The slave trade once fuelled the commercial exploits of the Europeans and Americans and huge profits were made from this. But, with growing calls to abolish this evil method of extracting labour, the British found themselves no longer willing to participate in the slave trade. As industrialisation in Britain was gaining pace, there was now an increased demand for palm oil. It was used as a lubricant for industrial machinery.
The new demand for palm oil was very aggressive such that the British traders were merciless in their pursuit of these economic exploits. And at the same time, power rivalries among the local chiefs emerged. Palm oil is a tropical plant native to the Niger Delta. By 1870, palm oil had supplanted slave trade as the major commercial trade in the Niger Delta, the area that had been formerly known as the Slave Coast.
At first, much of the palm oil trade was an uncoordinated venture, as natives were able to sell the product to the highest bidder. They advanced the product to those who had the best deals. Native chiefs, as a result, became extremely wealthy because of this newfound trade. An example is King Jaja of Opobo.
Among the Europeans, there was intense competition as to who got the preferential access to the vastly profitable palm oil trade. In 1879, Sir George Dashwood Taubman Goldie (1846–1925), created the United African Company which took inspiration from the East India Company. Goldie also took control of the Lower Niger River. Goldie was determined to establish a commercial (and effectively a political) hegemony over Lower Niger River such that by 1884, his company had created 30 trading posts along the Lower Niger.
The 1884 Berlin Conference decided the fate of African countries, and the British desired all of the Niger Delta for themselves. This monopoly by Goldie gave the British an advantage over the French and Germans at the farcical conference. This is because the British got the area that the United Africa Company operated in as their sphere of influence.
With the competition from other Europeans brushed off, the attention now shifted to the local chiefs. The company, through ruse and subterfuge, signed with tribal chiefs along the Benue and Niger Rivers whilst also penetrating inland within two years (1884-1886). Verbal agreements had been made to confine Goldie's company's activities to the coastal areas, so much that this penetration inland was a violation of these agreements.
In 1886, the company changed its name to The National Africa Company and was granted a Royal Charter by the British government. The charter gave the company authority to administer the Niger Delta and all lands around the banks of the Benue and Niger Rivers. The company changed their name again to the more familiar Royal Niger Company. It still exists today as Unilever. (Listen to the song Another Story by Burna Boy and M.anifest).
The company was outright deceitful, for to the local chiefs they thought that it was a matter of free trade, but behind the scenes, the company entered private contracts on its own terms. These deceitful private contracts were written in English and signed by the local chiefs (they hardly understood the intricacies of the English legal language). And these contracts were enforced! When Jaja of Opobo tried to export the oil on his own, he was said to be obstructing commerce and was therefore sent into exile.
The Jaja ordeal made other chiefs to scrutinize the deals they were getting from the Royal Niger Company. Frederick William Koko Mingi VIII of Nembe kingdom was one of these rulers. The Royal Niger Company was encroaching into his territory, and was not in agreement with the monopoly enjoyed by the company. Therefore he sought favourable trading terms particularly with the Germans. The Royal Niger Company denied the locals direct access to their former markets and set pace on who they could trade with.
King Koko, in act of defiance and rebellion, denounced Christianity and formed an alliance with the kingdoms of Bonny and Okpoma to bring down the company. The Bonny never gave their support to the alliance but the plan proceeded nonetheless.
On January 29, 1895, King Koko launched and led an attack on the Royal Niger Company’s headquarters ( which was in Akassa in current day Bayelsa state.) King Koko managed to capture 60 white men as hostages though he lost 40 of his men. He also held several f of their goods.
King Koko would only release the hostages if he was allowed to trade with whoever he wanted to trade with but the British refused to concede to his demands and Koko then killed 40 of the hostages. Britain’s Royal Navy retaliated by attacking the area of Brass (Nembe) on February 20, 1895. They burned it to the ground, killing many of the people in the town.
By April 1895, the British had resumed their operations, but King Koko was now on the run. King Koko rejected the British settlement terms and disappeared. He however committed suicide in exile in 1898. All that while, the British had labelled him an outlaw. The British also fined the people of Brass £500 (today’s $35).
What all of this conflict did back in Britain was to destroy the reputation of the Royal Niger Company. There was no more public confidence in the company back home and the company's charter was revoked in 1899. With the charter revoked, it meant that the company no longer had the authority to administer the area it had once administered.
As a result, the company sold its holdings to the British government for £865,000. That was the amount that Britain paid to get the whole area that would be later known as Nigeria.
At the start of the song Another Story by Burna Boy and M.anifest, there are some thought-provoking words. "The British didn't travel halfway across the world just to spread democracy. Nigeria started off as a business deal for them, between a company and a government. Incidentally, the Niger Company is still around today, only it is known by a different name - Unilever..."
Credits - Africa Is A Country
Header image credit - BrundCrunch