Dr. Fraser- Point of View
February 22, 2013

For Black History Month (remembering King Ja Ja)

King Ja Ja Arrives (as reported by the Sentinel of Friday, June 15, 1888)

“H.M.S Icarus steamed slowly into the Harbour about midday on Saturday last. A telegram had been received in the morning from Grenada announcing that King Ja Ja of Opobo, accompanied by his son and a servant were being conveyed to St.Vincent in fulfilment of instructions received at Grenada that the authorities had determined to change his place of exile from Grenada to St.Vincent.{{more}} The news rapidly spread through the town and as Saturday is the popular market day when large numbers of the labouring classes from country are in town, a crowd of considerable dimensions quickly gathered on the Bay Street.
A meeting of the Legislative Council was summoned in hot haste to pass an Ordinance authorising the reception of political prisoners. It soon became generally known that Quarters at the Fort were being prepared for the reception of the King. The Captain of the Icarus was anxious to land him as quickly as possible as he was under orders to proceed to Montevideo. It was found impossible however to get things ready before the following day and arrangements were made to land Ja Ja during the hours of Divine Service in order to avoid as much excitement as possible. The people were unaware of this. All Saturday afternoon crowds loitered about the wharf and beach in expectation of seeing him land.

Notwithstanding the attempted secrecy of the arrangements there was a considerable crowd on Sunday morning. Several members of Council assembled on the wharf where a carriage and pair was in waiting to drive the King to the Fort. On landing he was greeted with loud cheers from the populace who followed behind the carriage which drove rapidly away. The King who wore a Panama Straw hat was attired in a suit resembling an Admiral’s uniform. He seemed pleased with his reception but we learn that he has subsequently evinced a dislike to the Fort and complains of the cold.
Efforts are being made to find a house for him in town. We do not think St.Vincent has any cause to be dissatisfied with the turn events have taken. The King is to be allowed £1,800 a year during the term of his exile and in addition to this we are informed has other means. The money spent here cannot fail to benefit the colony. In the absence of any reliable information by mail as to the justice or injustice of his sentence, we refrain from making any comments. The matter is of such importance that a question in all probability will be asked about it in the House. The general impression seems to be that the King has been rather unfairly treated and that his exile is the result of the exercise of our land grumbling propensities and that our action in thematter has been actuated by fear of Germany.”

Unfortunately, we in SVG know little about Ja Ja. He was in exile in StVincent from June 9, 1888 to May 1891. He died in July of that year in the Canary Islands, after spending a couple months in Barbados. But we have allowed Barbados to claim Ja Ja. Kerwyn Morris had written about Ja Ja in one of the issues of the Flambeau magazine. Henry Williams also did a manuscript on Ja Ja, based on his findings in the British Archives, but had never published it. I am currently embarked on producing a book on Ja Ja, so that the Ja Ja story can be told. He is of no major significance to the history of St Vincent, but he was part of that history. What should be of interest to us is our participation in two exiles centred on the greed for lands as is the case with the Caribs and with Ja Ja, the rush to exploit the palm oil market.

Ja Ja is a remarkable man. He was born a slave and sold to the chief of one of the leading trading houses, the Bonny House of Anna Pepple. He won his freedom and moved into the palm oil trade and was so successful that he became Chief of the Bonny House, despite not being a member. The difficulties and competition existing in that area forced him to move elsewhere where he founded a new city, Opobo, of which he became King. Ja Ja was able to become the most dominant trader and attracted the hostility of the British, who in their bid to get control of Africa and of the palm oil trade, conspired to get rid of Ja Ja. He was tricked into believing that the British were willing to come to some understanding with him over the trade. Instead, his exile had been planned and he was sent to St Vincent, although the original intention seemed to have been to send him to Grenada.

The story of his stay in St Vincent waits to be told. The Sentinel newspaper of October 19, 1888 reprinted an article about Ja Ja from the Glasgow Herald which stated: “Ja Ja is idolised by the coloured population, who treat him with all the honours due to royalty, and he is regarded as an acceptable member of St Vincent society, being a frequent guest at Government House and at private dinner parties…Ja Ja is…frequently molested by the attention of ladies of less secure position…”

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.