1851 - 1914

Birth of the Nigerian Colony

The Centenary Project

An exhibit on the British creation and colonization of Nigeria
January 2014

Like so many modern African states, Nigeria is the creation of European imperialism. Its very name – after the great Niger River, the country's dominating physical feature – was suggested in the 1890s by British journalist Flora Shaw, who later became the wife of colonial governor Frederick Lugard. 

The modern history of Nigeria – as a political state encompassing 250 to 400 ethnic groups of widely varied cultures and modes of political organization – dates from the completion of the British conquest in 1903 and the amalgamation of northern and southern Nigeria into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914.

This exhibit traces the gradual colonisation of the British from the bombardment of Lagos in 1852 to the amalgamation.

1. What's in a name?

Before the name 'Nigeria' emerged, the British had taken control of Lagos and the southern coast. The Royal Niger Company had control of the region around the river which was generally referred to as the 'Royal Niger Company Territories'.

Map of the Niger Area in 1896, Not available, 1896, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
This map shows the British Protectorate in the South and the territories of the Royal Niger Company towards the North.

Flora Shaw was born in London into a large family for whom she helped to care. She began her career in journalism in 1886-7 writing for the Pall Mall Gazette and the Manchester Guardian. From 1893 she was colonial editor of The Times, making her the highest paid woman journalist of her day.

In a famous article, she suggested the name “Nigeria” to describe the region held by the Niger Royal Company Territories and the Southern Protectorate (see map). Only afterwards was this name extended to the Northern region when the British, led by Frederick Lugard, conquered Sokoto and Kano.

Portrait of Lady Flora Lugard (née Shaw) (1852-1929), From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Dame Flora Louise Shaw, Lady Lugard, DBE (born 19 December 1852 – 25 January 1929)
Flora Shaw Gives The Name, Hogarth Blake Ltd., From the collection of: The Centenary Project

Flora Shaw suggested the name 'Nigeria' in an article in The Times of London of January 8 1897

Frederick Lugard and Flora Shaw, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Lord and Lady Lugard. The colonial couple who 'gave birth' to Nigeria

2. Setting the Scene

Before the British, the area that was to become Nigeria was made up of diverse civilizations.

There are several dominant themes in Nigerian history that are essential in understanding contemporary Nigerian politics and society. First, the spread of Islam, predominantly in the north but later in southwestern Nigeria as well, began a millennium ago. 

The creation of the Sokoto Caliphate in the jihad (holy war) of 1804-8 led by Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817) brought most of the northern region and adjacent parts of Niger and Cameroon under a single Islamic government.

Usman Dan Fodio, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Usman dan Fodio

The great extension of Islam within the area of present-day Nigeria dates from the nineteenth century and the consolidation of the caliphate. This history helps account for the dichotomy between north and south and for the divisions within the north that have been so strong during the colonial and postcolonial eras.

Map of Africa in 1876, Not available, 1876, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Map of Africa in 1876 showing the spread of Islam from the North in the region around Nigeria

Second, the slave trade, both across the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean, had a profound influence on virtually all parts of Nigeria. The transatlantic trade in particular accounted for the forced migration of perhaps 3.5 million people between the 1650s and the 1860s, while a steady stream of slaves flowed north across the Sahara for a millennium, ending at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

Within Nigeria, slavery was widespread, with social implications that are still evident today. The Sokoto Caliphate, for example, had more slaves than any other modern country, except the United States in 1860.

Wrought iron wrist shackles at Badagry Slave Port, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Wrought iron wrist shackles kept at a slave port in Badagry, Lagos
Slave factories, or compounds, maintained by traders from four European nations on the Gulf of Guinea in what is now Nigeria, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
A depiction of slave factories in Nigeria maintained by European traders

Slave trade was also well established along the West African coast. According to some estimates, there were 1,473,000 slaves shipped out from the Bight of Benin between the years 1600 and 1800, with over 1.2 million of these slaves being dispatched in the 18th century alone.

Map of Slave Coast, 1789-03-16, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Map of the slave coast published in 1789

3. The British Intervention

In truth, the abolition of slave trade offered the British the excuse they needed to intervene in the region. The promotion of their trading interests was an important reason for intervening along with pressure from the Christian missionaries in the region.

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, National Portrait Gallery, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon

In 1807 the Houses of Parliament in London enacted legislation prohibiting British subjects from participating in the slave trade. However, the restriction was applied generally to all flags and was intended to shut down all traffic in slaves coming out of West African ports.

This campaign to eradicate the slave trade and substitute for it trade in other commodities increasingly resulted in British intervention in the internal affairs of the Nigerian region. 

Direct British interference began in Lagos in 1851 when military power was used to unseat Kosoko, the reigning King, who had made no serious effort to end the ongoing slave trade in the region. 

It was hoped that replacing Kosoko with Akitoye, a rival claimant to the throne, would bring an end to the slave trade, stabilize the region for the spread of 'legitimate' commerce for the expansion of British interests.

Portrait of Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865), From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Lord Palmerston played a crucial role in the British bombardment of Lagos

On the 26th of December 1851, with the endorsement of the influential Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, a bombardment of Lagos was carried out and King Kosoko was forced to flee.

The destruction of Lagos (newspaper clipping), 1852-07-31, From the collection of: The Centenary Project

After the bombardment of Lagos, Kosoko was replaced by Akitoye. Unfortunately, over the next ten years Akitoye and his successor, Dosunmu (Docemo) were unable to bring the stability to the region that the British had hoped for, and, in 1861, Lagos was annexed as a British colony under the direct political control of a British governor through the Treaty of Cession signed on 6 August.

The colonization of Nigeria had officially begun.

Map of the Niger Area in 1896, Not available, 1896, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Map showing the area of British influence in Lagos and the Oil Rivers – merged to form the Niger Rivers Protectorate

4. The British Colonization

The Berlin Conference in 1845 helped to reinforce the British resolve to colonize Nigeria

From Lagos, the British made their way inland, slowly bringing the rest of Yorubaland under British rule – applying force when necessary.

In the port cities of the Bight of Biafra, the promotion of anti-slavery and British trading interests was a key aspect of the British rhetoric that led to colonization. Furthermore, in 1885 at the Berlin Conference, the European powers attempted to resolve their conflicts of interest by allotting areas of exploitation in Africa. This led to the formation of the Oil Rivers Protectorate by Britain after the consul, Hewett, had traversed the entire coastal region from Calabar into the western delta convincing local rulers, through the power of his office, to sign treaties of protection.

Treaty with the Chiefs of Agbassa – Page 1, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Treaty with the Chiefs of Agbassa – Page 3, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
British Colonial "Treaty of Protection" With Agbassa in "Warri District"
The opposition of local rulers

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.

From Oil Rivers to Niger Coast Protectorate in 1894, From the collection of: The Centenary Project

With the Niger delta and Calabar effectively under British control, all that was needed was to shore up interests on the navigable reaches of the Niger and Benue against encroachment by France and Germany. For this, they turned to adopted a different approach and turned to Sir George Goldie.

Among the British trading companies, whose activities had far-reaching consequences for Nigeria, was the United Africa Company, founded by George Goldie in 1879. In 1886 Goldie's consortium was chartered by the British government as the Royal Niger Company and granted broad concessionary powers in “all the territory of the basin of the Niger.”

Sir George Dashwood Taubman Goldie, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Sir George Dashwood Taubman Goldie

Under Goldie's direction, the Royal Niger Company was instrumental in depriving France and Germany of access to the region. Consequently, he may well deserve the epithet “father of Nigeria,” which imperialists accorded him.

The Royal Niger Company established its headquarters far inland at Lokoja. From there, it pretended to assume responsibility for the administration of areas along the Niger and Benue rivers where it maintained depots. 

The company interfered in the territory along the Niger and the Benue and negotiated treaties with Sokoto, Gwandu, and Nupe that were interpreted as guaranteeing exclusive access to trade in return for the payment of annual tribute.

Map of the Niger Area in 1896, Not available, 1896, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Letter from the Royal Niger Company in 1899 – Page 1, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
In this document, Sir George Goldie's Royal Niger Company objects to the incorporation of the Urhobo territory into the Niger Coast Protectorate.
Letter from the Royal Niger Company in 1899 – Page 2, From the collection of: The Centenary Project

Although treaties were signed with rulers as far north as Sokoto by 1885, actual British control was confined to the coastal area and the immediate vicinity of Lokoja until 1900. The Royal Niger Company had access to the territory from Lokoja extending along the Niger and Benue rivers above their confluence, but there was no effective control, even after punitive expeditions against Bida and Ilorin in 1897. 

The clear intent was to occupy the Sokoto Caliphate, but for that purpose the Royal Niger Company was not deemed to be a sufficient instrument of imperialism. Consequently, on December 31, 1899, Britain terminated the charter of the company, providing compensation and retention of valuable mineral rights.

It is at this point that Frederick Lugard arrived on the scene.

Frederick Lugard 1893, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Frederick Lugard, who assumed the position of high commissioner of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria in 1900, has often been regarded as the model British colonial administrator.

During his six-year tenure as high commissioner, Lugard 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.

Conquest of Kano and Sokoto in 1903, From the collection of: The Centenary Project

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. 

By July 27 1903, the mighty caliphate founded by Usman dan Fodio was no more.

Lugard's northern conquest

The conquest of Sokoto was the final act in setting the boundaries of the British Protectorates of Northern and Southern Nigeria. In 1914, both protectorates would be amalgamated into a single Nigeria. 

In the end, the colonization of Nigeria was a prolonged process that took more than forty years to accomplish.

Credits: Story

Project Lead — Patrick, Enaholo
Exhibition Images and Videos —
National Portrait Gallery
Exhibition Text —
History of Nigeria (by Toyin Falola)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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