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What was the ‘House System’? Explain, with examples, the origins and importance of the system in the city states of the Niger Delta.

Definition: The house states of the Niger Delta in the mid-nineteenth century were essentially companies whose main function was the organisation and promotion of trade. When it was necessary to switch to legitimate trade after the abolition of the slave trade they became more numerous and more important.

Origin: The emergence of the ‘house system’ brought political, economic and social change to the Niger Delta. Leaders needed economic and military skills which the traditional rulers did not always possess. Many such ‘new men’ were ex-slaves who had risen by merit, for example Alali in Bonny and Jaja of Opobo. Jaja adopted a new base east of Bonny, thus cutting off its trade.

He had strong links with Igboland in the interior and from there obtained slaves and palm oil.

Importance: Jaja dominated trade with the Europeans. He had a fleet of canoes and was soon joined by most of the other house heads from Bonny. He also had the ability to preserve African culture and traditions while taking advantage of the benefits that Western education and technology could bring, eventually exporting legitimate products to Europe in his own ships. He refused to allow Christian missions into his country and became such a threat to the British that they removed him from power. He, and other ‘new men’, stimulated the imperialist aims of traders and missionaries who pressed for the annexation of parts of West Africa where such rulers stood in the way of their objectives.

Answers in Bands 1, 2 and 3 need to address all 3 aspects of this question.

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