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Gele-Gele seaport: Used and abandoned

A lot of fishing activities go on in the area and serves as the major source of revenue for the people. Gele-Gele is said to…

A lot of fishing activities go on in the area and serves as the major source of revenue for the people. Gele-Gele is said to have been founded by the first ruler of the village, Ikpiti and his elder sister, Kunemor sometime in 1403. Both were said to have been attracted to the area because it was located at a hill which makes it almost impossible to be flooded by the river around the place.   

The ancient but remote village which lies at the bank of the Edo end of River Niger is famous in many regards to students of history and those who want to know more about the black race. Gele-Gele is no doubt one of the ancient seaports which existed even before the coming of the colonial masters and far before the birth of Nigeria as a country. It is one of the seaports through which the colonial masters on exploration and partition of Africa had access to the ancient Benin Kingdom.

Briefing Weekly Trust, the paramount ruler of the community, Amokosuei of Gele-Gele, Chief Simon P. Apohi, said sometime in 1895, the British government appointed Captain James R. Philips as Vice-Consul and posted him to Benin district of the oil Rivers protectorate when Oba Ovonramwen was the Oba of Benin. Captain Philips and his six-man entourage arrived at the present-day Nigeria and entered Benin Kingdom through Gele-Gele port where they settled for about two years while waiting for the permission of the Benin Monarch to proceed to Benin.

He said the large canoe with which Philips arrived in Gele-Gele is believed to be buried by sand in a particular spot at the port. During the two years of waiting for the monarch’s approval to go into Benin, Philips built a church where he was worshipping along with his entourage. The church built around 1885 is still standing in its original form in the village.

But in a desperate attempt by Oba Ovonramwen to preserve and protect the sovereignty of Bini Kingdom in particular in addition to its economic interests, by the time Philips’ request got to him, he was performing some rituals and tradition demanded that he should not receive visitors when the rituals are going on. This tradition prevented the Oba from granting permission to Philips even as he could not object to the request outrightly.  

“After waiting in vain for about two years at Gele-Gele for the Oba’s approval to enter Benin, Philips led his entourage in defiance of earlier warnings from the palace of the Oba to proceed to Benin. But a detachment of Bini Kingdom warriors laid ambush at a spot between Ugbine and Urhuokhokho along Gele-Gele/Benin road where they attacked Philips and all members of his entourage,” Apohi said.

The mass grave where the seven British colonial masters were buried at the spot they were killed, the following inscriptions were seen written on the plough marking the mass grave: “The plough was unveiled by British High Commissioner, Mr Thorold Masefield to commemorate the centenary of the death of the British Consul-General, James Philips killed on January 4, 1897.”

The names of those killed and buried along with him were listed on the plough as Peter W. C. Copland-Crowder, Arthur I. Maling, Kenneth C. Campell, Robert H. Elliott, Harry S. Powish and Thomas Cordon.

Chief Apohi told Weekly Trust that the killing of the seven Britons representing the Queen of England by the Bini warriors provoked the Queen who sent a 530-men army led by Admiral Rawson who also arrived in their boats through Gele-Gele port in what later resulted to the famous Bini Massacre that led to the death of several people and the dethronement of Oba Ovonramwen.            

The Oba was exiled to Calabar for life in 1897 after his dethronement. He was taken by British soldiers through Gele-Gele port to Calabar. The port was also used by Europeans for slave trade and trading in cowries and other precious items and was abandoned after Nigeria got independence and attention was diverted to the Lagos and other ports.

The president of Gele-Gele Youths Community, Mr Simon Kororo, lamented over the extent of neglect of the area by successive administrations at both national and state levels. He said they did little or nothing to develop the area despite its long history and the role Gele-Gele has played in the history and economic development of the ancient Bini Kingdom.

“From the little history of this place that you have gathered so far, you have seen that a lot of activities that are very vital to the history of the kingdom are linked to Gele-Gele. It is also in history that the slave trade and trade in cocoa, cowries and other precious items with Germans and later Britons were all done through this port as the major seaport in the region.

“Today, the famous Gele-Gele seaport has been reduced to mere waterside where only fishing by the local people take place. The only government presence here is the police and the Customs and they have all locked their offices and left the town. For several months now, the Customs have not been coming while the police abandoned their outpost. You can see that there is no good road to this place from Benin. Vehicles only bring you from Benin up to about 27 kilometres and you thereafter use motorcycle to cover about 18 kilometres and complete the remaining 12 kilometres on foot. That is how we have been suffering here,” he said.

Kororo told Weekly Trust that since the Customs and police left, commercial and fishing boats in the area now access the creeks and the high seas uninterrupted. He denied allegations that youths in the area are responsible for the forceful relocation of the police and the Customs from the place. He said the youth cooperated with the security agencies when they were operating in the area.

“This is an oil-producing community but we have nothing to show for it. You can see the heat coming from the gas flaring going on at the entrance to the community. Everywhere around that place is very hot and inhabitable. Neither the state government nor the company exploring oil here has done anything for us. You know this is a small community and is the only Ijaw community in the state; that may be the reason why they are marginalising us,” he said.

But a police officer at the Okada divisional police station supervising the Gele-Gele outpost said the people were not cooperating with the police officers posted to the area hence the policemen had to abandon the place. The officer who preferred not to be named said policemen operating at the community were obstructed and prevented from making any arrest even when grievous offences were committed.