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Oil: ‘City states’ of Niger Delta, South-South and Nigeria – Part 1



The slave trade had made a number of states and towns on the coast extremely wealthy. These include many Ijaw towns – Bonny, Buguma, Okrika, Brass, Sapele, Koko, Calabar and so forth. The kings and chiefs were warriors, jealously protecting their privileged position as the principal market places where Africans did business with Europeans. As primary products timber, palm oil, rubber and a host of other products their middle man status – between them and the Europeans – continued to foster trade that had started centuries before.

Nigerians in the hinterland of the Ijaw towns had course to be on good terms with the Ijaw chiefs and kings who were their intermediaries with the merchant vessels from Germany, Portugal, England, Denmark, France, etc. The Europeans had officers which were known as factors with huge warehouses awaiting ships to carry the goods to Europe. For ease of reference many of these chiefs and kings had alliances and names their counterparts gave them – Pepple, Jaja, Horsfall, Amakiri, Jack, Briggs, Member, Black Duke, Blue Jack, Blue Bird, Harry, Graham-Douglas, Yellow, Braide and so on. It would be a mistake to think of these men as subordinate to any of their colleagues since the rise of the individual was closely tied to whether these men, warriors that they are, could outfit war canoes with men and canons. Each trader had his customer to whom he called upon on arrival to collect goods which the “factors” had kept for them. The factors were the Europeans who had warehouses and accumulated goods awaiting shipment. These factors were known by various names – Thomas Walsh, GB Olivant, John Holt, Winberg, etc.

The ships could be loaded in Bonny, Abonnema, Brass, Koko, Nembe, Warri, etc. The captains of the merchant vessels were protected by the Consuls, and Vice-Consuls who had gun boats and are ready. Disputes were settled not always amicably, but all knew that was costly and unprofitable.

No doubt some jealousy would inevitably arise but the aim was not superiority but commerce. Each chief had his own “boys”, up and coming young men who, when they could, would marry the chief’s daughters and rig out his own warship. To do that, he would have his own land in the town and a gate where he and his people lived.

No doubt a lot of organisation on the part of the chiefs while awaiting the merchant vessel would be undertaken. To ensure a continuity of supply many of the chiefs had farms in the interior to grow the export crops needed.
It is true that anyone who could rig up a war boat may become a chief. He must do that and he must also have chiefly boats (alali aru) fastened with his own flag and fitted out like a boat befitting a king or chief. He may have several of these, complete with a high stool, dancers and drummers singing his praises. The Consul or Vice Consul is a frequent visitor or guest at the sumptuous dinners the chiefs organised.

To be an Ijaw chief was to be a man of means and character. He must be a soldier of considerable courage and powers, quick to anger, ready always to fight to maintain his honour. At the ceremony making an individual a chief, he is asked to choose between a canon ball and a yam tuber. The chief would choose a canon ball signifying that above all else he would defend his town with his life rather than eat a good meal when duty calls.

The chief would live in a quadrangle with a Northern gate, in front of his house. The gate is at the extreme of his living quarters. Between the gate and his house is a large space, a square, devoted for various activities – dancing, meeting, etc. At the end of the square is the main building of the chief, usually a two or three storey affair cutting right across the square. His building consists of a ground floor, stores, pantry (to keep all the various imported foods and spirits, part of his treasury, etc). There would be sometimes two flights of stairs leading to a balcony on the first floor. Behind the balcony is an enormous dining room/cum Council Chambers. Running off the dining room are other rooms – one or two may be his bedroom and inner parlour where he may receive guests. The chief has a suite of rooms – a smaller outer room, a larger bedroom with facilities. The outer smaller room is where someone always sleeps for he is not allowed to sleep alone, in case of anything he might need at night or if he falls ill.

An Ijaw chief does not marry a woman unless he has built her a house. Consequently on either side of the square, left and right, are the terraced quarters or houses of each of the wives. The wives’ apartment is made up of a reception from which two rooms run on either side. There are other rooms behind these rooms – children’s rooms, private rooms and an essential small room (kalabio) where the wife can hold confidential meetings. There is also a treasury room to keep her wealth – expensive clothes, coral beads, gold and other jewelry.
This structure of wife A is replicated down the line to the end of the square and gate as in a terrace; after the gate, a similar terraced wire building runs down to the chief’s main building straddling the square. The effect is like the quadrangle or cloisters of an Oxford or Cambridge College.

This structure is replicated on a smaller scale by the brothers of the chief who may well be chiefs in their own right but not accorded the title of Main House Chief (Polodabo). Bonny has 22 Houses that make up the town and what is described above more or less obtains. Okrika has 12 Houses, Bakana 5, Buguma 22, and Abonnema 13. These Houses are recognised as the original houses making up the towns – especially if they were chiefs in the “old shipping” before arriving at the newest settlements.

• Ambassador Cole is a consultant to The Guardian Editorial Board.

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