Aguleri, British military invasion of 1892

Aguleri, British military invasion of 1892

“Historically, Aguleri is the second port of call of the British imperialists and white missionaries in South-East Nigeria after Onitsha”

By: Eddi Idigo

The recent passage of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II after a long-stretching 70-year reign once again threw up to the central discourse the many activities of the British crown especially in extending the vestiges of British imperialism through colonialism in many nations of the world. The retrospective thoughts and renewed commentaries on the tale of the role of the British crown in the tyrannical imposition and entrenchment of colonialism in the British colonies triggered by her demise will continue to reverberate for some time to come. 

Whilst the British imperialism engendered some salient aspects of positive civilisation of its colonies, it however left in its trail bitter recurring reminiscences of some of its attendant crimes and atrocities on the colonies and their peoples. In Nigeria, kingdoms were forcefully destroyed and there were several attacks, invasion and forcible incursion into many native homelands especially in southern Nigeria. Unknown to many and seemingly hidden in history, Aguleri remains one of the kingdoms that suffered brutally from invading British imperialism and colonialism. 

The British imperialists entered Aguleri in 1884. Historically, Aguleri is the second port of call of the British imperialists and white missionaries in South-East Nigeria after Onitsha. The imperialism was led by the National African Company, a British trading company in the replica of the British East India Company that exploited and exported India’s resources to Britain. A contingent of the National African Company acting for the British government on an economic reconnaissance headed towards the upper Niger and made a detour into the tributary towards the Omabala (Anambra) river. Nothing so much seemed of interest to these merchants as they sailed past a few harbours until they sighted the Odene Eziagulu (Eziagulu Wharf) in Aguleri. Odene is the local nomenclature for wharf/port or harbour. 

Located at the confluence of the historic Anambra and Ezu rivers and close to the sacred Otutunzu shrine, the Odene in those days and up until this time, just as every port, remains a major hub, among other things providing anchorage for docking of boats, terminal and quay side for boat and cargo handling activities as well as open arcades for trading on produce and various commodities. The adjoining stretches of land on the banks of the river, known as Ikpele Mmili (river/water sides) provide enormously rich alluvial earth for farming. At the Odene, would always be, people engaged in various activities including farming, processing of soaked fermented cassava tubers, loading and offloading of boats at anchors etc.  

As the watercraft conveying the white men navigated to a halt and upon sighting the contingent of white men alighting from their watercraft, pandemonium ensued as the people who were gathered at the Odene took to flight, having not ever seen white-coloured people, and believing they must be white ghosts. As people fled into the upland settlements, information spread into the entire Aguleri of the invasion of the town by white ghosts, most of whom had no toes and some of whom had glazed (glass) metal eyes. 

It was this single “invasion” of Aguleri and subsequent similar events that changed the course of history and marked a new beginning for the modern Aguleri domain and indeed the adjoining communities in the Omabala and Ayamelum areas that arguably made up the ancient Aguleri empire. It also thrust into the limelight, Idigo (Onyekomelu) an acclaimed warrior and warlord who had assumed power and control over Aguleri and its environs as natural leader and ruler, at a time when might was right; at a time of the great philosopher Arthur Desmond’s (pseudonamed Ragnar Redbeard) might is right or survival of the fittest. 

As a man of immense courage, Idigo thus led a few brave men of the time and set forth to Odene to confront the invading white spirits. On getting to Odene, he beheld a sight never seen in his several exploits as a warlord. On further interaction and questioning, he was made to understand that the supposed white ghosts were not really ghosts, but indeed real and live human beings of different tint and shade. Thanks to an Asaba indigene and member of the team with smattering familiarity of English philology who provided some basic interpretation of the purpose and mission of the white man’s visit. Subsequent visits in series of native weeks sealed the deal between Idigo and the officers of the Royal Niger Company to establish a trading base in Aguleri. This was in 1884.

By 1885, in apparent recognition of the developing trade and the economic potentials of Aguleri and the Omabala basin, a permanent trading base was set up in Aguleri. By an agreement drawn in 1885, parts of the Odene Eziagulu territory known as the old Niger Company’s site was ceded to the National African Company. Trade by the company with Aguleri and parts of the Omabala region fastly developed. Aguleri people sold palm produce, palm kernel, fish, local spices, wood etc. to the company in exchange for such commodities as tobacco, mirror, textile, gun powder etc.  

The status of the National African Company changed in 1886 when they received a royal charter from the then Queen of England, Queen Victoria II to become the administrative authority of the British government in parts of southern Nigeria. Thus, the company became known as Royal Niger Company, adopting the appellation ‘Royal’ to reflect their direct authority from the British monarch. The Royal Niger Company in addition to their original trading interests wielded absolute political powers on behalf of the Queen and the British government. It set up a strong military force primarily to maintain law and order and with which to also further their economic interests and trading business. In 1891, a more authoritative agreement ceded more lands and greater rights over the lands to the company.  The trading presence of the company with its administrative authority status turned Aguleri into a colonial administrative center. 

In 1892 the real military invasion of Aguleri took place. It was triggered by an unintended destruction of the produce asset of the Royal Niger Company. The company which had engaged in a lucrative exploitation of agricultural produce devised a means of transporting same to their Onitsha depot and later to the Okrika jetty for eventual export. Liquified palm produce were poured and sealed into large rubbered barrels which were made to float and sail with the downward water current to the Onitsha base of the company at the bank of the Niger river. 

On a certain fateful day, a man had roasted some yams for lunch in the course of a hard day working in the farm. Not enjoying eating just only the roasted yams, he was tempted to take simply a little palm oil from the rubbered barrels. Approaching one of the loaded barrels, he pierced and pricked on its base and created a little perforation for some oil to gush and spurt. He succeeded in taking some oil but couldn’t succeed in sealing the perforated hole on the barrel which gradually expanded leading to the gushing out and spilling of the oil contents. By the next day, the entire contents of the barrels had emptied unto the Anambra River causing significant spillage and floating and sailing with the water current down to Onitsha.

On noticing the floating oils on the Niger river, the officers of the RNC traced the spillage to Aguleri and discovered the deliberate pricks and hole on their barrels. Enraged by the destruction and losses resulting from the spillage, the RNC officers demanded for the culprits and also heavy compensation from Aguleri. Knowing what fate would befall the culprit, his identity was hidden from the white man. Of course, the heavy penalty imposed could not be paid. The detection and eventual detention in custody of the culprit by the officers of the company sparked off violent reactions from his Aguleri kinsmen who attacked the assets and structures of the company and demolished them, believably fighting the oppression in their own home by strangers. 

The assault on the assets of the company and failure to make restituting recompense portended imminent crisis for Aguleri. The agents of the RNC that also doubled as the administrative authorities arrived Aguleri and requested Idigo, being the acknowledged leader of the people of Aguleri to lead them to fish out the culprits and the accomplices to be taken into custody and punishment at the white man’s detention prison. In protection of his people, Idigo declined to lead the way. Irked by these developments, the RNC administration then headquartered at Asaba mobilised a detachment of military forces to strike Aguleri. 

Not even the intervening efforts of the French catholic missionaries who had just established a mission in Aguleri could stop the developing hostilities nor restrain the colonial military forces from unleashing their intended carnage on a people seen as resisting British imperialism. In a fashion similar to the 1840 and 1856 bombardment of China by the British Navy that massacred the troops and looted the country, the Royal Niger Company British forces mobilised full military forces and armed with heavy military weapons invaded the hinterland upland Aguleri, destroying farmlands, houses and other property including livestock, raiding, looting, pillaging and plundering parts of Aguleri. Expectedly, the stiff resistance and defence put up by Idigo and Aguleri people resulted in protracted bouts of devastating warfare with consequent loss of lives from the warring sides. On its part, the trading sheds, cabins and storehouses of the Royal Niger Company were levelled to the ground including their administrative outpost by the repelling Aguleri forces. After several native weeks, the continued reinforcement of strong military support pooled from Asaba and other colonial provinces up to Calabar and Portharcourt combined to subdue the local resistance by Idigo and the Aguleri people. 

At the end of the prolonged warfare, many prisoners of war were captured and imprisoned at Asaba to serve a jail term of six months. Not done with the invasion of Aguleri, the British officers enforced a heavy fine of 120 goats, many piles of timber and thousands of tubers of yams which were transported to Onitsha and Asaba by the officers of the Royal Niger Company acting on behalf of the British Queen. The leader of Aguleri, King Idigo as he was known, was forcefully taken and detained for four years in Asaba from 1992 to 1996. After four years of detention and captivity, Idigo was released and he returned to Aguleri. Idigo’s return to Aguleri was greeted with jubilant reception by his Aguleri people and the missionaries who he had invited and brought to Aguleri in 1888 and who had erected the Aguleri catholic mission in 1890. 

The devastating invasion, plundering and seeming conquest of Aguleri by the British forces directed by the Royal Niger Company acting on behalf of the British Queen and government was not merely intended to punish for the economic losses from the inadvertent spillage of their oil produce but indeed to an extended intention of enforcing and entrenching British imperialism and its expansionist colonial agenda in Southeast Nigeria. Just as the British’s brutal repressionof the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and the resistant Mau Mau in Kenya (1952-1959), the invasion of Aguleri was also meant to violently crush every resistance to British imperialism for the dual pursuit of the economic and political interests of the British government and the crown. As the discourse for possible reparation of the crimes and atrocities perpetrated by the British Empire begin to gain traction, the British invasion of Aguleri empire of the ancient Eri civilization should also be brought to the front burner. 

Dr Eddi Nwabunwanne Idigo

(Consultant and Researcher) Aguleri, Anambra State.

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