Sunday, March 28, 2010

On the war canoe..

There are two stand-out essays in the excellent coffee-table book The Curse of the Black Gold, complementing the striking photography elsewhere in the book. Both are remarkable reads for anyone interested in Nigerian history, the oil business and present-day political opportunities.

The first, by UC Berkeley Professor Ugo Nwokeji, "Slave Ships to Oil Tankers", reviews the long duree from the slave trade through the palm oil business to the hydrocarbon trade of our times in the Niger Delta.

Sites such as Bonny Island and the two inland ports of Forcados and Escravos (Portuguese for 'slave') have histories woven around the three globalising trades. Although the powerful currents have washed away the evidence out into the Atlantic, history lingers like a recalcitrant wet season cloud over these places.

Bonny Island for instance exported 16,000 slaves annually in the late eighteenth century; by the mid 1840s, a dozen 'Liverpool Houses' (firms) operated on the island, exporting 25,000 tons of palm oil annually, supplying Britain with soap aplenty. Today, Bonny is the site of the massive Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) complex, which cost US$12bn to construct (exporting most of its liquified gas to the West). Bonny Island and its people have yet to fare well out of this long history - today, the area is a case study in man-made environmental devastation and human neglect. The acid rain (real, as opposed to the urban mythic variety in Lagos) created by gas flares alone brings slow death to thousands of Bonny Islanders.

We learn from the text of the "War Canoe Houses" - Pepple, Brown, Jumbo, Halliday and co - trading families favoured by the British for the double function of controlling water-routes inland to access palm oil, as well as to restrict trade in slaves (continued by the Spanish after Abolition in Britain). Large and mostly symbolic, "war canoes" were code for powerful clans that emerged as middle-men supplying palm oil from inland to British merchant interests. They came with their own micro-cultures of songs and rituals. Most, but not all of these names and their descendants are forgotten.

Nwokeji's essay poses the figure of the ship as the locus for the realisation that despite the discontinuities across the centuries, the slave trade, palm oil trade and the oil trade were all driven by global capitalism and the black Atlantic. At the end, he suggests that we might look back on the tankers of the oil age as we now do on the slave ships of centuries past,

"A time may come when oil will be viewed in a manner not unlike eighteenth-century slavery, the greenhouse gasses emitted from hydrocarbons perhaps akin to slave-produced sugar, and free labour as a parable for renewable energy."

The second text, Ukoha Ukiwo's "Empire of Commodities", goes into more historical detail. Within the many caverns of my ignorance, I hadn't quite realised that the slave trade began with the Portugese export of slaves from the east to work in the mines of the Gold Coast in the 15th century (whence Escravos gained its name). Ukiwo discusses the rise of both the slave trade and the palm oil trade and the context of the British military "punitive expeditions" in the late 19th century to capture the palm oil trade from the middle men. This was the reason for the exiling of King Jaja of Opobo (an Igbo sold downriver by the Aro, growing up a slave, again in Bonny) - first to Barbados, then to Cape Verde and others such as Nana Olomu and King Koko of Nembe. One finds oneself yearning for a dramatisation of the last years of Jaja's life, amidst the verdant splendour of Cabo Verde, staring dolorously out east across the ocean in exilic mourning..

The thought of war canoes and of Niger-Delta historical figures such as King Koko and more recently Isaac Boro - the first freedom fighter of the Niger Delta in modern terms - leads one to the present day and the Acting President, an Ijaw son of a canoe maker. The history of the region is a centuries long story of global capital escaping across the seas. With this history in mind, it is hardly surprising that along with electoral reform, peace and prosperity in the Niger Delta will be at the top of his agenda...


Loomnie 4:28 pm  

Thanks for this. Ordering the book right now.

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