INCREASED BRITISH INFLUENCE IN ITSEKIRI-LAND
While there was a powerful monarch on the ITSEKIRI Throne, no European gained a monopoly of trade. We have noted Landolphe’s experience in establishing a Fort for the French Company in UGBORODO Island.
It was after its destruction by the British that the latter, aiming at the stoppage of trade in Slaves and the substitution of legitimate trade, began to take an active interest in the Benin River, OMOKU who was the Governor at the end of the Eighteenth Century and the beginning of the Nineteenth, did not show at first any sign of encouraging such a move.
European Merchants had to trade from their Ships and remained in the River only as long as they had business to do.
We have seen how this worked when John Adams visited the Benin River. He detailed the specifications needed by Ships employed in the River Trade.
The Slave Trade needed special Ships with particular implements. For legitimate trade, a different design of Ships was needed.
From the time of the exploration of the Niger to the South, British Merchants were alerted to the prospects in West Africa and wanted to oust the Portuguese from the Benin River which they had dominated for so long.
The bulk of the trade was now in Palm Oil and Kernels produced in the URHOBO and the Benin Country. The nuts were collected from the wild Palm Trees by the men and pounded by the women to extract the oil. Water was then poured on the nuts and the oil which floated to the surface was ladled out and collected in earthenware pots.
The residue was not wasted. The Kernel was broken and the seed removed. This was also pounded to remove the oil.
At first the Kernel was used only domestically – for the making of oil used in earthenware Lamps and for rubbing on their bodies, but later it was found that it was a marketable commodity.
This possibility was demonstrated by the activity of a West Indian, Mr. Ralph Dawson, and later by the Sierra Leonian, Mr. Robert Hedlle. Exports, mainly to Liverpool, were small at first, but before long, the annual output rose to about 600 tons.
A ton of the fatty oil, used for the making of margarine, fetched N26 to N30.
The trade was profitable and the European Merchants wanted to pursue it with individual Chiefs who occupied the relevant areas and who became Brokers, Carriers and Middlemen.
The control of the URHOBO Country was a vital factor in this trade and the position of the ITSEKIRI Capital was consequently of strategic importance as a Collecting Station for the Palm Oil.
There were various URHOBO Settlements in the neighbourhood. The ITSEKIRI had given Land for settlement to the People of AGBASSA and here they planted Cassava. The main function of the AGBASSA People was to provide labour for the place.
These people also made Palm Oil which was bought by ITSEKIRI Merchants. Some distance off was EFFURUN which belonged to a very progressive URHOBO Clan.
Thirty miles from the ITSEKIRI Capital was SAPELE an OKPE URHOBO Town which was growing in importance because it command a direct route to many of the Benin River Settlements.
It was also a Collecting Station for produce and for this reason, it was constantly menaced by attack from the IJOHs.
When OLU AKENGBUWA was alive he had to place a powerful Resident Captain, IBAKPADODO, there to counter the IJOH menace, an action later copied by IYE who sent AMAKATSE to SAPELE to succeed IBAKPADODO.
The trading pattern was that the ITSEKIRI Merchants obtained advances from European Traders. These advances were however not just given at random; they were given only to those credit-worthy Merchants in the Benin River Villages who were in a position to provide the large Canoes which proceeded to the Oil Markets to buy the Oil which they brought in Casks to the Benin River for sale to the Merchants who had given them the advance.
This whole system has earned the name of trusts, “a system of credit bearing in Africa the same relationship to legitimate and ready money transactions as bills discounting does to banking in England.”
While there was a state monopoly of trade in Warri, it was possible for the Central Government to impose regulation dealing with trade and this had to be accepted by indigenous and foreign Merchants.
When therefore the trusts were given, they were generally used for the purposes for which they were given. The European Merchants, afraid of the full force of the Central Government, dared not manipulate the system in order to impoverish the ITSEKIRI Merchants.
During the confused position following the death of OLU AKENGBUWA, this credit system had an element of monopoly in it and kept the ITSEKIRI Merchants in perpetual debt. Once a Chief started receiving credit from a particular Merchant, he was not at liberty to trade with any other White Merchants who came to trade.
The scheme made it possible not only to stabilize prices but to hold the small Chiefs to ransom. When therefore a new Merchant arrived from Europe, he found no Customers with whom to trade. The Merchants who had operated for a long time on the Coast, knew each other and could with impunity seize the produce meant for any newcomer.
The trust system had the disadvantage that the trader had to visit a longer time for his produce. Individual trading Enterprises therefore began to give way to Companies which appointed agents in the different ITSEKIRI Settlements.
These Companies built Factories on the creeks which they knew were healthy and which they could defend easily against invasion. Building a Factory was always a difficult business.
The White Merchants first explored the River for suitable sites and when they had picked one they negotiated with the Local Chief for the lease of the plot of land.
When there was a King over the ITSEKIRI People he held all the land in the Kingdom in trust for the People and he alone had the right to grant or lease land.
In the 1830s Factories were to be found scattered all over the Kingdom. As soon as the land was obtained Kroomen were sent to do the clearing while hired ITSEKIRIs brought sand for reclamation and for a landing stage three feet or so above tide level.
Trunks of Palm trees were driven into the ground of the shore to form an embankment against the tide. The building itself was on stilts.
Dr. William F. Daniell who went to the Benin River and Warri in 1839 saw some of these Factories and has left us a description of them.
“The edifices are commodiously built of wood, somewhat in the Spanish Style and contain a number of apartments in a middle Story elevated above the surrounding swamps.”
END OF PART THREE A
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