The People’s Republic: How they came


THE abolition of slavery involved Great Britain in enormous expenditure. She paid the sum of £20m, as compensation to British slave owners for the emancipation of their slaves. The sum of £400,000 was paid to Spain for the right to search her ships for slaves. In addition to cancelling a debt of £600,000, she paid Portugal £300,000 for similar rights north of the equator. In spite of all this, illicit trading in slaves lingered on in different parts of Nigeria till about the end of 1850.

As we have noted, the British merchants dealt not only in slaves but also in commodities like ivory, pepper, and palm oil. The trade in the more regular articles of commerce grew step by step with the slave-trade and outlasted it. After almost 300 years of contact, the British merchants were left in no doubt as to the rich economic potential of the territory, some of whose resources they had been tapping along the coast of the Bights of Benin and Biafra. But the interior of the territory remained a closed book, and its vast wealth unexplored and unexploited.

In contemplating the exploration and exploitation of the country’s interior, the first problem that had to be solved was that of communication. Suitable roads were non-existent. In any case, for British adventurers who had to do about 4,000 miles of sea voyage before reaching our shores, the safest and most welcome routes for penetrating the hinterland would be navigable rivers.

The existence of the River Niger had been known to the Western world for centuries; but its actual course remained a mystery. With a growing awareness of the economic potentialities of Nigeria, British businessmen were determined to solve this mystery. Accordingly, a body known as the African Association was formed in Britain in 1788, with the object generally of exploring Africa, and more particularly of discovering the course of the Niger.

The first person who offered his services to the African Association was John Ledyard. He had planned to discover the Niger via Egypt. But he died in Cairo. Two other unsuccessful attempts were made by Lucas and Houghton, both under the auspices of the Association, in 1789 and 1791 respectively. It was four years after the failure of the third attempt that another offer was forthcoming. This time, it was from a young and intrepid Scottish doctor, by name Mungo Park. His expedition was successful; and, because of that success, he became famous and immortal. On 20 July 1796, he discovered the Niger, which he exultantly and with poetical afflatus described as ‘the long sought for, majestic Niger, glittering to (he morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly eastward.’

Mungo Park returned home to Britain in December 1797, having solved the mystery surrounding the direction of the Niger, but

not that surrounding its exact course and termination. There was a legend that the Niger flowed into an inland lake or swamp. In fact, an authoritative opinion was expressed as late as 1829 that the Niger, ‘after losing itself underground in the deserts beyond Lake Chad, eventually debouched through marsh and quicksand into the waters of the Mediterranean.’

Nothing, however, happened until 1805 when another expedition, under the auspices of the British Government and commanded by Mungo Park, was sent out to discover the actual course and termination of the Niger. From this expedition, Park never returned. He, together with his four surviving and ailing white companions and three Africa slaves, perished in 1806 near Bussa, north of Jebba, on the self-same ‘majestic Niger.’

After Mungo Park’s death, various other expeditions—some of them commanded by names well known to educated Nigerians, like Denham, Clapperton, and Richard and John Lander—were launched with a view to completing the task which Mungo Park had so well begun. Final victory came in 1830 when the Landers discovered that the ‘lordly Niger’ emptied itself, through unnumbered channels, into the Atlantic Ocean.

Thus the mystery of a great African river was solved; and in the wake of that solution, a new era of legitimate commerce, economic exploitation, political subjugation, and cultural transformation dawned on Nigeria.

Soon after the Landers had made their discovery known, McGregor Laird—another name well known to Nigerians—proceeded to form a company with the object of trading on the Niger. He was a Liverpool merchant, and by 1832 two steamers under his leadership had entered the creeks of the Niger Delta. It was the first time that any oceangoing craft did so. This first venture was, however, more an exploration of parts of Nigeria’s hinterland than a trading expedition. Laird was only able to get as far as Lokoja. He lost eighteen of his men in the process, and he himself became seriously ill.

To the British merchants and adventurers wanting to do direct business with the hinterland of Nigeria, the problem was no longer lack of means of access to the market. They were now harassed and nonplussed by a fell disease -later identified as malaria—which constantly took a heavy toll of any group of Europeans who dared to venture beyond the Bights. However, nothing daunted, the British merchants persevered, and by 1860 they had established trading stations along the banks of the Niger. It is apposite to mention

that the British mercantile occupation of Nigeria at this time was very much facilitated by the discovery in 1854 of quinine, which was used both as prophylactic and cure for malaria.


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