How Nigeria Fared During Colonial Era

Colonialism In Nigeria

Influence of the British Empire on the territories which now form Nigeria began with prohibition of slave trade to British subjects in 1807. The resulting collapse of African slave trade led to the decline and eventual collapse of the Oyo Empire. British influence in the Niger area increased gradually over the 19th century, but Britain did not effectively occupy the area until 1885, and then under pressure of competition from France and Germany.

Nigeria colonial-masters

The colonial period proper in Nigeria lasted from 1900 to 1960. In 1900, the Niger Coast Protectorate and some territories of the Royal Niger Company were united to form the Southern Nigeria Protectorate, while other Royal Niger Company territories became the Northern Nigeria Protectorate. In 1914, the Northern and Southern Nigeria Protectorates were unified into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria while maintaining considerable regional autonomy among the three major regions. Progressive constitutions after World War II provided for increasing representation and electoral government by Nigerians. In October 1, 1960, Nigeria gained independence.

Abolition of the Slave Trade In Nigeria

colonial legacy

In 1807 the Parliament of the United Kingdom enacted legislation prohibiting British subjects from participating in the slave trade. The decrease in trade indirectly led to the collapse of Oyo Empire. Britain withdrew from the slave trade when it was the major transporter of slaves to the Americas. The French had abolished slavery following the French Revolution, although it briefly re-established it in its Caribbean colonies under Napoleon. It sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803, the same year that it gave up on trying to regain Saint-Domingue. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it ended slavery in its possessions. Between them, the French and the British had purchased a majority of the slaves sold from the ports of Oyo. The economy suffered from the decline in the slave trade, although considerable smuggling of slaves to the Americas continued for years. The political troubles in Oyo came to a head after 1817, when the transatlantic market for slaves increased but, rather than supplying slaves captured from other areas, Oyo was invaded and its people taken into slavery.

Commodity trade In Nigeria

The development of “legitimate” trade was the final phase of private and official British efforts to create an alternative to the traffic in slaves. Earlier elements related to this were its founding of the colony at Sierra Leone in 1787 as a refuge for freed slaves, the independent missionary movement intended to bring Christianity to the region, and programs of exploration sponsored by learned societies and scientific groups, such as the London-based African Association.

Southern_ Nigeria _1901_

The principal commodities of legitimate trade were palm oil and palm kernels, which were used in Europe to make soap and as lubricants for machinery, before petroleum products were developed for that purpose. Although this trade grew to significant proportions—palm oil exports alone were worth £1 billion a year by 1840—it was concentrated near the coast, where palm trees grew in abundance. Gradually, however, the trade forced major economic and social changes in the interior, although it hardly undermined slavery and the slave trade. The incidence of slavery in local societies increased.

Initially most palm oil (and later kernels) came from Igboland, where palm trees formed a canopy over the densely inhabited areas of the Ngwa, Nri Kingdom, Awka, and other Igbo peoples. Palm oil was used locally for cooking, the kernels were a source for food, trees were tapped for palm wine, and the fronds were used for building material. It was a relatively simple adjustment for many Igbo families to transport the oil to rivers and streams that led to the Niger Delta for sale to European merchants. The rapid expansion in exports, especially after 1830, occurred precisely at the time slave exports collapsed. The Igbo redirected slaves into the domestic economy, especially to grow the staple food crop, yams, in northern Igboland for marketing throughout the palm-tree belt. As before, Aro merchants dominated trade in the hinterland, including palm products to the coast and the sale of slaves within Igboland.

The Niger Delta and Calabar, which once had been known for the export of slaves, became notable for the export of palm oil. The Delta streams were called “oil rivers.” The basic economic units in each town were “houses,” family-operated entities that engendered loyalty for its employees. A “house” included the extended family of the trader, including retainers and slaves. As its head, the master trader taxed other traders who were members of his “house;” he maintained a war vessel, a large dugout canoe that could hold several tons of cargo and dozens of crew, for the defense of the harbor. Whenever a trader had become successful enough to keep a war canoe, he was expected to form his own “house”. Economic competition among these “houses” was so fierce that trade often erupted into armed battle between the crews of the large canoes.

Because of the hazards of climate and tropical diseases for Europeans and the absence of any centralized authorities on the mainland responsive to their interests, European merchants moored their ships outside harbors or in the delta, and used the ships as trading stations and warehouses. In time they built depots onshore and eventually moved up the Niger River to establish stations in the interior. An example was that at Onitsha, where they could bargain directly with local suppliers and purchase products likely to turn a profit.

Some European traders switched to legitimate business only when the commerce in slaves became too hazardous. The traders suffered from the risks of their position and believed they were at the mercy of the coastal rulers, whom they considered unpredictable. Accordingly, as the volume of trade increased, merchants requested that the British government appoint a consul to cover the region. Consequently in 1849, John Beecroft was accredited as consul for the bights of Benin and Biafra, a jurisdiction stretching from Dahomey to Cameroon. Beecroft was the British representative to Fernando Po, where the prevention squadron of the British Royal Navy was stationed.

At the same time, the British scientists were interested in exploring the course and related settlements along the Niger River. The delta masked the mouth of the great river, and for centuries Nigerians chose not to tell Europeans the secrets of the interior. In 1794 the African Association in Great Britain commissioned Mungo Park, an intrepid Scottish physician and naturalist, to search for the headwaters of the Niger and follow the river downstream. Park reached the upper Niger the next year by traveling inland from the Gambia River. Although he reported on the eastward flow of the Niger, he was forced to turn back when his equipment was lost to Muslim Arab slave traders. In 1805 he set out on a second expedition, sponsored by the British government, to follow the Niger to the sea. His mission failed, but Park and his party covered more than 1,500 kilometers, passing through the western portions of the Sokoto Caliphate, before drowning when their boats overturned in rapids near Bussa.

On a subsequent expedition to the Sokoto Caliphate, Hugh Clapperton learned about the mouth of the Niger River, where it reached the sea, but he died before confirming it. His servant, Richard Lander, and Lander’s brother John were the ones to demonstrate that the Niger flowed into the sea. The Lander brothers were seized by slave traders in the interior and sold down the river to a waiting European ship.

Initial British attempts to open trade with the interior by way of the Niger could not overcome climate and diseases such as malaria. A third of the people associated with an 1842 riverine expedition died. In the 1850s, the benefits of quinine had been found to combat malaria, and aided by the medicine, a Liverpool merchant, Macgregor Laird, opened the river. Laird’s efforts were stimulated by the detailed reports of a pioneer German explorer, Heinrich Barth, who traveled through much of Borneo and the Sokoto Caliphate, where he recorded information about the region’s geography, economy, and inhabitants.

Influence of the Christian missions In Nigeria

Portuguese Roman Catholic priests who accompanied traders and officials to the West African coast introduced Christianity to Benin in the fifteenth century. Several churches were built to serve the Portuguese community and a small number of African converts. When direct Portuguese contacts in the region were withdrawn, however, the influence of the Catholic missionaries waned. By the eighteenth century, evidence of Christianity had disappeared.

Although churchmen in Britain had been influential in the drive to abolish the slave trade, significant missionary activity for Africa did not develop until the 1840s. For some time, missionaries operated in the area between Lagos and Ibadan. The first missions were opened by the Church of England’s Church Missionary Society (CMS). Other Protestant denominations from Britain, Canada, and the United States also opened missions and, in the 1860s, Roman Catholic religious orders established missions. Protestant missionaries tended to divide the country into spheres of activity to avoid competition with each other, and Catholic missions similarly avoided duplication of effort among the several religious orders working there. Catholic missionaries were particularly active among the Igbo; the CMS worked among the Yoruba.

The CMS initially promoted Africans to responsible positions in the mission field; for instance, they appointed Samuel Ajayi Crowther as the first Anglican bishop of the Niger. Crowther, a liberated Yoruba slave, had been educated in Sierra Leone and in Britain, where he was ordained before returning to his homeland with the first group of CMS missionaries. The Anglicans and other religious groups had a conscious “native church” policy to develop indigenous ecclesiastical institutions to become independent of Europeans. Crowther was succeeded as bishop by a British cleric. In the long term, the acceptance of Christianity by large numbers of Nigerians depended on the various denominations adapting to local conditions. They selected an increasingly high proportion of African clergy for the missions.


In large measure, European missionaries assumed the value of colonial rule in terms of promoting education, health and welfare measures, so they effectively reinforced colonial policy. Some African Christian communities formed their own independent churches. (Note: All of this section to this point is nearly verbatim from Nigeria: A Country Study (1991) prepared by staff of the Library of Congress of the United States.[1]

British expansion accelerated in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The early history of Lagos Colony was one of repeated attempts to end the Yoruba wars. In the face of threats to the divided Yoruba states from Dahomey and the Sokoto Caliphate, as represented by the emirate of Ilorin, the British governor—assisted by the CMS—succeeded in imposing peace settlements on the interior.

Colonial Lagos was a busy, cosmopolitan port. Its architecture was in both Victorian and Brazilian style, as many of the black elite were English-speakers from Sierra Leone and freedmen repatriated from Brazil and Cuba. Its residents were employed in official capacities and were active in business. Africans also were represented on the Lagos Legislative Council, a largely appointed assembly.

After the Berlin Conference of 1884, Britain announced formation of the Oil Rivers Protectorate, which included the Niger Delta and extended eastward to Calabar, where the British consulate general was relocated from Fernando Po. The protectorate was organized to control and develop trade coming down the Niger. Vice consuls were assigned to ports that already had concluded treaties of cooperation with the Foreign Office. Local rulers continued to administer their territories, but consular authorities assumed jurisdiction for the equity courts established earlier by the foreign mercantile communities. A constabulary force was raised and used to pacify the coastal area.

In 1894 the territory was redesignated the Niger Coast Protectorate and was expanded to include the region from Calabar to Lagos Colony and Protectorate, including the hinterland, and northward up the Niger River as far as Lokoja, the headquarters of the Royal Niger Company. As a protectorate, it did not have the status of a colony, so its officials were appointed by the Foreign Office and not by the Colonial Office.

Colonial rule In Nigeria (1900–1960)

Lugard and indirect rule

Frederick Lugard, who was appointed as High Commissioner of the Protectorate of Dutch Geria in 1900 and served until 1906 in his first term, often has been regarded by the British as their model colonial administrator. Trained as an army officer, he had served in India, Egypt, and East Africa, where he expelled Arab slave traders from Nyasaland and established the British presence in Uganda. Joining the Royal Niger Company in 1894, Lugard was sent to Borgu to counter inroads made by the French, and in 1897 he was made responsible for raising the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) from local levies to serve under British officers.

During his six-year tenure as High Commissioner, Sir Frederick Lugard (as he became in 1901) was occupied with transforming the commercial sphere of influence inherited from the Royal Niger Company into a viable territorial unit under effective British political control. His objective was to conquer the entire region and to obtain recognition of the British protectorate by its indigenous rulers, especially the Fulani emirs of the Sokoto Caliphate. Lugard’s campaign systematically subdued local resistance, using armed force when diplomatic measures failed. Borno capitulated without a fight, but in 1903 Lugard’s RWAFF mounted assaults on Kano and Sokoto. From Lugard’s point of view, clear-cut military victories were necessary because the surrenders of the defeated peoples weakened resistance elsewhere.

Lugard’s success in northern Nigeria has been attributed to his policy of indirect rule; that is, he governed the protectorate through the rulers defeated by the British. If the emirs accepted British authority, abandoned the slave trade, and cooperated with British officials in modernizing their administrations, the colonial power was willing to confirm them in office. The emirs retained their caliphate titles but were responsible to British district officers, who had final authority. The British High Commissioners could depose emirs and other officials if necessary.

Unification of Nigeria (1912–1914)

Lugard was assigned for six years as Governor of Hong Kong, then returned to Nigeria in 1912 to achieve the merger of the northern and southern protectorates. The task of unification was achieved two years later on the eve of World War I. From January 1914 onwards, the newly united colony and protectorate was presided over by a proconsul, who was entitled the Governor-General of Nigeria. The principle of indirect rule administered by traditional rulers was applied throughout Nigeria, and colonial officers were instructed to interfere as little as possible with the existing order. In 1916 Lugard formed the Nigerian Council, a consultative body that brought together six traditional leaders—including the Sultan of Sokoto, the Emir of Kano, and the King of Oyo—to represent all parts of the colony. The council was promoted as a device for allowing the expression of opinions that could instruct the Governor-General. In practice, Lugard used the annual sessions to inform the traditional leaders of British policy, leaving them with no functions at the council’s meetings except to listen and to assent.

Unification meant only the loose affiliation of three distinct regional administrations into which Nigeria was subdivided—northern, western, and eastern regions (see fig. 6). Each was under a lieutenant governor and provided independent government services. The governor was, in effect, the coordinator for virtually autonomous entities that had overlapping economic interests but little in common politically or socially. In the Northern Region, the colonial government took careful account of Islam and avoided any appearance of a challenge to traditional values that might incite resistance to British rule. This system, in which the structure of authority focused on the emir to whom obedience was a mark of religious devotion, did not welcome change. As the emirs settled more and more into their role as reliable agents of indirect rule, colonial authorities were content to maintain the status quo, particularly in religious matters. Christian missionaries were barred, and the limited government efforts in education were harmonized with Islamic institutions.[2]

In the south, by contrast, traditional leaders were employed as vehicles of indirect rule in Yorubaland, but Christianity and Western education undermined their sacerdotal functions. In some instances, however, a double allegiance—to the idea of sacred monarchy for its symbolic value and to modern concepts of law and administration—was maintained. Out of reverence for traditional kingship, for instance, the Oni of Ife, whose office was closely identified with Yoruba religion, was accepted as the sponsor of a Yoruba political movement. In the Eastern Region, appointed officials who were given “warrants” and hence called warrant chiefs, were strongly resisted by the people because they lacked traditional claims.

In practice, British administrative procedures under indirect rule entailed constant interaction between colonial authorities and local rulers—the system was modified to fit the needs of each region. In the north, for instance, legislation took the form of a decree cosigned by the governor and the emir, while in the south, the governor sought the approval of the Legislative Council. Hausa was recognized as an official language in the north, and knowledge of it was expected of colonial officers serving there. In the South, only English had official status. Regional administrations also varied widely in the quality of local personnel and in the scope of the operations they were willing to undertake. British staffs in each region continued to operate according to procedures developed before unification. Economic links among the regions increased, but indirect rule tended to discourage political interchange. There was virtually no pressure for greater unity among the regions until after the end of World War II.

Public works, such as harbour dredging and road and railway construction, opened Nigeria to economic development. British soap and cosmetics manufacturers tried to obtain land concessions for growing oil palms, but these were refused. Instead, the companies had to be content with a monopoly of the export trade in these products. Other commercial crops, such as cocoa and rubber, were encouraged, and tin was mined on the Jos Plateau. The only significant interruption in economic development arose from natural disaster—the great drought of 1913-14. Recovery came quickly, however, and improvements in port facilities and the transportation infrastructure during World War I furthered economic development. Nigerian recruits participated in the war effort as laborers and soldiers. The Nigeria Regiment of the RWAFF, integrating troops from the north and south, saw action against German colonial forces in Cameroon and in German East Africa. During the war, the colonial government earmarked a large portion of the Nigerian budget as a contribution to imperial defense. To raise additional revenues, Lugard took steps to institute a uniform tax structure patterned on the traditional system that he had adopted in the north during his tenure there. Taxes became a source of discontent in the south, however, and contributed to disturbances protesting British policy. In 1920 portions of former German Cameroon were mandated to Britain by the League of Nations and were administered as part of Nigeria.

Until he stepped down as Governor-General in 1918, Lugard primarily was concerned with consolidating British sovereignty and with assuring local administration through traditional leaders. He was contemptuous of the educated and Westernised African elite found more in the South, and he recommended transferring the capital from Lagos, the cosmopolitan city where the influence of these people was most pronounced, to Kaduna in the north. Although the capital was not moved, Lugard’s bias in favor of the Muslim north was clear at the time. Lugard bequeathed to his successor a prosperous colony when his term as Governor-General expired.

Developments in colonial policy

Lugard’s immediate successor, Sir Hugh Clifford (1919–25), was an aristocratic professional administrator with liberal instincts who had won recognition for his enlightened governorship of the Gold Coast. The approaches of the two governors to colonial development were diametrically opposed. In contrast to Lugard, Clifford argued that colonial government had the responsibility to introduce as quickly as practical the benefits of Western experience. He was aware that the Muslim north would present problems, but he had hopes for progress along the lines which he laid down in the south, where he anticipated “general emancipation” leading to a more representative form of government. Clifford emphasized economic development, encouraging enterprises by immigrant southerners in the north while restricting European participation to capital intensive activity.

Uneasy with the amount of latitude allowed traditional leaders under indirect rule, Clifford opposed further extension of the judicial authority held by the northern emirs. He said that he did “not consider that their past traditions and their present backward cultural conditions afford to any such experiment a reasonable chance of success.”[citation needed]In the south, he saw the possibility of building an elite educated in schools modeled on a European method (and numerous elite children attended high-ranking colleges in Britain during the colonial years). These schools would teach “the basic principles that would and should regulate character and conduct.”[citation needed] In line with this attitude, he rejected Lugard’s proposal for moving the capital from Lagos, the stronghold of the elite in whom he placed so much confidence for the future.

Clifford also believed that indirect rule encouraged centripetal tendencies. He argued that the division into two separate colonies was advisable unless a stronger central government could bind Nigeria into more than just an administrative convenience for the three regions. Whereas Lugard had applied lessons learned in the north to the administration of the south, Clifford was prepared to extend to the north practices that had been successful in the south. Sir Richmond Palmer, acting as Lieutenant-Governor in the North, disagreed with Clifford and advocated the principles of Lugard and further decentralisation.[2] The Colonial Office, where Lugard was still held in high regard, accepted that changes might be due in the south, but it forbade fundamental alteration of procedures in the north. A.J. Harding, director of Nigerian affairs at the Colonial Office, defined the official position of the British government in support of indirect rule when he said that “direct government by impartial and honest men of alien race . . . never yet satisfied a nation long and . . . under such a form of government, as wealth and education increase, so do political discontent and sedition.

Written by PH

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