Treaties with Itsekiri of Benin River: Editor’s Introduction

Urhobo Historical Society



By Peter P. Ekeh, Ph.D.

Britain took quite seriously the contents and form of colonial Treaties of Protection which its imperial agents made in the 1880s and 1890s with various political communities in what eventually became the British Protectorate of Southern Nigeria in 1900. As far as the British were concerned, these Protection Treaties marked the beginning of their colonial control of the affairs of Nigeria’s diverse communities. Although the first clause, Article I,  of these pro forma  Protection Treaties claimed that the British were engaging in their agreements in “compliance with the request of the Chiefs and People” of the political communities concerned, it was clear that the Foreign Office from London and its assigned imperial agents, in the Niger Delta and beyond, were driving the terms and purpose of the treaties. Indeed, it is doubtful that the Chiefs of any Nigerian communities understood the letter, let alone the spirit, of these Treaties of Protection whose pro forma texts were printed in England, written in English, and “interpreted” by British imperial agents to the signatory chiefs. However, the consequence of their signing the Treaties  was that these Chiefs and their people lost their sovereignty. British imperial officers made sure that they enforced those clauses in which the signatory Chiefs gave up their rights as a sovereign people.

Just how serious and complicated these treaties were, could be seen in the case of the Itsekiri who became Great Britain’s first Protectorate in the Western Niger Delta, even before the European competition 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 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 participation in the trade. By mid-nineteenth century, the British had edged out other European trading nations in the trade and politics of the Itsekiri. In 1851, at the insistence of a new British Consul for the Bights of Benin and Biafra, John Beecroft, a fresh office of “Governor of Benin River” was created among the Itsekiri, in order to minimize deadly conflicts and unruly rivalries among Itsekiri’s trading houses. The first Governor of Benin River, Chief Idiare, led the Itsekiri to sign a trade treaty with the British, allowing British imperial agents a foothold in Itsekiri affairs from the middle of the nineteenth century.

The harmonious relations between the British and Itsekiri were severely tested in the 1880s as the British expanded their trading and imperial interests beyond Itsekiri territory in transactions that soon undercut Itsekiri privileged stature in the Western Niger Delta. The British rush to expand its colonial interests beyond Itsekiri territory in the Western Niger Delta was driven by the imperatives of the so-called Scramble for Africa that followed from the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Soon, disputes arose between the British and Chief Nana Olomu, the fourth Governor of Benin River,  on the meaning and implications of the 1884 Treaty. These developments led to the signing of a second Protection Treaty in 1894, ten years after the first Protection Treaty, between the British and Itsekiri, in circumstances that were more intimidating than in 1884.

As the first steps taken by the British in their imperial ventures in the Western Niger Delta, which led to greater British imperialism in the rest of Southern Nigeria, these two Treaties of 1884 and 1894 deserve to be examined with respect to their contents and the circumstances in which they were made.


There are many noteworthy features of the 1884 Treaty between the British and the Itsekiri.

Friendly Preface

First, the Treaty had a friendly preface, a feature that is missing from other Protection Treaties with communities with whom the British had no previous history of protracted relations. The 1884 Treaty began by declaring that the Treaty was being made because the British and Itsekiri’s Chiefs were “desirous of maintaining and strengthening the relations of peace and friendship which have so long existed between them.” Consequently, the preface said, “Her Britannic Majesty has named and appointed E. H. Hewett, Esq., Her Consul for the Brights of Benin and Biafra, to conclude a treaty for this purpose.”

This type of preface was exceptional in the history of British Treaties with Nigerian communities for two main reasons. First, there was little friendship that the British could count on in previous relations between them and those communities with whom they entered into agreements later in the 1890s. As a matter of fact, in several instances, the Protection Treaties that the British signed with other communities in the Western Niger Delta provided the first substantive occasion for a meeting between the British and the affected communities. Second, it was unusual for any special British envoy to be named for the sake of making a Protection Treaty, as Hewett was so specially named in the case of the Itsekiri. In many other instances of Protection Treaties of the 1890s, imperial agents of lower rank, less than the high office of Consul of Bights of Benin and Biafra, transacted the agreements on behalf of the British Government.

Disputed Articles of the 1884 Treaty

It is unclear, to me at any rate, where the pro forma texts of the Protection Treaties came from. It was true that the the Royal Niger Company had used a similar form for making treaties  with many communities in Urhobo land. But those were more limited and were essentially commercial treaties. In any case, the format of the 1884 Itsekiri Treaty would be the first instance of its use in Western Niger Delta. But that format was repeated over and over again in different regions of Nigeria. Generally, in upland countries, Article VIII, which embodied maritime privileges that would be extended to British vessels, was deleted from the pro forma agreements as irrelevant. While the text of the 1884 Itsekiri Treaty did not therefore apply entirely to all subsequent cases, it supplied the texts of the Protection Treaties that enabled the British to establish its Protectorate of Southern Nigeria.

However, the 1884 Itsekiri Treaty appeared to have undergone some objections in respect of two of its provisions. These had to do with with Articles VI and VII. Their texts read as follows:

Article VI: The subjects and citizens of all countries may freely carry on trade in every part of the territories of the Kings and Chiefs party hereto, and may have houses and factories therein.

Article VII: All Ministers of the Christian religion shall be permitted to reside and exercise their calling within the territories of the aforesaid Kings and Chiefs, who hereby guarantee to them full protection. All forms of religious worship and religious ordinances may be exercised within the territories of the aforesaid Kings and Chiefs, and no hindrance shall be offered thereto.

In response to apparent Itsekiri objections, the British allowed room for further negotiations on these two articles of the 1884 Treaty. The enforcement Article IX said that the Treaty would be enforced “from the date of its signature, except as regards Articles VI and VII which are to be left for negotiation on a future occasion.”

It is unclear why there was objection to these two articles.  Itsekiri’s first encounter with Christianity dated back to the sixteenth century and was unsuccessful (see .) With respect to Article VI, Itsekiri Chieftains knew other European traders more than any other Nigerian ethnic community did in the nineteenth century. The Itsekiri chieftains were apparently unhappy about opening the floodgate of European traders into their country.

The Extent of Itsekiri Country

There is another indication of Itsekiri concerns in some of the articles in the 1884 Treaty. The Treaty was signed aboard the British warship “Flirt” “anchored in Benin River this sixteenth day of July 1884.” That would imply that Itsekiri country was on the banks of Benin River. Whoever raised the fear saw that Itsekiri country was being minimized to Benin River, their predominant abode in the nineteenth century. From internal evidence within the 1884 Treaty, there was an obvious attempt after July 16, 1884, to correct such impression by defining within the Treaty the full extent of Itsekiri territories. This was done by identifying other elements of Itsekiri territories. That goal was achieved in what was a significant addendum to the 1884 Treaty. E. H. Hewett, the British negotiator in the making of this Treaty, added to the 1884 Treaty the following binding addendum:

I hereby certify that according to the terms of a treaty concluded between Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, etc., and Head and other Chiefs of Jakri Country, the gracious favour and protection of Her Britannic Majesty have been extended to the people and country of both banks of the Escravos river, the Chiefs of which have, in the presence of myself and others, acknowledged themselves and their country to be under Jakri jurisdiction and authority.

Given on board the British steamship “Dodo” anchored in the river Escravos this sixth day of August 1884.

(Sgd.) Edward Hyatt Hewitt
Her Britannic Majesty’s Consul
for the Bights of Benin and Biafra, o/c.

This addendum must have been hailed by Chief Nana Olomu, identified in Hewitt’s statement as the Head of the Itsekiri, and others who signed the Treaty for the Itsekiri. Their triumph can be seen in the map of the Niger Delta displayed above. There are three principal entries into the Western Niger Delta from the Atlantic — through Benin River, “Escravos” River, and  Forcados River. This agreement, made at a time when no other ethnic nationality had any treaty relationship with the British in the Western Niger Delta, nabbed for the Itsekiri two of these principal waterways, leaving only Forcados River for the neighbouring riverine Ijaw. It is important to add that in the nineteenth century, these waterways were most valuable. Conversely, the lands on which the Urhobos settled, away from these waterways, were of little value in international commerce in the nineteenth century.

In any case, the 1884 Treaty thus identified the lands on the banks of Benin River and “Escravos” River, as well as their waters, as belonging to the Itsekiri. It must be added, in the light of subsequent history of the Western Niger Delta, that Warri and its environs were not so identified in the 1884 Treaty as Itsekiri country. Warri River is a tributary of River Forcados and was well outside of the orbit of the territories identified in the 1884 Treaty as Itsekiri country.


Why A Second Treaty?

The first pertinent question that deserves to be asked about the repetition of a treaty that was already in force is, why make a second treaty? The question is pertinent because there are no material changes in the wording of the articles of the second Treaty.  Indeed, the 1894 Treaty incorporated without any modification the entirety of Articles VI and VII which the British had promised to re-negotiate.

The answer to this intriguing question is that the second Treaty of 1894 was a British weapon against Chief Nana Olomu, Governor of Benin River, who had led the Itsekiri in signing the 1884 Treaty. Chief Nana Olumu had fallen out with the British in disputes and suspicions which lie within the terms of the Treaty of 1884. Itsekiri relations with the British began to sour shortly after the Berlin Conference, with the consolidation of the trading and political ambitions of Sir George Goldie and his Royal Niger Company who dealt directly with the upland Urhobo, thus cutting into the agricultural bowl whose products fed the European trade for which Itsekiri mercantile chieftains had served as middlemen for some two centuries. The formation of the Niger Coast Protectorate in 1891 signalled further British interests to expand beyond Itsekiri territory. The series of Protection Treaties that the British signed with Urhobo communities in Warri in 1892 and 1893 worsened the prospects for the Itsekiri of remaining Britain’s prime Protectorate. It is entirely possible that Nana Olomu saw these acts as deeds of betrayal, interpreting the 1884 Treaty as special and one whose terms were not intended to be extended to other communities in the Western Niger Delta.

Chief Nana Olomu’s reaction was to turn violent against the Urhobo, lashing out at those Urhobo villages and towns on the River Ethiope, an extension of Benin River, who were dealing with British and other European companies. The Urhobo response was trade boycott, an action that was immediately noticed and felt by the new British colonial administration in 1894. As far as the British were concerned, these acts of violence against Urhobos by Nana Olomu’s armed men were in violation of Article IV of the 1884 Treaty which had stipulated that “All disputes between the Chiefs of Jakri . . . and neighbouring tribes, which cannot be settled amicably between the two parties, shall be submitted to the British Consular or other officers appointed by Her Britannic Majesty to exercise jurisdiction in Jakri territories for arbitration and decision, or for arrangement.”  In a detailed report to the Foreign Office, R. Moor, Acting Consul-General of the new Niger Coast Protectorate, further alleged that Chief Nana Olomu had threatened to attack two Itsekiri Chieftains, identified in the report as “two friendly Chiefs, Dore and Dudu.”

Once it became clear that Nana Olomu would be defiant, British imperial agents embarked on a series of actions that sought to enforce British authority in Benin River and on the River Ethiope. The first was the Proclamation, on about July 9, 1894, banning war canoes in the waterways of Benin, Sapele, and Warri Districts.  In his report, Moor narrated his efforts at containing Chief Nana Olumu to include the following action: “I issued instructions for a notice to be given for a meeting of Chiefs on 2nd August [1894]. At the same time steps  were taken  to communicate with H. M. S. Alecto to obtain her attendance.”

Placed before the Itsekiri Chiefs, who were gathered for this meeting summoned by the British officer R. Moor, was a Protection Treaty. The deadly and intimidating atmosphere of this meeting could be seen in Moor’s report. He narrates: (1) “I received a letter from Chief Nana stating that he was afraid to attend meeting lest he should be seized and deported from his district.” (2)  “All the other Chiefs of the Benin and Warri district, were in attendance and appeared anxious to do all in their power to carry out the orders of the Government and for the peace of the district.” (3) “A form of treaty was entered into by all of them . . . which . . . it will be seen from Article X is a ratification of all former treaties.”

If there was anything like gun-boat diplomacy in British imperial behaviour, this was literally a glaring instance of it. So the second Treaty of 1894, signed on board the warship Alecto, was not negotiated at all. The anxious Chiefs accepted everything placed before them. The 1894 Treaty was handwritten, possibly because there was no available printed copy. The first signatory of this new version of a Protection Treaty was Dudu, who was reported as having been threatened by Nana Olomu. In the 1884 Treaty Dudu was the second signatory, following Nana Olomu. A few weeks later Chief Nana was captured, on his surrender in Lagos, and deported. Dore Numa, another man threatened by Nana Olomu, was to become the new star who would replace Nana, not as Governor of Benin River but with a new title of Political Agent for Benin River to which he was appointed  in 1896, doing further valuable dirty work in Britain’s next major engagement, the 1897 war against the kingdom of Benin.

Significant Changes in the 1894 Treaty

In his report, R. Moor characterized the 1894 Treaty as a ratification of previous Treaties between the Itsekiri and the British. It is, in most cases, a repetition of the contents of the 1884 Treaty. But there are significant distinctions in the 1894 Treaty that should be highlighted.

Missing Preface

A special feature of the 1884 Treaty was its welcoming and friendly preface that celebrated the special friendship between the Itsekiri and the British. That was gone in the hand-written 1894 Treaty. The new version had the same austerity as all other Treaties of Protection that the British signed with communities in the Western Niger Delta.

Ratification Article X

British Protection Treaties in the Western Niger Delta were standard and had nine Articles of agreement. The Itsekiri 1894 Treaty was special in having an additional Article X. It was labelled as a ratification article in the Treaty. In fact, however, it was more than that. There was a carrot in it for good behaviour. Added to the ratification portion of Article X was the following promise: “and it is understood that if reasonable and consistent effort be shewn by the signatory chiefs to adhere and carry out the terms of it, there will be immunity from punishment from any and all offences which may have been committed against the laws and orders of the Government prior to the signing of it.” The message must have been clearly understood by the assembled Chiefs that there was no room for negotiation, not in the face of these dire threats.

Titles of 1884 and 1894 Treaties

The title of the 1884 Treaty was rather uncertain. It reads as follows: “Treaty with Chiefs of Jakri,” with an addition in parenthesis of “River Benin.” (Elsewhere, I thought the parenthesis was “Circa Benin.” But actually, it becomes clear that it is “River Benin” when it is compared to its repetition in the notation beneath Article IX of the 1884 Treaty.) This title was considered incomplete because the addendum to the 1884 Treaty also identified both banks of the “Escravos” River as belonging to Itsekiri people. All of these were remedied in the 1894 Treaty with the clear title of “Treaty With Chiefs of Benin River and Jekeri Country.” In the light of Article X of the 1894 Treaty, it is clear that “Jekeri Country” refers to the addendum of the 1884 Treaty that added “the people and country of both banks of the Escravos River” to Benin River as constituting Itsekiri territories.

Absence of Kings of Itsekiri From the 1884 and 1894 Treaties

The 1884 Treaty was signed on a printed form that had more than what was needed in its text. Inapplicable terms were thus deleted. The only such deletion in the 1884 Itsekiri Treaty was the word “Kings” which was obviously adjudged to be inapplicable in the Itsekiri case. The word “Kings” was however left in Articles VI and VII, which were disputed and were to be further negotiated on a future occasion. In the 1894 Treaty, which was hand-written for that particular exercise, there was no reference whatsoever to the Kings of Itsekiri. As far as these two Treaties of 1884 and 1894 were concerned, Chiefs, not Kings, of the Itsekiri counted and had legal presence.

Peter Ekeh

Buffalo, New York, USA


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