the Europeans into Urhoboland occurred in 1891. The date given for Mowoe’s birth may thus be much nearer the truth than the absence of written records may lead one to believe.

As no one kept records about young Mukoro’s early life, little is known about that period of his existence.2 He was born Evwreni in present day Ughelli North local govt. His father was Oghenemohwo and his mother Onokporere both of Evwreni. We do not know how many wives Oghenemohwo took, but may presume that, like many an Urhobo man of the age and even now, he had more than one wife and that therefore Mukoro was born into a polygamous family. Again the information is scanty about the number of brothers and sisters Mukoro had. We are told that he had a brother, Obrikogho Oghenemohwo, and an immediate elder sister, Ekprekpre. Neither of these survived Mukoro very long — the former died in 1949 and the latter 1950. It is reasonable to presume that there may have been other full or half-brothers and sisters who are now forgotten and that the boy Umukoro Oghenemohwo (the latter name was shortened and corrupted to Mowoe, probably by European traders and administrative staff who could not pronounce the ‘how’ syllable properly)3 grew up in a typical Urhobo family.

Perhaps this is the place to make the point that Mukoro Mowoe (as he became popularly known) was decidedly born to Evwreni parents and as such was a bona fide, full-blooded Urhobo. The point is here made because at some point in the history of the province, there was the tendency to argue that Evwreni was part of Isoko and that Mowoe was an Isoko man. The confusion about whether Evwreni is truly Urhobo or Isoko arose from the activities of the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.)4. In its penetration of this part of Nigeria, the C.M.S. was far more successful in the Isoko country than the Urhobo. The C.M.S. Isoko district that was ultimately created included the Urhobo town of Evwreni. Because of constant intermingling for religious purposes, many Evwreni spoke Isoko far more fluently than most other Urhobo. The Isoko of the late 1920s were probably deceived by this fact into thinking that Evwreni was an Isoko town. There is, within the knowledge of the present writer, no other historical explanation for the Isoko claim. And—this is the other reason for raising the issue here — Mowoe was later to use his influence to ensure that Evwreni was removed from the Isoko District of the C.M.S.

 How was the young Mukoro brought up? We do not know. We are told that he spent his early childhood at Evwreni. We can assume therefore that he grew up like the typical Urhobo child of that age. He would have been brought up to respect his parents and elders — an extremely important aspect of the upbringing of every Urhobo child. He would, as a baby, have been formally offered to the gods and ancestors of his family, a week or two after his birth.5 He would have been fed mostly on his mother’s breast milk. As he grew older, the mother would have introduces him gradually to “solids” by feeding him with half-chewed yam, plantain and other foods straight from her mouth — there was no Heinz baby food inthe Urhoboland of the 1890s; no “Cow & Gate” baby milk!

As he grew into a boy, he would have joined others born within a certain time span in an age group within which he was expected to learn the basics of civics, his proper duties to his society. He was already probably helping to sweep the parents’ compound as well as joining his peers in the age group in sweeping the streets of his “quarter.” Also within the age group he would have joined in the group plays designed to prepare him for manhood. He would, for example, have been expected to participate in wrestling. He would learn the art of hunting by attempting to kit an object set in motion by a play mate. He would learn self-defense and the defense of the village by engaging in mock-battles with his play-mates, using sometimes wooden swords. He would practice communal fishing by building ‘ponds’ with sand and putting in grasshoppers to represent fishes and then going through the process of “bailing out” the ‘pond’.6 Through these, and other games the Urhobo boy was expected, to acquire various skills which were expected to stand him in good stead in his later life. Mukoro Mowoe may be assumed to have played them all as part of his traditional education. Mowoe is also remembered to have been an excellent dancer.7 He would have learnt his Urhobo dances as a child.

His parents must have been, like all the Urhobo, essentially, subsistence farmers. The young boy, Mukoro, would have accompanied his parents to the farm, watching and learning, participating in the lighter chores as he grew older, sitting under the shades when tired, eating hot, roasted yam when hungry. Back home from the farm, he probably joined the rest of the family by the fireside or out on the verandah on moonlight nights listening to the elders tell folktales designed to bring home certain morals to the young or to recount heroic deeds of the prominent ancestors of family and village. Mukoro would have listened and learned and proceeded to tell these folktales himself — for this was also partly how the Urhobo child received his education.8

 The Urhoboland into which Mukoro Mowoe was born was one poised for change. While the little boy was being consciously and unconsciously put through his traditional education, other events were taking place which were to profoundly affect and influence that boy’s life. For centuries before Mukoro’s birth, Europeans had done trade with the Itsekiri, coastal neighbours to the Urhobo. Up to the time of Mukoro’s birth, however, no European had penetrated into the Urhobo country. This situation was to alter radically soon after Mukoro was born. In 1891, a British administrative post was established at Warri.9 At that time there was clearly no Warri as we know it today. There was Okere where some Itsekiri as well as some Urhobo had settled. There was Ogbe-Ijo, at that time no more than a fishing village where Ijaw fishermen plied their trade. There was Odion, and there was Agbassah. Each of these would have been small settlements whose inhabitants farmed surrounding lands and/or traded. Each would have ordered its life independently of the other. Along the river, various European firms were established, doing trade with the Itsekiri who bought the palm oil and kernel produced by the Urhobo and sold these to the Europeans.10 That a British vice consulate was established at Warri would be a clear indication that the trade of Warri was sufficiently important to the British for them to want to develop it even further. The British presence in Warri was to lead to the development of such area as Robert Road, Maple Swamp Road, Alder’s Town and the European Reservation — the ‘Township of Warri’ as it was later known. Little would anyone have guessed in 1891 that Mukoro would, in fact, make his name and his wealth with Warri, the new ‘Township,’ as his base of operations.

In 1892 the British push into Urhoboland began with the establishment of a vice-consulate at Sapele on the River Ethiope. From their new centres at Warri and Sapele the British began a determined push into Urhoboland and by 1910 most of Urhoboland had fallen under British control.11 Thus by the time Mukoro Mowoe reached adolescence, Urhoboland had become part of the British protectorate of Nigeria. The Urhobo still continued in various ways to live as they had always lived; but British rule was beginning to introduce changes into their lives. As we shall see later, much of Mukoro Mowoe’s life was lived within the new context of British colonial rule in Nigeria both in its political and economic ramifications.

As British political officers penetrated into Urhoboland, so did C.M.S. missionaries. The missionary penetration of Urhoboland, outside trading centres like Sapele, began in earnest about 1902. Evwreni was certainly already being visited by missionaries as from 1913 and it may well be that some missionary actually got there earlier. One of the major instruments used by the early missionaries for conversion purposes was education. At first this education consisted of no more than gathering would-be converts together and teaching them elementary facts about Christianity. Later such ‘inquirers’ were taught simple catechism through the process of learning by rote. Later still, after Urhobo was reduced to writing, the ‘inquirers’ were taught the Urhobo alphabet, and gradually inducted into the ‘magic’ of reading and writing in Urhobo.12 Most of this teaching was done in the very redimentary church buildings that characterized early Christianity in Urhoboland. A comprehensive school programme was not worked out for Urhoboland till the mid 1920s. The coming of the C.M.S. into the Warri area and into Urhoboland and their championing of education, especially the latter, were to have a remarkable effect on the life of the Warri Province in which Mukoro Mowoe lived.

We do not know exactly how Mukoro Mowoe acquired western European education. Some say that he attended primary school for some years. Others say that he educated himself at home — leamt to read and write.13 We know for certain that the first schools in Urhoboland were not established till after 191414 when the missionaries began their work in earnest in the area. By 1914 Mukoro Mowoe would have been about 24 years old, and it is unlikely that he would have gone to formal school at that age. We are told that he ‘was one of the early converts to Christianity in Urhoboland, was baptised on the 22nd of June, 1919, by Rev. C.F. Cole and confirmed on the 13th of August, 1921, at the St. Andrew’s (Anglican) Church, Warri’.15 Mowoe was thus baptised when he was 29 years old. If he went to school earlier, he was most likely to have been baptised before 1919. It thus seems likely that Mowoe did not go to any formal school, and that he picked up the ability to read and write English on his own. His involvement with trade and the church would have provided both an incentive and an aid to learning. If Mowoe did not acquire education through going to school, the more remarkable was his mastery of the English language and his general level of education. Anyone who reads his extant letters will be amazed at his erudition, but then it is common knowledge that many of the men of that age were in many ways self-educated.

Mukoro Mowoe is said to have been pugnacious and difficult to control as a boy. In the pre-colonial Urhobo society such pugnacity and recalcitrance were sometimes recognized to be the makings of future leadership, evidence — albeit, embarrassing evidence for the time being that the young boy was determined, stubborn and inclined to be independent. Was the young Mukoro perhaps already displaying the doggedness, stubbomess and determination that were to make him the most successful Nigerian businessman in the Warri Province of his later years? The chronicler, with the advantage of hind sight, may speculate as to what the young boy’s pugnacity and recalcitrance portended. To Mukoro’s parents these traits in their son’s character needed to be controlled. They reacted as so many other Urhobo parents have been known to react, especially since the present century. They decided that Mukoro should be given a change of environment: they bundled him off to Frukama to live there with his mother’s sister. Obviously the parents thought the strange environment might curb Mukoro’s excesses. Neither they nor Mukoro could possibly have guessed that once again fate was at work, for Mukoro’s sojourn in Frukama was to prepare him for his future role in two important respects.

Frukama an Urhobo town in Eghwu clan, is situated on a branch of the River Ramos and can be reached by water from Evwreni. Part of the Ughelli South Local Government Area of the present Delta State of Nigeria, Frukama is situated close to the Urhobo clans of Ughienvbe, and Uwherun. Frukama attained importance in the area because it developed into one of the European trading stations where Messrs John Holt and Company established a ‘trading beach.’ This was what attracted the oil producers there: they took their produce to Frukama for sale. Although we do not know for sure when Mukoro Mowoe was sent to Frukama, the chances are that by that time Frukama had already become a European trading station. Mowoe would thus, during his sojourn there, have watched the goings on at the ‘beach.’ He himself was to become a major trader in palm produce, rubber and other commodities. Did his stay at Frukama perhaps influence his future career?

The aunt to whom Mukoro Mowoe was sent, we are told, lived in or near the C.M.S. mission at Frukama and had already been converted to Christianity at the material time. We do not know for how long the boy Mukoro stayed with his aunt. It is likely that it was while in Frukama, staying with his Christian (C.M.S.) aunt that Mukoro Mowoe himself became a convert to the Christian faith. Throughout the rest of his life he attended the C.M.S. church of which he later became a lay reader, though as will be indicated later, he did not always observe the strict teachings of that church. His stay at Frukama would thus appear to have had considerable impact on Mowoe’s later life.


1. See photograph of his grave on p. 5

2. The little information given in this chapter is a synthesis of what the author was told by Frank, Mowoe’s second oldest surviving son, Chief J. Akiri, a close friend to Mowoe during the latter’s life time and late Chief T.E.A. Salubi, perhaps the best informed person about Mowoe’s life.

3. It was common practice for names to be shortened in this way as a consequence of the coming of the Europeans. Another good example of this type of shortening is that of the late Chief Jereton S.Marier, one time Governor of the former Midwest State. What was rendered was the Urhobo name Adjereheatonho, meaning unless one struggles, does not survive — one has to struggle to survive.

4. For detailed study of missionary activity in the Urhobo and Isoko area, see S. U. Erivwo, Christianity in Urhoboland, 1901-1961 , unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Ibadan, 1972 and Obaro Ikime, The Isoko People, Ibadan University Press, 1972.

5. Erivwo, op, cit., pp 108-109.

6. For a full discussion of the mode of traditional education in this part of the country, see I.E. Uyest,  The Development of Education in Isoko Division 1910-1960 , M.A. Thesis, University of Ibadan, 1976, Chapter One.

7. T.E.A. Salubi, Interview, 30 March, 1976

8. Uyeri, op.cit

9. Obaro Ikime,  Niger Delta Rivalry (Hereinafter Rivalry) , Longman, 1969, pp. 128 et al.

10. See Ikime,  Rivalry , Chapter Two.

11. Ikime,  Rivalry , Chapter Four.

12. Erivwo,  op. cit , Chapter Three.

 13. Frank Mowoe (interviewed 1972) said his father probably read up to old Standard IV. Chief Salubi (30 March 1976) had doubts whether Mowoe had any format school education. The argument which follows would seem to support Salubi’s views.

14. This comes out quite clearly from the works of Erivwo, Uyeri and myself as already cited.

15. Information derived from Memorial Ceremonies and Service in Honour of the late Chief Mukoro Mowoe  a small pamphlet printed for the purpose in 1948, p.3 Hereinafter this reference is given as  Memorial Ceremonies , followed by a page reference.

Proceed to Chapter II: From Petty Trader to General Merchant

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