WE have already (in Chapter 1) given a fairly full account of the enormous expenses incurred by Britain in her efforts to stamp out the slave-trade with Nigeria, and to abolish slavery in her own colonies. In this connection, it is apposite to recall the activities of those British nationals who, out of sheer humanity, fought long and hard for the abolition of the slave-trade and slavery. Specifically, we remember, with gratitude, Granville Sharp, who championed the cause of Somersett, the absconding Negro slave. We also remember that famous and immortal British crusader against the slave-trade and slavery, William Wilberforce. Assisted by a handful of others, he fought relentlessly for 20 years (from 1787 to 1807) before his noble objective was achieved.
When all this has been said and admitted, it must be pointed out with emphasis that at the time the House of Commons saw its way clear in 1807 to supporting Wilberforce’s resolution on the subject, slavery had ceased to be an economic proposition to the great majority of British capitalists.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, British owners of tobacco and sugar cane plantations were becoming seriously doubtful of the profitability of slavery. Furthermore, by 1807, the Industrial Revolution, under the impetus of the inventive genius which gave it birth, had gathered great, fascinating, and irresistible momentum. Three things were now badly needed by the British: (I) raw materials for their ever-growing factories; (2) the widest possible market for the disposal of the products of the factories; and (3) palm oil for lubricating the factory machines, as well as for lighting and the manufacture of soap.
The British were, in no doubt, even long before 1808; as was evidenced by their tenacity in the discovery of the Niger, that Nigeria was a rich source of raw materials and a potentially big market. Nigerian palm oil was already in use as a lubricant.
A new technique in the relationship between Britain and Nigeria, more humane and more civilised, albeit more subtle than that employed for the procurement of slaves, was, therefore, urgently called for.
The second period, which was one of pioneering legitimate trade, saw the unfolding of this new technique. Nigerians were no longer treated as slaves. But they were still looked upon as inferior human beings, and were subjected to shameless and unconscionable exploitation. The British reserved to themselves the right to dictate the prices of all the goods purchased and sold by them; and were in a unique position, vis-a-vis Nigerians which enabled them to enforce their dictates. In some parts of Nigeria, it was common practice to postpone discussions about prices until after the Nigerian dealer had been made thoroughly drunk on rum. Then all that the Nigerian received for his commodities, whatever their quantity, was an attire consisting of a top hat and a vest, together with a new name like ‘Fine Face’ or ‘Sea-Never-Dry’!
In addition to the inevitable spirits, merchandise like glass beads, coral, copper bracelets, yarn, linen and woollen cloth were given in exchange for ivory, pepper, palm oil and palm kernels. Rubber and mahogany were later additions. It must be noted that, during this period, arms and ammunition were no longer given by the British to Nigerians in exchange for goods!
Here again the sole and overriding motive of the British merchant adventurer was naked economic self-interest, and the consequent enrichment of his motherland.
Much has been made, by the apologists, of the intrepid exploits of Mungo Park, the Landers and others, in their efforts to discover the Niger. As can be clearly seen in the previous chapters, there is no doubt that for Mungo Park and others, the driving forces were the noble spirit of adventure and the overpowering desire to contribute to human knowledge. But the same cannot be said for the gentlemen, back home in Britain, who had sponsored and financed the ventures of these brave men and martyrs to human knowledge. They had been impelled by motives of unabashed economic exploitation and the hope of eventual big financial gains, both for themselves and for their motherland.
The third period was characterised by an unbridled display of British national aggrandisement. As an economic, political, and military power, Britain was in the ascendant in the world. She had completely recovered from the humiliation which she had suffered about a century earlier in America, and had established a new and satisfying economic relationship with the latter. She had, since the loss of America, conquered or acquired new territories like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, all of which remained loyal to the mother country. She had subjugated India and a few other Asian territories. In a predatory alliance with France and America separately, she had compelled China and Japan, by force of arms, to do business – sometimes bad business, but lucrative for the British, as in the case of the opium trade with China – on her terms. The threats which the French revolution and its aftermath constituted had been dispelled. Napoleon Bonaparte had long since been defeated at Waterloo, and the long era of peace under Queen Victoria was in full swing.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK