Photographer of Bonny

“Pool of Leeches Bonny N.C.P. [Niger Coast Protectorate],” ca. 1897, albumen print. Courtesy Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

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Jonathan Adagogo Green, who described himself in his professional signature as an “artist photographer,” lived through an era of momentous change in late nineteenth-century West Africa. His portraits and landscapes are vivid documents, evoking the complexity and contradiction of life under colonial rule. Green was born in 1873 in the Bonny kingdom, one of the most successful city-states in the  eastern Niger Delta. The people of Bonny, known as the Ibani Ijo, had allied with Europeans for centuries as equal partners, trading agricultural produce such as palm oil—as well as slaves.

But by the late nineteenth century, the Ijo were governed as subjects. In 1884 the British designated the coastal town of Bonny as the administrative center for the newly formed Oil Rivers Protectorate. Any king or chief who hesitated to surrender was threatened with warfare or exile. Yet while capitulation was required for mere survival, it did not necessarily lead to an erasure of Ijo culture. African Photographer J.A. Green (Indiana University Press, 2017), coedited by Martha G. Anderson and Lisa Aronson, features 186 of Green’s images along with related essays that grapple with the history and legacy of photography in the Niger Delta region. Despite the colonizers’ attempts to assert hegemony, Green effectively occupied a hybrid Ijo-British world, and it was this hybridity that his photographs capture.

In A History of the Niger Delta (1972), Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa recounts the tale of Asimini, who became the first crowned head of the Ibani Ijo people in the early fifteenth century. It is said that he attained the position by enticing the Portuguese to moor their ships at Bonny. In earlier decades, the river was too shallow to permit easy access. Asimini, prompted by oracles, offered his daughter Ogbolo in sacrifice, and the estuary deepened.

The lesson of the story is hard to celebrate today: a man is heroized when he sanctions the death of a young woman. Yet all subsequent interaction between Bonny and the wider world is linked to this foundational myth. Green’s town was founded on the imperative of exchange: trade or perish. And while Green himself traveled no farther than coastal West Africa, his images capture traces of vast circuits of global commerce. “European trader purchasing palm oil,” reads the title of one photograph. Another scene, from 1896, is described as: “Sampling a cask of palm oil with a dipstick for fatty acid content, impurities and moisture.” Both depict a lone white trader supervising goods he will eventually transport overseas. 

Anderson and Aronson offer several plausible theories of how Green became a photographer, though uncertainty surrounds his early years. His uncle, who raised the artist after the early death of his father, was the influential and wealthy head of one of the four founding houses of Bonny. Versed in Ijo culture and tradition, Green’s uncle also had a reputation for tolerating new ideas. He may have allowed his nephew to apprentice with G.F. Packer, a British missionary sent to Bonny to design and build the school Green later attended. An accomplished photographer, Packer could have trained Green in the workings of the camera—still a novel device at the time—and the tedious process of making albumen prints. One of Packer’s surviving images depicts Green’s uncle with “some of his wives,” eight women in all. It is also possible that Green spent time in Sierra Leone as an apprentice to an older African photographer.

Green set up a studio within central Bonny, very near the area where British administrators built their homes and offices. Many of Green’s photographs are portraits of elite individuals, both Ijo and British. Chiefs pose in elegant attire with their many wives and slaves; cricket players stand together after a game, the white teammates in front, their black colleagues behind them; a council comprising African chiefs and the British vice-consul of Bonny appear attired in official garb; the chief Long John sits in state after his death, surrounded by his principal wives and his eldest son. One wonders what Green made of his proximity to power and the powerful, or if he reveled in it. Was he sobered by the intensity of his work? Did he choose to associate with the common folk in his spare time? Collectively, these portraits depict a hierarchical society in which everyone knew his or her place: an elite African, for example, could marry as many wives as he could manage and own as many slaves as he could afford, all while paying deference to the British. 

This sense of rigid order breaks down slightly in Green’s depictions of his physical surroundings. Some of the matter-of-fact titles he gave to images convey his intention to document the key sites of the bustling port: “piece of Bonny scenery,” “the well at Bonny,” “Riverside Scene, c. 1900,” “interior of St. Stephen’s Cathedral.” Other subjects, such as a “pool of leeches,” suggest the coming-of-age photographer’s searching gaze and inclination to experiment. Where the faces of his kinfolk reflect the gravity of the occasion for which they were photographed, the landscape seems more open, inviting curiosity about how shimmering water appears next to lush foliage or how the tops of towering trees form patterns against the sky. No one had commissioned these works, and the compositional mastery displayed in them hint at the basis for Green’s proud self-identification as an artist. 

Still, whatever aesthetic freedom Green enjoyed—predicated as it was on his own privileged status within Bonny—must be understood within the broader context of colonial power. This tension comes to the surface in Green’s commissioned portraits of the exiled monarch of the Benin Empire, Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi. British troops had captured the Oba and sacked his palace during an 1897 expedition. For several months thereafter, the Oba was held aboard the Ivy, a British vessel that transported him to Old Calabar, then capital of the protectorate. At each harbor along the Atlantic coast, the British presented the imprisoned monarch to local chiefs and colonial officials in a calculated display of imperial power. When the Ivy moored at Bonny harbor, Green was enlisted to photograph the shamed king.

Green took four portraits, three of which show the Oba with soldiers, young male attendants, or the ship’s captain. In them, the Oba seems discomfited, unable to hide his resentment. In a fourth shot, however, Green manages to depict the Oba in solitude. He wears an embroidered velvet wrapper instead of the plain one he donned for the other photos, and his wicker chair takes on the elevated look of a throne. The vanquished monarch seems to consider his onlookers with a demure, ennobled smile.

Photographer and deposed king might have understood, however hazily, that these images had the potential to circulate in the British media as engravings. (Indeed, drawn reproductions of Green’s photograph of a war canoe were published in the Daily Graphic in 1895.) Perhaps they attempted to use the camera to send an image of pride rather than subjugation out into the world. Still, confronted with the overwhelming force of imperialism, Green and the Oba were linked by a fundamental powerlessness that imbues the image with a tragic gravitas.

 

By identifying Green simply as “African Photographer” in the title of their volume, Anderson and Aronson assert the seminal importance of his work. Indeed, no history of African photography can fail to mention Green, who is a worthy peer of other nineteenth-century pioneers of the medium in West Africa, including Frederick Grant of the Gold Coast, Francis Wilberforce Joaque of Sierra Leone, and John Parkes Decker of Gambia. African Photographer also includes quotes from Jide Adeniyi-Jones and Don Barber, two Nigerian photographers born in the 1950s, who praise Green’s approach. For many Nigerians today, Green can be rightly celebrated as a historic figure. Yet his work also serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the colonial past that still weighs on contemporary life.

One of the first photographs to appear in the book, taken sometime in 1899, depicts Chief Young Briggs, founder of Abonnema, a town upstream from Bonny. Dressed in a patterned gown that emphasizes his rank and importance, and wearing a cocked hat, Briggs sits in a three-wheeled vehicle known as a Bath chair. A hundred years after the dignitary’s death, the current chief of Abonnema, O.B. Lulu Briggs, commissioned an Italian artist to create a life-size bronze sculpture of Young Briggs based on Green’s portrait. The monument now stands as a grave marker for the elder Briggs, but it is also effectively a monument to deeply entrenched hierarchies. While Young Briggs founded his dynasty on the trade in palm oil with the British, Lulu Briggs has become one of the wealthiest men in Africa by exploiting the vast petroleum resources in his territory.

If Nigerian photography is tethered to Green’s legacy, is it equally, and inevitably, tainted from the start by its connections to imperialism? How might succeeding generations of photographers build on such worrisome ground?

One counterpoint to the Briggs monument might be found in the work of Tam Fiofori, who, in 1979, traveled to Benin to document the coronation of Oba Erediauwa, the great-grandson of the deposed Oba that Green had photographed more than eighty years earlier. For Fiofori, this event had personal meaning, as his own father, a teacher at Edo College in Benin in the 1940s, had edited The Lamentations of Oba Ovonramwen (1947), a play staged to coincide with the anniversary of what is known in Benin as the Punitive Expedition. Published years later in the photobook A Benin Coronation: Oba Erediauwa (2011), the younger Fiofori’s project can be understood as a kind of search for historical closure: where once the Oba was paraded in shame, he is now paraded with a grandiose celebration worthy of his undiminished office. Green’s photographs, in this sense, offer both a challenge and a promise. The historical moments they capture are indeed alive in the present, and the responsibility for finding in his images the seeds of tragedy or triumph falls on current generations. 

Green died in 1905, at thirty-two years of age. Though he worked fervently among the elite and kept copious notes about his work, few details are known today about his short life. Perhaps his photographs of others provide some oblique autobiographical insights, his personal touch present in the poses he orchestrated. Upon his early death, he was memorialized in Bonny with the kind of extravagant headstone usually reserved for chiefs. Schoolboys were said to clear weeds around his grave and polish his marble headstone. We can guess why the people of Bonny imbued his life with such importance. Green took some of the earliest photographs of their kings and chiefs in the decades when the Ijo’s relationship to European imperialists was intensifying. In this context, Green served as both a documentarian and a fortuneteller, his photographs anticipating a new role for the Ijo in a global order.

At the same time, Green’s works preserve a vanishing past. It may have occurred to the people of Bonny—as their town was enveloped by a protectorate, as their chiefs submitted to indirect British rule, and as a new tax collection system was introduced—that without Green’s hand on the shutter button time would advance with such velocity into the future that their old ways could vanish without a trace. They may have understood that Green’s camera, a new technology itself, had the potential to convey their evolution into modernity.