Urhobo Historical Society

APRIL 1896

Editor's Introduction

By Peter P. Ekeh, Ph.D.

Click at Map to Reveal Features
A Map of the Ethnic Nationalities of the Niger Delta

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 be discovered.
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