There is a tendency for perpetrators to underestimate the harm that they cause or how beneficial an unfair system was to them. There is no aspect of human history where this is clearer than the modern European perspective on colonialism.
Take, for instance, UK politician Nigel Farage. Addressing the history of British imperialism in a recent interview, Farage said: “I don’t think I should apologise for what people did 300 years ago. It was a different world, a different time. You could apply that argument to any civilisation, any country and we seem to be terribly keen to apologise for the past and a bit less worried about creating a good future.”
Farage’s dismissal of how the lives of millions of people have been shaped by the parochial interest of the British empire is disingenuous. The industrial and economic ambitions of British merchants and their crown have ruined from birth.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country remains a living example of what Farage would hope we overlook.
The country used to be called the Slave Coast, a territory whose purpose to the Europeans was aptly captured in its name. This was so until about the 1870s when slavery went out of vogue.
The Industrial Revolution started not much later than slavery was outlawed by the European superpowers in the territories they owned. But this historic phase made them nonetheless dependent on Africa.
What Nigeria meant for Britain under this new economic dispensation was the need for palm oil, an extract from the tropical palm trees.
But to put things in a better historical context, one cannot speak of that period without mentioning the Berlin Conference of 1884. The territory that is Nigeria was split three ways among the British, French and Germans with the former taking the lion share starting from the lower Niger area.
Many historians caution against over-emphasizing the significance of Berlin for Africans. It is quite common to read from scholars who say that the conference was a diplomatic tactic Germany took as part of reinventing itself as an imperial power.
Yet, it will be also odd to downplay what the conference held for Africans and how it has irrevocably shaped the lives of close to two billion people on the continent.
The post-slavery Nigerian economy was good for its palm oil. Sir George Dashwood Goldie made sure of that.
In 1879, Goldie formed the United African Company (UAC) while he took control of the Lower Niger River. Owing to less-than-honest agreements with the native landowners, Goldie cultivated palm to feed the many factories springing up in Britain.
Just like the East India Company, what UAC represented in their time was the private venture of European moneyed men in foreign territories that Europeans essentially deemed theirs.
Nigeria, and other colonies, were opportunities to amass profit at a vastly disproportionate expenditure. It was profit for its sake and that is why by 1886, Goldie had started moving inwards into River Niger and Benue, which was against the verbal agreement he had made with the native chiefs.
These days, it is almost dangerous to talk of the capital accrued from such ventures. Or how the capital has served Europe quite well in the last two centuries.
“…Britain’s history and culture is profoundly internationalist. We are a European country – and proud of our shared European heritage – but we are also a country that has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world.”
When Britain looked beyond Europe to Nigeria in the 1800s, it exploited the natives and their land.
King Jaja, a chief from Opobo in the area Goldie did business, wanted to export palm oil on his own but he was accused of obstructing commerce and was forced into exile.
He was, however, in 1891, allowed to return home but he died on his way back, allegedly poisoned with a cup of tea.
Jaja’s story got many of the native rulers taking a second look at the deals they were getting from the UAC which was now the Royal Niger Company.
In 1895, another native king, Koko, led an attack on the Royal Niger Company’s headquarters in Akassa in present-day Bayelsa state. Koko would capture 60 Britons among whom he killed 40 to send a message to the Company and the British government.
But as it turned out, the African chief had bitten more than he could chew. Britain’s Royal Navy attacked the area of Brass (Nembe) and burned it to the ground on February 20, 1895, killing many people in the town.
This has been known as the Brass wars. Koko ran into exile and is believed to have committed suicide in 1898.
Back in Britain, opinions were growing stronger against the Royal Niger Company. For one thing, people were not pleased by how a private company was managing an area a colonial administration could do better.
In 1899, the Company was forced to sell its holdings, a good chunk of modern Nigeria, to the British government for £865,000. It was a transaction in the interest of both parties – the Company could get on with profiteering without pretending it could colonize successfully while the British government secured a territory for raw materials for next to nothing.
As a testament to the fecundity of capital, Royal Niger Company was taken over by the British-Dutch company, Unilever in the 1930s.