Growing up, my West Indian mother always used to comically refer to my father as “King Jaja”. I never thought twice about the origins of this saying. It was only until I started to learn about the history of Nigeria that I then got my answer.
Born in Umuduruoha, Amaigbo, Imo State in the early 1800s to an unknown name and parentage, King Jaja came into this world as Igboland was under crises. Igboland is an area of land in modern day southeastern Nigeria which is the ancestral home to the Igbo people. Evidence of human settlement of Igboland dates back to at least 10,000 years ago. For many years, the British Empire wanted Igboland for its own, invading the land for slaves in exchange for firearms and tobacco. In addition to the British, black slave raiders were invading villages, selling Igbo’s into slavery.
Jaja unfortunately fell victim to the slave trade at the age of 12, when he was kidnapped and taken to Bonny Island, Rivers State where he was renamed Jubo Jubogha by his first master. He was later resold to Chief Alali, the head of the Opobu (also written as Opobo) Manila Group of Houses in Bonny. The Kingdom of Bonny, located south of Igboland, was a rich empire that made its wealth through its business in the slave trade. Jubogha was very successful working for the chief and creating businesses of his own. With this success, he was able to buy his freedom and learn the tricks and cunningness of working with foreign traders, specifically the British. The British, who frequently traded with Jubogha, renamed him “Jaja”, because they were unable to pronounce his real name. Jaja would become his namesake. He became well known in West Africa for his success in trading and continued to climb the social ladder.
Ascension to King
After the death of his former enslaver, Chief Alali, many did not want to assume the role of his chief position due to the various debts acquired by his Anne Pepple Royal House over the years. Jaja saw it as an opportunity to increase his status and honor his late master. In less than two years, after taking the position as the new chief, all debts were paid off and the Anne Pepple Royal House became the richest and strongest trading house under the Kingdom of Bonny, absorbing other houses and increasing the number of European contacts in the area. During this time, the British had recently abolished the slave trade and so the trade of palm oil replaced the trade of humans. Palm oil was so readily available in the region that Jaja operated, it was nicknamed the Oil Rivers area, becoming the epicenter of the palm oil trade.
In the late 1800s, an outbreak of fire allowed the envious Manilla Pepple House to take over the Anne Pepple House. This would be the trigger for Jaja to establish a new settlement called the Opobo city-state. There he became King Jaja of Opobo and declared it independent of the Kingdom of Bonny. Through his keen knowledge of trade and administration, the Opobo city-state gained more control of traditional sources of palm oil and amalgamated fourteen of the original eighteen trade houses of the Kingdom of Bonny. His success resulted greatly from his moves to block British merchants from the African interior, providing him with somewhat of a monopoly on the area and riches that led him to become a millionaire. The British began to label him as a tyrant, seeing him as threat to their hidden ambitions. At times, Opobo shipped palm oil directly to Liverpool, England using his own ships, without the need of third party British liaisons. He would become the first Nigerian and West African to ship directly to the UK. According to these moves, the British accused King Jaja of apparently causing western trade to fall in West Africa. Even worse for the man, due over importation and exportation of palm oil from King Jaja’s market, foreign traders, i.e. the British, were forced to pay taxes.
King Jaja was very open to western social development, thus learning to speak English fluently. He built schools and other western advancements in Opobo which helped develop the city-state. King Jaja also employed many African Americans to teach in his schools about the way of the “West”. King Jaja welcomed the trade and social development of the West but did not welcome the British in his region. King Jaja had many wives and he sent his children to the best schools in West Africa and in the West.
As his wealth grew, King Jaja became a powerful politician and developed a strong military of his own. Unfortunately, as a western proponent, he aided the British Queen Victoria with his military in the battle of the Gold Coast (Ashanti Kingdom) and was awarded a sword of honor by Victoria in the 1870s. But even with the help that he provided to the Queen, the British still had their eyes set on acquiring his land (and trade). Continuous conflict grew between King Jaja and British traders. As British tycoons like John Holt attempted to penetrate King Jaja’s market, organizations like the African Association in Liverpool (😒) were pressing for strong legal action against King Jaja who was aiding to the “falling rates of profit” 😒.
As King Jaja learned of unapproved European direct trade with the Qua Ibo river people in his region, he raided seven of their villages, captured many and executed about 100 of his own people for their disloyalty. Besides trying to trade directly with King Jaja’s subjects, the British tried several other tricks and tactics with King Jaja but failed in their ambitions to control the region.
In 1884, at the infamous Berlin Conference (when the European nations decided they could divide Africa for themselves – The Scramble for Africa) the British finally figured out a way to get King Jaja to give them what they wanted. At the conference King Jaja was labeled as a terrorist and was accused of illegal trade. As a result, the British declared the Opobo city-state territory for themselves and executed their dominion by making King Jaja sign a peace treaty, making the Opobo territory a British protectorate. A protectorate was a way for a European nation to provide protection to a region which they intended to eventually acquire under the vise of protection from other nations. Most of the time African leadership understood this as protection from any nation, but really it meant protection from another European nation whom had interest in the same region. King Jaja agreed to sign the treaty when the British agreed to remove the original clause to free trade and unlimited access to Opobo. A year later, the British declared the Gulf of Guinea, King Jaja’s main waterway for the palm oil trade, a British protectorate allowing free trade. King Jaja opposed this ruling, declaring that his city would not be affected by such rules and would not cease British taxation.
In 1887, Henry Hamilton Johnston, a British vice-consul, invited King Jaja to negotiations on the HMS Goshawk, a British warship. King Jaja after several appeals, was assured that nothing bad would happen. That was until he was given two terrible options by Johnston aboard the ship.
Option 1: Go back to Opobo and face bombardment by the British navy (complete destruction of his city-state).
Option 2: Go into exile.
King Jaja chose neither and was arrested. He was tried in Accra (modern day Ghana) where he was found guilty on all charges. He was sent to London where he met with Queen Victoria (whom he helped take control of the Gold Coast) and was her guest in Buckingham Palace. Nothing is known of what transpired between the two, but King Jaja was shortly deported to the West Indies. He was to be tried again in Barbados for his crimes, but because the Barbadian African population heard of his unjust arrival and his kingship back in Africa, they rallied around the waterside to prevent the British from bringing King Jaja to the court house. For fear of rebellion from the African colonial population, the British quickly changed course and exiled King Jaja to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Apparently he got married and had children in St. Vincent and therefore his lineage can be traced back to the West Indies as well.
Exile and Repatriation
Coined after the way King Jaja held his head up high while he was on the island of St. Vincent, “King Jaja” in the West Indies (Barbados and St. Vincent) is a common slang for someone who is arrogant and carries himself or herself with an air of pride and dignity.
After years of campaigning for his freedom, Jaja was moved to the island of São Vicente, Cape Verde to prevent the possibility of revolt in the West Indies. After years of fighting for his freedom, in 1891 King Jaja was finally given freedom and repatriation back to his Opobo city-state. He was well advanced in age and did not survive his journey home. It is widely speculated that he was poisoned to death after being served a cup of tea with strict orders to be given to him. His body was shipped instead to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where he was buried. After many years of protest his body was properly exhumed and sent back to his beloved Opobo Kingdom where he was laid to rest. His remains are now lay at rest in a shrine behind the Palace of the Amanyanabo of Opobo.
After the British finally got their hands on what they wanted, the Opobo city-state went into great decline. The land became overexploited of its natural resources (made useless) and the city experienced continuous slave raids (weakened the population).