ỌMỤ ỌKWEI, MERCHANT QUEEN OF ỌSỌMALA, 1872 – 1943.
The woman in the picture below, wearing the giant ivory anklets (odu) and surrounded by her progeny and retainers, was one of the most remarkable Igbo figures straddling the 19th and the 20th centuries: Ọmụ Okwei of Ọsọmala.
Ọmụ Okwei was born a princess in 1872. Her father Prince Osuna Afụbehọ was the son of Atamanya Nzedegwu, a mid-19th century king of Ọsọmala; and her maternal grandfather was Obi Aje, the powerful merchant prince of Abọ and son of Obi Ọsaị, the King of Abọ when the first Europeans touched down there in 1830.
Despite her blue blood however, Okwei didn’t have an easy life. At the age of nine, she was sent off to her maternal aunt in Igalaland to learn the rudiments of trading as well as the Igala language, which in her day was an important trade language on the Lower Niger. She was there for four years.
Okwei began trading in her own right at about the age of 15. She moved to Atanị where she established a humble business selling kolanuts, palmwine, yams and chicken. It was here in 1887 that she met her first husband, Joseph Alagoa, a very influential Ịjọ trader from Brass. Against the wishes of her family, Okwei married him in 1888. They had a son together: Francis Ossomade Alagoa. The marriage did not last. Within a year, Joseph was forced out of the trade of Atanị by British interests and he returned, alone, to Brass, leaving Okwei to take care of their infant son all by herself. Joseph Alagoa later became the Amanyanabọ of Brass; and after him, Francis Ossomade Alagoa, his son with Okwei, became the Amanyanabọ.
Okwei worked hard to take care of herself and her little boy and soon distinguished herself as a seasoned trader.
In 1895, she met her second husband: the handsome Ọpene from Abọ. Again, her family did not approve. Ọpene (despite coming from a distinguished family in Abọ) had no visible means of livelihood, and Okwei’s family did not consider him a fit match for a princess. But no one could tell Okwei anything; she was very strong-willed, and so she married the man of her choice, despite the fact that this meant she would forfeit a handsome dowry from her family, just as she had forfeited it when she married her first husband.
Opene lived in Ọnịcha at the time, and so Okwei transferred her business to Ọnịcha in order to be close to her husband. This turned out to be a good move. Ọnịcha was witnessing an economic boom at this time, as many European firms were setting up shop there at the time. Thus it had a lot of business opportunities to offer a keen businesswoman like Okwei. Okwei capitalised on the opportunities to expand her trade in foodstuff, palm- and palm-kernel oil, and also delve into trade in imported goods like tobacco, cotton goods, gin, lamps, matches, iron pots and other factory-made goods from England.
By 1904, she had become an agent of the Niger Company. In 1912, she became the Eze Otu, i.e., the Chief of the Ọnịcha Waterside Settlement, made up of non-Ọnịcha settlers, and held a position in the native court. And by 1918, she had finished her first residential building, a one-storey house.
Her business alliances included: an alliance with Chief Quaker Bob Manuel of Degema, from whom she bought gunpowder; with Chief Kio Young Jack of Ugwuta who supplied her with ivory and corals for resale; and with British entrepreneurs like J. Cooper of the Niger Company and J. Windfall, the Bank Manager at Ọnịcha. To cement these alliances, Okwei gave out her female domestic slaves and adopted daughters to them as wives and mistresses.
During the Great Depression, her business underwent even further diversification: Okwei ventured into money lending (at exhorbitant rates) and invested in lorries and canoes with which she transported her goods from as far afield as Degema, Ndoni, Brass, Ugwuta, Warri, Port Harcourt and Calabar. By the 1930s, she was one of the wealthiest individuals in Colonial Nigeria.
In 1935, Okwei was crowned in her hometown of Ọsọmala as the Ọmụ (Merchant Queen). Representatives of the Hausa, Nupe, Igala and Abọ groups in Ọnịcha (her base) were in attendance – an indication of her popularity.
By the time she died in May, 1943, Ọmụ Okwei owned 24 houses in Ọnịcha, 6 of them storey-buildings, 25 plots of land in strategic locations in Ọnịcha, six canoes and a car.
~ adapted from F Ekejiuba’s “Omu Okwei, the Merchant Queen of Ossomari: a Biographical Sketch”
©Nọnso Uche Nnajide