History of Colonial Nigeria (Part 1)

Introduction to the History of Colonial Nigeria

The history of Colonial Nigeria is a period before when the region was ruled by Great Britain from mid-nineteen century until 1960.  British influence came to bear on the locals after its dominance and possession was acknowledged at the Berlin Conference. The prohibition of slave trade directed British focus to actual possession and by 1861 they annexed Lagos and established the Oil River Protectorate.

After the British government assumed direct control of the Royal Niger Company’s territories, the northern areas were named The Protectorate of Northern Nigeria. The lands in the Niger Delta and lower reaches of the river were added to the Niger Coast Protectorates, and later renamed protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The colony lasted from 1900 to 1960, after which Nigeria gained independence.

The Royal Niger Company ruled a great part of the country from 1886-1899 but passed it to the British crown in 1900. Prior to the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorate, Lagos was the capital of the South while Zungeru was the capital of the North. This amalgamation was recommended by Sir Frederick Lugard. On January 1, 1914, The Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria under a single Governor General was formed. 

Colonial Nigeria Assembly
Colonial Masters with the locals

Nigeria after that amalgamation has been plagued with crisis due to diverse ethnic, religious and cultural differences. The southern protectorate was divided into two provinces in 1939 – Western and Eastern- and in 1954 along with the north were renamed Western, Eastern and Northern regions.

After military conquest of the regions, the British adopted an economic system specifically modeled to make profit from African labor.

Trading Activities

The principal commodities were palm oil and palm kernels mainly from eastern region which were used in Europe to make soap and lubricants for machinery.  The oil trade rapidly expanded in the 1830, the same period slave exports collapsed. The Niger Delta and Calabar which were known for export of slaves became notable for export of palm oil.

The western region was rich in cash crops like Cocoa which was in high demand by European merchants for their chocolate factories. The North provided the European traders with cereals and groundnuts which made the North one of the largest producers of groundnuts, with pyramids of it scattered across the Northern region.

Initially Europeans traded on board their ships as trading stations and warehouses moored at that harbors and later built depots onshore and thereafter   moved up the Niger to establish stations in the interior.

Influence of Missionaries in Colonial Nigeria

Portuguese Roman Catholic priest who accompanied traders and officials to the West African coast introduced Christianity to the Edo Empire in the 15 century. Several churches were built to serve the Edo community. But the spread of Christianity and influence of Catholic Missionaries waned after Portuguese contacts were withdrawn.

 Christianity was however brought back in the 1840s by British missionaries through Lagos and Ibadan. The first missions were opened by the Church of England, Church Missionary Society (CMS). In the 1860s, Roman Catholic religious orders established missions too and were active among the Igbo tribe, while the CMS focused and worked more among the Yoruba. These missions helped in promoting Education, health and general welfare of the communities they operated in. Within this period they transformed the religious beliefs of the locals by destroying beliefs in secret societies, human sacrifice which had hitherto been a part of community life.

The British rulers however shielded the north from any form of interaction or contact with missionaries.

European Explorers in Colonial Nigeria

Several explorers were commissioned by the British to explore the interior along the Niger River. Explorers like Mungo Park, Hugo Clapperton and others tried but succumbed to malaria. Exploring the hinterlands posed a serious challenge to the European traders and explorers due to the terrain and climatic conditions with a good number falling to malaria. However by 1850s quinine had been discovered as a medicine for malaria. With this break through a Liverpool Merchant was able to accomplish the mission of exploring the River Niger.


The British led series of military campaigns-to enlarge its sphere of influence and expand its commercial opportunities- done mostly by Hausa soldiers recruited to fight against other groups. In 1892 British forces fought with the Ijebu Kingdom which had resisted missionaries and foreign traders. The Ijebus were defeated which led to further incursion and conquer of Yoruba land which had been weakened by sixteen years of internal wars. Thereafter they signed new treaties with the British and were joined with the protectorate of Lagos by 1893.

In 1896-1897 Edo Empire was captured and the Oba of Benin, Ovonramwen was sent on Exile.

Conquering Igbo land proved difficulty for the British due to a lack of central political organization which they would have manipulated to achieve their objectives. From 1901-1902 the British launched the Anglo-Aro war and despite conquering them, political control of the Igbos remained elusive.

Campaign against the Sokoto Caliphate began in 1900 with the creation of the protectorate of Northern Nigeria. Kano was conquered in 1903 as well as other parts of North.

Political Rule under the Crown

The plan to relinquish power by the British crown to Nigerians began as far back as 1897.col Frederick Lugard had created the Royal West African Frontier Force RWAFF, 2,600 men strong with the bulk of the force recruited mainly from the Hausa and Yoruba tribe.

British Queen in NIgeria
British Queen observing guard of honor

Meanwhile the British government had taken control of territories once controlled by the Royal Niger Company which they paid the sum of 865,000 pounds for; compensation for loss of its charter.

Lugard went further to impose political authority over the territory with the use of force from 1900-1906. Subsequently trade by barter was supplanted by the use of the British currency which thus became a legal tender. The territory had its administrators and staffs drawn from university-trained British upper middle class citizens. The governors had military backgrounds and were all knighted with the most visible and popular administrator being Frederick Lugard. He helped consolidate British influence and recognition throughout the region with the use of force were diplomacy failed.

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