THE LORD OF THE CREEKS

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The Lord Of The Creeks is a fictional account of the travails of an 18th century leader in the Niger Delta region of southern Nigeria. Sold into slavery at a very young age, he rose to become a king but was eventually kidnapped by the British who feared he was too powerful to serve their interests in the region.

Submitted: January 12, 2012

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Submitted: January 12, 2012

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THE LORD OF THE CREEKS .......by Benson Udoh.

It was a cold harmattan evening.......

After travelling for seemingly endless days and nights, the strange group made up of men and women, chained together in gangs of fours or fives and herded by mean-looking hefty men wielding horsewhips and weapons, staggered into a hill settlement near Okoloma, the notorious slave port.

Jaja, a child of six or seven, was among the chained group that arrived that evening. It was a small transit settlement, which usually served as a mustering point before slaves were headed off to the main slave market in town.

From the elevated terrain, Jaja could see parts of the lush kingdom of Okoloma spread out below him, like a craftily embroidered damask wrapper, caught in the glowing embers of the evening sun.

The settlement they had arrived at - a slave market of some sort, announced itself harmlessly enough at first sight, as a row of bamboo huts at the mouth of a quiet, muddy creek. A few mangrove tree roots strutted into the water on both sides of the bank, creating a narrow passage way in the middle for small canoes and boats, to easily navigate. The muddy bank itself opened at one end to reveal the settlement, flanked on one side by thick mangrove forest, and at the other end by a gradually expanding clearing. In the middle of the clearing was an open space where stout wooden beams were driven into the ground to form a rough circular enclosure.

The prisoners, laden with fatigue and misery, were ushered with kicks, rough shoves and loud curses into the enclosure by the slave-masters.

It had been a most gruesome journey. Jaja was bruised all over, and ached in every joint. Exausted, battered and gasping for breath, he had staggered to a stop as soon as the harsh command, ''Halt ! '' pierced his eardrums. It was both a dreaded and welcomed sound, for it was a word laced with foreboding and usually heralded oncoming brutality to an erring captive. But as it turned out at that particular moment, it seemed to indicate a pause - even if momentarily, in their collective suffering.

Jaja glanced about him, taking in his new unfamiliar sorroundings. This was the first human habitation they had encountered in days. From rumours he had gleaned along the way on their long march, it might turn out to be their worst nightmare. For several days, his ears had been filled with horrendous tales of this mysterious camp from fellow slaves. Most chilling were the tales of impending horror - branding with hot iron, incessant beatings and sometimes outright murders that were said to be quite common here.

These recollections gave him not the slightest comfort as he gazed about him. He could see some of his fellow prisoners huddled together, equally as petrified at their stop, as him, while others - too exhausted to remain on their feet, simply collapsed to the ground.

Jaja himself sank to the ground as slowly as his bonds allowed him, as his captors busied about, passing water in gourds and small earthen - ware vessels among the prisoners. They untied the ropes and chains from some of the prisoners while for others whom they probably considered as security risks, they simply slackened their bonds to minimise their chances of a revolt or sudden escape, though practically, both were quite unlikely. Apart from being deterred by the unpleasant consequences of torture or death upon capture, some prisoners were too exhausted even to think about regaining their freedom. The gruelling journey and persistent ill-treatment had robbed them of the freedom of choice. They had started out from the slave market with about fourty-three prisoners. Two men had been exemplarily shot for attempting to escape, one man had died of a fever, a woman was abandoned to die in the forest after being too weak to continue. Ill-treated, barefoot and raggedly clad, the prisoners had been forced-matched for three weeks through dense jungle, squilching through stinking swamp, rugged paths and made to ford neck-high streams. They had been continously drained of blood by clouds of mosquitoes which kept them company throughout their journey. They were force-fed stale meat and water once a day. Several suffered from diarrhoea. Now in the middle of nowhere, survival first, take your chances later, seemed to be the unsolicited but collective wisdom.

Armed with the realisation that their march for the day was over, Jaja slowly dragged himself to a corner of the enclosure, where a protruding section of a wooden beam that formed part of the crude fence allowed him to rest his back on the wood.

Somewhere in the distance, he could faintly hear the exciting chatter of women and children from the fringes of the enclosure - possibly curious villagers from the settlement trying to get a glimpse of the latest arrivals. They spoke a different language which he did not understand, giggling and pointing at the prisoners. A few of the local men got closer and chatted with the slave traders. A few bargains were quickly struck. One man in particular was talking animatedly and pointing at him. He was to later learn that the man's name was Chief Enebo. Still numbed by his experience, Jaja ignored them and waited, eyes closed, stomach rumbling, for his ration of stale meat and water to arrive.

It was growing dark. He needed to sleep, tired and worn out as he was. Hunger and misery had however, sharpened his senses somewhat. He could smell the foul stench of decaying vegetation and mud that rose from the creek and hung over the settlement like a haze. He could more closely, smell the blood and sweat and vomit and festering sores that was emanating from several unwashed bodies of fellow slaves around him, some of who bore horse-whip marks as testimonies of their captors' unquestionable authority and brutality.

Yet, somewhere above the poutporri of hellish odours, Jaja could perceive the very familiar aroma of roasted yam and burning wood - mingled with the smoke from an evening fire from a nearby hearth. It was an appetizing, yet totally unnerving aroma. It summoned a few drops of saliva into his mouth and sent sharp pangs of hunger and homesickness through his young, starved frame. He groaned, licking his dry lips. The thought of home-cooked food evoked nostalgic recollections of a happy childhood that now belonged only to the recesses of his dreams.

Staring unseeingly at the remnant of the setting sun as it slowly disappeared into the gathering dusk, his mind flashed back to the night some three weeks past, when armed men from a nearby hostile community raided his village, Orlu, and forcefully captured him and other villagers in their sleep. Then, he was too dazed even to realise what was happening. By the next morning, he had been sold to slave traders and found himself in a chained group, trudging through thick forest and heading further and further from home. For three days he had cried his eyes out and refused to eat, but hunger, constant whippings and threats had finally made him compliant. Now, sitting in chains in the middle of nowhere, he longed for home. He longed to feel his mother's touch again, taste her food, wrestle with his friends, or swim in the village stream. Somehow, deep inside him, he knew he will never see his homeland again. He will never gather with other children around Adaku, the village story-teller during the full moon to hear his stories. All that was lost and gone - perhaps forever. His life had been inexplicably changed for the worse.

Hot tears welled up in his eyes as he reached out to accept the offered ration of stale meat and water. He had become a slave. A lost slave. He wished he could afford the luxury to hope.

.........................................................................................

\" Wake up, Jaja, wake up now !''

A hand shook him roughly. He stirred, half-awake and blinked myopically at the oil lamp held just inches away from his face.

\"What's it, Priye ?''

\" Dada sends for you. He's dying''.

Priye was the chief's uncle and personal servant. He, like the chief, was advanced in years and was often considered to be chief Enebo's most trusted confidant and adviser. In his thirty-six years of living in Okoloma with the Pelemo household, Jaja himself had come to respect Priye almost as much as he respected his master, chief Enebo. The old chief himself had been seriously ill for some months past. Over the last few weeks he had grown steadily worse. And Priye seldom does errands. Seeing him at midnight and in such a state got Jaja very nervous.

\"What time is it ?\" He asked with a yawn, bleary-eyed.

''Just after the first cock crow '', Priye said, '' there's no time to waste ''.

At that, Jaja quickly roused himself and followed the old servant out of his small hut, towards the Chief's more spacious quarters.

Chief Enebo lay on his mat, quite feverish and breathing spasmodically. He was naked, save an old loin cloth which carelessly covered his genitals. His upper torso was covered with okposo leaves, mashed to pulp. His youngest wife, Adanne, knelt beside him and occasionally applied a damp cloth dipped in a warm herbal portion to the chief's chest. His other two wives sat on the floor nearby. Ivonne, the eldest, was crying quietly. Directly above the sick man's bed, a wooden carving of an iguana, the sacred deity of Okoloma, dangled from a raffia rope. It was left there that afternoon by the medicine-man to ward off evil. An oil lamp set on a low stool beside the mat provided the only light in the small hut.

Jaja entered the hut just as Priye was setting down his oil lamp near the foot of the mat. The chief was thankfully conscious, but barely so. Seeing Jaja, the chief made a feeble effort as if to stand up, but erupted in a violent coughing spasm. Jaja quickly squated near the mat and held the chief's hand.

\" Easy, Dada, easy ''.

Adanne quickly applied another warm clothe on the chief's forehead. Ivonne broke into another round of monotonous whimpering. Jaja watched helplessly as the chief coughed his life away. It took a while before the cough slowly abated. Finally, the chief's spasm subsided and he resumed his slow, laboured breathing. The hut felt silent again.

\"My son, '' The chief uttered in a hoarse whisper.

\"Dada''.

\"My eyes are growing dim. I'll soon be joining my fathers''.

\"You must be strong Dada''.

\"I know. But you must be strong too. I sent for you, Jaja, not because I'm dying, but because I'm leaving you with a great responsibility.''

There was silence again as the chief paused to regain his breathe. Jaja looked around him at the faces of those in the room. They all stared back at him with a blank expression. Nobody seemed to have a clue as to what was coming.

\"Thirty years ago, I bought you as a young slave and, having no son from my loins, named you Jaja and brought you up in my house as my son. I have not regretted that decision.'' He breathed heavily for a while.\"You served me well.'' he continued, '' and through your hardwork you've risen to a status that few sons of Okoloma have ever attained. The foreman of our household and a family elder in your own right. Above all, you've made the entire house of Pelemo proud''.

\"Thank you Dada, you've taken good care of me ever since I could remember. I owe everything I am today, to your kindness. I'll always be grateful.''

\"Our fathers are calling me, my son.'' Chief Enebo said. \" I wont tarry much longer. I am placing my house and all the families of Pelemo in your hands.'' At this he paused and turned his head slowly, facing his assistant.

\" Priye !''

'' My lord .''

The old man hobbled over to squat beside the mat. The chief's chest was heaving again.

\" Give me your hand, Jaja'', he rasped. \" Quickly .''

With a great effort, he managed to grab Jaja's extended hand and pivot it in Priye's direction. The strain of the exercise was telling heavily on him. His breathe was coming in short rasps.

\" Bear me witness, Prince Priye Diobu Wakama,'' he began, '' bear me witness, our fathers long, long gone but who are here, bear me witness, you gods and goddesses of Okoloma, and the seven kingoms of Bonny. I, Enebo Ogene Diobu Wakama, place my son .....whom I named Jaja Ogene Diobu Wakama Awajima, in my stead to rule the house of Pelemo - when I am no more.''

Saying that, he dropped Jaja's hand into Priye's extended palms and collapsed, exhausted, back on the mat. .....................................................................................................................

The news swayed Okoloma like a storm....

The dull monotony that characterised life in the quiet community suddenly disappeared, almost overnight. Chief Enebo was widely known and respected in Okoloma and its environs. The news of his death quickly spread like wildfire. From hearth to hearth, from boat to boat and at popular gathering places, the favourite topic was the Chief's demise. Equally making the waves was the shocking announcement by the late chief's uncle, Priye, that Jaja, the foreman of the house of Pelemo and a former slave, had been named the leader of the Pelemo household. The catche was that the head of the Pelemo household was automatically became the head of Okoloma kingdom.

For some, it was a nightmare. Chief Osaro was just returning from a trading trip at one of his outposts near Brass when he received the news from a passing fishing boat. Osaro was an elder in the Pelemo household and head of the Rumuko family, a subset of the Pelemo household.

He, like many others in Okoloma, claimed to do business with the white men, which usually involved trading in palm oil and spirits and gunpowder. But rumour had it that he also covertly engaged in shady dealings involving slaves, despite the ban in such trade. No one had ever questioned the veracity of such rumours and chief Osaro never volunteered information as to the true nature of his business. On the surface, he owned a few trading outposts in the creeks but no one from Okoloma ever visits them.

Osaro was an ambitious man, and judging from his substantial wealth, a successful businessman too. Infact, many viewed him as the likeliest successor to chief Enebo as the head of the Pelemo household.

As his boat slid to a stop beside the wooden pier of Okoloma, he was met by his trusted foreman, Taribo, who confirmed the news to him.

\"By all the gods, I hope that this is indeed a joke.''

When Taribo assured him it was not, he suddenly grew silent. Looking visibly distraught, he made his way slowly to his house, ignoring the welcome greetings from aquaintances and other villagers he passed on his way.

To him, the old chief's death was long anticipated and secretly prayed for, but the announcement of Jaja as successor was such a heavy blow to his secret ambition. The old chief in his illness, no doubt, must have been quite delirious and as such, was not in his right senses to make such an outrageous pronouncement. Osaro felt he must do something to fight, nay, correct the injustice done.

That night, he sent for the leaders of the six families that made up the Pelemo household. He needed their support in his scheme. If he could win them to his cause, he would rule Okoloma.

Meanwhile, he made preparations to receive them. He set up seats in his spacious courtyard. He brought out his best bottle of imported gin and set it up in the centre of the seats, with wooden cups to go round. A slow fire, made up of logs of mangrove timber, smouldered nearby, providing light and warmth. Taribo, his right hand man, stood just outside the shadows to quickly respond with more drinks, or perhaps a few manilla - as gifts, should the night turn out as well as Osaro hoped.

Shortly before midnight, the chiefs arrived . Osaro watched as they filed in, one by one. Chief Ukwere, from the Itighi family and the oldest man in the house of Pelemo, was the first to arrive, followed by Ndume, representing the Kigibo family. Then came Elder Alaka - from the Oboli family, Ngboagbali from the Ukue family and of course, Chief Alaibe, Osaro's best friend, from the quite influential Utana family. Chief Ogwima from the Biri family begged off, but sent his eldest son, Oyima, in his stead.

Osaro nodded with satisfaction as they took their places and exchanged pleasantries.

\"Come, my elders, let's share a moment together, in these sad times.''

He handed Chief Ukwere - being the eldest person present, the bottle of gin for the ceremonial 'blessings'. The chief touched it and passed it to the next person beside him, who did likewise till the bottle finally made its way to back to Osaro, the host. The traditional acceptance observed, Osaro broke the cap and poured out a portion as ceremonial libation to the ground before pouring a small quantity into his wooden cup. He beckoned to Taribo and handed him the bottle. Taribo then started pouring into the cups of those present. By the end of the second round, the bottle was half - empty. At a signal from Osaro, Taribo went into his master's hut and returned with another bottle - just in case. The drink serving resumed.

After a few minutes of general conversation, Osaro stood up and cleared his throat. The gathering fell silent.

\" My brothers, my friends, my elders, I salute you all.'' He began. \"I thank you for coming out to my little hut on an instant invitation.''

''I thank the gods who brought us here safely.'' Alaibe chipped in.

\" Yes, my friend. That shows the gods are with us.'' Osaro resumed. \" I called you out of your wives embraces, out of your children's entreaties, and from your gods' protection because of a very serious issue that demands our collective attention and swift response. Again, you must pardon me for this great demand I've made of your time.''

''Go on.'' Chief Ukwere prompted.

\" My words are few, yet they hold much weight. We've all been made to witness a most hideous sacrilege. Sadly, we've lost our patron and head of all the families in the house of Pelemo. I feel his loss as much as any true son and daughter of Pelemo. However, my brothers, I wish to protest a most misguided mistake our late leader made - a mistake that affects us all, affects our place in the house of Pelemo, and affects our sacred duty as custodians of the traditional stool of Okoloma. It's not our departed Chief's place to single-handedly chose Jaja, a slave, as his successor, when able sons of Pelemo are very much around to lead the household.''

''Yes,'' Alaibe chipped in on cue. \"Personally, I dont think that is the way things should've been done. I don't have anything personally against Jaja. He practically grew up here in Okoloma, in the household of Pelemo. Chief Enebo, who bought and adopted him, is dead. Who can now tell where Jaja's loyalties lie? I've observed with dismay, the impromptu procedure that brought about his emergence as the head of Pelemo household. By the gods, there're other equally qualified foremen in each of our six families that make up the household, who can lead the house of Pelemo as well as him. Jaja is an outsider. A child cannot be asked to rub the head of his elders often. One day he might be tempted to try a knock.''

\" Listen, Alaibe, before you fly off.'' Chief Ndume said. \"I'm really surprised at the subject of this meeting. I thought it was a gathering to discuss our ideas and contributions to the burial rites of our late head, as is the custom. I won't be party to any conspiracy to drag down the name and prestige of our family in the mud. Jaja has been a good foreman in the Pelemo household. He has represented the house's business and interests well. I wonder if anyone here doubts that.''

He looked around, seeing no response, he continued. \"Surely, from time imemorial, our custom had allowed foremen - whether slaves, servants or freeborn men, to succeed a family or house head, when nominated to that position by the current head, or council of chiefs. Take for instance, the House of Kiribiri.....''

''Not in this case,'' Osaro cut in. \"We are not members of the house of Kilibiri. They can do as they please with their headship. Our house holds the traditional stool of Okoloma. It's our legacy as the sons of Pelemo. The late chief should'nt have unilaterally appointed a successor without the presence and approval of the council of chiefs. It is an illegal pronouncement which must not be allowed to stand''

\"We'll not recognise, or accept Jaja.'' Alaibe insisted, bitterly.

''Then who do you have in mind, yourself ? Osaro? Talking of legality. Is this meeting legally convened?'' Ndume asked. \"Why is Priye, the House adviser and Temepri, both heads of two important families in the house of Pelemo, not here?''

''We know where their loyalties lie.'' Osaro said, '' that's why we count you as one wise enough to support your true kin. We share of the same blood, same ancestors, same history, same gods. Surely, you wouldn't stand against me in leading our house now that we need someone who feels what we feel, thinks what we think and whose same blood also flows in your veins to control our affairs and bring prosperity to our community? Will you chose to align with an ursurper?''

''Go and wash your mouth in the stinking creek, Osaro. Jaja is no usurper. Chief Enebo made no mistake. Jaja is a son of Pelemo and he's fit enough to be the head of the Pelemo household as well as you or I.\"

Alaibe stood up.

''I know you, Ndume.'' he stated. \"I know people like you. You sell yourself to someone like Jaja so you could eat his crumbs.''

'' The gods bear me witness if I don't tear you limb by limb and feed you to fish if you open your mouth to abuse me again.'' Ndume also sprang up, adjusting his loin cloth.

Tempers were rising. There was a general finger-pointing and exchange of sharp words. Finally, Chief Ukwere, aided by his walking stick, slowly rose up.

\"Enough of this quarrel. Enough !''

The group gradually fell silent. Ndume and Alaibe, after glaring at each other briefly, aided by the dim light from the smouldering logs, sat down heavily at their places. The chief continued.

\"Elders of Pelemo, it saddens me this night to see us fighting over mudfish, when the boat is leaking.''

\"Ambition, selfish ambition.'' Ndume mumured.

\"Greed.'' Alaibe interjected. Ukwere ignored them and continued.

\"The Pelemo household has for generations, been exemplary in its affairs. True, Enebo, the head of the household is dead. It's also true that he named a successor. However, our custom allows us seven days of mourning before we celebrate a new head of the house. I suggest we go home, grind our teeth like adults over this, while we proceed to give our late chief a beffitting memorial as custom demands and as due his status. Thereafter, we'll see what the future holds. May we not allow the house of Pelemo be made a laughing stock by hasty actions, please, I beg of you all. Osaro, I thank you for your warm hospitality.''

Ukwere sat down.

\"Well spoken.'' Ndume commented. \"Well spoken.''

\"We'll meet at the Pelemo town hall. And all the family heads will be present.''

''I agree.'' Alaka commented, followed by a general murmur of agreement from all except Alaibe.

''I better catch some sleep then.'' Oyima said, speaking for the first time. He had not said a word throughout the exchanges.

''Goodnight my elders.'' He stood up.

''We'll meet again, soon.'' Osaro called out as the meeting broke up. As far as he could tell, that was the end of his little scheme to form an alliance against Jaja. Shaking his head, he gazed in dismay at the now empty bottle of gin that Taribo had so painstakingly preserved, and at the disappearing backs of the chiefs, as they slipped one by one into the starless night. ........................................................................................................

They buried the chief at night. Customarily, the burial of such a high profile chief was only witnessed by titled chiefs of the Okoloma community, led by the Pelemo household. The burial rites proper was overseen by the Priest of Okperri - the cult of the iguana and python, which were considered sacred animals and deities by the Okoloma people. Other households in the kingdom and beyond sent their elders and family representatives. The three wives and daughters of chief Enebo had to remain at home. Tradition did not permit their presence at the burial. Infact, only a handful of close relatives including Jaja and chief Priye, accompanied by the members of the Okperri society made the group that carried out the old chief's burial.

Just before dusk, the boat carrying the remains of the chief, closely accompanied by the group, set out to the burial island, some distance away from the communal pier. All along the stretch of water leading to the island, the priest, dangling a fowl in one hand and a small clay pot in the other, chanted incantations, invoking the ancestors and the gods to welcome their son home. The tide was going out and it was the custom to carry out burials at low tide. As the canoes neared the island, men from Pelemo's house jumped out and dragged the canoes through the shallow water till it berthed in a mud patch. They tied the canoes to a protruding tangle of mangrove roots. The body, wrapped in a woven raffia netting, was lowered into the grave first. Then two small baskets, containing copper manillas were placed on each side of the corpse. As a mark if his personal status, and a parting gift, Jaja placed an elephant tusk at the head of the grave and two specially - made gold manilla on each side of the grave. Lighted brands illuminated the procedure. The priest then slaughtered the fowl, spilling the blood on the ground and around the grave. The gods of death thus appeased, members of the Okperri society took up hoes and began covering the grave, as the priest's sacred chants rose in crescendo and reverbrated in uncanny echoes through the ancient mangrove forest, puncturing the still night around them.

By morning, the formal mourning days had begun. The Priye family house, which was the centre of the Pelemo household, was filled to overflowing by visitors. The Pelemo household was well-established and was one of the most respected in Bonny kingdom. Some visitors had arrived overnight by boat, coming from as far as Degema and from Brass to pay their respects. Among the dignitaries that came to commiserate and congratulate Jaja as the new leader of the Pelemo household was Prince Hillary Bori, of the Kalabari kingdom. He was Jaja's bossom friend but then, little did he know that their special relationship will greatly affect Jaja's future in years to come. ............................................................................................................

They came for him at night. Ruwe, his personal servant and bodyguard heard the commotion first. Then a shrill scream pierced the night, as the marauders broke into the female servants' quarters, which was located near the back of the compound. Jaja's men were ready. Ruwe gave the signal and the resistance came out in full force to repel the intruders. It was Osaro's men against Jaja's.

The latter had gotten wind of Osaro's scheme to get himself on the traditional stool of Okoloma. The latest being a plot to assassinate Jaja, culminated in the invasion of Jaja's home.

News of the plot had filtered to Jaja soon afterit was hatched. He thus had time to prepare well in advance. He had also received the support of his Kalabari friend, Hillary Bori, who supplied him arms and some of his best fighters.

The battle was short. Jaja's men, supported by his Kalabari mecenaries, prevailed and pushed the attackers out of the compound. The attackers were taken by surprise by the sheer ferocity of the resistance. Seeing the large number of Jaja's force emerging from the night, the morale of the attackers quickly wanned and they hastily took to their heels in retreat. When daylight came, the toll was taken. Jaja lost two men but the attackers lost over thirteen. Jaja's side also took two four captives, who quickly confessed Osaro's hand in the plot. Before he could be captured, Osaro had escaped from Okoloma. It was soon rumoured that he went to live in one of his mysterious trading outposts, out of Jaja's reach.

.............................................................................................................

Lord Whitcliff was drenched in sweat.

......\"King Jaja, we need to review the tarriffs on Palm oil. We also need access to trade directly with the hinterland traders to avoid delays to our supplies. We urge you to make some concessions.''

There was a pause as Jaja looked up from the new draft Lord Whitcliff had presented to him. It had been two years since he had assumed leadership of the house of Pelemo. He studied his visitor carefully. A typical inexperienced British aristocrat, a young man in his late twenties, full of himself, sent to enforce divergent orders of his superiors in London in the name of the Crown. He had arrived as a replacement for Sir Winslow, whom Jaja had been on friendly terms with and who, after a protracted spell of malaria, had been forced to retreat from the white man's grave, to seek treatment and safety in his country. Sir Winslow had maintained a cordial relationship with Jaja. This inexperienced young lord, no doubt, seemed to have been unwittingly dragged to the negotiations by the greedy merchants now hovering like vultures behind him.

\" I have lots of hungry mouths to feed.'' Jaja replied patronisingly. \"I have a territory to protect, I have our young men becoming restive and a growing population to keep engaged in honest labour. These fresh terms of yours simply rob us of our livelihood and offers nothing conciliatory in return, for us to fall back on. If I consent to your request and grant you access to trade directly with the hinterland, we'll be overun and simply be trampled to the ground by your greedy British merchants. You owe us taxes to sail on our waters, use our piers, trade in our territory, we should even be charging you for sleeping with our women.''

The meeting was called at the insistence of Lord Whitcliff, the new Captain who was representing British interests in the Bight of Bonny. Sitting in a carved wooden stool and wearing a tight cravat, knee-high leather boots and a boiler hat which he refused to take off even in the shade of Jaja's expansive courtyard which was amply shaded by imported almond trees, he was ridiculously trying hard not to look too uncomfortable - despite the thirty something degree heat that seemed to add in no small measure, to his predicaments. Underneath his cool demeanour, he was fuming. Despite presenting his quite elaborately exaggerated credentials and an entourage which included military officers and British merchants to impress this local King, Jaja seemed more difficult to bend, than he had envisaged. He knew Jaja held the upper hand no doubt,based on a pre-existing agreement, but he, Lord Whitcliff, being saddled with such enormous affairs as protecting and expanding Her Majesty's interests and supposedly with the powers that be, behind him, will be damned if he'll be bogged down by this mean - looking, smart-assed negro chief who fancied himself as an emperor in his little backwater domain. He glanced at the small group of merchants and British soldiers behind him. His courage climbed a notch. He decided to be a bit more direct.

\"The odds are against you, Jaja.'' He resumed, trying to instill authority - the authority of the Crown in his voice. \"We could either negotiate this new terms peacefully or we could tear through this enclave and control the trade ourselves by force. We have a formidable army and weapons at our disposal, you know. We have.....''

''Are you threatening me, boy?!'' Jaja suddenly bristled in a voice that quickly made a few attendants on both sides bolt upright.

\"Em....Oh no...not at all.\" Whitcliff grew red in the face. He didnt want to lose this negotiations.

\"I assure you, that's not what I meant.'' He managed a nervous smile, seeking a way to ease the sudden tension. Damn it ! He was getting carried away by this man's obstinacy. Diplomacy, he reminded himself, diplomacy for now, or at least a semblance of it.

\" I was simply hinting at our options, which I must admit, we are not at liberty to employ.''

\"Neither is it in your best interest, to consider even the remotest possibility of mentioning your options.'' Jaja reminded him.

\"I have a standing treaty made with the British as regards the subject of trade in palm oil as well as your general conduct in this territory.'' Jaja said. \"To the best of my knowledge, the treaty is still valid. Should you give me any, I mean, any excuse at all to doubt your commitment to the treaty....'' He left the sentence hanging in the air, then resumed. \"I suppose you realise that the French and the Portuguese are just around the corner. They'll be too happy to step into your thick leather boots if, for example, you step on the wrong toes.''

Whitcliff's eyes snapped shut, then flew open again. His fingers curled into balls of fists under the table. First, he had been kept waiting for an hour by this backwater king and now he was being systematically taunted. He had to act firmly and decisively. In his mind, he clearly knew the negotiations were going nowhere. He had to do something. The pressure from the merchants was growing by the day. His orders were to improve relations and expand trade interests on behalf of the Niger Trade Company. Jaja controlled the trade routes into the interior. He directly controlled the price and quantity of oil that the British merchants traded. His plans were to woo or push Jaja out and cajole the rest of the 'houses' that control the oil trade into line. Cut off the head of the snake and everything falls in place. Worse still, Jaja had hinted on the possibility of an alliance with the Dutch and Portuguese. Damn it ! He was even threatened to increase the current rates the merchant pay as taxes per barrel of oil. Either the British must have direct access to trade in oil with the hinterland or Jaja must be forcefully removed - which now looked the more likely scenario but which also, as a matter of necessity, required other less - conspicous means. A show of force was an option, yet not altogether appealing. Other protectorates and other houses were watching. For now, he had to play this out and project himself as harmlessly as possible for his personal safety. Afterall, he was in this man's territory. The gunboat was still a long way off and the naval ship was at least a day's travel away. He, Lord Whitcliff, must be master of the situation in the interest of the Crown. Jaja's days were numbered, as far as he was concerned. With a wicked gleam, he savoured the strategy that was already forming in his mind.

Outwardly, he smiled.

\"I wish to assure you that we will keep to our terms and have no desire in breaking a long-standing treaty. The prosperity of the Opobo people reflects the prosperity of the British. All that we ask of you is to keep our dialogue options open, and of course, keep the French and Portuguese out of our mutual interests.''

\"We have heard you, Lord Whitcliff.'' Chief Priye replied him. ''I assure you that the household of Pelemo and the leadership of the houses of Opobo have every intention of respecting the treaty your predecessors wisely signed with us five years ago, unless you give us sufficient reason not to.''

''Then we may safely conclude that we have reached an understanding, mayn't we ?''

\"Indeed, we do. It's an old agreement, we both know the terms very well.'' Jaja responded with a smirk. The meeting was over. Clearly, whatever ego Whitcliff had brought to bear on King Jaja of Opobo, was half - deflated by the time he left Jaja's compound. As he was escorted by his retinue of hangers-on towards the waiting boat by the pier, Jaja knew he had humiliated the self-important little Lord, right in front of his admirers. Throughout the meeting, Jaja had wondered what Lord Whitcliff was trying to achieve by picking holes in a decade - old treaty that was mutually beneficial to both parties. As the group left, it hit him ! He suddenly realised what it was all about. Whitcliff was looking for an excuse....but, an excuse for what?

He knew something bad was brewing.

........................................................................................................................

The next day, there was a secret meeting at Lord Whitcliff's cabin, onboard the Fortune, Whitcliff's flagship.

\"Jaja has crossed the rubicon. We cannot accept his terms whatsoever.'' Lord Whitcliff was addressing the gathering of merchants and his military advisers.

''We'll be ruined.'' Sir Maxwell, an aging merchant with a high-pitched voice, whined. \"You set this man upon us. We were comfortable with the status quo. You knew he would never allow us to by-pass him and directly access his oil supplies. You deliberately goarded him with impossible terms to make him call for a new treaty.''

''I agree.'' Lord Whitcliff concured. \"All that is true. It was for a purpose. A higher purpose, I assure you, gentlemen.''

\"Very soon, you will resume your businesses without interference from the natives. That is why I've called you today to ensure that my plans succeed.''

''What's the plan?'' asked Rudwell, a beefy merchant with a sad face. He had been the most silent so far among the group.

\"It's a beautiful and simple plan. We invite the stubborn king onboard Captain Doorwell's ship under the pretext of agreeing to his new terms, and he never sets foot on land again.''

''And....''

\"As at this moment, a replacement is waiting. An old foe of his, Chief Osaro, has agreed to handle any fallouts that may follow Jaja's absence. He, of course, will oblige our interests to the fullest.''

\"Brilliant.'' Maxwell chirpped in.

''Let's not waste time then. Prepare the papers.'' The captain advised.

...........................................................................................................

\"You could have died in exile.''

Alaibe roared into another round of mirthless laughter. That was his third attempt at a joke that afternoon, and none so far had as much as tickled Osaro's fancy.

Osaro frowned at his friend, as the latter, unpertubed, took a long sip of the freshly-tapped palm wine from the gourd Taribo had brought, and wondered for the third time, what on earth is this man doing in my house? Surely he had not been roused from his siesta to listen to idle talk and stale banal jokes from Alaibe. Since Taribo had insisted that his visitor claimed to have an important information, he had reluctantly indulged him. He made a mental note to have Taribo whipped, later. Alaibe, on the other hand, was in a mood of sorts. He had done nothing but drink and drool, since he arrived. Soon, he was launching into another narration.

\"There's this story about Udey, from Brass, who had a slave, named Koko. Koko was an expert boatman but was often ill-treated by his master, Udey. One day, Udey bought a new boat and invited three of his friends to see it. It was a covered boat, the first of its kind in Brass. Udey was very proud of it.

In due course, he decided to take his friends for a ride on the river in his boat. As expected, Koko was chosen as the boatman for the day. The group filled the boat with delicious food and were eating and drinking merrily in celebration. None of the food or drink, of course, was shared with Koko, despite his complaints of hunger. As they were leaving the beach, Udey, Koko's master, let out a loud fart. For sport, he blamed it on Koko, accusing him of polluting the air. All four men in the boat then took turns to give the poor boy a knock apiece, as punishment. Koko bore it calmly with a straight face.

Not too long after, as they were heading further upstream, Udey had the urge to give out gas again and did so loudly. The sport was repeated, leaving Koko with a splitting headache. Still Koko didnt say a word.

As the gods saw fit, soon it started to rain. Determined to show off his acquistion, Udey ordered Koko to cover the boat, so that none of his guests onboard would get wet from the rain. Koko, of course, complied. The rain fell quite heavily and the inside of the boat, being covered for long, became hot and stuffy. The occupants were sweating, but would not open the boat covering, else they became drenched.

That was when the gods miraculously saw it fit, to touch Koko's very empty stomach. Rumbling bitterly once or twice, it gave a low groan as a ball of gas escaped Koko's nether regions. It did so in a long, quiet hiss.

For a moment, no one onboard seemed to perceive what was amiss. They thought it was one of Udey's cruel jokes, till suddenly, the rancid stench of Koko's regurgitated insides hit all four men in the boat. The odour was so powerful that Udey's friends could no longer remain in the boat, even after opening the cover. They had no option than to jump into the river and swim wildly to the nearest shore. However, Udey, who could not swim, had to remain in the boat and suffer through it all, till Koko, wearing a straight face, eventually rowed him to shore.''

He errupted into another session of monotonous laughter. Osaro condescendingly smiled. After a polite spell of playing the gracious host, Osaro's curiosity got the better of him.

\" Ala, Ala, my friend, '' he teased. \" I was told you came to me with some serious matter. I trust you wouldn't travel all the way from Okoloma to this sad place, just to drown in my palm wine.''

''True, my noble friend. A toad does not run for no reason in the afternoon. Either it is after something, or something is after it.'' He proceeded to pour himself another generous helping.

'' So tell me, Ala, what's bothering you?''

''Good news.'' Alaibe took a longer sip. \" I have good news. The gods have answered your prayers.''

''How's that?''

''Jaja, that ursuper, will soon no longer fart and give you headaches at the same time.''

\"Stop speaking in riddles, Ala.''

''I'm here to tell you that our arch-enemy, who was imposed on the house of Pelemo by that no-good son of a bad mother, Enebo, will soon be gone. The better part of the news is that you, our son, our blood and my friend, has been chosen to take over the affairs of the house of Pelemo, from now henceforth. It is high time you returned to Okoloma and claim what is rightfully yours.''

''Alaibe, let me make it clear to you that I dont feel comfortable with your words. You seem to be taunting me. Had the elders of the other families stood by me, instead of crossing over to hustle for favours and trade alliances with Jaja, I'd already have been the head of the Pelemo house by now.''

''You needn't worry anymore. That bunch of cut-throats, especially Ndume - who rushed to give his daughter to Jaja for marriage, against my - hic- wise counsel, will be the first to grovel at your feet, seeking favours.''

''By the gods, please Alaibe, tell me your plan.''

''The gods have indeed decided to bless you. An emissary from the new representative of the pro-consul arrived my house yesterday.''

''What did he want?''

Alaibe lowered his voice, leaning forward.

''He wanted me to endorse a possible replacement for Jaja.''

Osaro's eyes grew wide.

''Wait, wait , Ala.'' His voice conspiratorily slid into a whisper. \"What's he done wrong now? I thought he was, as they say, wining and dining with the white men?''

''Apparently, he fell out of their favour. I heard he refused to negotiate on the trade agreements brought by the new representative. My spies told me he mentioned increasing oil taxes for the white traders.''

''So they sent for you?\"

\"No, the Representative asked to see me. When I met him, he simply asked for my opinion on the matter of finding a replacement, perhaps counting on the leverage that I have with the other houses of Pelemo, besides the well-known fact that I hate Jaja's guts and will gladly do him in, anytime, anywhere the opportunity arises.''

''And...?'' Osaro asked, rubbing his hands with child-like glee.

\"And I, of course, had only one worthy name to recommend - my bossom friend, Chief Osaro !''

''The winds are good to my boat. May the white man's gods and ancestors and everything he holds sacred reward him.''

''Those are my very prayers, my friend. A kingdom awaits you. Prepare to return to Okoloma and take over the kingship. But you must remember that the white man of course, expects your full allegiance in return for his support, especially in those areas where Jaja had been found wanting.''

''Come, my friend. That isn't a difficult task. Let us put our minds to rest. Sometimes I used to hate the white man. But today, I love him like a brother !'' Osaro concluded.

....................................................................................................................

He stood on the open deck and watched, helpless and heartbroken, as the coast receded into the distance. Sweat broke out from his forehead. He clutched the wooden rail of the ship tightly, as dizziness swept over him. He could not take his eyes off old Priye, waving frantically from the swaying boat and growing smaller and smaller as the wind filled the ship's sails, or Ruwe his faithful servant and bodyguard, who, seeing Jaja hoisted and roughly shoved onto the ship's deck, had flung himself into the water and swam furiously towards the ship. He was shouting and pointing.

It was a quiet day in May. Few fishermen's canoes and oil trading boats sparsely dotted the harbour, all oblivous of the monarch's kidnap.

Ruwe continued to shout, chocking water himself. No one paid him any attention, as the ship, now on full sail, was gathering speed and heading out into the open ocean.

A lump had formed in his throat. Jaja knew he had been irreversibly trapped. He recalled with a sad sigh, the beautiful face of his young daughter, Unwanne, who had innocently said to him this morning, ''Daa, please don't enter the white man's boat. It's too big. It'll swallow you.''

To which he had playfully responded, ''Let me be, child. You worry too much. Remember that I'm Jaja, King Jaja. I'll swallow the boat myself.''

How had the tide now changed !

He feared, as he stared at the golden sun hanging low over the horizon, that he might never see his daughter again.

\"Your majesty, sir.'' The ship's first mate was at his elbow, nudging gently. \"Lord Whitcliff requests your presence below.''

Jaja ignored him briefly. He knew he was a prisoner, and the voyage will not likely end soon. He decided to take his time.

He gazed long and hard for the last time, at the land he had called home all his life - a land where, fifty years ago, he had arrived with nothing but his bare skin, scared by the prospect of a dark, uncharted future. Now, decades later and a sizeable quantity of his sweat and blood, an enviable kingdom lay beyond the shoreline, half concealed by the gathering mist. No conquest, no treachery, no authority can erase his name from the land he was now leaving behind. He knew his friend, Hillary Bori, will see to it that his family and his people do not fall into his enemies hands. He, Jaja, may yet rise again. He had survived before when his odds were down. He smiled inwardly, as he finally turned and was escorted below deck.

Hope, he mused, was a luxury he certainly could well afford.

The End.


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