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Colonial History of Nigeria: Slave Trade, Resource Extraction, and the Invention of a National Territory

By Kaitlyn Alme

The colonial period in Nigeria began with the slave trade in the 15th century. According to an article from The Commonwealth entitled "Nigeria: History," the Portuguese paved the way for the slave trade, and Nigeria was a big area of business for them. They sold slaves in order to obtain spices and weapons in other areas. However, the article written by John Edward Phillips entitled "What's New About African History?" states that the Nigerians themselves were the ones who provided the slaves. Tensions between different ethnic groups and tribes caused prisoners of war, so to speak, who would be sold to the Portuguese as slaves. For many Nigerians, this was their main source of income.

"Nigeria: History" also states that by the 18th century, the British had replaced the Portuguese as the leaders of the slave- trade business. According to Google Culture Institute's "Birth of the Nigerian Colony," British traders settled in Nigeria around this time in an area that surrounded the Niger River known as Lagos. The abolition of the slave trade was the key moment when the British truly “intervened in the region.” They placed their focus on obtaining goods to increase their ability to trade, as well as on converting the people of the area, which was previously heavily Muslim, to Christianity.

The British began their colonization of the area by slowly moving around the area and defeating different power heads in order to obtain more trading goods. According to an article written by Toyin Falola titled "Nigeria as a Colony," the British government gained control over the Royal Niger Company’s territories, and added on lower regions near the river to create the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The British kept their control over Nigeria via indirect rule, which meant that local leaders would govern the area under orders of the British. This way, the British could profit from the economy of Nigeria that, because of their intervention, was based primarily on the export of different crops including palm oil, cacao, and peanuts, while also not getting in the way of ethnic tensions.

Falola also writes that in order to deal with the diversity of groups of the area they had essentially created and defined as a colony, the British created a “divide and rule policy” that could keep different Nigerian groups as far away from one another as possible. Further divisions among the country came about from the fact that “traditional authorities” led the north, and subsequently Islam resisted the spread of Christianity. The south, however, was home of a “political hierarchy” in which the British “ruled through those who were most malleable.” Here Christianity spread quickly, adding further tensions to the area by separating people in both religion and politics.

Following WWII, Kamerun (Cameroon), a former German colony, was to be divided based on a League of Nations Mandate between the British and the French. According to Falola, the British added their part of the Former German colony to Nigeria, and once again, the diversity within the borders of Nigeria expanded. The British had a hard time keeping control of Nigeria, partly due to the trouble between groups and partly due to Pan-Africanism and the struggle to liberate black people form racism and European domination. The movement inspired the first political party of Nigeria, which fought against the British rule via the youth, the media, the educated, and the farmers. 

The response of the British included slowly changing the governing system within Nigeria in order to allow the Nigerian people to have more of a voice. However, this resulted in further divisions and disagreements among Nigerians. Near the mid 20th century, many groups in Nigeria were fearful of gaining independence, for they knew the major ethnic groups would gain control of the new country. However, by 1960, Nigeria achieved its independence (Falola). 

The following map shows 21st century Nigeria and the major ethnic groups that live within the country. Because the colonial powers drew national borders around so many different groups, the postcolonial history includes the struggle for power among various factions. To learn about other issues regarding Nigeria's population and government in the viewpoint of a Nigerian author, see this page. 

Works Cited


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