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How Jaja of Opobo Rose To Prominence In Africa’s Trade

The great King Jaja of Opobo, the man who rose against the odds of poverty and colonial rule to become Nigeria’s first international trader and millionaire in the 19th century was born as Mbananso Okwaraozurumbaa in a small village in Orlu in what is now Imo State in present-day Nigeria.

The founder and king of a prosperous city, he is popularly known as Jaja Opogo, a name given to him by the British which later became his household name. To the Igbos, he is known as Jaja Jubogba or Jo Jo Ubam. He is regarded as a hero who left a mark of great significance in the history of Nigeria and West Africa.

At 12, Jaja was captured by his father’s enemies and sold into slavery ending up in the Kingdom of Bonny. It was his first owner who gave him the name Jubo Jubogha. Jaja worked very hard for his master and was very humble until he was sold again to Chief Alali who was the ruler of the Opubo Anne Pepple Royal House.

In those days, the Bonny Empire was a flourishing kingdom in ancient Nigeria that gained its wealth through trade and business in the slave trade. Slaves were granted their freedom if they had successful businesses and could rise in the social classes to become prominent people in society as well as rule. Jaja worked for the chief and run businesses on the side until he was able to buy his freedom and become a man of is own.

With his new found freedom and already flourishing businesses, Jaja concentrated on running his businesses well and learnt the tricks and wits of working as a trader especially with the British. At a very young age, he had earned for himself high social status and an enviable name in the trading business in West Africa.
By the rule of Jaja, the Anne Pepple Royal House became the richest and strongest trading house under the Bonny Empire. But in 1859, Jaja was forced to leave the royal house after a fire outbreak allowing the envious Manilla Pepple House to take over the Anne Pepple House. In the same year of 1859, Jaja established the Opobo city-state.

Through his intelligent administration and expansion of trade links, Opobo city-state became powerful and had control over the traditional sources of palm oil in the region and took over fourteen of the eighteen trade houses under the Bonny Empire.

To prove to the British that an African was capable of being great without their help, Jaja started exporting palm oil directly to the UK through his own ships pioneering Nigerian export trade and becoming the first Nigerian and West African to directly export to the West.

Jaja became a millionaire and caused the western trade to fall in West Africa. Through his monopoly over importation and exportation of oil, foreign traders especially the Britsih were forced to pay taxes.

Through his wealth, King Jaja also became a powerful politician and owned a strong military which was sent out to help the British during the Anglo-Ashanti wars in 1875 to which the Queen honoured him. Jaja had many wives and children who he took pride in and was a very responsible father sending all of his children to the best school in West Africa and the West.

The king stands as a major pioneer for trade in Africa.

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