by Ian McCall

Chapter 7 - JAJA (2) The Effect of Economic Change

These changes which confronted King Jaja were taking place within a much wider context of change. Industrial innovations were being made in Britain with unprecedented speed and were beginning to spread to the near continent. The focus on mechanical engineering in Europe and the Americas brought forth new and improved products which needed palm oil, from the lubrication of axle boxes on railway rolling stock to its use as a flux in the manufacture of tinplate in the new steel mills themselves fuelled by the demand for new, steel-plated warships to maintain Britain`s ocean superiority without which the Empire would break up. Expanding populations in later Victorian times believed cleanliness was next to godliness and generated a demand for the mass market in soap for which palm oil was required in increasing quantities. The main fat used to make soap was tallow but in order to make a good lather it had to be blended with vegetable oil of which the best was palm oil. This in turn encouraged new competitors to enter the trade.

The development of steamship communication between Britain and the West African coast assisted this new competition. Steam transport was far quicker than sail and meant that traders could carry lower stocks on the coast and so reduce costs. Also, it speeded up the turnover. Consequently, palm oil could be changed into money much faster further reducing the amount of money needed to finance the business. Ships could be made bigger with a corresponding increase in carrying capacity and therefore promised a long-term reduction in freight rates. They would have an increased flexibility in that routes no longer needed to take account of the prevailing winds. This meant that other ports could be integrated into the export trade so reducing yet further long-run costs. With less money outstanding in credit at any one time, new competitors were arguably, demonstrably and increasingly able to enter the oil rivers trade as steam slowly took over from sail..

Another significant change was the move away from sending out ships which waited for the palm oil to come in from the sale of the goods it had brought out. These would sometimes wait for months until all the oil bought with the advances in goods was forthcoming. The ship`s captains or other managers of the venture were replaced by permanent agents based on the hulks of old sailing ships made redundant by the advent of the steamships and the ships began to specialise in carriage of goods. The agents traded from these permanently moored vessels and supplemented the storage space with land rented on shore to store the casks of oil where a buffer stock could be maintained to facilitate a quicker loading and release of the vessel. With the eventual arrival of the bigger, more expensive screw-propelled ships, owners realised that the high cost of the ship is best recovered by the number of journeys it can make and the speed with which it can be unloaded and loaded. Because of this, the use of trading hulks was to decline as the new land-based storage became the established mode. As specialist shipping companies became more and more important, the European traders acquired more and bigger ‘beaches’ or sites where the palm oil could be kept and shipped on the arrival of the steamer for transport to the markets, usually to the port of Liverpool which had a virtual monopoly of the West African trade. Company houses were set up on the beaches and the agent became shore-based. Divorce of the ownership of the vessel from the trade in palm oil was complete. Among the new competitors who became part of the produce trading scene were other British companies and French, German and Dutch companies as well as Krio traders who were freed slaves or their descendants who had populated the coastal areas of Sierra Leone.

The traders introduced new practices as a result of the changes. The old method of charging comey according to a ship’s tonnage or number of masts was replaced by a standard charge for a puncheon of oil. The gifts or dashes paid to the African middlemen and others also became standard charges as a direct result of the arrival of the steamship. Ships now carried oil for a variety of traders. Because of these changes, the chiefs felt they had less and less control over the way palm oil was distributed and paid for. Their autonomy was being circumscribed at many points. Cash trading, pioneered by the German firm G.L. Gaiser, gave a lead to other firms. The oil trade came to rely on paper receipts which the African middleman would receive for his oil to redeem for goods at leisure. This made it possible to separate the sale of goods from the purchase of produce. It was part of an inexorable movement towards ending the trust system. If the trust system of credit relied on relationships, the deterioration of the relationships and the removal of the practices that sustained them put an end to it. It marked the end of distribution based on the kinds of relationships established in the days of the slave trade. Traders of European origin were now less interested in making strong social relationships with Africans than interacting with other traders with whom they had a common interest. The development of factories and houses threw the European communities together. The future was one where practice based on local custom was giving way to one determined by the expatriate companies and by the British authorities who would gradually assume a greater say in the way in which the broader conduct of business was determined.

Innovations further to bring down costs were not possible within the existing political structure. Some European firms had tried to move inland with the idea of buying export crops more cheaply from the producers than from the coastal middlemen, only to be met with violence and destruction. This coincided with a period of depressed prices in the 1880s and a fall in value of local currencies like the manilla and the iron bar. It requires little imagination to see that rivalries between the various parties with interests in the trade would be likely to arise - between the tribes on the coast over areas of influence; between African traders on the coast and up-country suppliers who saw direct access to the European companies as a solution to the reduced prices; between the European companies and the African middlemen about the distribution of reduced profits; and between the middlemen and the small intermediaries and primary producers again on price. This had the effect of sporadic interruptions of trade as minor wars broke out between tribes or strong coastal chiefs sought to suppress any attempt to short-circuit the purchase of palm oil by up-river entrepreneurs by punitive means. Allegations abounded of malpractice as the old trust arrangements foundered and adulteration of palm oil by some African middlemen and misrepresentation of the quality and specification of goods by some European traders proliferated.

The instability of the times was made worse by the phenomenon which induced the European powers to partition Africa among them. It was a development that was taking place on a worldwide scale but appeared to have been triggered by France seeking to expunge the memory of military defeat by Germany in 1870 by expanding its area of influence from its existing settlements in Algeria and Senegal. Germany, only recently united under Prince Bismarck, felt that the possession of colonies would help it economically to maintain parity with the other European powers already established in various parts of the world. The chief exception was the basin of the Congo which, curiously enough, slipped through the hands of the principal imperial powers, Britain and France, and was secured by a royal speculator Leopold 11 of Belgium, masquerading as a philanthropic society, as Neal Ascherson tellingly describes in his masterly analysis The King Incorporated. Between 1880 and 1914 Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and the USA all systematically attempted to translate economic and military supremacy into formal conquest, annexation and on-the-spot administration. But it was in Africa that the European powers competed most vigorously to carve out slices of the continent for themselves. After the 1884-85 Berlin Conference called by Bismarck, the German Chancellor, to settle areas of colonial authority, there was a race to make treaties with local chiefs as the major players vied with each other to legitimate their claims supported in the cases of ‘difficult’ chiefs by military action where the chiefs did not accept the offer of protection. In the process it stimulated exploration of the lesser known parts of the continent. This of itself encouraged firms to extend their reach, particularly since there was now a back-up of military and naval force of a size and power that had not existed until this time. In the Niger Delta, European traders felt they could now appeal to the authority of the local consul with a greater likelihood of his support than in the past.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003