|Urhobo Historical Society|
ROYAL NIGER COMPANY, NANA OLOMU, RIVER ETHIOPE
THE BEGINNINGS OF BRITISH COLONIALISM IN
UPLAND URHOBO COUNTRY, 1894-1899
The advent of Europeans in West African Atlantic coasts in the fifteenth century brought in its train major upheavals in relationships among the ethnic peoples in its areas of impact. The Niger Delta was a principal target of European adventures in Africa. For well over four centuries ethnic groups that controlled the waterways leading from the River Niger into the Atlantic Ocean had special bonds with the Europeans. In eastern Niger Delta and Cross-River regions, several Ijaw groups and the Efik enjoyed such benefits of close ties with the Europeans. Their mainland neighbours, Igbos and Ibibios, were relatively disadvantaged because they were denied access to the Europeans.
In the Western Niger Delta, the Itsekiri had important privileges because they enjoyed the sole monopoly of the European trade. These privileges were financed and supported by European traders and governments. In effect, Itsekiri chieftains became the celebrated — or, depending on one’s perspective, infamous — middlemen in African relations with Europeans. Among the benefits that the Itsekiri chieftains enjoyed as middlemen were ample supplies of arms and ammunition. These means of violence enabled them to intimidate their mainland neighbours and thus to enforce favourable terms of trade through the exercise of violence against their ethnic neighbours. Their privileges were largely based on monopoly of the European trade. Itsekiri merchants invested much in ensuring that their principal mainland neighbours, the Urhobos, were cut off from any direct contacts with the Europeans.
Itsekiri chieftains’ monopoly of the Western Niger trade held fast until about the late 1870s, until, at any rate, the arrival of the British merchant Sir George Goldie and his United African Company which he formed from a merger of several European companies in the late 1870s. Goldie’s strategy was to take the trade to its source, thus cutting off the power and influence of the middlemen. In this scheme, Urhobo country became a major target of the aggressive British company. In 1886, following the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 and the European stampede for control of African territories, Sir George Goldie’s company was granted a royal charter as Royal Niger Company. It began to operate on behalf of British interests in Urhoboland and in many other areas of the Niger, well beyond the coasts. This new development was resented by Itsekiri chieftains who had come to believe that Urhobo country and the trade coming from it were their preserve.
Matters did not improve for the Itsekiri chieftains when the British formed the Niger Coast Protectorate in 1891. Chief Nana Olomu, appointed by the British as the Governor of Benin River in 1884, was particularly apprehensive because of the series of treaties that the British were signing directly with Urhobo communities. Nana himself had led the Itsekiri to sign a treaty with the British in 1884, the first of its kind in the Western Niger Delta. By 1891, Nana Olomu’s relations with his former allies had become delicate, even hostile. Nana’s reaction to British penetration of Urhobo country was to embark on acts of terrorism and intimidation of Urhobo communities on the River Ethiope, particularly at Okpara Waterside and Eku. These were acts that the British probably overlooked in the past. The Royal Niger Company’s presence in Urhobo country probably emboldened Urhobos who now openly expressed their resentment of Itsekiri trading practices. Nana was also upset with other Itsekiri chieftains who were collaborating with the British. The result was open hostility between the British and Chief Nana Olomu that eventuated in the British war against Nana in 1894.
On the other hand, British colonial penetration of Urhobo country in the late 1890s offended the Royal Niger Company. The new Niger Coast Protectorate, formed in 1891, was supplanting its political authority in Urhobo country. The company deeply resented its treatment by newly empowered British imperial agents who were in a hurry to establish a colony in the Niger Delta.
The documents in the pages that follow are in two sets. The first set details British imperial agents’ accounts of their difficulties with Chief Nana Olomu. In effect they blame Nana for the fall in trade with Urhobos. The second set of documents is concerned with the chilly relations between the Niger Coast Protectorate and the Royal Niger Company on the issue of transfer of Urhobo country to the colonial control of the former at the expense of the Royal Niger Company.
December 10, 2000
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