King Ja Ja: the fold song and the man
A West African ruler in the late nineteenth century, King Ja Ja of Opobo, spent only three months in exile in the Caribbean island of Barbados, yet became one of the country's folk heroes with a song to match, King Ja Ja.
Although the song is still popular, the King's personality is largely forgotten, thanks to the country's highly anglicised educational system, which, over the years, has excluded important aspects of its history. The King has, of course, been the subject of several newspaper articles and radio broadcasts, but Barbadians remain largely uninterested in a man who would appear to have inspired nothing more than an irreverent, saucy love song.
Still, apart from the people themselves, who are largely descendants of West African slaves, Walmer Cottage in St Michael, where the King sojourned on the island, is one of the country's few cultural inheritances with reference to West Africa. The house has reportedly fallen into neglect, indeed it was once up for sale-a sad reflection on its place in the collective memory.
Despite its sad end, King Ja Ja's life was nothing short of a fairy tale-a slave who became a King. Born in a village in the Orlu district of Nigeria in 1821, he was sold as a slave, at the age of 12, to a chief who took him to Bonny, a prosperous trading town. Despite his social status, he was able to work for himself and Bonny was the right place to be for an industrious man with a sense of business. Trading on palm oil, he became wealthy, rose to the rank of a chief and was soon competing with none other than the King of Bonny himself. This commercial rivalry became so fierce and violent, however, that Ja Ja was forced to flee with his followers to Opobo, where he took the title of King.
The King of Bonny, however, would not leave him in peace. He attacked Ja Ja, and, in the war that ensued, commerce was so severely disrupted that British merchants in the area, who represented the British Government, had to intervene. A settlement was reached and sealed with a treaty in which both the King of Bonny and the British Government recognised Ja Ja as King of Opobo.
Ja Ja became a very good ally of the British trading companies and of the Imperial Consul on the Niger Coast. When the British had a war on their hands in Ashanti in the then Gold Coast in 1875, he sent a contigent of soldiers to assist them. For this he received a Sword of Honour from Queen Victoria. The King cleverly exploited his friendship with the British to extend, by force, his areas of influence, but he was uncompromising towards them when it came to commerce. He refused to allow them trading access to the interior where he had set up a monopoly, and in 1884, when a treaty was signed with all the potentates in the south setting up a British Protectorate, he made sure that his territory was omitted from the article which provided for free trade. It was clear he did not want direct contact between European traders and producers in the interior. He even nursed an ambition to send large quantities of palm oil directly to England himself.
When, in 1887, the British Consul decided to ignore the provisions of the Protectorate Agreement and apply the terms of the 1885 Berlin Treaty, which guaranteed freedom of navigation, the stage was set for confrontation in the creeks.
Constant harassment by Ja Ja's agents of canoes carrying mail led the Consul to extract a promise from the King to bring such acts to an end. A document to that effect was signed in Opobo, but Ja Ja was to ignore it, for a few days later he had the Consul himself held up on the river during a trip, to signal his dissatisfaction with the terms. The Consul's reaction was to persuade the British Government that the deportation of the King was vital to peace and commerce in the Niger delta. With the guns of HMS Goshawk trained on his position, and threatened with annihilition, King Ja Ja was persuaded to surrender and to come aboard the Goshawk. He was taken to Accra, where he was tried and sentenced to be deported.
Transported with a few of his loyal servants, first to St Vincent, King Ja Ja arrived in Barbados on I March 1891. The arrival of this authentic African monarch on the island created a sensation, and there were fears among colonial officials that his presence might incite blacks to rebellion. Newspapers of the period speak of how he was greeted by a large crowd wherever he went, especially during his memorable visit to the House of Assembly, an assembly which two days earlier had passed an Act providing for his maintenance during his exile-800 pounds sterling per annum.
There is no doubt that Ja Ja was a source of pride for black Barbadians of that generation. At the same time he was also the subject of gossip, especially about affairs of the heart, for the folk song to which reference has been made earlier is about his supposed love for a woman whose identity to this day remains a mystery. The song goes like this:
What Dovey got is all she own.
1) If you want to live in sin
2) If you want to treat me nice
In another version of the song the woman's name is Becka. Historians have tried for years to figure out who she was. King Ja Ja did not arrive in Barbados with his wife. He is, however, known to have received several visits from a woman whose character has been described as 'impeccable', a Miss Hayne, an evangelist whose intention apparently was to convert the King to Christianity. And it appears that Ja Ja's interest in her was to enlist her support in his attempt to persuade the British Government to allow him to return to his native land.
King Ja Ja was eventually allowed to return when his health deteriorated and heart and lung disease was diagnosed. He left Barbados in May 1891, but never saw his native land again. He died at Tenerife in the Canaries. He was, however, buried at Opobo.
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