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

Johnson, Emma White Ja Ja

Emma White, the daughter of former slaves, 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 slave who rose in status and became King of Opobo. He traded in oil palm with Europe.

Emma White was employed by Jubogha to write his correspondence, and she was a teacher and governess for his children. 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 Ja Ja.

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 Ja Ja'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 Ja Ja agreed to place Opobo under the protection of England. Unbeknown 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 Ja Ja 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 Ja Ja Johnson is referred to as King Ja Ja's adopted daughter.

In 1887, King Ja Ja 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 deported to Accra, Gold Coast [today Ghana]. He was accompanied by his wife, Patience, Emma Ja Ja Johnson, a cook, a steward, three servants, and a carpenter. In Accra, King Ja Ja was tried and found guilty of actions against the interests of England. As punishment, he was banished from Opobo and further deported to St. Vincent Island in the British West Indies, provided with between 800 and 1,000 pounds sterling annually. In 1891, King Ja Ja's health was failing and the British government finally gave permission for him to return to Opobo. He died en route. Emma Ja Ja 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, 04/11/1885, 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, 05/11/1889, 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.


Cited in this Entry

NKAA Source: King Jaja of the Niger Delta : his life and times, 1821-1891
NKAA Source: The Cleveland gazette (newspaper)
NKAA Source: A History of the Igbo people
NKAA Source: British parliamentary papers
NKAA Source: Courier and London & Middlesex counties courier gazette (newspaper)

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Johnson, Emma White Ja Ja,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed October 20, 2020,

Last modified: 2020-06-12 17:42:02