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A Violent Enterprise

On Britain’s bloody conquest of Nigeria
Art for A Violent Enterprise.
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Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation by Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi. Cassava Republic Press, 357 pages.

What Britain Did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule by Max Siollun. Hurst, 288 pages.

In September 2021, Kemi Badenoch—the British Minister of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Minister for Equalities—stirred up a fuss by claiming not to care about colonialism. “They came in and just made a different bunch of winners and losers,” she said in a leaked WhatsApp message. “There was never any concept of ‘rights,’ so [the] people who lost out were old elites not everyday people.”

The child of Nigerian parents, Badenock’s comment was taken up by the self-declared enemies of “woke” culture, which is supposedly tarnishing Britain’s glorious past. Defending her in the pages of The Spectator, Nigel Biggar, a professor at the University of Oxford, opined that “centuries before European colonisers arrived, Africans were enslaving other Africans, mostly by capturing them in wars and raids.” He admitted that Britain joined this lucrative trade, eventually shipping more Africans across the Atlantic than any other European power (an estimated 3.1 million between 1640 and 1807, of whom 2.7 million survived) but stressed that Britain was also “the first to repent” on account of “a Christian conviction of the fundamental equality of all human races under God.” On those occasions when the British inflicted “imperial violence on indigenous people” they only did so to “liberate indigenous slaves from indigenous slavers.”

As the books under review argue at considerable length, this is self-serving nonsense. Far from a benign enterprise that brought light to the dark places of the Earth, British colonialism in what was to become Nigeria was based on acts of unconscionable violence in which “Christian conviction”—however defined—played no part. As Max Siollun notes, it was missionaries, not British governments, which did the civilizing—if by that we mean setting up churches and schools. In fact, following the end of the Atlantic slave trade, successive British governments wanted as little as possible to do with governing Nigerian territories, which were of doubtful economic value and often hard to access.

Of particular trouble were the areas that fell under the protectorate of Southern Nigeria, which were covered by dense forests on either side of the newly mapped River Niger, accessible mostly through shallow creeks. Yet these interior regions also yielded great riches in the form of palm oil (and later rubber), greasing what Blake described as the “dark Satanic Mills” of the industrial revolution. For the most part, British trading companies on the coast relied on treaties signed between the Foreign Office (represented by a resident consul) and the plethora of native kings and chiefs nominally under British protection, who delivered the precious commodity to them, much as they had once delivered the slaves that science—not “Christian conviction”—had now made redundant.


From the Rev. R.H. Stone’s memoir ‘‘In Africa’s Forest and Jungle,’’ 1899. | NYPL

Two events in 1884 changed everything. One was the invention of the Maxim gun. As Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi put it:

Where early nineteenth-century musket rifles took a whole minute to load, had a range of only 80 meters and misfired nearly a third of the time, this mass-murder device could expel 600 rounds of ammunition in a single minute, utilising energy from the recoil acting on the breech block to eject each spent cartridge and insert the next one, instead of a hand-operated mechanism.

Local militias armed with Dane guns (flintlock muskets), pistols, machetes, spears, and bows and arrows were helpless against this “devastating killing machine,” which was quickly banned from sale in Africa. British forces could now act with impunity against stubborn rulers, as they did most notoriously in 1897 with the oba (king) of Benin, whose kingdom dated back to the thirteenth century and covered an area the size of Scotland—and also happened to control a great deal of the palm oil trade. Following what appears to have been a manufactured argument—a minor British official claimed to have been snubbed by the oba, who was apparently observing a religious holiday—a huge force was assembled to show him and everybody else just who they were dealing with.

The Berlin Conference was convened to put an end to increasing clashes between European powers over African real estate.

The invading army was divided into three. A main column marched on the city and two “flying” columns were deployed west and east to terrorize urban settlements. In all, about four million rounds of ammunition were discharged. No official death toll was recorded, although one English officer described “quantities of dead natives killed during the fight” and another that the “slaughter was enormous.” Local soldiers who penetrated the bush said they had seen “hundreds of dead bodies, some of which were simply cut in two by the Maxim fire.” The city itself was sacked and later destroyed, the oba exiled, and the palace looted of its treasures, notably the so-called Benin bronzes that, having long adorned museums in Europe and the United States, are currently the subject of discussions around restitution.

The second event of 1884 was the Berlin Conference, which was convened to put an end to increasing clashes between European powers over African real estate. While it didn’t quite achieve this—many areas remained contested—the British decisively secured the regions around the lower reaches of the Niger, which became known as the Oil Rivers Protectorate, while France got everything above the river and, indeed, most of the rest of West Africa. Technically, anyone was now free to do business in the Protectorate, though in practice, as we shall see, the British quickly established a monopoly.

The immediate casualty was King Jaja of Opobo, himself a former slave (although some say he was actually an indentured servant) who had risen to dominate the palm trade. When the companies on the coast objected to his rising prices, he made the fateful decision to deal directly with the buyers in England, who, in turn, petitioned the government to have him removed. For Harry Johnston, the deputy British vice consul to Oil Rivers, Jaja was “the most grasping, unscrupulous and overbearing of mushroom Kings who ever attempted to throttle the growing commerce of white men with the rich interior.” He demanded that Jaja sign an amendment to his treaty allowing for free trade or face a naval expedition. When Jaja refused, Johnson invited him to a meeting, and promptly put him on trial in Accra in another colony, the Gold Coast (in present-day Ghana), where, in a reversal of British legal doctrine, he was obliged to prove himself not guilty of the (bogus) charges of having broken the terms of his original treaty.

But a show trial is a show trial, and Jaja was found guilty of two of the charges and exiled to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. The British government initially professed itself unhappy with the kidnapping. “To invite a chief on board your ship, carefully concealing the fact that you have any designs against his person, and then, when he has put himself in your power, to carry him away, is hardly legitimate warfare, even if we had a right to go to war,” wrote Prime Minister Salisbury, who then retrospectively enacted the Opobo Political Prisoners Detention Ordinance that allowed Jaja to be investigated. In exile, the king’s health quickly deteriorated. After four years and much pleading, he was finally allowed to return, only to die on the way back. He was buried in Opobo with much fanfare, and, in 1903, a bronze statue of him was commissioned. It stands there still and has since been elevated into a national monument.

The way was now left open for a young Englishman called George (later Sir) Goldie to take over. Having unexpectedly inherited a fortune at the age of thirty, Goldie had vowed henceforth to “lead a life of idleness and dissipation.” However, an opportunity to be a more productive citizen presented itself when he was asked by a family member to invest in a company which traded along the River Niger and its major tributary, the River Benue. In 1877, Goldie embarked on a tour of his new domain, saw at once the opportunities it afforded, and incorporated what was to become the Royal Niger Company (RNC), which bought out the competition. After years of lobbying, he was granted a royal charter in 1886. This effectively turned the RNC into a government with the authority to levy taxes, establish an armed constabulary, and sign one-sided treaties with local rulers—all this even as King Jaja was about to be transported to a faraway Caribbean island.

Little is known about Goldie or the company he ran. Neurotically secretive, he once told a friend, Siollun recounts, that “the less you say about me the happier I shall be,” and he took care to destroy his company’s records when he was finally forced out in 1900. What is known is that he was “a violent and uncompromising man” with “a good deal of uncontrolled temper,” as the friend had it. According to Siollun, the company’s constabulary, armed with the dreaded Maxim gun, undertook at least fifty-six operations against communities attempting to resist his design, some even outside RNC “jurisdiction.”

In 1895, Joseph Chamberlain declared the British “the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen.”

Such was the fate of the people of Nembe, who resided in the watery landscape of the Niger delta. Fisher folk for the most part, they were required to procure an array of prohibitively expensive licenses to trade with neighboring communities within RNC territory, as they had been doing for centuries past. Facing starvation, they finally rose up in revolt in the early hours of January 29, 1895, attacking the company’s main factory at a place called Akassa. They destroyed most of the property, sank two ships, killed twenty-four laborers and took sixty hostages, a majority of whom were later executed. The reprisal was swift. Less than a month later, the Foreign Office sent four ships with 150 sailors and marines to back the RNC’s own constabulary. Several Nembe towns and villages were torched and several hundred inhabitants killed.

Yet this incident was to prove a watershed. A commission of inquiry a few months later noted the heavy involvement of government forces which couldn’t take orders from a private company, recommended that RNC territory should come under direct control of the crown. This happened to chime with the new thinking in London. That same year, the secretary of state for the colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, gave a speech in which he declared the British “the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen” and said it was pointless occupying such vast spaces “unless you can make the best of them.” Five years later, the RNC’s charter was revoked, the company wound down. On January 1, 1900, Britain formally declared the protectorates of Southern and Northern Nigeria.


Lord Frederick Lugard, 1895. | Vanity Fair

So far I have focused on the territory that became Southern Nigeria. As Goldie said, it was as different from Northern Nigeria “as England is from China.” Where, in the south, traditional religions held sway until being gradually supplanted by Christianity, the north had been predominantly Muslim from the eleventh century. Again, where the south boasted a bewildering number of languages, which eventually made way for English as the lingua franca, the north had Hausa as a common language. Finally, unlike the south, the north was ruled by a centralized government following a jihad by the Fulani—nomadic herdsmen from the Sahel to the north and west—in 1804 against the Hausa kingdoms, ostensibly to end slavery, which was against the tenets of Islam. Having established a new caliphate with its headquarters in Sokoto, however, the Fulani preferred to rule indirectly through the emirs they had defeated. For this reason, slavery again grew widespread by a century later. Now, it was the turn of the British to outlaw it, under Frederick (later Lord) Lugard, the person most associated with the country we now call Nigeria, being its first governor.

Lugard had made a name for himself in East Africa by defeating a notorious slaver; he was first invited to Nigeria by Goldie in 1894. He led an RNC detachment to a town called Nikki in the upper Niger, signing a treaty with the king, before the French could do so. Given that the north lacked the resources of the south, it seems that rivalry with the French was Britain’s only motive for wanting to colonize the (much larger) area. To that end, Chamberlain announced in 1898 the creation of the West African Frontier Force, headed by Lugard. But before a shot could be fired, the two European powers suddenly reached an agreement giving Britain all of what is now northern Nigeria. Made high commissioner, one of Lugard’s first edicts was to outlaw slavery, which put him on a collision course with the “sensuous, avaricious and cruel” (his words) emirs he needed to bring to heel.

Lugard set about deposing and replacing them with his own lackeys. The first to go was the emir of Bida who, deposed by Goldie four years earlier, had reclaimed his throne when the RNC troops pulled out. Lugard reinstated Goldie’s nominee. Next was the emir of Kontagora, otherwise known as “The Destroyer,” who, hearing of Lugard’s edict, had vowed to die “with a slave in my mouth.” There was a short break while Lugard returned to England, where he fell in love with Flora Shaw, the celebrated journalist, former lover of Goldie, and the person widely (and wrongly) believed to have coined the country’s name; they married later. After Lugard came back in early 1903, the first to fall was Kano, which lay largely undefended because its then emir had travelled to Sokoto to pay homage to the new Sultan, who himself became Lugard’s next target. The high commissioner then marched on Katsina, which offered no resistance; then Zaria; and then, finally, Burmi in the far north-east, racking up victories in short order. Lugard would go on to claim that “the British conquest of this vast country has been almost bloodless.” How he arrived at this conclusion “is a source of great mystery,” as Siollun archly puts it. In the second battle of Burmi, for instance, “the WAFF fired an astonishing 32,710 rounds from small arms and piles of 700–1000 native corpses littered the town,” among them the oba and two of his sons. The WAFF lost only thirteen.

With the fall of Burmi, Lugard was now “the New King in the North,” as Fagbule and Fawehinmi would have it. His domain would grow in 1914, when the British government decided to amalgamate the north and south for purely economic reasons—simply put, the north couldn’t pay for itself. And so Lord Harcourt, the new secretary of state for the colonies, pronounced the union:

We have released Northern Nigeria from the leading strings of the . . . Treasury. The promising and well-conducted youth is on an allowance ‘on his own’ and is about to effect an alliance with a Southern lady of means. I have issued the special licence and Sir Frederick will perform the ceremony . . . May the union be fruitful and the couple constant!

At a stroke, Nigeria became one of the only countries in the world with its population more-or-less equally split between Christians and Muslims. Unfortunately for the south, Lugard also ensured that the north—and specifically the minority Fulani who make up between a third and a quarter of the Hausa-speaking population—retained much of its ascendancy under British rule. “I wish to try whether we can succeed in ruling the country through the Fulani,” he said. “Henceforth, they must be our puppets and adopt our methods and rules.” The nascent Nigerian army was itself largely made up of Hausa speakers, the British having identified them as “a martial race” as far back as the 1860s. Nor did they disappoint when called upon to put down revolts in the south. Amalgamation only sped up the process, so much so that Hausa was made the army’s language of command, with British officers themselves required to take courses and exams in it.

Nigeria isn’t working, but any talk of breaking it up into more cohesive units is treated as treason.

By the time of independence in 1960, three-quarters of Nigeria’s fighting troops were northerners, which proved fortuitous when the former Oil Rivers Protectorate attempted secession, as Biafra, within the first decade—and was crushed. Three decades of almost continuous military rule followed. But even now, twenty years after they ostensibly returned to the barracks, the army continues to be deployed against any perceived threat to the status quo. “The story of Nigeria is to some extent the story of its army,” as Siollun rightly says. It has “played different roles as conqueror, destroyer, ruler and protector.”

Fulani hegemony also meant banning Christian missionaries, and with them the schools that provided the only real means of a modern—“Western”—education. In that same year of amalgamation, over 97 percent of enrolled students were southerners; the south itself hosted more than 95 percent of all schools. This educational imbalance, which has persisted to this day, exercised the minds of British administrators, notably Lugard’s successor, Sir Hugh Clifford, who said in 1922 that “the northern provinces have not yet produced a single native of these provinces who is sufficiently educated to enable him to fill the most minor clerical post in the office of any government department.” His answer was to found in 1921 the elite Katsina College (later Barewa College) for the sons of emirs, who were to take over government when it was finally time for the British to leave. In one way, this was a success—the school has produced more heads of government than any other—but it also entrenched the division between the ruling elite and commoners known locally as the talakawa.


As of now, Nigeria reportedly has the world’s highest number of out-of-school children, estimated at over 10.5 million, the vast majority of them in the north. They are ready fodder for the bandits and Islamic insurgents that rule huge swathes of territory, abducting school children for ransom, taxing local farmers, and on one occasion attacking the Nigerian Defence Academy. Meanwhile, the lower Niger, where the oil has always come from (palm oil then, crude oil now) is once more agitating to leave this “mere geographic expression” that in 2018 surpassed India as the poverty capital of the world: at least 40 percent of the estimated 200 million population is now reckoned to live in absolute poverty. The country isn’t working, in other words, but any talk of breaking it up into more cohesive units is treated as treason, which is why the study of history has been officially discouraged, so much so that it was expunged from the school curriculum over a decade ago. For this reason alone, both these books, which are deliberately aimed at the common reader, are to be welcomed, although they belong to what we might call the optimistic school of thought.

Indeed, for Fagbule and Fawehinmi, the whole point of writing Formation is to “trigger the beginning of many more delightfully nuanced journeys into the history and culture of Nigeria”—whatever that means. Still, they have written a readable account of a complex series of events, as has Siollun. A professional historian unlike the others, he also advances a number of reasons why the disparate peoples who make up the “giant of Africa” have more in common than they think, though his argument can be difficult to follow. Siollun’s main point is that the different ethnic groups in the region knew of each other’s existence long before the British came, which may be so, if only because of trade. But encountering the “Other,” with their absurd and perhaps repellent customs, might have made them less likely to want to amalgamate, proof of which is that they didn’t see any need to do so. His other contention is that the three major ethnic groups—Hausa in the north, Igbo in the south-east and Yoruba in the south-west—didn’t provide cohesive identities until the “centralising and integrative effects of colonialism.” It’s impossible to say how true it is. What’s certain is that, once they became aware of these distinctions, it reduced their desire for the forced marriage that has been anything but fruitful for the vast majority of the country’s unfortunate inhabitants.