Moses Ochonu: A super productive day at the British National Archives in Kew, England

A super productive day at the British National Archives in Kew, England. The files I went to examine were a lot juicier than I had anticipated.

In between looking at documents relevant to my research, I looked for relaxing distraction in interesting material outside my research remit as archival files and boxes often contain miscellaneous, unrelated materials and documents.
For instance, I read a very interesting set of documents regarding a German jew who had been managing a German colonial cocoa and experimental tobacco planation in the Victoria area of British Mandate territory of the Cameroons.

He sent a petition to the British High Commissioner in Lagos (who presided over British Mandated Cameroons) in 1939. In it he stated that his German employer had fired him from his job while he was on holiday in Switzerland with his Swiss wife. He claimed that he had been fired for being too friendly with the British and suggested that as a jew he was a victim of the Nazification of Germany, of which his employers were now a part.

The petitioner was now jobless, he claimed, and with the outbreak of World War II could not return to Germany for obvious reasons. He pleaded with the British authorities to help him retrieve his personal belongings in the Cameroons and attached a long list of items he claimed to have left behind in his home in the Cameroons. In a follow-up correspondence, he asked the British authorities to give him a job in the colonial agricultural sector in Nigeria, describing himself as an experienced "planter" who desperately needed a way to feed his family (wife and two children).

The archive never disappoints. It provides entertainment, education, anger, pathos, and humor in equal measure. One moment I am reading the letter of the exiled King Jaja of Opobo, who, in 1891, wrote an emotional, heartbreaking appeal from his exile in Barbados to Queen Victoria through the British Secretary for the Colonies, saying he was sick, asking that he be allowed to return to his native Opobo to die in the midst of his people, and promising that if allowed to return home to live out the rest of his life he would not cause any "trouble" and would be loyal to Her Majesty. Depressing stuff.

The next moment, I am reading the rib-cracking description of the alleged behavior of a certain Northern Nigerian emir on a Britain-bound ship. I'll quote the hilarious excerpt but I refuse to name the emir or his domain so that my friends from that emirate will not say I'm indirectly "yabbing" them.

Here is the quote:

"This potentate performed the pilgrimage...after a visit to England during which he....made sanitary history in the Khedivial steamer by persistently misapprehending the object of the trash basin; incidentally he stowed his luggage on his bunk[bed] and slept on the floor of his cabin."

The British colonial official was basically calling the emir a bakauye (Hausa), bush man/village man (pidgin), and omo ara oko (Yoruba)-- stereotypical Nigerian nomenclatures for the allegedly unexposed, the rustic country boy, if you will.

Today's Archival Tidbits:

1. I have an update on the King Jaja exile story from yesterday. It turns out that his wife, who had joined him in exile, first in St. Vincent and later Barbados, refused to return to Opobo with him when he was granted permission to return after pledging through a written undertaking to live quietly as a private citizen without causing any trouble for the British and to be loyal to their queen.

The Governor of Barbados said the couple had "domestic differences." Mrs. Patience Jaja refused to board the ship conveying her husband back to Opobo, claiming that her life would be in danger if she returned to Opobo and that if the British and Barbadian authorities insisted on her leaving with her husband, she would jump in the ocean and drown.

Not even a threat from the British authorities that she would not be financially supported by the government in Barbados was enough to dissuade her.

For his part, Jaja wrote to the authorities to argue that he married her from another town (not Opobo) and that if he returned to Opobo without her, it would cause him “much trouble” with her father, his father-in-law.

He appealed to the authorities to do everything in their power to cause his wife to leave with him. He stated that just as he had paid for a steamer to bring her to join him in exile, he was willing to make private arrangements through the same company for her to join him in Opobo at a later date if only they would persuade her to return home to the Oil Rivers Protectorate.

His and the colonial government's efforts failed and Mrs. Jaja remained in Barbados.

This all got me thinking. What was she afraid of? Why was she afraid of returning home? She claimed that she had no surviving family in Africa but Jaja said it was a lie and that her father was alive and would be mad at him if he returned without his daughter.

Was there another reason? Was Jaja, the anti-colonial nationalist hero, an abusive husband? The archive is silent on that question, our only clue being the "domestic differences" description of the couple's apparently strained marriage.

One moral of this story for my Nigerian friends who like to bemoan feminism is to realize that women did not just start asserting themselves today. Patience was taking a stance against a multi fanged patriarchy in the early 1890s. Feminism was alive and well in the nineteenth century.

Another thing is that Patience seems to have invented the classic, now popular African asylum claim story of "I'll be killed if I return to my home country."

2. Travel apps are terrible. I booked a flight earlier. I had it cancelled when I realized the dates conflicted with an obligation I had in the US. I then booked a new flight with new dates. Apparently, no one told the travel messaging app that my employer subscribes to.

While waiting for the files I ordered to arrive, I decided to check my email. I saw an urgent message reminding me to check in for my flight back to the States. I almost had a heart attack. Which flight? How? Did our travel agents or the airline change my reservation without informing me?

I wanted to make the expensive trans-Atlantic call to the agency and/or airline but I decided even amidst the panic to first check the digital ticket emailed to me. It had the correct date of my departure next week. It then dawned on me that the app did not register the cancellation of the earlier ticket and was still treating it as valid.

This is a flaw that I will be bringing to the attention of our travel management folks. Reminder apps are great but they shouldn't be reminding you of a flight you're not booked on.

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