By Osa Amadi, Arts Editor
For more than 600 years, Bonny has engaged the interests of European merchants, bringing to the Island, vast number of visitors. In this story, OSA AMADI pries open the covers of Bonny cemeteries and archives revealing the reasons for this attraction.
There is a certain inex-plicable magic about the ancient Island called Bonny, a magic that has for centuries, attracted people from other lands – the Spaniards, Portuguese and later, the British. Part of this magic is connected to slave trade, palm oil, and more recently, the Liquefied Natural Gas. Still, the magic of Bonny is beyond the trade in these commodities. It is more deeply entrenched in the people, their culture, spirits, and the connections between these forces and the physical environment of the Island.
The monuments and artifacts of Bonny, the atrophied bones, and perhaps spirits, of early merchants and missionaries buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery, hold silent secrets spanning over several centuries. An Island built by God on the tip of the Atlantic Ocean near Port Harcourt in Nigeria, Bonny bears the footprints of great men from within and different parts of the world, heard their voices, laughter, cries, yearnings, and absorbed their blood spilt in battles – battles over wealth.
Why Bonny, when there are many other Islands in the world? The answer to this question is this: Bonny is one of the few Islands in the world so strategically located that ocean-going vessels can easily have access to it. The Island is also regarded as the richest piece of land in Africa. It has an average income which is 10 times the earnings of Port Harcourt. Since the 1950s, Bonny has been the export terminal for Nigeria’s crude oil. Little wonder that Nigeria’s low-sulphur high-grade oil is called Bonny Light in the international oil market. But still, the fame of this little piece of Island goes further back in time.
As early as 1700, Bonny was a prosperous port ruled by a dynasty of kings known as Pepple, the way the English pronounced Opobu. Under Pepple the Great, who reigned between 1792 and 1830, Bonny prospered more than any other trading state along West African coast. History records that about 200, 000 slaves were exported from Bonny between 1780 and 1800. Bonny kings were made wealthy through money they earned from selling slaves and the dues the English merchants paid to them before entering the port. The kings and their armies were also armed by the slave merchants, who made them so powerful that they went inland conquering and raiding other tribes whom they sold into slavery.
After the death of Pepple the Great in 1830, the British became disinclined to continue to pay dues to his son and successor, Dappa Pepple, who was a minor. In 1836, a British warship forcefully entered Bonny and seized two Spanish slave traders because slave trade had been abolished. Anna Pepple, the regent of the crown, in turn seized the British officer and locked him up. A scuffle ensued between British forces and the crown. Through the fight, the king and the subjects realised how powerful the British were. Later, when another British warship entered Bonny, Anna Pepple had no choice but to go aboard and sign away his authority.
Careful not to interfere too much in the affair of Bonny, the British allowed King Dappa Pepple and his subjects to do things their own ways. This probably gave Awanta, the chief priest of Bonny, the confidence to begin a terrorist campaign around 1841. Seven years later, the British Foreign Secretary ordered for his arrest. Awanta was subsequently arrested and dumped on shore several miles away from Bonny.
King Dappa Pepple suffered from stroke but later recovered in 1853 and began to plan a war against New Calabar for meddling with Bonny’s trade with the interior tribes. The British did not like this, for they feared that such a war would stop trade. Beecroft sent another warship which took on board, King Dappa Pepple. A group of Bonny people pronounced the king deposed and set William Dappa Pepple in his stead. Water is the greatest factor in the life of Bonny people. The Atlantic Ocean is the source of their livelihood and is therefore celebrated with colourful masquerades. The masquerades, representing water spirits (Owu) are dressed to look like sharks, crocodiles, hippopotamus, and other large-sized crayfish called oporo. The Nwotam festival which comes up every December 25 brings out the Nwotam masquerade, popular for its dance performances on rooftops.
From Port Harcourt, you could get to Bonny either by boat or helicopter. Shell and NLNG have their jetties in Port Harcourt and Bonny Island, but the local people and tourists usually take off from Bonny Waterside, off Creek Road.
While the Shell and NLNG boats are all sealed up and air-conditioned, the local boats are open and afford more interaction between occupants and the soothing blue waters of Bonny River. The journey takes about one hour before the boat arrives Coal Beach where you find a sign, ‘Welcome to Grand Bonny’ at the gate.
One major road runs across Bonny town, taking different names at different points. At Coal Beach end, the road is known as King William Dappa Pepple Road. After that point, it becomes Mission Road up to Shell Road where it takes a right turn and becomes New Road or King Perekule Road which leads to other suburbs of Grand Bonny Kingdom.
The present traditional ruler of Bonny is King Edward Asimini William Dappa Pepple 3, Perekule XI. The king is also called the Amanyanabo of Grand Bonny Kingdom. He is the descendant of King Perekule (1673 – 1757), the rich Bonny merchant warlord, progenitor and maker of the famous Pepple Dynasty. Pepple is the European adulterated version of Perekule.
Bonny people call themselves, their town, and their language, Ibani. But when the Europeans came and could not pronounce Ibani, they called it Bonny.
Six hundred years ago, the Portuguese, led by Vasco Da Gama, established a trading post at Finima on Bonny Island. Incidentally, it was from this ancient trading post that the vessel, LNG Port-Harcourt, took off one day to deliver Nigeria’s first shipment of liquefied natural gas to Port Sines, home port of the same Vasco Da Gama.
Forty two persons – 12 Europeans, 5 Africans, and 25 Asians – were on board the LNG Port Harcourt on that historic trip and they were led by Captain Mark Stickley.
To preserve this rich history of Bonny and facilitate infrastructural development on the Island, Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas, Shell and Mobil came together under Joint Industries Committee, JIC. The JIC has so far executed projects worth over $18 million. These projects are in the areas of water supply, roads, power generation and distribution. Specifically, NLNG spends between 2 and 3 per cent of its annual operating cost on community support. No tourism trip to Nigeria or history of Nigerian culture will be complete without visiting or mentioning this ancient piece of Island called Bonny.
As Nigeria, nay, the world, turns to Rivers State for the 2018 edition of the National Festival of Arts, this rich ancient cultural heritage of Bonny and the entire Rivers State is expected to be the central attraction at the festival.