Itsekiri/Niger Delta: adventure of a West African trader in the early 1870s

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Barton with his host, Nana from Itsekiri

Dear reader, if you are interested in how the Niger Delta looked at the beginning of colonization, here is a travel diary for you.

By CW Barton

The west coast of Africa from Sierra Leone from 2000 miles along the coast has back lanes and crosses deep rivers and streams running from river to river. One can traverse, say, 100 miles up the Niger to Brass, thence to Bonny, and so on to Opobo, and others, without leaving the mouth of one of these rivers in the Atlantic Ocean.

Palm oil and palm nuts come from the Jackri country, and on the way to the English factories on the various rivers, duties are levied by each chief in whose territory you travel.

Having secured a very large and spacious canoe with a palanquin arrangement (thick native mats to protect my paddlers from arrows), I loaded it well with trade and provisions, as I intended to go straight away in Jackri country (ITSEKIRI). We left Nimbe, the capital of the Brags River, at midnight with all the best wishes and “doe eboes” (“goodbye”) (NEMBE) from the natives. My crew consisted of 14 paddlers, my leader, Jacko, and a giant of a savage named Grand Cess, from the coast of Kroo, who acted as a “lookout” forward, always armed and always ready.

At Warri with Chief Essedi

Our weapons were six Winchesters, three revolvers and tomahawks, hand grenades and colored signal lights. We did the Forcados river the following night. This river was then neither charted nor navigated by white men. Here in Wari lived Chief Essedi, who owed us six barrels of oil. We stop until dawn. My boys were very timid about approaching, so I

I flagged down a canoe and disembarked, where I received a very warm welcome from Essedi, his wives and family. The whole place was in the festive mood, the occasion being the launching of a new war boat. Provided that my people are not attacked. I motioned for Jacko to approach and camp on the shore. The war-boat about to be christened was cheerfully decorated with flowers and shells, and with blowing conches, horns and tom-toms the noise was formidable. Pre-ju-ju man appeared; he had

a kid whose throat has been slit and whose blood has run all over the prow of the canoe. Then a fowl was dispatched and thrown overboard after the goat; a fish of some size was offered to the gods, and finally, to my horror, a newborn piccaninny was brought up and, with many ejaculations of joy, thrown after the rest of the offerings. All of this was done to appease the river gods and the crocodiles.

Essedi very much wanted me to stay for the night, as did his many wives, who of course had fully accepted our hospitality during their visit to Brass River. They were eager to return it. Jacko, however, got restless, and the canoe boys were in a foreign country, and understandably timorous, so I decided, much against my will, to continue my journey.

Visit to Chinomi (ITSEKIRI CHANINOMI)

I left Wari (Forcados) and the hospitable Essedi with six puncheons in two canoes operated by Essedi’s boys, with instructions to deliver to Mr. Townsend at Brass River. I had already made arrangements with him to sell the same on my account. All clear, I left Wari and hit the main river to Forcados Creek, across it to Nano (NANA) Creek, and so on to Deli (DALE-OKETA) Town, and on the evening of the second day, I arrived at Chief Chez Chinomie (CHANINOMI D’ITSEKIRI), and at his place, I had some oil to collect. The old chief sat smoking in the midst of a dozen of his wives, two or three girls of about 14 or 15, completely naked, standing near him, and two boys with large skin fans, l fanning. Preparations

for supper were made. I produced some good whiskey, a dozen bottles of which I had been prudent enough to bottle from the cask and bring with me. It was very, very late before I retired to rest in the chief’s adjoining room. When I woke up in the morning, I first thought there had been a heavy snowfall. They were the bolls of wild cotton that had fallen from the giant cotton trees. Here the natives spin and weave on their indigenously made looms – their mattresses are stuffed with wild cotton.

Chinomie (CHANINOMI D’ITSEKIRI) had a very large double brass bed, presented to her by Queen Victoria in recognition of her efforts to suppress the slave trade in her dominions. I was shown the idol

lodge; the shelves were filled with idols of all sizes and shapes, made of ivory, brass, wood and clay. Some

were 6 feet tall, with two faces and four hands, eyes and tongues still rolling and moving, being artfully fixed on wires. The warehouse was a marvel.

It was full of the most diverse lot of wood I have ever seen – figureheads from old sailing ships, mostly Spanish and Portuguese, ship anchors and equipment, old sea chests, brass from all parts of the world, porcelain bowls, filled with gold and gilt ornaments, beautifully engraved brass bowls and skulls stretched and decorated after the style of General McCarthy’s skull which I saw at Coomaasie, fitted with gold

handles, and used as a sort of stirrup. There were crucifixes, damaged statues of saints, sailcloth, etc. Overall I had a very happy time here and ended with a great native dance. I distributed commercial gin free of charge, I received from Chinomie (CHANINOMI D’ITSEKIRI) the oil which was due to me, and, with its canoes and its boys under the same conditions, I sent it to Mr Townsend. I have now overhauled my store and prepared to call on Chef Nana, from the town of Brohemie (EBROHIMI).

Visit to Nana

NANA D’ITSEKIRI was the great chief of the natives of the Benin River, a Jackri (ITSEKIRI), and an ex-

extremely powerful and wealthy man. His town, Brohemie (EBROHIMI), made by his father, Alluma (OLOMU), was a marvelous sight, the land on which most of it was built having been salvaged from

the mangrove by millions of canoes full of sand dumped on it. The whole place was extremely clean and the houses were built in streets perpendicular to the main road – as wide as Piccadilly, London – which connected Nana’s part of town to that of her father, Alluma (Olomu) , which spanned a few

half a mile away.

Bohemia (EBROHIMI) was approached by a narrow and winding stream, coming from the river Benin (IN COUNTRY ITSEKIRI). Nana was the greatest and most powerful of all the commercial chiefs of the Benin River (in Itsekiri country) and, therefore, his name and his prestige were well known to the King of Benin.

Brohemie (EBROHIMI) was fortified with cannons and its fighters were armed with Winchester rifles.

In 1894, after terrible losses, he was captured and deported to Saint Helena, with six wives and £809 a year. More than £4,000 worth of gold was found buried in iron pots. I was received by him with great hospitality. When he visited us in Brass to collect land rent from our factory, he was always received with the most generous and warm welcome. While chatting, I told him about the changed state of affairs, the latest palm oil and nut listings, and the general unrest in Benin City. I said I was curious to see Benin itself, as so few white men had been allowed in and out safely. He questioned me sharply about the strength of the armed forces in Sierra Leone and Accra and before leaving gave me a very large ivory bracelet with his name inside as a guarantee for my safety during his presentation in Benin.

I now had a long trip from Brohemie (EBROHIMI) to Ologbo, where I intended to stay for a little while. Late on the third day after leaving Nana Creek, we were paddling steadily to the singing of the boys; “Alumbah (Olomu Nana’s father)”, “Alumbah”, with each stroke of

paddle, when suddenly a shower of arrows greeted us on the starboard side. Some of them hit the mat and fell into the water. The next moment I heard loud screams and, looking cautiously, I was surprised to see a native girl of about 16 years old diving from the shore and heading towards our canoe. His pursuers arrived in force, and the former dropped their weapons and jumped into the water – three in all. The main body stopped dead and observed the events.

When the girl was near the canoe, she dove and climbed up the other side. Jacko, with great promptness, had armed himself and was awaiting my word of command. I said. ‘Fire’, and the first boy sank like a stone. The two remaining boys dived and came up far behind the canoe, and Jacko sent another shot, which, as the boy was not seen by anyone to get up, I concluded had had effect . On average-

Once Grand Cess had helped the young girl into the canoe, and there she had thrown herself exhausted. My first act was to give her a spoonful of brandy, which made her sputter a little, and then a refreshing drink of palm wine, which we had on board in good supply for the use of the crew. All the while, I kept the canoe going at racing speed, with short stops. I went on all night until I felt we were a long way from

pursuit. Jacko was called in to act as an interpreter, so I found out the girl was called Innimiko. She was part of a group sold to a slaver on the upper Niger, had escaped them and fallen into the hands of the itinerant tribe from which she had just escaped.

I gave her a necklace of pipe coral, assuring her (through Jacko) that I would put her down in any town or village she named, and that no harm would befall her; or, if she wanted, I would take her to any river and leave her under the protection of any white man in his factory. None of my proposals were accepted. She chose to stay with me. Nothing major happened along the way. We reached Olgbo safely, and

Jacko secured suitable homes for himself, Grand Cess, and the canoe boys; he also arranged with a native and his wife to accommodate Innimiko and myself. We were made very comfortable, and here she became my wife.

  • Source: Nigeria Nostalgia Project (1960-1989)

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