This is the story of the first oil war, which took place in the 19th century in what is now Nigeria.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the British sought out palm oil for use as an industrial lubricant for machinery.
Remember that Britain was the world’s first industrialised nation, so they needed resources like palm oil to keep that status.
Palm oil is, of course, a tropical plant native to the Niger Delta. Malaysia’s dominance arrived more than a century later.
By 1870, palm oil had surpassed slaves as the main export of the Niger Delta, also known as the Slave Coast. Initially, most oil palm trade was uncoordinated, with natives selling to those who offered them the best deals. Former slaves and native chiefs
Jaja of Opobo became extremely wealthy as a result of oil palm. With this wealth came power.
By 1886, the company had changed its name to The National Africa Company and received a royal charter (incorporated). The charter gave the company authority over the Niger Delta and all lands along the Benue and Niger Rivers. Soon after, the company was renamed again. The new name was Royal Niger Company, which still exists today as Unilever.
Negotiators for the Royal Niger Company had promised free trade in the region to local chiefs. They made private contracts on their own terms. The British government enforced the (deceptive) private contracts because they were frequently written in English and signed by local chiefs.
So for example, Jaja of Opobo, when he tried to export palm oil on his own, was forced into exile for “obstructing commerce”. As an aside, Jaja was “forgiven” in 1891 and allowed to return home, but he died on the way back, poisoned with a cup of tea.
After what happened to Jaja, some other native rulers began to scrutinize the deals they were receiving from the Royal Nigeria Company. Nembe was one of these kingdoms, and its king, Koko Mingi VIII, ascended to the throne in 1889 after serving as a Christian schoolteacher. Koko Mingi VIII, or King Koko for short, was confronted with Royal Nigeria Company encroachment, as were most rulers in the yard. He also despised the Royal Nigeria Company’s monopoly and sought favorable trading terms, particularly with the Germans in Kamerun (Cameroon).
By 1894, the Royal Nigeria Company had increasingly limited the natives’ trading partners and denied them direct access to their former markets.
In late 1894, King Koko renounced Christianity and attempted to form an alliance with Bonny and Okpoma to reclaim the trade from the Royal Nigeria Company. This is significant because, while Okpoma agreed to join, Bonny declined. A forerunner of the successful “divide and rule” strategy.
On January 29, 1895, King Koko led an attack on the Royal Niger Company’s headquarters in Akassa, now in Bayelsa state. More than a thousand men were involved in the pre-dawn raid.
The base was successfully captured by King Koko’s attack. After losing 40 of his men, King Koko kidnapped 60 white men as hostages, along with a large amount of goods, ammunition, and a Maxim gun.
Koko then attempted to bargain for the release of the hostages in exchange for the ability to choose his trading partners.
When the British refused to negotiate with Koko, he executed forty of the hostages. According to a British report, the Nembe people ate them. Admiral Bedford of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom attacked and burned down Brass on February 20, 1895. Many Nembe people died, and smallpox killed many more.
By April 1895, business had returned to “normal,” with the British preferring the conditions, and King Koko was on the run. Brass was fined £500 by the British, equivalent to £62,494 in today’s money, and the looted weapons, as well as the surviving prisoners, were returned. After a British Parliamentary Commission met, the British offered King Koko terms of settlement, which he rejected and fled.
The British promptly declared him an outlaw and offered a £200 reward for his capture. In exile, he committed suicide in 1898.
About that time, another “recalcitrant King”, the Oba of Benin, was run out of town. The pacification of the Lower Niger was well and truly underway.
The immediate effect of the Brass Oil War was that public opinion in Britain turned against the Royal Nigeria Company, so its charter was revoked in 1899. Following the revoking of its charter, the Royal Niger Company sold its holdings to the British government for £865,000.
That amount, £46,407,250 was effectively the price Britain paid, to buy the territory which was to become known as Nigeria.