Mungo Park House Is Going
By Hendrix Oliomogbe
THE crumbling wooden house with creaky staircase, which is reported to have once served as the seat of the Oil River, the precursor of the Southern Protectorate, is a metaphor of the sorry state of affairs in the country.
Compared to the ornate State House, Marina, Lagos and Aso Rock Presidential Villa in Abuja, a visitor to this ramshackle building will hardly believe that power once flowed from this derelict edifice before the famous amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Protectorates, which resulted in modern Nigeria in 1914.
The sophistication of this pre-fabricated story building lies in the fact that the materials consisted mainly of well-processed wood. The materials were cut to sizes and treated in Europe, and imported just to be coupled together in the country to form the weather-beaten structure.
Tucked in a corner right behind Delta State High Court three and the state Library Board complex on the main street of Nnebisi, this pre-colonial antiquity, which was built by the Royal Niger Company, in 1886, and named after the famous British explorer, Mungo Park, who died while attempting to discover the source of the majestic River Niger, is in real danger of caving in, if no serious renovation work is carried out, and on time.
There is a gloomy sensation occasioned by the dreary landscape where the fast crumbling upstairs is situated. There are gaping holes on the wooden platform, which serves as the top floor and the staircase. Even though they have occasionally been repaired, a walk up the staircase is still not for the faint hearted for fear that the 128-year-old building may just collapse, leading to fatalities.
Mungo Park House, Asaba
Built during the time of Sir George Tubman Goldie by the United Africa Company (UAC), the building was named after the famous explorer, Mungo Park, who died in 1806, when his boat capsized at New Bussa, Niger State, during an expedition on the River Niger.
Hugh Clapperton, who took over from him, abandoned the exploration in 1827. Richard and John Lander (the famous Lander brothers) started from where Clapperton stopped and were believed to have anchored in Asaba in 1830 before venturing to the mouth of the River Niger right on the Atlantic Ocean.
Sir Goldie was appointed as the administrator of the Oil Rivers in 1884 and immediately merged the various small British firms that were in operation to form the UAC conglomerate. The company was granted license by the British Government and its headquarters was located in Asaba.
Way back in 1879, Goldie had set up the National African Company, which operated in the lower valley of the River Niger in West Africa. He then united other British traders with similar economic aims to join him in the ownership of the amalgamated company, which he then renamed. With the partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1885, the company, in 1886, received a charter of incorporation from the British government and was authorised to engage in the administration of the area on behalf of the British crown.
Its tremendous success in palm oil business with the locals was to be its major undoing, as the British government in far away London closely monitored its activities and became envious. The government stepped in and took over UAC, which was then christened as the Royal Niger Company (RNC). The company flag, Ars Jus Pax was lowered in place of the Union Jack.
With British government’s direct intervention, business boomed to the extent that a big warehouse was needed to store the produce, hence, the construction of Mungo Park’s House.
It was mutual co-prosperity for the British and the locals, but Asaba people nursed a deep grudge against the British whom they accused of looking down on them and also engaging in sharp business practice. The white ways, culture, education and religion were radically different from those of their hosts. This resulted in the Ekumeku uprising, which lasted from 1898 to 1914 and is regarded by some historians as one of the longest resistance put up by any group against colonial imperialism in Nigeria.
After fighting for more than a quarter of a century, the British triumphed, but they were thoroughly shaken. It was crystal clear that that their time in Asaba was numbered. The atmosphere for legitimate business was no longer conducive, and so, had to relocate to Calabar which served briefly then as the capital of the fledging protectorate.
The Royal Niger Company was the forerunner of British colonialism in present day Nigeria as the company entered into treaties with locals and also conquered territories, which were later, annexed to the British Empire. In fact, it was on the strength of the company’s conquest that the British derived authority as well as imperial influence to present and support arguments on claims of territories when the major European powers met at the Berlin conference to partition Africa.
Back view of Lugard house
With solid facts on the ground as a result of the activities of the Royal Niger Company, British claims were easily recognized by other world leaders at the parley, which was called by German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in the Imperial German capital.
The Public Relations Officer of the museum, Okoroafor Ikechukwu, said that the building was handed over to the Federal Government through the National Commission for Museum and Monument (NCMM), in 1997. Though it has been a Federal Government property for almost 17 years, nothing has changed.
Museums, he said, are supposed to keep legacies and heritage and that is why the edifice was declared a monument as it once served as the administrative headquarters of Nigeria, adding that if in 1900 the government changed and the administration of the territory was then run at this place, it followed that it momentarily served as the administrative headquarter of the country or of the Southern Protectorate of Nigeria before it was moved to Calabar.
He remarked that, in 1900, when the Royal Niger Company handed over the reins of power of the budding colony to the British Government simultaneously in Lokoja and Asaba, the company’s flag was lowered and the Union Jack (British flag) was hoisted. Before then, the company controlled the area administratively, but immediately the British Government took over in 1900, Lord Lugard started the administration.
The Education Officer, Chidi Uchenna, explained that Europeans from England shipped the pre-fabricated woods for the construction of the building through the River Niger. All the woods were cut to sizes before shipment.
The major schedule of the workmen was simply to fix them. They just mounted the iron stand and began to fix the wood. The nuts and screws were pre-fabricated also and were simply knotted together at the site in Asaba.
Uchenna lamented the present sorry state of the building, saying it is a national embarrassment. With its dilapidating form, there is no way an exhibition can be mounted there. There is an urgent need to restore it to near perfect state just as it was when it was constructed. With adequate funds, the building can be put back to near normal because there is no way the original material can be sourced.
He added: “It is on record that several warehouses were built along the bank of the River Niger from Lokoja all the way down to Asaba and even in Port Harcourt and Calabar by the company for its business venture but the wooden storey building was its headquarters and it served both as offices and residential house for senior officers of the company who traded mostly in palm oil and palm kernel. It was named “Mungo Park House” in remembrance of the late British explorer for the significant role he played by paving the way for other explorers to discover the economic potentials in the area.”
Against the backdrop of its historical significance, one expects that the museum’s signpost should be located on the busy Nnebisi Road as the edifice is situated on a cul de sac some 100 metres off the road, instead of the present position just before the entrance where it heralds people to the historical house.
As for visitors to the monument, Uchenna said it mainly plays host to students on excursion and academics who are doing research. There is a royal exhibition of all the traditional rulers in Delta State in one of the halls, which is partitioned with wood.
He lamented: “The building was constructed with strong wood and iron and has served many government establishments. The Water board, school of handicraft, the Post and Telecommunications (P and T), library and many other government establishments have had offices here at one time or the other since it passed over to government in 1900. But ironically, this national monument of political, historical and cultural significance bears a sordid tale of neglect. The relic is in dire need of restoration.”
Ikechukwu faulted the argument in some quarters that Calabar was Nigeria’s truly first seat of power and that Asaba, the current capital of Delta State was a mere trading headquarters, saying that it was the Royal Niger Company that extended the British influence in what later became Nigeria including Lokoja, another claimant. The Royal Niger Company played significant role in the making of the country.
In commemoration of the 1830 historic anchoring of the boat with which the Lander brothers sailed to Asaba from Bussa in present day Niger State in their quest to discover the source of the River Niger, the Delta State government under former Governor James Ibori built an anchorage in Asaba.
Commissioned by former President Olusegun Obasanjo on January 17, 2002, the centrally located edifice by the bank of the River Niger which is constructed in multi coloured marble with a bottom cycled stepson top of which rests the elevated golden chained anchorage was to mark the remarkable incident in history as well as to promote and preserve the past.
Besides, the anchorage is the expatriate graveyard where seventeen staff members of UAC were buried. The names on the tombstones of these 19th century expatriates, most of whom died from malaria are still visible.
With these vestiges of a colonial past, the Asaba museum spokesman said that between 1886 when Mungo Park’s House was built to 1900 when the British left to Calabar, Asaba was truly the capital of the colonial area, which was later, named Nigeria.
He insisted that the relic may not have had the grand architectural designs and aesthetics of a modern day State House in Nigeria, but one thing is for sure, a proper history of Nigeria will not be complete without Mungo Park House. It did play a crucial role in the past affairs of the country.