Who sold Nigeria to the British


Who sold Nigeria to the British for £865k in 1899?

Today we will be discussing the first oil war, which was fought in the 19th century, in the area that became Nigeria.

All through the 19th century, palm oil was highly sought-after by the British, for use as an industrial lubricant for machinery. Remember that Britain was the world’s first industrialised nation, so they needed resources such as palm oil to maintain that.

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 wealth comes influence.
However, among the Europeans, there was competition for who would get preferential access to the lucrative oil palm trade. In 1879, George Goldie (1846 – 1925, pictured above) formed the United African Company, 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.
When the Brits got the terms they wanted from other Europeans, they began to deal with the African chiefs. Within two years of 1886, Goldie had signed treaties with tribal chiefs along the Benue and Niger Rivers whilst also penetrating inland. This move inland was against the spirit of verbal agreements that had been made to restrict the organisation’s activities to coastal regions.
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.
To local chiefs, the Royal Niger Company negotiators had pledged free trade in the region. Behind, they entered private contracts on their terms. Because the (deceitful) private contracts were often written in English and signed by the local chiefs, the British government enforced them. So for example, Jaja of Opobo, when he tried to export palm oil on his own, was forced into exile for “obstructing commerce”. As an aside, Jaja was “forgiven” in 1891 and allowed to return home, but he died on the way back, 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 the Royal Nigeria Company. One of such kingdoms was Nembe, who’s king, Koko Mingi VIII, ascended the throne in 1889 after being a Christian schoolteacher. Koko Mingi VIII, King Koko for short, and like most rulers in the yard, was faced with the Royal Nigeria Company encroachment. He also resented the monopoly enjoyed by the the Royal Nigeria Company, and tried to seek out favourable trading terms, with particularly the Germans in Kamerun.
By 1894 the the Royal Nigeria Company increasingly dictated whom the natives could trade with, and denied them direct access to their former markets.
In late 1894, King Koko renounced Christianity, and tried to form an alliance with Bonny and Okpoma against the the Royal Nigeria Company to take back the trade. This is significant because while Okpoma joined up, Bonny refused. A harbinger of the successful “divide and rule” tactic.
On 29 January 1895, King Koko led an attack on the Royal Niger Company’s headquarters, which was in Akassa in today’s Bayelsa state. The pre-dawn raid had more than a thousand men involved. King Koko’s attack succeeded in capturing the base. Losing 40 of his men, King Koko captured 60 white men as hostages, as well as a lot of goods, ammunition and a Maxim gun. Koko then attempted to negotiate a release of the hostages in exchange for being allowed to chose his trading partners. The British refused to negotiate with Koko, and he had forty of the hostages killed. A British report claimed that the Nembe people ate them. On 20 February 1895, Britain’s Royal Navy, under Admiral Beford attacked Brass, and burned it to the ground. Many Nembe people died and smallpox finished off a lot of others.
By April 1895, 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, £26,825 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 settlement by the British, which he rejected and disappeared. The British promptly declared him an outlaw and offered a reward of £200 (£10,730 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 under way.

The immediate effect of the Brass Oil War was that public opinion in Britain turned against the the Royal Nigeria Company, so its charter was revoked in 1899. Following the revoking of its charter, the the Royal Niger Company sold its holdings to the British government for £865,000 (£46,407,250 today). That amount, £46,407,250 (NGN12,550,427,783.81 at today’s exchange rate) was effectively the price Britain paid, to buy the territory which was to become known as Nigeria.


Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was on the throne during the British invasion of Benin City in 1897. To prepare the grounds before the invasion, the British first sneaked military spies into Benin, to infiltrate the nation´s security system during the Igue festival, a period of acute spiritual sensitivity for Edo people, when their monarch goes into seclusion for two weeks for spiritual cleansing and cannot receive visitors. The spies were eliminated for their hostile acts. The British then sent a delegation to Benin in March 1892. The delegation was led by Capt. Henry L. Gallwey, the Vice Consul for the Benin River District of the Niger Coast Protectorate, supposedly to conclude a Treaty of Protection with Oba Ovonramwen of Benin. The British had deceived King Dosumu of Lagos to sign a similar treaty that ceded Lagos to the British in 1861.

They forced the same kind of treaty on the Jaja of Opopo in 1887 to gain access and economic control of the eastern coast of Nigeria. Quoting Capt. Henry Gallwey, who after retirement became Sir Henry Gallwey, in a report on the 1892 visit to Benin, for the Journal of the African Society of April 1930, under the title: Nigeria in the (Eighteen) Nineties, he wrote in part: Any idea I may have had of being received by the king the day I arrived was very soon dispelled. After being kept waiting for three days, I sent word to say that I could wait no longer. To support my threat, every half-hour, I sent a carrier away with a load I did not require, telling them where to wait for me. This artifice rather worried the king, and he sent word to me asking me not to be vexed, as my interpreters put it. However, that afternoon, it was arranged for me to have audience with the king. I accordingly donned my uniform and sallied out with my companions into the burning heat of the afternoon, a most unreasonable time of day at which to hold a palaver. I am afraid, however, that the kings of Benin were never renowned for their reasonable natures. In spite of these pinpricks, it was all very interesting and amusing, and I never gave a thought to the discomfort of being encased in a dress intended to be won at levees and such functions in temperate climes.

After attempting to compromise the nation´s security earlier on, the British delegation could not be received by the Oba of Benin immediately they arrived because of the need to check out their real mission. When the Oba signaled readiness to receive the delegates, they were in encased dress intended to be worn at levees, to the palace. In other words, they were in military uniform to the palace of an Oba who was weary of visits of Europeans. After the incidence of the Dutchman, Commandant Willem Hogg, who pulled a pistol and shot at Oba Oresoyen in 1735, while on a courtesy visit to the palace to discuss business matters with the Oba and his chiefs, Benin Obas became a little more careful about granting direct audience to European visitors

This is the genesis of the difficulties experienced by Capt. Gallwey while trying to have audience with the Oba in 1892. At the palace, the disposition and mannerisms of the visitors had to be carefully studied before the Oba could receive them, since they were in military uniform. Capt. Gallwey said the Oba was unreasonable and then generalized as all Benin Obas are wont to be. He had made up his mind before the visit and was looking for excuses to set up Benin kingdom for British invasion. To emphasize that Benin was a special case to crack, the British rushed to force treaties on neighbouring territories. They attacked the Nana of Itsekiri, in their ´palm oil war´ in 1894 and exiled Nana to Ghana; attacked the Koko of Nembe in 1895, and the Ashanti Prempeh of Ashanti in 1896, to produce duress inspired spurious treaties to take control of the kings´ respective areas of influence.

The British accused Oba Ovonramwen of lack of cooperation, and to look good in the eyes of the rest of the world, added human sacrifice, as their reasons for launching their full-scale war on Benin in January 1897. The real reason for the British Expedition was that the British viewed the Benin kingdom as the main obstacle in their expansion drive into the agricultural interior of the West African coast from the River Niger. The war lasted for eight days from January to early February 1897, and went in their favour because of their big guns and cannons, which the Edo army did not have. After capturing the ancient city of Benin and slaughtering thousands of the natives in cold blood, to grossly depopulate the city, and the few survivors had escaped to farms and villages, the British ransacked the palace of the Oba, homes of nobles and chiefs, artistes´ workshops, and shrines, to rescue pagan art and relieve Benin of the evil. Then the British burnt the entire city down to the last house.

Akin Adeoya in the Sunday Guardian of March 29, 2009, wrote: There was a great kingdom of Benin that lasted for centuries with a highly stable administration and a civilization that built great highways and produced works of such great significance that the British who invaded and ultimately defeated the Ovonramwen´s gallant forces, nearly went mad with envy that not all their Christian piety or civility could help them resist the urge to steal these works of art, which their own civilization could not rival. These works of art, till today, still grace the shrines of the British Empire and civilization, the British Museum.

The palace of the Oba of Benin, according to Joshua Utzheimer, 1603, was about the size of the German City of Tubingen. This was razed down by fire by the British invading force, claiming to be on a civilizing mission. Is razing cities after the surviving few victims of their assault have surrendered, not the epitome of barbarism Can any thing be more callous than this Oba Ovonramwen who could not be captured but who surrendered to the British in August, 1897, was exiled to Calabar (in south-east Nigeria), where he died in January, 1914.

From accounts of members of the British army that invaded Benin City in 1897, we learn that the floors, lintels, and rafters of the council chambers and the king´s residence in the palace were lined with sheets of repoussé, decorated brass covered with royal geometric designs and figures of men and leopards. Ornamental ivory locks sealed the doors and carved ivory figurines surmounted anterior. A brass snake, observed for the first time by a European in the early eighteenth century, was still to be seen on the roof of the council chamber house. All of these, along with other invaluables, including precious works of arts, the invading British stole in the name of their king and country. What they could not steal or burn, they destroyed, including invaluable records of the Bini scintillating civilization, to allow their historians to falsify human history and African contributions.

According to Prof. Akin Ibidapo-Obe in: A Synthesis of African law, the British stripped Benin of its pagan art treasure..almost 2,500 of the famous Benin bronzes, valuable works of art such as the magnificent carved doors in the palace, were carried off to Europe for sale. Today, almost every museum of the world possesses an art treasure from Benin. It is important to relate the account of British brigandage and deliberate and wanton stealing of Africa´s invaluable art treasures to show that our culture was great and was envied. The tradition and way of life that spawned such great achievement was deliberately destroyed and history was falsified to justify the introduction of their obnoxious laws, some of which purported to forbid our traditional religion.

This is how Prof. Felix Van Luschan, a former official of the Berlin Museum for Volkerhunde, described what the British deviously called Pagan art of Benin; these works from Benin are equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique. Benvenuto Celini could not have cast them better, nor could any one else before or after him. Technically, these Bronzes represent the very highest possible achievement. Only a highly civilized nation could have borne the expenditure and facilities of such marvelous works of art, some of the best masterpieces in the history of mankind.

When the Nigerian government requested to loan a replica of the Idia Ivory mask for use during the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), held in 1977 in Lagos, Nigeria, from the British Museum of Mankind, the British authorities insisted on the Nigerian government depositing a sum of three million dollars before collecting the loaned copy. A 17th century Benin bronze head (nine inches high) stolen from the palace of Oba Ovonramwen, by the British invaders in 1897, was auctioned by Sotheby, New York, for US$550,000 in July, 2007.

Despite the British abuse of Edo culture and marginalization of Edo history, the splendour of Edo civilization continues to this day to astound and excite the world. Benin artifacts are among the most exquisite and coveted in world´s history, and the kingdom of Benin remains famous for its sophistication in social engineering and organization. The Bini Obaship institution is still one of the world´s most revered apart from being one of the most ancient. Edo was incorporated into what the British called the Niger Coast Protectorate, later known as the Southern Protectorate, and after annexing Arochukwu (Igboland) in 1902, and Hausa Fulani emirates in 1903, merged what they called Southern and Northern Protectorates in 1914 to form what in now Nigeria.


The campaign against Benin, a large city-state east of Lagos in what is now southern Nigeria involved the invasion and destruction of the state, the show trial of its king, the execution of its leading chiefs, the torching of the royal palace, and the burning of innumerable villages. Throughout the fighting, in which “friendly” black troops were put in the forward ranks, British forces were largely protected by the steady use of the Maxim machine-gun. These typical atrocities of the British colonial era go unmentioned in the museum’s accompanying wall notice, a continuing indication of Britain’s official reluctance to come to terms with the real cost of its imperial past. Since 1997 and until his recent death, Bernie Grant, a Labour MP, was backing a campaign for the looted treasures held in museums in London and Scotland to he returned to the King of Benin.
The British “punitive expedition” of 1897 did not just result in the seizure of the Benin bronzes. It also helped to inspire Joseph Conrad’s great novel Heart of Darkness. Thanks to the researches of the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist we have a detailed knowledge of what Conrad had been reading when he started writing at the end of 1898. In a new book, ‘Exterminate all the Brutes’, Lindqvist uses this fearsome phrase of Conrad’s anti-hero Kurtz to illuminate the European origins of genocide.
There was much celebration in 1997 for the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, but there were rather fewer memorial meetings recalling the centenary of the Empire’s heyday, when the British advanced into Africa like Hitler into the Ukraine.
The expedition against Benin was the culmination of several British assaults on the west African kingdoms that now form Nigeria. In 1897, it was the turn of Oba Ovonramwen, king of Benin, to deliver up his land, his people, and his treasures to a British army. The 40-year-old Oba had kept his kingdom isolated and independent, but the British were endlessly plotting to overcome his protectionist zeal. These were the years of the global rubber boom, consequent on John Dunlop’s invention of the rubber inner tube. The virgin forests of Benin looked especially attractive.
The man who encompassed the Oba’s downfall, Ralph Moor, was effectively the governor of Britain’s Niger Coast protectorate. Moor, 36, had long argued that Benin should be opened up to trade, “if necessary by force”. Like so many other colonial policemen, he had earlier been an inspector with the Royal Irish Constabulary, stifling rebellion in Ireland. Translated to Africa, he was to become one of Conrad’s Kurtz- figures, bringing “civilization” to the natives. Moor’s henchmen were equally keen for action. With Moor away in London his deputy, Lt James Phillips, requested permission from the Foreign Office in December 1896 “to depose and remove the King of Benin”. He sent a messenger to the Oba announcing an impending “visit” to Benin. Then without waiting for a reply, he advanced on the Oba’s kingdom – with a small force of 10 British officers, a column of 200 African porters and a drum-and-fife band. The Oba treated what seemed like an imminent British invasion as a national emergency. Later in the year from eye-witnesses, the British pieced together an account of what went on, explaining why the British Museum’s Benin bronzes, when first captured were found to he heavily caked with blood. “Twelve men were taken”, with 12 cows, goats, sheep and chickens. “The animals were killed near the altar and the blood from them was sprinkled on the ivories and the brass work.” The 12 prisoners, with gags tied in their mouths, and held each by four strong men”, were led to 3 wells where their heads were cut off. This was portrayed as a form of human sacrifice, and the British used it to justify the seizure and destruction of Benin. Yet the eyewitness accounts also stressed that those sacrificed were criminals already sentenced to death.
Unaware of these fearsome rituals, Lt Phillips pressed on regardless, and in Benin, it was decided that Chief Ologbosheri, the Oba’s son-in-law should be sent out with an armed group to check his advance. On 4 January, 1897, on the road to Benin, the British force was ambushed by Ologbosheri. Many of the African carriers were captured, and many left dead. Lt Phillips himself and eight British officers were killed. Only two of the whites escaped. It was an unexpected and unusual victory. Claims were later made that Lt Phillips’s expedition was unarmed. This was not so. The British officers took no machine-guns, but they had revolvers with them. In the African heat, they had been kept locked up in boxes carried by their African porters.
A brutal British response was not long in coming. The deaths of so many officers provided the opportunity that Ralph Moor had been looking for. “Force” could now be safely used against Benin. A “punitive expedition” was organized under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, the commander in-chief at Cape Town. Within a month, an elite force of 1,200 British soldiers, brought to the Benin River from 4,000 miles away (from London, Cape Town and Malta), had landed on the Nigerian coast, and teamed up with several hundred black troops, locally recruited. Thousands of African porters were brought from the British military base at Sierra Leone.
Admiral Rawson’s three pronged attack on Benin City in February 1897 was no pushover. Each of his advancing columns met strong resistance from the local African population. The first one was harassed by Benin soldiers for several days. The second one was attacked in its base camp and the commanding officer was killed. The story of the third one is given in the diary of Felix Roth, a naval surgeon. He provides considerable evidence of the indiscriminate way in which British forces used their machine-guns to mow down Benin resistance. “We shelled the village, and cleared it of the natives. As the launch and surf-boats grounded, we jumped into the water… at once placed our Maxims and guns in position, firing so as to clear the bush where the natives might be hiding. “Luckily, Roth recorded,” no white men were wounded; we all got off scot-free. “This providential protection was easily explained.” Our black troops, with the scouts in front and a few Maxims, do all the fighting.”
Benin City was finally captured on 18 February. British marines put the palaces and compounds to the torch. Worse was to come. After three days the fires got out of control, burning up what was left of the city as well as the equipment of the invading British force. Much of the carved woodwork in the Oba’s palace was lost. Thus was destroyed the great city of Benin. Miraculously, its extraordinary collection of bronze sculptures, depicting the chief events of the history of Benin’s people, had survived. These treasures were removed by the British troops and subsequently auctioned by the Admiralty to defray the cost of the expedition. Most of the 900 bronzes were bought by museums in Germany. Only a handful found their way to the British Museum.
For a further six months, a small British force harried the countryside in search of the Oba and his chiefs who had fled. Cattle were seized and villages destroyed. Not until August was the Oba cornered and brought back to his ruined city. An immense throng was assembled to witness the ritual humiliation that the British imposed on their subject peoples. The Oba was required to kneel down in front of the British military “resident” the town and to literally trite the dust. Supported by two chiefs, the king made obeisance three times, rubbing his forehead on the ground three times. He was told that he had been deposed.
Some weeks later, Ralph Moor, the orchestrator of these events, arrived to prepare the final humiliation. “Now this is white man’s country,” Moor told the Oba. “There is only one king in the country, and that is the white man.” The Oba and his chiefs were then subjected to a show trial. charged with the murder of Lt Phillips. Moor was the judge.
While the life of the Oba himself was spared, six of his chiefs were condemned to death. One of them, Ologhosheri, continued a guerrilla struggle against the British for another two years. But he too was eventually captured and hanged. The Oba was exiled to Calabar, and replaced by Chief Obaseki, a controller of many villages with rubber-producing forests. These were soon sold off to European firms, to supply the rubber for Europe. The British made much of the cruelties of the Benin kingdom in justifying their military action. In the jargon of the late 20th century, they would have claimed that they were acting to preserve human rights. Yet later investigation showed that the cruelties practiced in Benin were not as great as originally pictured. The idea of Benin rule “as one of bloodstained despotism”, wrote one historian, “appears at variance with the truth.”
Years later, in January 1914, the exiled Oba died in Calabar. Ralph Moor committed suicide in Barnes in September 1909, drinking the potassium cyanide he had bought to kill the wasps in his garden. Admiral Rawson became governor of New South Wales. And less than 20 years after the British had so recklessly turned their machine-guns on the Africans of Benin, they were to receive a taste of their own medicine in the First World War.
Meanwhile museums are refusing to return the Benin treasures. As one curator put it: “We are not in the business of redressing historic wrongs.”

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Author: Sir Godfrey Gregg

Sir Godfrey Gregg is one of the Administrators and managing Director of this site
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