From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Johnson, Emma White Jaja

Emma White, the daughter of former enslaved parents, was born in Kentucky. An educated woman, she was one of the hundreds of African Americans who migrated to Liberia after the American Civil War. White was not successful with her venture in the West African coastal trade, losing all of her money, and in 1875 she moved to Opobo (today southern Nigeria). Opobo had been established in 1870 by Jubo Jubogha, a former Igbo enslaved man who rose in status and became King of Opobo. He traded in oil palm with Europe.

Emma White was employed by King Jubogha to write his correspondence; she also was teacher and governess for his children. King Jubogha established a school in Opobo with a Mr. Gooding as the teacher. A second school was opened in Sierra Leone. When Mr. Gooding resigned his post, Emma White became the head of the Opobo school. White was taking on more responsibilities, moving into the inner circle of the king's business affairs and accompanying him on business trips; an article in the Cleveland Gazette refers to her as the "Treasury and Grand Visier" to King Jaja [Jubogha].

The King had established himself as the middleman between European traders and the interior markets under his jurisdiction. Opobo had become prosperous as a major trade center due to King Jubogha's business, political, and military strategies. In 1873, Jubo Jubogha was recognized by the British government as King of the independent nation of Opobo. But British traders soon tired of having to do business through Opobo with its restrictions, taxes, and tariffs. At the same time, there was a threat of a German invasion of West Africa and the established trade business. King Jabugho agreed to place Opobo under the protection of England. Unbeknownst to him, in Europe the 1885 Treaty of Berlin had resulted in the dividing-up of various portions of Africa. It was a move toward colonization and resources that would be governed by Europeans, a movement away from the independence and self-governance of African nations by Africans.

England claimed the Oil Rivers Protectorate, which included King Ja Ja's land and the right to direct access to inland trade markets, cutting out King Jubogha as the middleman. The scramble for Africa included an intentional trade depression of African markets. In Opobo, Emma White had gained significant wealth by 1881, and she retired from Opobo. Two years later she was broke and returned to ask King Ja Ja for assistance. Believing that she had betrayed him, the King prohibited her from entering Opobo. After several appeals, White was again employed by the King. In appreciation, she changed her name to Emma Ja Ja, and kept the name after she married an Opobo man. In the British Parliamentary Papers, Emma Jaja Johnson is referred to as King Jubogha's adopted daughter.

In 1887, King Jabogha signed a treaty with England to allow free trade in his territory, but the King continued to block attempts at inland trade. He was tricked into boarding the British ship Goshawk to discuss the matter and was deported to Accra, Gold Coast [today Ghana]. He was accompanied by his wife Patience, Emma Jaja Johnson, a cook, a steward, three servants, and a carpenter. In Accra, King Jubogha was tried and found guilty of actions against the interests of England. As punishment, he was banished from Opobo and deported to St. Vincent Island in the British West Indies. He was provided with between 800 and 1,000 pounds sterling annually. In 1891, King Jubogha's health was failing and the British government finally gave permission for him to return to Opobo. He died en route. Emma Jaja Johnson was banished from Opobo by the British government, accused of being the instigator to all the troubles between England and Opobo.

For more see King Jaja of the Niger Delta, by S. J. S. Cookey; "Miss Emma [Jackson]..." in the Cleveland Gazette, 4/11/1885, p. 2; A History of the Igbo People, by E. A. Isichei; British Parliamentary Papers, Africa. No. 2 (1888). Command Papers: Accounts and Papers, [c. 5365], v. 74.149, 19th Century House of Commons Sessional Papers; "The Cannibals of the Opobo," Courier and Middlesex Counties Courier Gazette, 5/11/1889, p. 2; and British Parliamentary Papers, Africa No. 7 (1888), Reports of the Slave Trade on the East Coast of Africa, 1887-88, Command Papers: Accounts and Papers, [c. 5578], v. 74.1,. 19th Century House of Commons Sessional Papers.

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“Johnson, Emma White Jaja,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed June 16, 2024,

Last modified: 2024-06-11 13:47:51