It is not so long, in years at least since Bonny was one of the most important ports on the West Coast. Less than 100 years; and that is little enough time for a thriving community to fall into obscurity.
As a landfall, it is still important. Great ships, larger by far than those known in the heyday of Bonny trade, still seek the entrance to the Bonny river among the shores and sandbanks of the Niger Delta. But now they steam past the town, following the channel that will take them to Port Harcourt, the thriving, new centre that has taken Bonny’s trade.
Every commercial coastline shows examples of upstream ports that have gone out of use because ships have grown larger and deep water berths have become necessary. Bonny shows the reverse of the picture, for port harcourt lies inland up some thirty miles of tricky winding waterways. The cause of Bonny’s decline is the same as the cause of her earlier success: there is no land communication inland. The early eighteenth century (and earlier) traders needed local help to ferry goods through the Delta labyrinth to the only place where ocean going ships could lie in safety on what is, for most of the year, a dangerous lee shore. Now, the dredging of the channel to a new, hard-ground commercial centre gas left Bonny without even the smallest share of the growing Nigerian trade.
Founded in the fifteenth century, the early west African trade transformed Bonny from a mixture of small groups of people into a powerful island state, rich in a degree comparable only with Calabar. Her military an economic position, together with the political influence that followed, gave to the town virtual control of the trade of the whole Delta.
Behind the growth of Bonny lay the age old demand for slaves and the new and growing demand for Palm oil. Both these commodities the men of Bonny were anxious to supply or act as the middle men for suppliers further inland. Bonny was bred and sustained by this trade, the gateway to her prosperity and the key to her glory.
Yet that same trade caused her undoing. Apart from the growth of new ports. ( Port harcourt in the 1920s, but Lagos and Forcades came much earlier), internal dissentions hurried on degeneration that, commercially could barely be foreseen. Successfully trade nurtured ambition and jealousies which did as much as anything to bring about the downfall of the town. Twenty critical years was enough to cover the change.
In looks, mid – twentieth century ( as seen in the pictures) has changed little from the town of 1856 described by the Reverend Hope Waddell as ” a semblance of mean houses, without order….with winding foot tracks for streets and huge iguanas, four or five feet long, sacred and used for juju”
Winding foot tracks still represent streets ( As of the time this article was written in 1958) few modern houses have risen beside old fashioned and “mean” ones whose roofs of corrugated sheets are brown with age and rust. Not only are the iguanas no longer sacred, they have disappeared .
Christianity, within a hundred years, has wiped out traditional religion, the hub of traditional life . In a way this is regrettable, for most of the cultural institutions evolved by that strange mixture of tribes have gone with it. To her resounding victory, Christianity built along the weedy Marina fronting the Bonny River, a monument – a small cathedral hanging with chandeliers. The cathedral is a worthy tribute to Rev. Adjai Crowther, the first Christian missionary to Bonny in 1864
Bonny eventually did retrieve some significant relics from the ruins of her past glory.Kingship founded, it is said in 1450 by Ashimini. It was slowly waning. Until the Eastern House of Chiefs forced Bonny to fill a long vacant throne and kingship assumed importance once again.
Bonny it is said, was founded by Alagbariye who, with a handful of followers, formed the nucleus of the present day town.Local tradition traces the origin through the Ijaw tribe to Benin. It gives his occupation as hunting and the name of his settlement as Okolo-Ama( land of curlew) Igbo immigrants christened her Ibani or a Ubani ( after a patriarch of the founders ) a name which was later anglicised to Bonny.
Immigrants and slaves from the hinterland swelled Okolo – Ama. As she expanded her pattern of traditional life gradually evolved . She remained a fishing town until immigrants began to settle. Their arrival paved the way between Bonny and the hinterland ; this was the first rung on the ladder of progress. With trade, developed the “House” system, which later became a pronounced feature of Bonny organisation. It was a system in which identical interests and economic necessities rather than kinship bound the people into units know as “Houses”. Each “house”, consisting of a master, his family and other dependants , was a unit for cooperative trade and local government. Each graded its members into rank which carried with them duties and responsibilities , privileges and rewards.
By 1700 she was exchanging elephant tusks, pepper oil and slaves for copper rods, fish and European goods. Some of her people rose to factors and brokers for Europeans, mostly Netherlanders, and for their own countrymen.
The demand for slaves to work on American plantations and in mines plunged Bonny into the human traffic. Her thickly populated hinterland proved a never failing source of slaves. By 1790 Bonny had become Africa’s biggest slave market, exporting annually a minimum of 20,000 slaves of whom 16,000 were Igbo.By now the “house” system had fully grown . It became a strong institution, for many of the “houses” had amassed wealth and their masters became powerful. Such names as Jumbo, Banigo, Stowe, Allaputa and Green became prominent. Royalty accorded them recognition as chiefs, thus adding to their status and authority.
These chief exercised absolute powers of life a death. They showed much brutality in the course of everyday life. Their actions were, apparently to avoid and stem revolts among their thousand Bondmen and domestic slaves and the maintenance of a peaceful atmosphere for the success of the “house” and it’s commercial ventures. Traditional religion aimed at preserving this life but the fears it engendered were at the root of their lust for torture and bloodshed. . They approved of sacrifices which they sincerely believed to promote the well being of their state. No sacrifice was too great. Thus, in the fifteenth century , Princess Osunju was sacrificed for supply of water and Princess Ogbolo was offered to the Bonny river god. Indirectly it justified the sacrifices of commoners for the welfare of the ” house”.
Each “house” built up an army from its stock of bondmen and slaves for its defence against rival “houses” . The need to fight a common foe – The Kalabari , for example, who proved a threat to their power by quickly recuperating and thriving after each conquest – united under the Amanyanabo (King). At such times, large trading canoes sixty feet long and seven wide, rowed by sixteen to twenty paddlers, and capable of carrying a hundred and forty persons, we’re mounted with brass and iron cannon of large calibre and converted into war canoes .With these, Bonny commanded the waterways to the hinterland, defended herself, and terrified stubborn people to subjection.
By 1830 Bonny was exporting ” as much slaves as all the rest of Africa put together” or, as Dr Madden put it, ” more than three quarters of the whole African supply”. In 1839 and 1841 Bonny signed treaties which guaranteed for her a payment of 2,000 dollars and 10,000 dollars respectively in return for the end of slave trade. In order, therefore, to avoid the economic bump which loomed large in the path of the slave trade and in order to maintain her lead in the trade business, she quickly switched over and, in a few years, built herself a reputation far greater than that she had made in human trafficking.
By 1846, Bonny had become the centre of the palm oil trade in the Niger Delta area. annual shipment reached 15,000 tons. She did such roaring business that King Pepple’s income from shipping dues and other sources was estimated, in 1853 £15,000-20,000 annually. At the commencement of the oil season in 1854, Bee-croft estimated at £500,000 sterling the value of ships and cargo in the river Bonny. Two years later, twenty six vessels on the rivers Bonny and abandoning formed an aggregate of 13,216 tons. Those were Bonny’s best years – years that witnessed her glory. Her efficient political , military and economic organisation and her observance of the treaties of 1850 , 1854 and the twelve articles added to them by the Bonny Court of Equity in 1856 contributed greatly towards her success in the last lap of her progress.
The attainment of her climax was quickly followed by a change of fortune. The deportation of Pepple in 1854 marked the beginning of her decline. The Pepple’s were ambitious. In their bid to gain ascendancy over the surrounding towns and concentrate all trade in Bonny, each had plunged the state into wars . Yet each Peppel had managed to command the support of his chiefs by confining his ambition within the orbit of the States constitution .
Then came King William Dapa Pepple. When at 20 he ascended the throne in 1837, he brought his intelligence to play on his accepted policy of his predecessors. Within seventeen years he had succeeded in piloting the state to success and glory, making a name for himself and accumulating wealth. His chiefs noticed a deterioration in his government. It was as though the fulfillment of his ambition had brought out certain inherent tendencies which, once released, set the fateful course that led to Bonny’s downfall. It was known that he had no regard for the state and her protectorates. He made no attempt to conceal this. On the contrary, he snapped the cordial relations between him and his chiefs and treated Bonny and her allies as slaves.
|Chief W.I Allaputa in 1958|
This oppression and tyranny led his chiefs to revolt against him in 1853. The resultant dispute was detrimental to Bonny and British trade; yet, Peppel would not be controlled by the state’s constitutions . In 1854 his chiefs decided to have him as King no longer . Realising his life was in danger, he fled, under Consul Beecroft’s protection, to Fernando Po.
His successor, Dapu, had a very short reign and the years that followed his death saw the prevalence of anarchy due to jealousy between the “houses” of the four regents who formed the quartumvirate.
From March 1858 the town of Bonny was in open warfare. Some super -cargoes and principal chiefs requested the reinstatement of Pepple . The preferred a despot rule to the insubordination which caused an estimated loss of some 2,000 puncheons of oil annually.
Their request was not granted and the state continued in confusion. Law and order deserted Bonny. Criminals increased in number and misfortune haunted the town. In 1862 Bonny was burned by rival “houses” . That same year an epidemic of yellow fever spread in Bonny, killing in less than four months more than half the 290 European residents.
Then came the final act of the drama. Out of the confusion arose Oko Jumbo who, by 1879, had become the most powerful chief in Bonny, having 7,000- 8,000 armed men . In 1869 he engaged Jaja, a rich and powerful slave of the “house” of Pepple in a civil war. It lasted till 1870 when Jaja fled and founded Opobo, from where he applied the strangle hold on Bonny. Jaja blocked Bonny’s trade routes to the hinterland for three years and succeeded in diverting trade and attention to Opobo where trade conditions were more favourable.This blockade, the growth of direct trade between Europeans and the hinterland and, later the development of Port harcourt wrote ” FINISH” across Bonny’s prosperity, her fame and power .
|Canon and gun carriages lie around Bonny Town. They belong to the various houses of the town|
|St Clements at the Marina|
|St Stephens 1958|