The Crisis That Led To The Sale Of The Region Now Called Nigeria
The geographical region that is now modern-day Nigeria was once known as the slave coast, but by 1870 that had changed.
Britain had lost its appetite for slaves and preferred palm oil. In the 19th century, Britain was the first industrialized nation in the world and it needed palm oil as a lubricant for its machines.
Palm oil, of course, is a tropical plant, which is native to the Niger Delta. Malaysia’s dominance came a century later. By 1870, palm oil had replaced slaves as the main export of the Niger Delta, the area which was once known as the Slave Coast. At first, most of the trade in the oil palm was uncoordinated, with natives selling to those who gave them the best deals. Native chiefs such as former slave, Jaja of Opobo became immensely wealthy because of oil palm. With this wealth came influence.
However, among the Europeans, there was competition for who would get preferential access to the lucrative oil palm trade. In 1879, George Goldie formed the United African Company (UAC), which was modeled on the former East India Company. Goldie effectively took control of the Lower Niger River. By 1884, his company had 30 trading posts along the Lower Niger. This monopoly gave the British a strong hand against the French and Germans in the 1884 Berlin Conference.
The British got the area that the UAC operated in, included in their sphere of influence after the Berlin Conference.
By 1886, the company name changed to “The National Africa Company” and was granted a royal charter (incorporated). The charter authorized the company to administer the Niger Delta and all lands around the banks of the Benue and Niger Rivers. Soon after, the company was again renamed. The new name was “Royal Niger Company,” which survives, as Unilever, till this day.
George Goldie’s business operation was far from fair. His company tricked the native chiefs (including Jaja of Opobo) into signing agreements that gave them the exclusive rights to export palm oil after initially agreeing that free trade would not be obstructed. The Chiefs fell for the promise and signed the dubious contracts that were written in English.
When Jaja of Opobo wanted to export his own palm oil, he was accused of obstructing commerce and sent into exile. On his way back home in 1891, he was poisoned with a cup of tea.
Seeing what happened to Jaja, some other native rulers began to look more closely at the deals they were getting from the Royal Nigeria Company. One of such kingdoms was Nembe, whose king, Koko Mingi VIII, ascended the throne in 1889 after being a Christian schoolteacher. Koko Mingi VIII, King Koko for short, like most rulers in the yard, was faced with the Royal Nigeria Company encroachment.
He also resented the monopoly enjoyed by the Royal Nigeria Company and tried to seek out favorable trading terms, with particularly the Germans in Kamerun (Cameroon).
In 1894, after the Royal Niger Company introduced more restrictions, Koko Mingi VIII denounced Christianity and formed an alliance with the Bonny and Okpoma to take down the company. Unfortunately, the Bonny refused the alliance. This did not stop the rebellion. History has it that Koko Mingi VIII led an attack on the Royal Niger Company headquarters on January 29, 1895. The headquarters was at Akassa in Bayelsa.
The attack saw the king capture, 60 white men while losing forty of his soldiers. Using the 60 men as hostages, King Koko Mingi wanted the RNC to allow him to choose his trade partners. If the company granted his wish, he would release the men. The Royal Niger Company did not yield. King Koko killed forty of the men he captured. As retaliation, Britain’s Royal Navy attacked Brass and leveled it completely on February 20, 1895.
By April 1895, the business had returned to “normal”, normal being the conditions that the British wanted, and King Koko was on the run. Brass was fined £500 by the British, £62,494 (NGN29 million) in today’s money, and the looted weapons were returned as well as the surviving prisoners.
After a British Parliamentary Commission sat, King Koko was offered terms of the settlement by the British, which he rejected and disappeared. The British promptly declared him an outlaw and offered a reward of £200 (£26,000; NGN12 million today) for him. He committed suicide in exile in 1898.
About that time, another “recalcitrant King”, the Oba of Benin, was run out of town. The pacification of the Lower Niger was well and truly underway. The immediate effect of the Brass Oil War was that public opinion in Britain turned against the Royal Nigeria Company, so its charter was revoked in 1899. Following the revoking of its charter, the Royal Niger Company sold its holdings to the British government for £865,000 (£108 million today). That amount, £46,407,250 (NGN 50,386,455,032,400, at today’s exchange rate) was effectively the price Britain paid, to buy the territory which was to become known as Nigeria.
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