Nana Olomu (1852–1916) was an Itsekiri chief, Palm Oil Super Magnate, nationalist and a fighter from the Niger Delta region of southern Nigeria. He was the fourth Itsekiri chief to hold the position of Governor of Benin River. As a powerful nineteenth Century indigenous entrepreneur and greatest millionaire, Nana who lived in a creek near the mouth of the Benin River and Oba Ovonramwen of Benin were the two powerful Africans that successfully prevented European penetration of the hinterland of the Benin and the nearby rivers.
Nana was respected and feared for his wealth and power, and the Oba of Benin for his suzerainty and juju power. Most Urhobo people did not believe that the Oba could be, and in fact be captured by the white-man, because of their belief in his juju power to transform himself into a spirit.
Nana Olomu was the last of a series of governors that started with the installation of Chief Idiare in 1851 by John Beecroft who was appointed in 1849 by the British Government as Consul for the Bights of Benin and Biafra. Chief Idiare, along with Idibofun, Olomu (Nana's father), and a host of other elders subsequently signed a treaty with Beecroft to protect trade in the area. Nana succeeded his father, Olomu of Ologbotsere, as governor. It was a historical fact that Numa of Batere Emaye family who was expected to succeed Olomu, is believed to have raised his son, Dogho (Dore Numa), to avenge the disgrace to his family when Nana got the nod. Dogho (Dore Numa) an imperialist stooge was later to provide valuable help that the British needed to defeat Nana.
Nana`s wealth was an inherited one but he managed to expand his business through his shrewd business acumen by monopolizing trade. As a reflection of the grandeur of his achievements, Nana built a magnificent edifice at the turn of the century. It houses his personal effects and evidence of his contact with the Queen, administrators and traders of the British Empire. Many European Merchants, Missionaries, Explorers and Consular Officers who visited the Benin River in the second half of the last century, and had occasion to meet Chief Nana, had nothing but great admiration for his outstanding personality, intelligence, wealth and hospitality. His ability to speak the Urhobo language coupled with his liberality won for him the favour of practically all Urhobo traders on the River. He, of course, had enough force to bring to submission any one who was so unreasonably stubborn as to interfere with his trade anywhere. For many years, he concentrated his commercial activities on the Urhobo oil markets until he practically established a perfect monopoly over all the oil markets.
Indeed, Nana was credited with having a fleet of 200 trade canoes and another 100 war canoes with the ability to muster 20,000 war boys. In fact, after his defeat in 1884, the arms seized in Ebrohimi included 106 cannons, 445 blunderbusses, 640 guns,10 revolvers, in addition to 1640 kegs of gunpowder and 2500 rounds of machine gun ammunition (Ikime 1966:41). Therefore, there was no doubt that his impressive military machine, enormous wealth and great influence were critical factors in his virtual monopoly of the palm oil trade.
Major Claude Macdonald, the British Commissioner and Consul General for Oil Rivers Protectorate in 1887 who once reported that Nana was “a man possessed of great power and wealth, astute, energetic and intelligent” (Ikime 1966:44), wrongly accused him wrongly accused him of: disrupting commercial activities in the Niger Delta, of terrorizing the Urhobo and turning them against the British, of engaging in the inhuman
traffic in slaves, and the most blatant lie, of practising human sacrifice (Ikime 1980:278). But as it was to be revealed Nana’s real offence, however, was that his wealth, position and power gave him considerable influence over the areas surrounding the Benin River and the Warri district, thereby making the penetration
of British traders to be extremely difficult if not impossible.
By the end of 1893, the Vice Consuls at Benin River had started to accuse the Chief of gross disloyalty to the Government; but his actions, usually through his trading boys, appeared to reach a climax, when in July 1894, his boys seized fifteen Urhobo people (including a local Chief's wife), for an alleged debt of 200 puncheons of palm-oil. It was when Chief Nana refused to surrender those captives, blockading the River instead, that the government was obliged to use force to overthrow him towards the end of 1894.
Nana was therefore captured after a cessation of his war with the British and was exiled in Gold Coast (Ghana). In Britain in 1899 the Aborigines' Right Protection Society led by some Gold Coast (Ghanaian) ethnic Fante intelligentsia with people like billionaire founder and president Jacob Wilson Sey, J E Casely-Hayford, George Hughes and others complained to the Foreign Office about "the arbitrary treatment" to which the chief had been subjected, the government's failure to carry out "the searching investigation of his case which he had always sought", and appealed for him to be given liberty to conduct his commercial affairs freely even if, for political reasons, he could not be restored to his old position. A letter from Olomu was also enclosed complaining his maintenance was inadequate for him to support himself and five other persons. In his reply the then Prime Minister the Marquis of Salisbury promised to look into the conditions of the chief's maintenance, but ruled out the possibility of a return to his homeland. A month later the question of his treatment was raised in parliament and the government again stated it would be unsafe to allow his return.
To all intent and purposes, as ikime (1966) rightly averred Nana was an African nationalist who refused to yield to British imperialist ambition and so had to be broken. For Nana was reported to have stopped all trade in 1886 and 1892 to force English merchants to pay higher prices. Opposition to Nana, grew not only from the merchants but also from those Itsekiri traders including Dore Numa, who had suffered from Nana's monopoly.
Nana Olomu of Itsekiri: Palm Oil Super Magnate
Nana Olomu was born about 1852 at Jakpa in the Itsekiri region, and thus become the wealthiest Itsekiri trader of his age. Incidentally, his father, Olomu was also the richest and most powerful Itsekiri merchant during his life time. Nana’s remarkable success was predicated on his inherited wealthy status, his outstanding acumen in the organization of his financial and human resources and also on his formidable military machine (Ikime 1966:40-42). It has, however, been reasonably argued that his career was a striking example of how political advancement was based more on commercial prowess, rather than on inherited status (Soremekun 1985:149; Hopkins 1973:146).
Nana like Jaja was a state builder. He was able to build his kingdom due to his effective control of the trade in palm oil, which unlike the slave trade called for greater organization and financial resources (Law 1993:105). He also greatly developed the new capital at Ebrohimi which had earlier been founded by his father on an almost impregnable site by dumping heaps of sand on a hitherto muddy and swampy location (Isichei 1977:123; Ikpe 1989:53).
A British official, Gallwey who toured the Urhobo region in 1892 affirms that:
"In terms of relations with the British, Nana was the Jaja of the
Western Delta. His hold on most of the Urhobo oil markets was
even firmer than Jaja’s. In terms of wealth, Nana was probably
much wealthier than Jaja and like Jaja was able to dictate his
own trade terms and had no need for trust" (Ikime 1977:46).
Correspondingly, Nana also held up palm oil exports between 1886 and 1887 when the price of palm oil suddenly fell by 40% in order to force European merchants to accept the terms and conditions of sale as laid down by local producers and suppliers. This was a strategic way of securing a favorable balance of trade for the Urhobo producers and Itsekiri middle-men (Hopkins 1973:155). In 1891 the British tried to undermine Nana’s economic interests by opening up another Vice-Consulate at Sapele, apart from the one on the Benin River in order to penetrate the hinterland and reduce the trade on the Benin River - the main source of his wealth. However, Nana retaliated by sending his agents to Sapele too. The British were astounded to find out that his agents were in firm control of the trade, and that his trading influence was extremely strong.
Indeed, he was so powerful and sufficiently wealthy to dictate his own trade terms, to hold up trade when it suited his fancy and to refuse to take trust from European firms (Ikime 1980:278).
During the era of treaty signing in Nigeria, Nana Olomu fully understood the immediate import of British imperial intentions in the Niger Delta. Like Jaja, he struck out offensive clauses which stipulated free access to British traders to trade wherever they pleased in his kingdom. These uncooperative tendencies on his part were the precursor to the Ebrohimi expedition of 1894 (Ikime 1980:276; Onabamiro 1983:56).
Thus, Major Claude Macdonald, the British Commissioner and Consul General for Oil Rivers Protectorate in 1887 reported that Nana’s influence was exceedingly widespread and that it would be in the best interest of British traders, missionaries and colonialists to urgently and decisively checkmate Nana’s growing influence and power. Macdonald further reported that at a particular occasion when he met Nana at the Benin River for a crucial meeting, Nana came in a war canoe paddled by about 100 people with four or five similar canoes serving as escorts, and personal bodyguards of twenty armed men with Winchester repeater rifles. Macdonald concluded that Nana was “a man possessed of great power and wealth, astute, energetic and intelligent” (Ikime 1966:44).
Indeed, Nana was credited with having a fleet of 200 trade canoes and another 100 war canoes with the ability to muster 20,000 war boys. After his defeat in 1884, the arms seized in Ebrohimi included 106 cannons, 445 blunderbusses, 640 guns,10 revolvers, in addition to 1640 kegs of gunpowder and 2500 rounds of machine gun ammunition (Ikime 1966:41). Therefore, there was no doubt that his impressive military machine, enormous wealth and great influence were critical factors in his virtual monopoly of the palm oil trade.
Nevertheless, the British wrongly accused him of: disrupting commercial activities in the Niger Delta, of terrorizing the Urhobo and turning them against the British, of engaging in the inhuman traffic in slaves, and the most blatant lie, of practising human sacrifice (Ikime 1980:278). Nana’s real offence, however, was that his wealth, position and power gave him considerable influence over the areas surrounding the Benin River and the Warri district, thereby making the penetration of British traders to be extremely difficult if not impossible. Consequently, in 1894, the British laid siege on Ebrohimi. Nana replied by further fortifying his capital. Henceforth, the resistance put up by him was bitter and daring, and as skillful as it was brilliant. Crowder (1971:2), rightly suggests that as far as military historians are concerned, wars are not assessed solely in terms of the victory or success of the victors, but also on the prowess and ingenuity of the vanquished, in the face of overwhelming odds.
Therefore Nana impressively combined conventional warfare with guerilla tactics, and used to the fullest advantage his superior knowledge of the creeks along the British had to sail to reach Ebrohimi, thereby making what they initially thought would be a casual military expedition, one their most difficult and costly imperial adventures in West Africa. In short, Nana forced the British to build up a large naval and military force off the Benin River, representing virtually the entire British naval strength in West Africa, and the most impressive collection of British forces in the Niger Delta up until that date (Onabamiro 1983:57 and Ikime 1977:47). This action prompted the British to send four warships: the HMS Alecto, HMS Phoebe, HMS Philomel and HMS Widgem to attack all the villages around Ebrohimi, which were destroyed. Yet, Nana
refused to surrender or obey British entreaties to come for a discussion at the Consulate, based on the memory of what happened to Jaja when he acquiesced to such a request (Onabamiro 1983:57).
And thus, all attempts to take Ebrohimi by going up the creek failed, and in fact, Nana successfully repelled the British forces on three occasions so they were forced to withdraw with ‘heavy’ casualties. And even cutting a path through the dense swamp forest also proved an impossible task which was rendered scary and dangerous because of Nana’s cleverly masked batteries. Attacking Ebrohimi by land also failed because of the heavy fire directed against the British by Nana’s forces. However, Nana’s capital eventually fell on September 25, 1894, mainly because, Dogho, (Nana’s local rival) provided the British with logistic and intelligence support and even showed them the best route to Ebrohimi, and as a result, Nana was eventually tried and exiled to Gold Coast (now Ghana). And interestingly, his goods were also sold and the proceeds were used to defray the cost of the expedition, marking the demise of his trading empire (Ikime 1980:278; 1966:47; 1977:47).
It must be noted that in about 2 ½ years before Chief Nana's fall, the Urhobo Chiefs of Abraka, north east of the Benin Consular district had concluded a Treaty of Protection with Her Britannic Majesty's Government placing themselves and their people under British protection. In the south and the south-east of the Urhobo country under Warri district not less than 14 such Treaties had also been entered into. The Treaty making activities were however intensified after the fall of Chief Nana.
Recently one one of the UK National Maritime Museum curators H Finch-Boyer revealed that three of the
Museum's African flags were owned by Nana Olomu who became 4th governor of Benin River in 1884.
Brief descriptions of the flags in the Museum's collection are below.
1. The personal flag of Itsekiri chief Nana Olomu (1852-1916). The flag
is made wool bunting, with a linen hoist containing a rope and is hand
sewn. The background of the design is white with a printed Union Flag
inserted (upside down) in the canton. Near the top edge is the name
'NANNA' in dark blue letters, below, the flag is painted with a naked
man shooting a leopard. The flag was captured during the campaign of
2. Personal flag of Itsekiri chief Nana Olomu (1852-1916). A green wool
bunting flag with a machine sewn linen hoist with a rope attached. The
flag is hand sewn with applied lettering - in red wool 'NANNA', below in
white cotton 'ALLUMA'S SON'. It is said to have been acquired during the
1897 Benin expedition by F. W. Kennedy.
3. Personal flag of Itsekiri chief Nana Olomu (1852-1916). A red cotton
flag, hand sewn with a printed Union Flag placed vertically in the
canton. The name 'NANNA' is applied in white damask letters in the fly.
There are felt loops along the top edge.and a white strip at the hoist
with small cord loops.
Source: Reference: Rotimi K and Ogen O (2008). "Jaja and Nana in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria: Proto-Nationalists or Emergent Capitalists," The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2008 vol.2, no.7.