by Ian McCall


It is 50 years since I boarded my first flight to Nigeria. I did not know what to expect. So there was no likelihood of my expectations being dashed. What unfolded was a jumble of exciting and, to begin with, chaotic events that took a long time to form any sort of pattern in my mind. It was seen and lived experience rather than observed and analysed events. I have sought to describe the country as I found it and the changes it underwent through the vehicle of my own work there. My work could only make sense in the light of what had gone before. To that extent this is a personal history of Nigeria. In as far as I needed to fill out the information I gleaned in my time in Nigeria, I have gone to the historical accounts in politics, economics and the social environment. These have informed and enriched my personal experiences. They were further highlighted by the vivid memory of others who could look back to a point in time that links history to the present. History and the memory of older people combine to put my own experience in a wider and hopefully more significant context. Because it is personal it includes the social scene which may give readers a view of day-to-day activities on the ground addressed neither by the memoirs of administrators nor by the researches of political and economic historians, the very nature of whose work often obscures vital human details. The brilliant three-volume work on the rise, the years of its climax and the decline of the British Empire by Jan Morris, focuses largely on India, the jewel in the crown, and on what was to become the dominions and their place at the centre of imperial history. It tends to neglect some of the colonies and the lives that ordinary people lived in these territories. Out of 1600-odd pages, only some four or five refer directly to Nigeria. The proportion is not much higher in Lawrence James’s vivid account of the rise and fall of the British Empire. Michael Fry’s splendidly researched ‘The Scottish Empire’ which examines the role of Scots in the ebb and flow of imperialism, devotes some ten pages to the whole of West Africa out of some 500. Yet Nigeria was the most populous and potentially the most wealthy territory in Britain’s overseas empire outside India. Niall Ferguson, in his Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, traces empire back to money in his scholarly treatment of imperial history, but significantly, in my view, mirrors his predecessors in his focus on India and the Dominions. The generality of these imperial histories can become more focused and animated by the specifics of life as it was lived in Nigeria. This book, while having as its thrust economic and commercial factors as the drivers of exploration and progress, seeks to illuminate some of the historical record while also seeking to depict everyday events in the life of a serving officer. In the process, it encompasses the political developments leading to the achievement of independence. The first day of the new millennium marked 100 years since what is now Nigeria came directly under the aegis of the British government. That rule was to last but 60 years. It is a short span in historical evolution but reflects a sea change in the economic, political, commercial and social environment.

A young man’s early experiences colour his later life and it is only to be expected that attitudes, values, identities and worldview formed and transformed in the impressionable twenties will influence the more mature years. So it was to prove for me. My experience was largely confined to the south of the country and for that chance good fortune I shall always be grateful, for there it seems to me lies such a richness and diversity of cultures, language and history that I am moved to put it down insofar as it determined the engaging milieu in which I was to work. It was to provide me with an opportunity to explore and note aspects of the country and its recent history in a way not readily available to foreigners today. It would give me insights too into the fascinating world of pidgin English of which Nigeria, particularly the south of the country, has developed its own impressive variety and which has provided the title for this book. Its emergence and growth are a direct result of the commercial interactions that started with the gold, ivory and pepper trade, were further developed during the days of slaving and extended in the time of the so-called ‘legitimate’ palm oil trade. It is a product of the country’s commercial history and cannot be separated from it. Thankfully, we no longer see pidgin as an illiterate form of English but as a justifiable and creative form of communication that links people who would not otherwise be in meaningful contact.

That I am doing this more than forty years on from my time in Nigeria has advantages and disadvantages. Distance in time filters out detail that the subconscious does not particularly want to retain. Unlike the diarist who records matters of concern meticulously on a daily basis, the memory is selective in that only these memories are brought back that leave an acceptable impression, no matter how trivial. Memory is not neutral. It cannot be objective since objectivity is difficult to ascertain, being the sum total of all possible subjectivities. We do not recall so much as reconstruct, rather like football supporters bringing to mind a perceived unjust decision of the referee, in a way that is favourable to the outcome we prefer. What we remember reflects truly what is important to us even if we cannot explain it to ourselves.

As a new recruit much younger than the vast majority of my European and African contemporaries, I learnt much from them. I have tried to capture some of the earlier snapshots and excitements of colonial life, mostly from people who experienced it at first or second hand, for they do much to illustrate the flux of history and to instruct us in what to admire and what to condemn. I hope too that in the process I have shed a little light on how people lived and perhaps how that life came to colour the expatriate’s outlook. In so doing, I hope I have done justice to the political, economic, historical and cultural aspects of the surroundings I was thrown into. To give some order to what I have written, I have grouped the material into five different categories. Such is the interconnectedness of people and beliefs, values and events, the public and the private, artifacts and actions, work and leisure and social structures and authority that where there is interplay between categories I have included the particular chapter under that category into which most of the topic falls.

Part 1 looks at the factors that took me to Nigeria and records early impressions in Lagos during my induction period there and my first glimpses on the spot into the history of the territory. Part 2 explores the historical determinants of the environment I was to work in through examination of the life of King Jaja of Opobo, a man who went from slave to king, whose life is a proxy for the economic and political changes that took place in a relatively short period of time; through the work of Mary Slessor whose missionary work typifies the influence of Christianity on these changes; and the enterprise of George Goldie whose commercial and political acumen did so much to build the political framework of the present Nigeria and to establish the Royal Niger Company, precursor of the mighty United Africa Company. His shaping influence on the country and the company has been obscured by his reluctance to expose his life and work to biographers. This leads in to the period of ascendancy of the expatriate firms in the economic life of Nigeria and the eventual constitution of the Produce Inspection Service which I was to join and the setting up of the Nigeria Produce Marketing Boards. Part 3 reflects the peripatetic nature of my work in the early years and the unique opportunity I had to witness the Nigerian scene from the privileged position of one whose travels not only took in experiences, places and events that breathed life into history, but also exposed me to the ways of the expatriates and the local people alike. This provided insights denied to more place and desk-bound contemporaries. The social scene and the rituals symbolising attitudes and values are described in Part 4. A further, more generalised view of the work scene is developed in Part 5. The book concludes with an epilogue that looks reflectively on events and relates the lessons learnt in Nigeria to the current scene in the western democracies.

I wish to acknowledge the inspiration of all these people mentioned in the book without whom it could not have been written. Their number is dwindling fast. It has been a great pleasure to recall them. They have had, together, a formative effect on who I am, what my values are and the multiple nature of my identity. I give special thanks to those of them who have read earlier drafts and made suggestions for their improvement. Others with no connections with Nigeria have read them and pointed me in directions I would not have found on my own. Bob Akroyd bent his highly creative mind to approaches other than those proposed by me. Judi Moore made helpful suggestions based on her writer’s viewpoint and experience and Tom Bryan gave me most useful advice and encouragement. I am indebted to Dan and Avril Hood for providing me with a copy of the version they hold of the Book of Genesis in pidgin and to Dan for first and second hand accounts of life there during his visits after home rule had been given effect. James Collin brought much needed order to my original draft and displayed unbounded patience in the face of a stream of amendments.

Any mistakes, inaccuracies, discontinuities or omissions are mine and mine only.

Ian Mcall
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003