Review Essay: The Bloody Business of the British Conquest of Nigeria

Historians in the News
tags: colonialism, Nigeria, British Empire, African history

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.

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.