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King Ja Ja lived here

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This week we are going to tell you a story, a true one, about one of our folk heroes.

Ja Ja was born in 1821 in Igboland in the Niger Delta. He was captured and sold as a slave to Odiari, a member of one of the powerful trading houses on the African coast.

Soon Ja Ja was trading too, in palm oil. After obtaining his freedom his success in commerce led to his becoming Chief of the Bonny House. Internecine feuding resulted in his removal inland where he founded the State of Opobo and became its King. {{more}}

Now Opobo was a prime exporter of palm oil and King Ja Ja reputed to be one of the ablest of the coast middlemen. The British viewed him as too powerful and sought to remove him. Ja Ja was tricked aboard a frigate and sent to Accra for trial. He was convicted of blocking trade and preventing British penetration into the interior. Like the Black Caribs, whose activities also ran counter to imperial interests, he was sentenced to exile.

King Ja Ja spent almost three years in exile in St. Vincent. The recently demolished Captain’s Quarters at Fort Charlotte was his first home. He struck a cord with the working people, crowds of whom turned out to welcome the African Chief, his 15-year-old son Sunday Ja Ja and his attendant Daniel Ogolo when they put ashore from the Icarus on June 10, 1888. His youngest and most recent wife, the 18-year-old Patience, joined him in October. The King was granted £800 by the Foreign Office in England with which to pay his attendants, his house rent and his living expenses including licences for his dogs and carriage.

Initially King Ja Ja was received in ‘society’ at Government House receptions, cricket matches and private dinner parties. He repeatedly appealed to the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office and even to Queen Victoria herself to have his sentence overturned but to no avail. Disillusioned, he distanced himself from the ruling elite and related to those dissatisfied with colonial administration.

Finally the ailing 70-year-old monarch won consent, on humanitarian grounds, to return to Opobo to die amongst his own people. He departed St. Vincent in March 1891 but only his body arrived home for ceremonial burial.

There have been many folk heroes and colourful characters in SVG. How can we preserve their stories? One way is to write them down and store them in the National Trust archives at [email protected]

l Story adapted from ‘Rekindling the Ancestral Memory: King Ja Ja of Opobo in St Vincent and Barbados, 1888-1891’ by Edward Cox. Pub. Department of History, UWI, Cave Hill.

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