|Urhobo Historical Society|
THE MEMBER FOR WARRI PROVINCE
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF
CHIEF MUKORO MOWOE OF WARRI
1890 – 1948
| CHAPTER TWO: |
FROM PETTY TRADER TO GENERAL MERCHANT
It is probably as a successful businessman in the age in which he lived the Chief Mukoro Mowoe will always be remembered. His success in the business world determined to a very great extent a large number of the other things he was able to do for himself and for those around him; that same success influenced the esteem in which he was held, determined the circles in which he was able to move. It follows therefore that an examination of Mowoe’s business life must lie at the very centre of any biographical sketch of the man. Yet is now virtually impossible to give any detailed account of Mowoe’s business for want of source material. What is here attempted is no more than a fragmentary treatment based on such details as are contained in his few surviving papers and remembered by the family and others who knew him.
Beginnings of Business Career: Not a great deal is remembered about just how Mowoe began his business career. As was pointed out earlier, he spent part of his early years in Frukama, a centre where the firm of Messrs John Holt and Co. had a trading station. It would appear that Mowoe got involved with that firm while at Frukama. A biographical sketch written in the year of his death says of his early trading career, “As a young man, he entered the services of Messrs John Holt & Co. in 1910 under a European agent, Mr. Solomon. Here he stayed for many years at Frukama and Okpare at which latter place he made the acquaintance of a young police constable, Mr. Ovie Eyavoro, an Urhobo of Eku, afterwards his closest friend and business partner.”16 It would appear that it was at Okpare that Mowoe really began to settle down while still with John Holt, for Okpare was the first centre where that firm established a depot in Urhoboland.17
Such other information as we have, indicate that it was while serving as a shop assistant that Mowoe became known to the General Agent in Charge of John Holt’s trading activities in the Warri Zone, a man whose name is given as New-Portwright. New-Portwright was impressed by Mowoe’s devotion to duty as well as by his personal industry, and took a liking to him. Mowoe eventually became a friend of the General Agent and was able, through that friendship, to translate himself from a shop assistant to a John Holt agent. As usual, the main problem was that of capital, for the agent was expected to buy palm produce from the producers on behalf of John Holt. Mowoe was given a £200 credit facility to enable him start off as a buying agent. In terms of capital, therefore, Mowoe started off with £200 which, in the 1920s, was quite some money with which to entrust a young man, in his early thirties, who was yet to prove himself as a trader. That he got that much was undoubtedly a token of the extent to which New-Portwright had grown to trust him.18
As agent for john Holt, Mowoe made Okpare his base of activities. His drive and determination enabled him to make an early success of his trade and it is said that it was not long before his credit facility was extended. As yet, however, he was still struggling to establish himself to the point where he could dispense with the credit and trade on his own. Tragedy struck before Mowoe could attain that ambition. Mowoe was transporting a large quantity of palm oil from his base to the John Holt station in Warri. The canoes conveying the oil were overtaken by a violet storm and all the oil was lost. Mowoe thus lost not only such profit as he would have made, he also lost his capital as it were. New-Portwright his friend, found himself in a difficult position. Mowoe had lost everything including what he owed the firm. Unless Mowoe was given a new ‘loan’ he was unlikely to be able to pay the debt. Should Mowoe be struck off the list of agents and the debt written off, or should he be given another chance, in view of the circumstances which led to his inability to meet his obligations? Eventually Mowoe was given a second chance: he began with £200. Once again he made good enough to pay off his original debt and to make profit over and above the ‘loan’ he received. His doggedness and determination must have impressed New-Portwright who had a hand in arranging Mowoe’s visit to Britain in 1926.19 One point which needs to be made here is that although Mowoe was to break with John Holt in the sense that he no longer traded only or mainly with that firm, his contacts with that firm resulted in other Urhobo like J. Obahor and Scott-Emuakpor also becoming leading agents with John Holt.20
By the time of Mowoe’s visit to Britain, he had moved his: business from Okpare to Warri and was still in partnership with one Eyavoro. The trip to Britain was to enable him make necessary business contacts. In that regard he was eminently successful, for as will become clear later, he did establish a working relationship with a number of British-based business houses. It is said that on that trip he shipped some 100 drums of his own oil to Britain. This oil he sold at good profit. If, as one of his sons claims, Mowoe is known to have returned from his British trip almost penniless, then he must have spent the proceeds from the sale of his oil buying merchandise as well as equipping himself with European-style clothes which he wore throughout his life. One of the things best remembered about Mowoe is the fact that he scarcely, if ever, dressed as an Urhobo. Not even in the thirties when he emerged as the leader of the Urhobo did he dress in the style of his people. The photograph of hin published in this work — and this is always the photograph of him one sees when-ever his photograph appears — would appear to represent his favorite dress style, a dark European type suit. Undoubtedly, Mowoe represented a common vogue of his day. A sign of sophistication and success was being seen to be like the European! His visit to Britain, his close relations with the European administrative and commercial class in Warri, his travels to other urban centres of Nigeria in the interest of his business — all these must have influenced his style of dress.
Mowoe’s career as a rising merchant obviously brightened after his trip to Britain. The partnership with Eyavoro continued for some time after that trip, but was later dissolved. Thereafter Mowoe established on his on. By the late 1920s he was living in “Seton House,” a building near old K. Chellarams’ site in Warri’s commercial centre. We cannot, unfortunately, trace step by step the growth of Mowoe’s business. We can however, make deductions from a few of the landmarks in the man’s life which have survived in people’s memory. By 1934, Mowoe was already living in his own house along Okere Road, Warri, a house which he appropriately named Providence House, no doubt in gratitude to God for what He had enabled him to achieve. The motto above the main street door to the house which one can still read today is “Ora et Labora”— Work and Pray.21 It was on these twin pillars that Mowoe sought to base his life belief in, dependence on, and prayer to God on the one hand, and honest, hard work on the other. Although, today Providence House is unlikely to attract the attention of any visitor to Warri, it was from the thirties right through the fifties easily one of the great land marks of Warri. As little boys we were often told about the “wonders” of Providence House — the many bedrooms, the ornate furniture, the unusual bedsteads and so on.22 As late as 1962, the late Chief J.S. Mariere described Providence House as ‘palatial’.23 The biographical sketch written at the time of his death spoke of Mowoe as “the proud owner and the kingly occupant of the famous ‘Providence House,’ Warri, the doors of which were never known to be closed to any one, great or small”.24 It was thus not only its architectural qualities, but the generous hospitality of its owner that made Providence House famous. To have built that kind of house by 1934 must be evidence that by that date Mowoe had put his struggling days behind him and had become well established as a businessman. By that time too, he already owned his first car, one of the first Nigerians to achieve that feat in the Warri of the time. A few years later he was riding his second car, a Ford V.8 with identification plates WB 5050. We can therefore conclude that as a businessman, Mowoe had definitely arrived by the end of the 1930s.
General Merchant-Importer and Exporter: As a general merchant Mowoe was both an importer and exporter. Throughout his business career (except during the war years (1939-1945) Mowoe continued the trade in palm produce. In addition he exported rubber and piassava. Warri was the headquarters of his business organization which became incorporated as Mukoro Mowoe and Company. Warri was also the main centre of the trad in palm produce and rubber. Other centres were Agbor and Okpare, his original base. As part of his rubber business, Mowoe acquired one and a half square miles of land near Amukpe (close to Sapele) which he planted with rubber. Chief T.E.A. Salubi recalls the Circumstance which led to Mowoe established a rubber plantation. Mowoe had visited the rubber plantations of James Thomas and U.A.C. at Sapele. He was stuck by the wisdom of investing in this way. He therefore appealed to the Okpe people to give him some land on which he established his plantation. It was a token of how he was regarded by the Okpe that his request was readily granted and no effort was made to effect any formal transfer of ownership of the land on which the plantation was established. It was only after Mowoe’s death that Mariere who looked after his business took steps to establish formal ownership.25 This rubber plantation remnants of which can still be seen today, did not, however, produce all the rubber exported by Mowoe. He continued to buy the bulk of his rubber from local producers. Just by his rubber plantation in Amukpe Mowoe built a rest house to which he sometimes retired and which was often used by friends and other visitors to Sapele. As for the trade in piassava, Eket and Calabar, in present day Cross River State, were the main bases of Mowoe’s export trade, though he also exported some piassava from Warri.
Mowoe’s export trade in palm produce, rubber and piassava would appear to have done well most of the time. During the European was of 1939-1945, he had to give up the trade in palm produce which became very strictly controlled. In Britain, where his main customers were, only the Ministry of Food was allowed to deal in palm produce. Mowoe, like all other dealers in palm produce, thus suffered a certain contraction in trade. This, for Mowoe, meant increased concentration in the trade in rubber and piassava during those years. Mowoe’s shipping firm was the famous Elder Dempster Lines Limited, with whom he did flourishing business right up to the end of his life. During the war years Mowoe had difficulties finding shipping space and the two files on his business transactions which have survived contain many letters to Elder Dempster in which Mowoe kept pleading for space for his produce.26 For months rubber and piassava lay in warehouses in Warri and Calabar waiting to be exported. It was a trying time for most merchants.
It has not been possible to find the kind of information that can give any really meaningful picture of the volume of Mowoe’s export trade. In May 1941, Mowoe had 15 tons of rubber waiting to be exported. At different times in 1942, he wrote to Elder Dempster informing that firm that he had 30 tons of rubber waiting to be exported. In 1944, he shipped at one go 5O tons of piassava.27 After the war he resumed his trade in palm produce and in August 1947 he wrote to a firm, Messrs Coni Soap Company in Ghana which was interested in buying palm oil, offering to supply 100 tons of palm oil every month.28 These figures which constitute no more than a fragmentary insight into the volume of Mowoe’s trade, give some rough idea of the type of trader Mowoe was.
It is logical to ask how Mowoe paid for his shipping; how he raised the capital for his export business. Undoubtedly by the 1930s Mowoe had become so well established as a businessman as to be credit-worthy. His bankers were the Bank of British West Africa (now First Bank of Nigeria Plc) and he seemed to have established very close and confidential relations with them. In Britain he had a number of firms with which he dealt. Foremost among them was Daarnhouwer and Company Limited of Seething Lane, London. With this company he established a working relationship. The company opened for him a credit account of f4,000 with the B.B.W.A.29 Whenever Mowoe shipped produce to this firm in Britain, he immediately drew an agreed proportion of the over all cost from B.B.W.A. When the produce arrived at the other end and was sold, he drew the balance of the agreed price from B.B.W.A. (At some point, for example, rubber was selling at 10d. a lb. Mowoe would , on shipping rubber to Daarnhouwer, claim 7d. per lb. of rubber from B.B.W.A. on lading, and would collect the remaining 3d. per lb. after sale in Britain).30 Obviously only a well-established African merchant would, in the thirties and forties, be granted such facilities. This type of arrangement not only led Mowoe to keep a regular flow of capital but also enabled him to hold an account in Britain, so that he could more easily pay for goods which he ordered. Other firms with which Mowoe dealt were Alfred Blackmore and Co. Limited, London, and L.B. Mayer of Portland Street, Manchester.31
If Mowoe exported palm produce, rubber and piassava, what did he import? As a General Merchant, Mowoe dealt in many lines. His-store along Warri-Sapele Road was stocked with a medley of goods — textiles, stock fish, aluminum ware, iron pots, bicycles and bicycle parts, cement enamel ware, plastics, umbrellas, crockery, toothpaste and toothbrushes formic acid for use in the rubber producing industry, cords and twines for making fishing lines, and hooks, provisions. He had an understanding with A.G. Leventis in Lagos which supplied him with various goods. For a short while he even tried his hands at stationery.32 In 1945 Mowoe attempted to get Daarnhouwer and Co. to grant him a monopoly of all their trade in Warri Province. The company replied that as they were at the time doing business with other firms in the province it would be impossible to meet the request.33
Mowoe’s request for a monopoly of the Daarnhouwer business in the province leads one to make some comment about the context within which Mowoe operated. As is well known, ‘big business’ was very much controlled by the large European, especially British firms in colonial Nigeria. In Warri, the main centre from which Mowoe’s company operated, there were established the United African Company, John Holt, G.B. Ollivant, the S.C.O.A., the C.F.A.0. and a few other less important firms. All of these firms were involved in the exportation of rubber, piassava, palm produce and other export crops. As for the import trade, Mowoe depended on these firms for some of his goods, although the evidence from his files is clear that for the most part he ordered direct from Britain. He was both a wholesaler and a retailer, selling direct to the consumer and to smaller-scale traders who wished to buy in quantity for their own retail trade. In both capacities then Mowoe was in competition with these European firms. He was also in competition with those loosely referred to as Lebanese and Syrians, Asiatics who have played a major role in the distributive and retail trade of Nigeria. The leading Lebanese firm in Warri would appear to have been K. Chellarams and Sons. There was also R. Khalil who was most prominent in the transportation business. In addition to all of these competitors were other Nigerian traders. Mowoe was thus operating in a strongly competitive atmosphere in which success demanded ability, Organization, application and sometimes real guts. Mowoe would appear to have possessed all of these qualities in abundant measure. His ode-ova (praise name) was Oyinvwi. In Urhobo the word in its non-derogatory sense means daring, courage, boldness. Recalling this name Chief Salubi said, “The man was very bold. He was not afraid to try his hands at new things. Where other people fear snags Mowoe will plunge in and will not stop until he had made a success of it”.34 In the competitive world of business with all its hazards, Mowoe’s daring and readiness to take risks stood him in good stead. Obviously, as is often the case, Mowoe’s ode-ova was a recognition of the man’s proven qualities. Salubi recalls that while many an Urhobo had several praise names, Mowoe had just this one and that it was a most befitting name.
From what has been said, it must be clear that Mowoe’s business was of a far-flung nature. His produce trade had centres at Warri, Agbor, Eket and Calabar. At each of these centres he had an office manned by a trusted clerk and other staff. In Warri, his headquarters, he had a Chief Clerk and subordinate staff as well as sales assistants in the large store along Warri-Sapele Road. One name closely associated with Mowoe’s trade organization is that of Tima. However, it is true to say that of those who worked for Mowoe, none has left such an impressive career as the late Chief Jereton Mariere, the first Governor of the then Midwest Region of Nigeria, who died in a tragic motor accident on 9 May, 1971. Most people in Warri believe that Mafiere was a blood relation of Mowoe’s. This was not the case. He was no more than a fellow townsman whom Mowoe employed to take care of his business, especially the Agbor end of the business. He was also a relation of one of Mowoe’s wives, Rose. Mariere must have specially deserved the confidence and trust of his employer and became regarded and treated as a brother. Mowoe brought up his children to regard Mariere as his own brother. In time Mariere became in fact, if not by title, the General Manager of Mowoe’s business. As will be shown in this and other chapters, Mowoe was a many-sided person and innumerable demands were made on his time and energies by many organizations and groups. In the circumstances, he needed a trusted and trustworthy person to look after his business for him. In Mariere he found that person. One informant says that on his death bed Mowoe sent for Mariere and asked him to look after his children. When he died it was to Mariere that his keys were given. Indeed so close was he to Mowoe that on the latter’s death, Mariere inherited one of Mowoe’s wives, Grace, even though this kind of inheritance is usually the privilege of blood relations only.35 Those who are close enough to know can testify that Mowoe’s trust in Mariere was not misplaced and was never abused. Mariere for his pail took on Mowoe’s mantle in more than one regard. He became a leading John Holt trading agent, a businessman in his own right, a parliamentarian (like Mowoe was in his last two years of life) and Governor of the Midwestern State as it was in his time. If the dead observe us from the world beyond, Mowoe must have watched with great pride and satisfaction Mariere’s remarkable rise in public life — from a humble clerk to Governor of one of Nigeria’s then existing four regions. When we all congratulated Mariere on his well deserved achievements, few spared a thought for his mentor, the great Mukoro Mowoe. Yet does not a man’s greatness derive, in part, from the legacy he bequeaths to society both in terms of material things and in terms of his offsprings and other proteges?
Prison Contractor: While Mukoro Mowoe was growing up and later building himself up as a General Merchant, the British presence in Nigeria was transforming many aspects of life in the country. One sphere in which the British introduced far-reaching changes into our lives was the sphere of justice. Not only did the British introduce their own ideas of justice and establish courts to administer these ideas of justice, they also established prisons. The supply of food for these prisons was farmed out to various contractors throughout the country. Mowoe won the contract for supplying food- to the Warri, Sapele, Agbor, Benin, Ubiaja and Auchi prisons.36 Unfortunately the records do not make it clear when Mowoe won these contracts. But there is no doubt that he held these contracts at the time he died in 1948. That he won these contracts must be additional testimony to the fact that he had made a real success of his business. All who know him testify to the fact that he was greatly respected by the British administrative officers in Warri and the entire province who often sought his advice on some of the naughty problems with which they had to deal. The relationship must have influenced the British authorities responsible for awarding the contracts. Mowoe tackled this aspect of his business life with his usual efficiency. He stationed a clerk in each of the centres to look after that aspect of his business. The extant correspondence shows that when Mowoe was not easy to reach and his clerks ran out of money with which to purchase food, they had no difficulty in raising loans from leading people in the locality, 37 loans which Mowoe promptly liquidated as soon as he became aware of the situation. In both private, public and business life he seemed to have built up for himself a large reservoir of good will, confidence and trust. The Mowoe family remained in the prison contract business after his death, for James Mowoe, Mukoro’s eldest child, held the contract for the Warri prison until his death in April 1976.
Mining Business: The present writer was informed that Mowoe had mining interest on the Jos Plateau. A single file among the papers which have survived confirms that this was the case. He also took a hand in the gold mining business in Ilesa.38 Unfortunately, it has not been possible to get any details about this aspect of Mowoe’s business in terms of how much was invested and what, if anything, he got from that investment. It is mentioned here only to demonstrate the variety of Mowoe’s business interest. In this regard Mowoe obviously sought to follow the example of the pioneer Urhobo miner on the Jos Plateau, the late Chief K.D. Menta who made a roaring success of the business.39 It does not appear, however, that great success attended Mowoe’s effort in this field.
Transporter: Mukoro Mowoe Transport Service (M.M.T.) — anyone who grew up in Warri in the 1940s would have seen that bold inscription in a fleet of lorries owned by Mowoe which plied Warri-Benin, Warri-Lagos and Warri-Asaba roads carrying passengers as well as hauling luggage. One source claims that Mowoe first got involved in the transport business in 1939. By the time of his death in 1948 he had a fleet of at least eight lorries. Even by present day standards that was doing very well indeed. The transport side of his business was well aligned with other aspects. He needed transportation to convey produce to Warri from the different agents who sold such produce to him. He needed transportation for his prison contract job — to transport food from the cheapest market to the various prisons. It has to be stressed, however, the his lorries were used mainly for his own business transactions. The Mukoro Mowoe Transport Service was essentially a public transport system used for passenger and luggage service. In fact Mowoe sometimes had to hire transport for his own business transactions.
In the Warri of the forties Mowoe was not a lone star in transport business. Quite a number of other businessmen were engaged in the transport business. Apart from Armels. Transport — then styled Royal Mail! — Mowoe was clearly one of the leading transporters. Indeed, Armels apart, his other major competitor was R. Khalil who also owned and operated a sizeable fleet of lorries — R. Khalil Transport (R.K.T.). Although rivals in this and other aspects of trade, Mowoe and Khalil were great friends. This friendship was exemplified in the arrangement which both men made with regard to their transport service from Warri to Asaba. Rather than engage in a competition for passengers to Asaba, both men agreed that their lorries should ply the Warri-Asaba route on alternative days. When some time in November 1944 one of Khalil’s drivers attempted to flout this agreement, Mowoe sent a note to Khalil who promptly intervened to ensure that no rupture took place.40 While obviously the above arrangement was mutually beneficial, it is clear that it was only the firm understanding between the two men that prevented their drivers from engaging in the usual fierce competition for passengers which was such a regular feature of the transport business, especially in the days before transporters and drivers unions injected some order into what was often a lawless scramble for passengers.
In December 1940 Mowoe proposed to Khalil that both men should pool resources and establish what he described as a “Talking Picture” in Warri. Apparently Mowoe had been to the cinema during a visit to Pori Harcourt. On his return, he wrote to Khalil putting forward his proposal and arguing that as a business proposition he was satisfied that the cinema business would do well in Warri.41 Khalil did not, so far as the records available indicate, react to Mowoe’s proposal. In May 1941, Mowoe again wrote to Khalil on the subject.42 The correspondence available does not indicate what eventually happened to Mowoe’s proposal. We know, however, that Khalil eventually established the firstcinema theatre in Warri. Whether or not Mowoe had shares in that aspect of Khalil’s business, I have been unable to find out. It is, however, important to place on record that it was Mukoro Mowoe who first thought of establishing the cinema business in Warri.
While still on this digression about Mowoe’s relations with Khalil, it is necessary to put on record the very great mutual confidence which marked the relations between both men. The extant Mowoe correspondence has more letters to and from Khalil than to any other single individual or organization. Many times Mowoe’s wife would send a note to Khalil to say that her husband was away on a business trip and she needed money for some purpose or the other. On every single occasion Khalil advanced the required sum. Khalil for his part also asked Mowoe for money when he did not have ready cash available and Mowoe always obliged. In fact Mowoe would appear to have left a standing instruction not only with his family but with his staff in Warri that if any emergency which required money occurred when he was out of town, they should go to Khalil.43 Obviously then, their rivalry in business did not preclude an association of real intimacy and deep mutual respect.
To return to Mowoe’s transport business, it remains to say that apart from the passenger service, Mowoe did good business with John Holt. Obviously exploiting his long standing contacts with that firm, he often provided the transport for conveying produce bought by John Holt from various centres to Warri which was one of the firm’s major shipping centres. Also a few extant letters indicate that during the war years Mukoro Mowoe got involved in the foodstuff trade, transporting large quantities of garri and other foodstuffs from Warri to Lagos for sale. He was obviously the kind of businessman who tried his hands at any proposition that promised to, yield good dividends. It is a pity that the records do not enable us to give a more exact description of his turnover in the various fields of endeavor in which he exerted himself.
General Contractor (Roads and Buildings): Mukoro Mowoe was involved in the building business. A list of the contracts he won is impressive: the King George V Memorial Hall and the Igbudu Maternity Centre in Warri; the Ughelli Council Hall; some of the earliest housing for government officials in Aba, Orlu, Obubra, Opobo and Abakaliki; the Convent School at Uyo.44 That he won these contracts must be further proof of his standing in the business world of the time. As is well known, to win contracts, the contractor must be well known to those who have to award these contracts. Mowoe’s commercial activities in the Eket and Calabar area must have made him a fairly constant traveller to the former Eastern provinces of Nigeria. His extremely good standing with British political officers would have resulted in letters of introduction to British officers in the Eastern provinces and such letters of introduction would have influenced the decision to award the contracts for some of the government buildings in Aba, Orlu, Obubra, Opobo and Abakaliki. His connection with the eastern provinces he has commemorated by naming two of his sons — Aba and Orlu — after towns in those provinces. It may well be that these sons were born in the years in which he won the contracts in the towns after which they have been named.
Of road contracts only one example has come to light from extant records. Mowoe won a £730 contract to build ten miles of the Warri-Ughelli road in 1939.45 The correspondence to do with the construction of this stretch of road reveals two traits in Mowoe’s character to which I feel called upon to draw attention — his sense of justice and fair play and his doggedness in defense of his rights.
For the construction of the ten-mile stretch of road, Mowoe appointed seven sub-contractors. J.A. Akiri (later Chief) and one R.B. Kokori, two men already involved in Mowoe’s business, were charged with the supervision of the work though Mowoe himself undertook periodic inspection himself. It is incredible how many people applied to Mowoe to be given a little stretch of the road to build. That seven sub-contractors were appointed means that each had less than one and a half miles of road to build. Yet many more kept applying. Mowoe referred every application to Akiri who was apparently the senior of the two supervisors. Even when one Obereko Okpalefe whose niece, Grace, was married to Mowoe applied for a sub-contract, Mowoe referred him to Akiri. Okpalefe’s pride was hurt: how could he, an uncle-in-law, beg Akiri for a sub-contract that was in Mowoe’s power to grant? He swore he would never reduce himself to that level. But Mowoe remained adamant. In the end Okpalefe had to swallow his pride; he went to Akiri.46 Two aspects of the incident deserve attention. Having delegated authority in the matter, Mowoe was not prepared to undermine that delegated authority. Secondly, although Okpalefe pleaded his special relationship, Mowoe insisted that he had to compete with others who were seeking the sub-contracts. In the same spirit, when Mowoe discovered that Akifi and Kokori had each given himself 1¼ miles of road to build when no other sub-contractor had more than one mile, he ordered them to give out half a mile each and rated them for taking on any of the sub-contract work themselves when his own understanding, was that they were to supervise the sub-contractors on his behalf.47 Such was the man’s sense of justice and fair play.
Mowoe was expected to complete the construction of his ten mile stretch of road by the end of March 1940. When by April the work had not been completed, the Provincial Engineer wrote to Mowoe reminding him of the terms of the contract.48 Mowoe replied that work was being constantly obstructed by the fact that cars and lorries kept using the road while his men were at work. Wrote he,
I suggest that the road be closed for vehicles meantime. In fact I am employed as a contractor for the construction of the road but not labourer for the maintenance.49
Mowoe was in this reply subtly drawing attention to the fact that so long as the road was open to traffic while he was supposed to be constructing it, he was compelled to undertake work of a maintenance nature while carrying on with his basic job. The obvious implication is that the government had no right to expect him to keep to the schedule if they thus made his work more difficult.
Towards the end of the job which was ultimately concluded in July 1940, it would appear that the Inspector of Works was asking Mowoe to undertake certain jobs which the latter did not accept were included in the original contract. Mowoe was angry and wrote to the Provincial Engineer, Warri,
I believe that Mr. Sylvester (the Inspector of Works) is finding me unnecessary work to do and I shall not do it… At all event I am not prepared to make any repetition of work over the road (sic) … I am a perfect human being as Mr. Sylvester, although I am a contractor who is after jobs.50
Few Nigerians of any rank or status would have dared write to British officials in such terms in 1940. The dignity and determination of the man come out impressively.
The point has repeatedly been made in this chapter that we do not have the evidence with which to provide an exact picture of Mowoe’s turnover in his various businesses. Yet it is necessary, at the end of what is unfortunately no more than a fragmentary sketch, to give some idea of Mowoe’s wealth which was spoken of in almost legendary terms when he died in 1948. At his death he owned in addition to Providence House, the building which housed his stores and another along Warri-Sapele Road, Warri. The whole strip of land from the C.M.S. teacher’s quarters to what is now called Mowoe Road belonged to him as well as another strip of land opposite Chief Obahor’s compound in Alders Town, Warri. In Sapele he had 1½ square miles of rubber plantation and a rest house. In Calabar he had 2 houses and in Eket one house which he used for his business. In Agbor, he had four stores and premises and two storey buildings one of which was rented by John Holt and Co. for its offices and the other rented by U.A.C. In Apapa, Lagos, he bought, some time before he died, two plots of land each 2OOx2OO feet. As already indicated, he left behind a fleet of at least eight lorries in 1948. 1 am informed that at his death there were £5,500 worth of I.O.Us in his file.51 Most of this money which was owed to him was written off as bad debts when those concerned were unable to repay the loans. The family decided they would not prosecute the debtors. It has not been possible to get information as to how much liquid cash Mowoe left behind for his family. From the list of landed and other property given above, however, it is possible to get some rough idea of how successful Mowoe was as a businessman. He was with out any doubt the leading Nigerian businessman in the Warri Province of the 1930s and 1940s.
NOTES 16. Memorial Ceremonies, p.1
17. See Ikime, Rivalry, pp. 154-155.
18. This account is based on the remembrances of Frank Mowoe, first interviewed in July 1972.
19. This date was confirmed by Dr. Moses Mowoe, Mowoe’s oldest surviving son (first interviewed in September 1973), Frank Mowoe and Chief Salubi. See also Memorial Ceremonies, p. 4.
20. This point was specifically made by Chief Salubi, 30 March, 1976.
21. See photograph facing page 18.
22. I have had the privilege of visiting the house a number of times. The furniture has remained very much as it was in 1948 when Mukoro Mowoe died. Five of his sons with their families continue to live in the house.
23. Chief S. J. Mariere, Notes on the Urhobo Progress Union prepared in October 1962 at the request of Chief T.E.A. Salubi (hand written, unpublished, five pages, property of Chief Salubi).
24. Memorial Ceremonies , p.4.
25. Chief Salubi, 30 March, 1976.
26. Information for this paragraph comes from MOWOE’s files dealing with his business transactions made available to me by Frank Mowoe.
27. Same files.
28. Mowoe Papers, File No. 2, Vol. II, Mowoe to Coni Soap Co., August 5, 1957.
29. Mowoe papers, DAARNHOUWER File (1943-1946), No. 134.
31. Mowoe Papers, L.B. Mayers File.
32. The list of items in which Mowoe traded is as gleaned from his surviving files on his business transactions.
33. Mowoe papers, Daarnhouwer’s file, No. 134, Daarnhouwer to Mowoe, 5 May, 1945 (page 27 of file).
34. Chief Salubi, 30 March, 1976.
36. Both the extant papers and all informants refer to these prisons.
37. Mowoe Papers, Director’s File, Mene A. Edoghoren-Epue to Mowoe, 21 April, 1945.
38. Chief Salubi, March 1976.
40. Mowoe Papers, Syrian File, Mowoe to Khalil, 21 Nov. 1944.
41. Syrian File, Mowoe to Khalil, 3 Dec. 1940 (Page 37 of File).
42. Syrian File, Mowoe to Khalil, 10 May, 1941 (Page 63 of File).
43. See various letters Mowoe Khalil, Khalil to Mowoe in Syrian File.
44. Information gleaned from extant files, some without titles and so difficult to cite in the usual way.
45. Mowoe Papers, File entitled, P.W.D. – Warri Ughelli Road.
46. Same File, various correspondence — Mowoe to Okpalefe, 17 Nov. 1939; Akiri to Mowoe, 23 Nov. 1939.
47. Same File, Mowoe to Akiri, 24 Nov. 1939.
48. Same File, Provincial Engineer to Mowoe, No 511/135, 13 April, 1940.
49. Same File, Mowoe to Provincial Engineer, 15 April, 1940.
50. Same File, Mowoe to Provincial Engineer, 25 April, 1940.
51. Information as to property, etc, supplied by the family and confirmed by others like Chief Salubi. Having spent various periods of my life, on and off, from 1948-1961 in and around Warri, I also have some personal knowledge in the matter.
Proceed to Chapter Three: SON OF EVWRENI