Property Reckoning and Methods of Accumulating Wealth among the Ogoni of the Eastern Niger Delta

By Tonwe, Sonpie K. | Africa, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Property Reckoning and Methods of Accumulating Wealth among the Ogoni of the Eastern Niger Delta


Tonwe, Sonpie K., Africa


The Ogoni occupy the easternmost section of the fertile plateau bordering the eastern Niger Delta, between the river Imo on the east and north, the city of Port Harcourt on the west, and Andoni and Bonny on the south. The oral tradition states that their ancestors migrated from ancient Ghana during a civil war under the leadership of a great woman named Gbenekwaanwaa. According to the account, the group consisted of warriors, spirit mediums and medicine men. After fighting and wandering in the hinterland for years, they finally arrived on the Atlantic coast, where they made canoes. In the canoes they travelled along the coast until they came to the piece of territory which is today called Ogoni, and settled at Nama, on the coast.

Because they possessed effective tools and weapons, they established a settlement in their immediate place of disembarkation and began a life of agriculture. If they had lacked such effective tools and weapons, they would have been forced to live by gathering, in which case they would have wandered far from their point of disembarkation. Moreover, they would have scattered and perhaps disappeared among the aborigines with whom they later came into contact, or into the harsh, wild environment.

Thus we can see that, from the very beginning, the Ogoni were not only makers of seaworthy canoes but were also an agricultural people. Accordingly, what is of interest to us here is to study the growth of these developments from this earliest period through their first contacts with Europeans (about 1500) until colonial times (about 1960). To do this successfully we shall need to establish a chronological framework to which we may refer as the earliest times in the history of Ogoni.

Linguistic calculations by Kay Williamson show that the Ogoni had settled in their present location over 2,000 years ago. Counting backwards from 1985, we arrived at the date before 15 BC (Williamson, 1988: 95). Judging by the age of Ogoni oral tradition, which contains a version of the `silent trade' first described by Herodotus (1862, IV: 144, 196) in the fifth century BC, in the absence of direct archaeological dating, the linguistic postulate is the nearest accurate dating so far for the settlement of Ogoni. In addition, relative radiocarbon (C14) dating from sites neighbouring Ogoni and their oral traditions both show the Ogoni as the oldest settlers in the eastern Niger Delta, and among the oldest in the entire Niger Delta (cf. Nzewunwa, 1983: 105; 1980: 238; Anozie, 1988).

This article is only part of a major work, whose research goes back to the earliest times. It is not possible to bring out all the data in one article. Apart from the main work, A History of Ogoni, we have, in addition, designed several papers, each of which emphasises a particular aspect of the history of the eastern delta region. It is hoped that some of the points which may not be very explicit in this article will be further illuminated in subsequent papers, or have already been adequately dealt with in the main work itself. In this article, however, the emphasis is on Ogoni's perception of wealth and how Ogoni went about accumulating wealth.

As already noted, from the very beginning the Ogoni had been basically an agricultural people. Although in many of their towns lying close to the coast there are numerous fishermen, the bulk of their total annual earnings came from agriculture. Because agricultural produce consists of perishable commodities, it was difficult to store as wealth. Consequently, a large part of their farm produce was sold off annually in order to convert the proceeds into other forms of wealth that could be stored, such as land and money (cf. Hopkins, 1973: 28).

From the account of Pereira, and from the testimonies of traditional informants, it is known that by the fifteenth century a flourishing trade in agricultural produce and livestock was already in existence on the mainland fringes of the eastern Niger delta. …

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