Urhobo Historical Society
A REPORT OF FIRST
BRITISH IMPERIAL EXPEDITION
INTO UKWUANI ("KWALE") COUNTRY,
NORTH OF URHOBO COUNTRY
Click at Map to Reveal Features
Urhoboland is surrounded by five neighbouring ethnic nationalities in
location and relationships that date back to many centuries. To Urhoboland's
south and to its west are, respectively, the Ijaw and the Itsekiri who inhabit
the swampy lands of the Niger Delta in the Atlantic coastal areas. To the
south east are the Isoko who were regarded and treated by the British as
the same people as the Urhobo. To Urhoboland's northwest are the Benin
whose empire was once great but had shrunk considerably by the the first
half of the 1890s, even though its remnant was the cause of much concern
to British imperial ambitions in the report under discussion. Finally, to
Urhoboland's northeast are the Ukwuani, reputed to be among the earliest
indigenous people to settle in the Niger Delta.
By 1895, British imperial agents had made contacts with most of these
people. Indeed, the Atlantic ethnic nationalities of the Ijaw and the Itsekiri
had trading experiences with the English, as with other European trading
nations, dating back to several centuries. The British had similar experiences
with the Benin whose king had exercised enormous power and influence in
many areas of the western Niger Delta. Then in the later half of the 1880s,
the British Royal Niger Company established contacts with Urhobos in their
waterways. The Urhobo and Isoko fell to British colonialism, beginning
with a series of "Treaties
of Protection," from 1891 to 1894. However, up to the first half of
the 1890s, the Ukwuani were largely untouched by this flurry of British
imperial expansion in the western Niger Delta.
The report reproduced in the following pages is of historical interest
for several reasons, beyond the fact that the Ukwuani were the last of
the ethnic nationalities to be brought under British colonial rule in
the western Niger Delta. First, the mission of the expedition was stated
by Sir Roger Moor, in his detailed letter dispatching
the report to the Foreign Office, as follows:
This journey was undertaken . . . with a view to opening
up friendly communications with the natives and assist in settling difficulties
among them which were damaging to trade. It was also anticipated
that the source of the Jamiesen River [a tributary of Ethiope River] might
First, it should be clear from this statement that trade was
of paramount interest to British expansion in the 1890s. The Ukwuani region
had not been directly engaged in trade with the British up until
then. Second, it is remarkable from this report that plotting the geography
of these areas was a principal method of British imperial conquest
in the western Niger Delta.
In the body of the report by Hugh Leeky,
two issues dominate the events of the the expedition. First, there is the
persistent complaint of the seizure of persons and goods in the trading
of the area, "preventing Sobos [Urhobo] and Kwalis [Ukwuani] from trading
with each other." This was a pernicious practice that grew from the breakdown
of interethnic relations in the nineteenth century that surfaced elsewhere
in the Niger Delta (thus see here).
The second problem that loomed over British ambitions in this area was
the rival imperial presence of Benin. Although the British had seriously
undermined Benin imperial influences in much of the western Niger Delta,
Ukwuani remained under Benin domination well until the British war against
the Benin in 1897, a year after the British journey into Ukwuani country.
It is also noteworthy that Urhobo and Ukwuani contacts were extensive
before the British arrived in Ukwuani country. Cultural, especially marriage,
ties between Urhobos and Ukwuani apparently date back to a long time before
British colonialism in the 1890s. It is noteworthy that the journey to
Ukwuani country went through Urhobo towns of Sapele, Okpara, Eku, and, "Ajulumi."
Apparently, close cultural ties between Urhobo and Ukwuani helped the British
imperial agents in their mission of negotiating with the Ukwuani.
Finally, the British corruption of Urhobo and Ukwuani names is remarkable.
The Urhobo were called "Sobo" -- a corruption that dates back to the
arrival of the Portuguese in the middle 1480s. The British could not
handle the Ukwuani name, calling them Kwale instead. The "Kwale" corruption
stuck throughout colonial times, although it has largely been erased in
the postcolonial era.
Peter P. Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo