The Growth of British Influence in the Niger Delta
The Niger Delta became a foundation segment of the Atlantic world in the beginning decades of the sixteenth century when pioneering Portuguese sailors explored its complex rivers and creeks, along with other regions of the African Atlantic, at about the same time as Christopher Columbus’s discoveries opened up the Americas to world commerce. The Portuguese dominated trade between Niger Delta, Europe, and the Americas for the entire century, trading on tropical food items from Africa and America (pepper, yams, cassava, sugar, and tobacco) and industrial goods from Europe (gin, gunpowder, clothes, and copper and iron tools).
The Portuguese also pioneered in slave trade from the African Atlantic, including Niger Delta. In addition, they introduced agricultural plants (cassava, cocoa-yam, sugar) from tropical America to tropical African habitats while exporting such native Niger Delta plants as plantain and yams to tropical America.
In the seventeenth century other European nations joined in the Atlantic trade. With resources of the Industrial Revolution, England steadily gained considerable advantage in European competition for trade from Niger Delta. British efforts to abolish the slave trade from 1807 onwards ushered into the region a contentious new distinction between illegal slave trade and legitimate trade in agricultural produce and natural raw products. Abolition of the slave trade effectively ended the era of Portuguese dominance of Niger Delta, now replaced by British ascendancy. The Growth of British Influence in the Niger Delta
Legitimate trade brought many European companies into Niger Delta commerce and changed its business dynamics in the nineteenth century. Slave trade had entailed necessary participation by Atlantic coastal chieftains as middlemen; legitimate trade rendered their role problematic. With expansion of legitimate trade, European contacts were pushed beyond the Atlantic coast into the Niger River’s inland basin. This new pattern of trade initially resulted in disorder and inefficiencies among competing European companies.
Such circumstances prompted the English businessman Sir George Goldie (1846–1925) to initiate negotiations that led to the consolidation of several small British and European companies into United Africa Company (UAC) in 1879. UAC’s fortunes improved rapidly as a consequence of the Berlin Conference (1884–1885) and the ensuing European scramble for African territories. Goldie’s UAC was chartered as the Royal Niger Company (RNC) by the British government in 1886 with a mandate and concessionary powers to operate in “all the territory of the basin of the Niger.”
The Royal Niger Company combined the trading functions of its predecessor UAC with the role of a British surrogate imperial power. As a trading company, the RNC established pioneering trading posts in the upper Niger Delta, beyond the Atlantic coast in which Europeans did business for centuries, and in Niger’s inland basin. The RNC had headquarters on the Niger, first at Asaba and later at Lokoja. Its trading prowess opened up the territories of several communities and nations with which European trade had previously been only indirect, including the Urhobo, Ukwuani, Ibibio, and Igbo in Niger Delta. The RNC’s trading relations also reached Muslim communities on the Niger and its tributaries in what is modern northern Nigeria. The Growth of British Influence in the Niger Delta
The Royal Niger Company’s imperial activities were of two types. First, it made treaties with native chieftains. These pro forma agreements required signatory chiefs to declare, “We, the undersigned Chiefs . . . cede to the Royal Niger Company, for ever, the whole of our territory,” in exchange for the RNC’s promises to “to protect the said Chiefs” and pay monetary compensation for the RNC’s use of their land.
The RNC had a military force for enforcing its imperial ventures, occasionally resorting to menacing tactics of gunboat diplomacy. Second, the RNC staved off rival claims of colonial territories by other European powers, thus, for instance, forestalling German and French claims in Sokoto and Borgu, respectively (1894). The RNC is credited with acquiring territories that eventually constituted the British colonies of Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria, for which reason some British colonial historians dubbed Goldie, the RNC’s chieftain, the “father of modern Nigeria.”
The expansion of direct British colonialism in the 1890s beyond the Atlantic coast created problems for the Royal Niger Company’s imperial interests, but probably boosted its trading prospects. British creation of the Niger Coast Protectorate in 1891 and direct treaty making between the British Foreign Office’s agents and native chieftains challenged the RNC’s imperial surrogacy and led to disputes between it and the foreign office’s field agents. Eventually, in 1900, the RNC transferred its imperial functions and territories to the British government, receiving a compensation of 865,000 British pounds. It then reverted to its old name, United Africa Company.