Essay | Royal Families by Simon Okotie

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Simon Okotie


Royal Families

 

The death of Ikenwoli Godfrey Emiko – the King (or Olu) of Warri – was announced in the same week as that of Prince Philip. Established in the fifteenth century by the Itsekiris, an ethnic group in the Niger Delta area of modern-day Nigeria, the realm is an offshoot of the Kingdom of Benin. Rumours had been circulating of the monarch’s death from Covid complications in December, with the official announcement coming on Monday 5 April.

My father, who came to the UK sixty years ago this year, was an Itsekiri. He met my mum, a working class white woman, at Gilbey’s Engineering in Barking, east London, in the mid-Sixties. She had trained at Mile End Hospital and the Royal London, and was visiting the factory as a nurse. Her parents didn’t attend the wedding, or speak to the couple for six months after I was born, but were eventually reconciled. We moved to rural Norfolk when I was nine, my grandparents having retired there. My grandfather’s heart attack and subsequent stroke meant mum had been travelling back and forth, with us in tow, to care for him, until we finally made the move permanent. His funeral – at the newly opened Mintlyn Crematorium in King’s Lynn – was my first.

My father also suffered a stroke, in 1994, surviving until 2000. He is buried in a small church that was the centre of the local community in the village where we lived. As a writer, I am the self-appointed family historian, something that even my two competitive brothers would surely not dispute. This role involves an acknowledgement of impending death, and the time with my father in the six years following his stroke are extremely precious to me, despite his suffering and his diminished state, not least because of the stories he told of the Nigerian side of our family. I had always known that dad was the eldest son of an Itsekiri chief, but it must have been during this period that I learnt more: that my grandfather had been personal secretary to the Olu and that his youngest wife (of four) was the King’s sister.

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My London Library membership really came into its own during the third UK lockdown. I used it to follow up threads from handwritten notes in my journals from the time of my dad’s illness. Many of these I had written phonetically, from his dictation (including Itsekiri as ‘Chekiri’), so they needed some deciphering. The documentary evidence is slight, but there have been some promising leads: I felt particularly thrilled to unlock the name of my great grandfather, an elder whose counsel was sought from far and wide, according to my father, and who was the head of the extended Dudu family (a name we could have taken as our own). This name is linked to the Olu as an advisor in P. C. Lloyd’s outline social history of the Itsekiri in the nineteenth century.

Lloyd provides an introduction to the second (1970) edition of William A. Moore’s 1936 History of Itsekiri. A review of this edition in ‘Man’, the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, tells me that it ‘is the work of one of those local traditional historians, like Chief Jacob Egharevba (‘the great twentieth-century historian of Benin, according to Barnaby Phillips in his recent book Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes) or the Ologori of Ogori (Eminefo III, the ruler of Ogori people, who provided ‘an unusually detailed and scholarly example of the accounts of local tradition and customs which abound in Southern Nigeria’ according to the Journal of the International African Institute) or, on a much larger scale, the Yoruba Samuel Johnson, a black Anglican priest and historian of the Yoruba, whose emergence in various parts of west Africa has been so notable a feature of the advent of literacy.’

Moore’s History tells me that ‘a Treaty was concluded between the British Consul, Hewett, and the Itsekiri Chiefs, at Forcados (where my father was born), on board the steamship Dodo’ on 26 August 1884. With this, the Itsekiri Kingdom became part of the ‘Oil Rivers Protectorate’, which later merged with other areas to form the British Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. Hewitt had been ridiculed in Whitehall for a year and a half prior to this for making the case for a protectorate, according to Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa. Eventually he found an ally who would do ‘more than anyone else’ to ensure that Britain received its share in the scramble: Percy Anderson, head of newly-created African Department in the Foreign Office. Anderson argued that action seemed forced upon the Government, and that they were ‘fairly forced into a corner as to the direction of it’ – they needed, that is, to avoid the chiefs putting themselves ‘in the hands of the French’.

I have also been reading Johny Pitts’ Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, a volume in which I feel almost entirely at home. What stands out for me, so far, is his visit to Tervuren, the ‘Royal Museum for Central Africa’, in Brussels. Built in 1897, for King Leopold II’s world fair, it reminded Pitts that ‘Europe’s history isn’t at all dead, it is living and breathing and deeply embedded in its society’s hierarchies and atmospheres, lurking just out of sight, haunting its systems.’ The king’s reign in the Congo ‘was one of the most brutal and exploitative in the history of colonialism,’ with more than 10 million Congolese murdered, and many more maimed. But in his essay ‘The Education of a British-Protected Child’, the great Chinua Achebe, ‘the father of African literature’, says ‘it would be downright silly to suggest a parallel between British colonial rule in Nigeria and the scandalous activity’ in the Congo. Yet Achebe also states that all of Europe was implicated in creating the context within which this was possible.

I think it is safe to say that this history continues to reverberate through families, including the Mountbatten-Windsors.

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Mum was an only child. Her response to the news of the passing of Prince Philip was that she thought it was ‘so sad’, but a blessing, given his illness, for him to have passed before his one hundredth birthday. When she saw footage of him in the back of the car being driven back to Windsor having been discharged from hospital she said ‘I think he has come home to die’: a nurse’s sixth sense. Dead-heading daffodils in her garden in the Norfolk village where she lives, ten miles from the Sandringham Estate and closer to Anmer Hall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s country retreat, she thought it strange that she’d heard no update on the prince’s condition. My brother phoned fifteen minutes later to tell her that Prince Philip had died.

When I spoke to her, she reminisced: about being among the first intake at Belfairs High School for Girls in Leigh-on-Sea and, prior to this, hearing of the death of King George VI. The future Queen was, famously, in Kenya, and was told of the news by Philip, who she’d married in 1947. The fact that Her Majesty had no black clothes with her and that these had to be taken onto the plane for her when it landed. Like many, my mum’s first family television set – a 9 inch Bush TV22, judging by her description (black and white, of course) – was bought by my grandfather in time for the coronation.

The next in line for the Itsekiri throne will be crowned on 21 August at the end of a three lunar month mourning period, following the burial. Tsola Emiko is the 37-year-old nephew of the current incumbent and the son of his predecessor. The crown itself was a gift from the Portuguese, according to my father. These is a picture of Olu-to-be’s own father with Queen Elizabeth II on his Twitter timeline – taken, presumably, during the Queen’s visit to Nigeria in 2003 to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

The relative prestige with which we view these Royal households was brought home to me by a white friend, with whom I saw Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom when it was released a few years ago. The film is based on the love story between Seretse Khama, heir to the throne and future President of Bechuanaland (later Botswana), and his wife, the white Englishwoman Ruth Williams Khama. My friend’s analysis of Williams Khama, a ‘commoner’, moving to Botswana to be with her husband, was that ‘she had a lot to lose’. It was an accurate assessment, although it hurt.

Simon Okotie is a fiction writer and essayist. He is the author of Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, In the Absence of Absalon, and After Absalon, an acclaimed trilogy of novels published by Salt. In the Absence of Absalon was longlisted for the 2017 Republic of Consciousness Prize. Simon’s work has appeared in gorse, and at 3:AM Magazine and The White Review. “Two Degrees of Freedom”, a short story, is published by Nightjar Press. Simon is represented by Akin Akinwumi of Willenfield Literary Agency.


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