by Ian McCall

Chapter 11 - GEORGE GOLDIE (2): From Economic to Political Power

Goldie’s company upset a number of constituencies. The exclusion from the palm oil trade, as a result of the company’s actions, of the Africans of the Oil Rivers Protectorate which was not within the territory of the company, provoked opposition on the part of the oil intermediaries in the area and the traders of the African Association, a group of Liverpool companies which bought the palm oil from the producers now restricted to the area immediately behind the coastal towns. The Liverpool traders were somewhat reluctant to complain over-loudly as they were aspiring to the same chartered status as was now held by the Royal Niger Company and felt they could not oppose the principle of chartered company administration. A rumoured amalgamation of the Royal Niger Company and the African Association alarmed the shipping companies who feared the monopoly power of such a large concentration of buying power. Goldie took advantage of the rumour and implied that if their opposition did not cease, the combined interests of the Royal Niger Company and the African Association would establish a new shipping line. This opposition forced a real consideration by officials in London of the problem of responsibility and control. In 1889, a Major Claude Maxwell Macdonald was appointed to ‘inquire into certain questions affecting Imperial and Colonial interests in the West Coast of Africa and into the position of the Royal Niger Company’. During his investigations the traders of Brass complained to him bitterly that they were now treated as foreigners and that their traditional trade among the tribes of the Delta under the Royal Niger Company’s jurisdiction was thwarted by the company’s regulations and enforcing mechanisms and that they had to resort to smuggling to win a living for themselves.

Macdonald’s report found the company was operating within its rights in enforcing the regulations of which the Brassmen complained. Equally it found that these same regulations operated unfairly against the men of Brass. If Brass had been included within the Company’s territory, there would have been little for the Brassmen to complain about. It was not in fact the fault of the company that Brass had not been included. Historians have little doubt, however, that the steps taken by the Company to consolidate its monopoly infringed the spirit of free trade it claimed to embrace. As the years passed by and nothing was done to alleviate the condition of the Brassmen, so did the injustice start to fester. They were excluded from traditional markets and the government, although sounding as if it wanted to help, was doing nothing to arrest Brass’s steady decline. In January 1895, some fifteen hundred warriors from Brass fell upon Akassa where the company’s headquarters were and attacked its property which was destroyed or plundered. African staff of the company, Krios from Sierra Leone, were carried off and forty three of them were butchered and eaten. It is noteworthy that Christian chiefs of Brass and its allies refused to give up their prisoners or join in the cannibal feast. The attack occasioned a punitive expedition which destroyed the town of Brass despite the handsome apology by King Koko for the attack on the company ‘particularly in the killing and eating of parts of its employees… . We now throw ourselves entirely at the mercy of the good old Queen, knowing her to be a most kind, tender-hearted and sympathetic old mother’. It is certain that the attack on the company’s centre at Akassa was triggered by economic pressures. It was without doubt compounded psychologically by the strongly felt humbling of a once-proud city state, called indeed by one historian ‘the Venice of the Niger Delta’, that had been dominant in the palm oil trade.

At about the same time the company was involved in a struggle with the Fulani Emirs of Nupe and Ilorin in the middle of what is now Nigeria. These people raided for slaves even the villages along the banks of the Niger under the company’s protection. All attempts to secure a peaceful solution having proved fruitless, Goldie decided to take action. A successful campaign was fought against both Emirs despite heroic opposition from their followers both mounted and on foot. The terms imposed on the Nupe and Ilorin included recognition of the suzerainty of the company. Goldie abolished the legal status of slavery within the company’s territories. The proclamation had little practical effect as it simply meant that slavery was no longer recognised in the company courts which in any case did not exercise jurisdiction in the emirates. The political settlement with both Nupe and Ilorin was a lenient one. Goldie had continued to correspond with the Emirs from the first, convinced that the fault lay as much with the Lagos government as with Ilorin. This was to lay the foundation for a preference on the part of the Emirs for nominal British rather than direct French control of their affairs.

In the meantime the French, who had long been unhappy about the company’s claimed authority over a wide area of the Middle Niger where its influence was negligible, and dismayed by the absorption of the French companies within what had become the Royal Niger Company in 1885, were seeking new territories to rule. The Company exercised an effective control over a very small proportion of the vast territory that was nominally under its government but maintained the image that it was in complete control. France was supreme on the Upper Niger. Among a group in France pressing for an extension of empire there was a hope that French influence might be expanded by treaty over those areas which lay on the ill-defined borders of the British Protectorate next to Dahomey in the area known as Borgu.

A Captain Decoeur left France in 1894 to obtain a treaty with the chief of Nikki to whom the chief of Bussa, a town in company territory, was vassal according to a French claim. Goldie heard of his departure and despatched Captain Frederick Lugard to forestall him which he did. A subsequent French expedition occupied Bussa which was open to navigation up the Niger from the sea and so threatened the company’s monopoly. This followed an attempt by a Lieutenant Mizon with an armed party to sail up the Niger to make a treaty with a local emir. Mizon was however discredited in France as a result of an over-zealous use of artillery in support of the emir against villages opposed to him. The French saw a growing willingness to use imperial funds to expand and defend British interests on the Niger as an attempt to frustrate their design for a compact block of North and West African territory. The Marchand expedition was already on its way to Fashoda to anticipate Kitchener’s advance on the Upper Nile. The Niger crisis was thus brought to the forefront of international politics. Goldie could not hope to maintain his existing position which focused entirely on the Niger. In spite of his earlier diplomatic triumphs, he could not expect to shape policies that had to take account of worldwide interests. When imperial troops duly made their appearance on the company’s territories, Goldie’s influence even on local issues was undermined. His claim to Bussa was legitimated by an eventual agreement between France and Britain that included issues across different territories in which there was some dispute concerning ownership or access.

The charter company had outlived its usefulness, a long time before this some would say. Goldie was able to negotiate a generous settlement for the takeover of his political commitments and the costs he had incurred in the British interest. He had made a major contribution to the building of Nigeria. Indeed he had done more than any other man, but the degree to which his talents and determination laid the country’s foundation has never been fully acknowledged. Unlike Lugard, he left only the communications he was unable to destroy. Neither did he have the high profiling Lugard received from his admirer and later his wife, Flora Shaw, the colonial correspondent of The Times nor the influence with Joe Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary, that she was able to exercise in Lugard’s interest. Goldie’s genius had played a leading part not only in conceiving effective indirect rule in the Emirates, but also in laying down the policy which Lugard was instructed to follow. Lugard put the flesh on the bones of Goldie’s ideas which were developed as early as 1886 based on the company’s experience since 1879, albeit as justification of a budget totally inadequate for any form of direct administration. The idea was not new, having been introduced a century and a half earlier in parts of India, a fact that impressed Lugard. It was also a form of rule implemented by the Roman administration during the occupation of Celtic Britain and indeed conceived before that and applied in some provinces of the Roman Empire like Vasconia, the land of the oldest of the Europeans - the Basques. While establishing Roman law and direct administration in most territories of their empire, Roman leaders were able to distinguish where it was not politic to do this but to rule through the natural power holders. Even earlier, Alexander the Great ruled the conquered Persian Empire through `satraps`, the powerful rulers through whom even the Persians had administered their empire.

Goldie`s light touch in relation to the Emirates convinced the Emirs that they indeed retained their authority whereas the French had shown a heavy-handedness that had not endeared them to these leaders. He had shaped not only the physical configuration and political direction of much of Nigeria but had laid the foundation of a mighty company that would be dominant for years in the West African produce and retail trade. The revocation of the Royal Niger Company`s Charter removed the underlying grievances the Brassmen had but by this time the city state had gone into economic decline.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003