CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK
BY 1870, there were also French merchants trading side by side with the British on the Niger. In order to eliminate competition
among themselves and so increase their profits, and to present a common front to their French rivals, the British firms amalgamated in 1879 under the name of the United African Company. This was changed first (in 1881) to the National African Company Limited, and later (in 1886) to the Royal Niger Company Chartered and Limited. It was in the latter name that the amalgamated British firms obtained a Royal Charter dated 10 July 1886.
It must be noted that the Charter did not confer on the Royal Niger Company monopoly of trade on the banks of the Niger, or in any other part of Nigeria. Indeed, the Charter specifically stipulated that’ … Nothing in this our Charter shall be deemed to authorize the Company to set up or grant any monopoly of trade …. ‘Consequently, various other British firms were free to, and did in fact, trade side by side with the Royal Niger Company. Under the Charter, however, the Company was made exclusively responsible for the peace and orderly government of the entire Niger basin together with the whole of what is now known as the Northern Provinces of Nigeria. In other words, like the famous East India Company, the Royal Niger Company was both a trading and a governing concern. It was believed that it discharged its incongruous responsibilities fairly well. It did lucrative business, and governed without excessive partiality. It organized an armed constabulary with British officers in charge. It instituted Courts of Justice, and appointed Sir James Marshall as Chief Justice. It imposed customs duties and trade licences on indigenous and other foreign traders desiring to trade within its jurisdiction. These imposts were levied with the stated object of raising revenue for civil and military administration, but they were not infrequently used as a monopoly weapon by means of which rival firms were completely excluded from buying and selling in the areas under the Company’s jurisdiction. In this connection, it must be pointed out that though the Company’s jurisdiction legally covered the Niger basin and the whole of the Northern Region of Nigeria, yet in practice its effective influence did not extend much beyond the banks of the Niger, the Benue, and the rivers in the immediate neighbourhood of its trading stations.
We have already seen that before the discovery of the Niger and of the access to it from the sea, British merchants had been trading along the coast of the Bights of Benin and Biafra. We have also seen that after 1808 it became illegal for British citizens to engage in slave-trade. Whilst, as we have noted, illicit traffic in slaves continued till about 1850, law-abiding British citizens turned their attention, from 1808, to legitimate articles of trade. So that at the time that Mungo Park, Clapperton, and the Landers were busy unravelling the mystery of the Niger in order to make the exploration and exploitation of the interior of the country possible, legitimate trade between Nigeria and Britain along our coast was steadily increasing. The ports of Warri, Lagos, Benin River, Old and New Calabar, Brass, and Bonny had become scenes of increasing activity and British steamships brought in assortments of manufactured goods, and carried away increasing varieties of primary commodities.
In the absence, however, of a body like the Royal Niger Company, exclusively charged with the responsibility for law and order, trading activities on the Bights of Benin and Biafra became somewhat chaotic. The members of each trading expedition were more or less a law unto themselves. To be sure, the Bights were frequently visited by British naval ships. But these visits had nothing to do with the supervision or regulation of trading activities.
They were made mainly in connection with Britain’s intensive campaign against the slave trade; and partly designed to provide protection for British citizens against threats to, and physical assaults on, their lives and property.
As time went on, however, the British merchants themselves felt the necessity for some form of supervision and regulation of their activities along the coast. In due course l!’ey made representations to this effect to their Government; and in 1849 Lord Palmerston appointed John Beecroft as Consul for the Bights of Benin and Biafra. By this appointment, Great Britain established her first-ever diplomatic link with Nigeria.
Before his appointment as Consul, Beecroft was a British Resident in Fernando Po, which, with Spain’s consent, had come under British rule in 1827. But in 1844 Spain re-asserted its right by again planting its flag on Fernando Po. As a result, Fernando Po was restored to Spanish rule; and Beecroft, who was then the British Resident there, was appointed by the Spanish Government as the Governor of the island. It was from his gubernatorial seat in Fernando Po that he was expected to discharge the consular responsibility laid upon him by the British Government ‘to regulate the legal trade between the ports of Benin, Brass, New and Old Calabar, Bonny, Bimbia, and the Cameroons’.
In 1845 Kosoko, grandson of Ologun Kutere, had deposed King Akintoye and usurped the throne of Lagos, after a very savage and bloody civil war. Akintoye fled to Abeokuta, from where he went to Badagry. After his ascension to the throne, Kosoko boosted, in his domain, the slave-trade, which had already suffered a severe setback as a result of Britain’s anti-slave-trade naval operations. He was also openly hostile and unfriendly to the British.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK