BOBI continued to be the centre of trade in the Benin River. It was not a very large town, but it had enough cleared land for some comfortable houses to be built.
As Governor of the Benin River, Governor OMOKU called HOMACOO by some Europeans became responsible for boarding Ships and exacting the Customs Duties and for occasionally conducting visiting Captains to Warri.
OMOKU was a man of very forceful character and many of the European Merchants called him King HAMATU of BOBI.
Under his Governorship BOBI became an important Slave Port which from time to time was visited by Ships of the British Naval Squadron hunting for slaves. OMOKU had difficulty in giving up the trade.
While he was well disposed to the European Merchants who came to trade with the Kingdom he took strong action against Captains of Men-of War. Being a very wealthy man, he could afford lavish entertainments.
Captain OWEN who saw him in 1825 and enjoyed his hospitality has given an account of his experience. The Captain who was in fact engaged in the work of stopping the Slave Trade, was driven by foul weather to the shores of BOBI and had no alternative but to go to the Chief whom he regarded as ‘a very worthy sort of personage’.
Governor OMOKU offered him slaves at a very low price and he could have bought a stalwart slave for a jacket or a pair of scissors. But as a British Naval Officer with responsibility for seizing Slave Ships, OWEN was not interested.
His refusal was strange to OMOKU who became suspicious and as soon as he was informed that OWEN was in charge of Men-of-War, he held the Captain and his Crew to be ‘very great rogues ‘ who went about stealing Slave Ships, a view no doubt encouraged by those Portuguese and Brazilians who kept the Slave Trade alive.
OMOKU like many of the other Chiefs along the the coast was in favour of a trade which had made him wealthy and which he justified on the principle of might being right. Slaves were property to be disposed of at will.
His contention was that most slaves were war prisoners and might therefore be sold at the captor’s will.
He stated: “If me go fight, and run away, then me caught and made prisoner and me go slave to buckra man; so man I take I sel to buckra, cause him coward.”
This argument did not impress OWEN and as he still refused to trade in slaves he was asked what he had come to BOBI to do. Having denied that he was an Officer working for the suppression of the slave trade, he now told OMOKU that he was in the Benin River to prepare a Chart.
This idea, OMOKU and his Chiefs could not comprehend. The discussion was interesting. The Captain reported: ‘I accordingly tried to impress upon my suspicious hearers that we were particularly honest men and come to ‘make book of river.’ This excited some alarm at first; they appeared to think that I intended to make the river into a book, and then carry it off; and one fellow asked me with much simplicity, if I ‘make book of Fish too.’ The basic problem here was to get the idea of making a chart understood through the medium of the trade or Pidgin English which was understood and spoken fluently along the coast.’
When OWEN with all his ingenuity failed to get his meaning across he said in desperation. “King, suppose I come to take Slave Ship, you think I come see you and drink grog, (palm wine)? – No! I go up river, and take Ship to my Country, and no stop to talk and drink with you”. He said this with such apparent sincerity that tension relaxed and OMOKU no longer doubted him.
The coastal Chiefs were very good at entertaining their European guests, especially if they believed that they intended to trade. Though OWEN had not come to trade as long as he was the Chief’s guest, he had everything he wanted.
Before he came ashore, he had sent to OMOKU for provisions and “this he instantly complied with, ordering a Pig and plenty of Yams to be taken on board”. On another occasion when OMOKU found that OWEN and his colleagues were wet, he insisted on their undressing and equipping them in Suits of his own until they were perfectly dry. The Captain was so impressed by the Chief’s hospitality and generosity that his account pays high tribute to him.
He wrote: “A more refined savage could have done no more – few could have done so much, and I must show how this rude, uncultivated African was to the polished European. We were his enemies, belonging to a Nation that deprived him of his trade – were thrown upon his hospitality and in his power, when having fed and clothed us, we were allowed to depart.
In our civilized quarter of the globe when the shipwrecked mariner is thrown upon a hostile shore he is instantly seized, cast in prison, and detained as if he were a captive taken in battle. I do not ask which of these two deserves the reward of humanity, but conceive that the untutored savage here offers a lesson worthy of imitation by more civilized Princes”.
Although the slave trade was the main source of the Governor’s wealth he soon realized that there were opportunities for trade in other commodities. The collapse of the Slave Trade therefore did not completely ruin him. Many Ships went to the Benin River to purchase ivory, pepper and palm oil. As Governor of the Benin River, he continued to collect Customs Dues which typically consisted of thirty pieces of common cloth, six guns, one barrel of gun powder, a small cask of rum and a few small articles.
It was his duty to fix prices for new articles brought by the European Merchants as well as for the produce which the Merchants wanted to buy. Although salt remained the basic measure, East Indian cowrie shells were becoming accepted currency and were accepted by the Chiefs.
With the advances which he got from the European traders, he sent his trusted slaves to the interior to purchase produce so that he constantly had enough stock to sell. He was therefore Merchant and Custom Officer at the same time.
He used his position as Governor of the river to advantage; only those who were favourable to him were allowed to trade. There was no State monopoly of trade in ITSEKIRI Country as there was in Benin and it was unlikely that the Olu himself received as much as he should of the proceeds of trade in his Kingdom.
From the European Merchants, especially the British, the ITSEKIRI traders bought Manchester products as well as the black-patterned silk handkerchiefs.
Brazilian tobacco was as important as spirits, guns, gunpowder, and coral beads which found quick markets.
The palm oil which was collected from the URHOBO Country by the ITSEKIRI middlemen was poured into jars, the largest of which could take about four gallons and the smaller ones three gallons.
The gun powder was sold in half-pint mugs while ‘for salt, a mess kid, or crew, made to contain five pounds weight was used’
END OF PART SIX