Merchant queen’ Omu Okwei was born in 1872 in Osomari, Nigeria. She was from a family of successful traders, warriors and kings. Aged nine, she served as an apprentice to her maternal aunt in the Ingala country, where she learnt the language imperative for trade in Nigeria.
Trading was often the responsibility of women. Despite being born wealthy, Okwei built her trade from nothing. Under the Igbo system, daughters could not inherit unless via a dowry. Okwei married Joseph Allagoa in 1888 whose parents disapproved, so the dowry wasn’t fulfilled.
After a year, Allagoa left Okwei and their child. British rule was established in Eastern Nigeria in 1892 and Nigerian markets were opened for global trade. Allagoa had introduced Okwei to European traders and African agents, whom she used to set up a trade in poultry.
Okwei married Opene of Abo 1895, whose mother was also a successful trader. Once again, Okwei was disapproved of so did not receive her dowry. She transferred her business to her husband’s hometown of Ontisha, where European firms were constantly being established.
Okwei began trading palm oil and kernels in exchange for European goods such as lamps, gin and pots. She also informally adopted young girls, raised them, and provided them as wives or mistresses to businessmen temporarily in Nigeria, after which they would return home.
She had another child, and the two sons aided in the banking and overseas sides of her business. Okwei strongly believed in childhood education, and her children received the best available. Like their mother, they became hugely successful.
Okwei was made Chief of the Ontisha Waterside Settlement and a member of the native court in 1912. In 1936 she was crowned Omu of Osomari. Despite her interaction with British colonisers for trade purposes, she maintained and fought for Igbo beliefs and practises.
The position of Omu, or queen, served as the chairman of the Council of Mothers and reigned beside the King, having royal, military, religious and administrative functions. No-one has been crowned this role since influential merchant Omu Okwei’s death in 1943.
Felicia Ekejiuba, “Omu Okwei, the Merchant Queen of Osomari. A Biographical Sketch,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 3.4 (1967): 633-646.