Nigeria has more ancient cultures and empires than any other African country. They date back to the 5th century BC, when tribes living on the southern slopes of the Jos plateau created beautifully expressive clay figurines, in what is now known as the Nok civilization, after the Nigerian hamlet where these sculptures were discovered. The Nok are neolithic tribes that have just gained iron technology that is moving southwards across Africa.
The Jos plateau lies in the center of Nigeria, but the region’s first substantial kingdoms, more than a millennium after the Nok people, are in the north and northeast, relying on commerce north across the Sahara and east into Sudan for their prosperity.
Around Lake Chad, a trade empire emerges in the ninth century. Its origins are in the Kanem area east of the lake, but it quickly spreads to Bornu on the western side. The king of Kanem-Bornu turns to Islam in the 11th century.
The Hausa people inhabit the region west of Bornu, near Nigeria’s northern border. The Hausa construct a series of tiny but stable kingdoms, each governed from a powerful walled city, because to their advantageous location for controlling commerce with the forest regions to the south. Larger neighbors frequently pose a hazard to them (Mali and Gao to the west, Bornu to the east). However, being on the trading route between these empires benefits the Hausa traders as well. By the 14th century, they have become Muslim as well.
The Yoruba people are the main tribes in the savanna grasslands and woodland regions west of the Niger, between the Hausa kingdoms and the coast. They create two powerful nations here.
The first is Ife, which is located on the savanna-forest boundary. Ife flourished from the 11th through the 15th century, and is today known for its sculpture. A bigger Yoruba empire emerges in the 16th century, located slightly further from the forest at Oyo. During the 16th century, Oyo develops in strength by using trade revenues to create a powerful cavalry. The kings of Oyo govern an area stretching from the Niger to the west of Dahomey by the end of the 18th century.
Meanwhile, in the 15th century, the best-known of all Nigerian kingdoms established itself securely within the forest (from small beginnings in the 13th). Benin becomes recognized worldwide for its cast-metal sculpture, a legacy passed down from the Ife (see Sculpture of Ife and Benin).
Benin is no match for Oyo, its northern neighbor, in terms of size. The territory brought under central authority in the 15th century was just seventy miles broad (people and places being harder to conquer in the tropical forest than on the savanna), but Benin now spans from the Niger delta in the east to Lagos in the west.
However, Benin’s fame is founded on more than just might. This is the coastal kingdom that the Portuguese find when they reach the Niger’s mouth in the 1470s, bringing the first word of magnificent African items and the ceremonial magnificence of Benin’s oba or monarch back to Europe.
Benin’s rulers are a fascinating narrative in and of themselves. They scandalize the west in the 19th century by using human sacrifice in court ceremonies. They also have a lot of endurance. The original dynasty is still in power towards the end of the twentieth century, but without governmental authority. Overall, Benin has achieved considerable notoriety among Nigeria’s numerous ancient kingdoms.
1804-1903: Fulani and Sokoto
A tribe known as the Fulani lives among the Hausa in Nigeria’s northern areas, and its leaders were ardent supporters of orthodox Islam in the early nineteenth century. Sheikh Usman dan Fodio and his two sons led the Fulani in an incredibly successful holy war against the Hausa kingdoms’ lax Muslim rulers beginning in 1804.
As a result, a Fulani capital was established at Sokoto in 1809, from which the centre and north of Nigeria was effectively governed for the remainder of the nineteenth century. However, British interests have been steadily encroaching on the region over this time.
Explorers from the United Kingdom (1806-1830)
From the death of Mungo Park at Bussa in 1806 through the turn of the century, British explorers, anti-slavery campaigners, missionaries, and traders were all interested in Nigeria.
In 1821, the British government funds a journey south over the Sahara to the Bornu kingdom. In 1823, its members became the first Europeans to reach Lake Chad. Hugh Clapperton, one of the gang, ventures further west via Kano and Hausa territory to reach Sokoto. Clapperton returns to England for a few months in 1825 before departing for Lagos on the Nigerian coast.
On this voyage, he goes north from the coast to Kano, then west to Sokoto, accompanied by his servant Richard Lander. Clapperton passes away here. But Lander returns to London, where he is tasked by the government with exploring the Niger’s lower reaches.
Lander travels north from the coast at Lagos in 1830, accompanied by his brother John, to reach the big river at Bussa, the farthest point of Mungo Park’s voyage downstream. The brothers attempt a perilous canoe journey downstream, through hostile Ibo tribesmen, to reach the Niger delta’s sea. This region has long been known to European traders, but its connection to the interior has only recently been discovered. Everything appears to be in place for real business.
1832-1834: SS Alburkah
Following Lander’s second return to England, a group of Liverpool merchants, including Macgregor Laird, create a business to trade on the lower Niger. In the maritime business, Laird is also a pioneer. He constructs the 55-ton Alburkah, an iron paddle-steamer, for the current mission, an expedition to the Niger.
The trip is led by Laird himself, with Richard Lander as his professional guide. In July 1832, the Alburkah, with forty-eight passengers on board, sails south from Milford Haven. Three months later, she arrives at the entrance of the Niger, making history as the first ocean-going iron ship.
The Alburkah travels north on the main river to Lokoja, where she meets the Benue, after passing through one of the numerous streams of the Niger delta. The trip indicates that the Niger provides ocean boats with a route onto the continent. And the iron steamer’s performance is outstanding. However, medicine has not yet progressed to the same level as technology. Only nine of the original crew of forty-eight are alive when the Alburkah returns to Liverpool in 1834. One of them is Macgregor Laird, who is severely debilitated.
1841-1900: Trade and Anti-Slavery
In terms of casualties, the following British mission to the Niger is almost as bad. In 1841, four ships under navy command are dispatched with the mission of steaming up the Niger River and concluding contracts with local rulers to end the slave traffic. When 48 of the 145 Europeans in the crews die of fever, the mission is abandoned.
Malaria is the source of the problem, but when a doctor, William Baikie, organizes an expedition up the Niger in 1854, significant progress is achieved. He gives quinine to his soldiers and no one dies as a result. Quinine, which is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, has long been utilized in medicine. However, its demonstrated effectiveness against malaria marks a watershed moment in European colonization into Africa.
The British anti-slavery program in the region include promoting the trade in palm oil (a lucrative product that gives the Niger delta its name, Oil Rivers) to replace the slave trade’s profits. Later, it is discovered that this is counter-productive, as the upriver chieftains are forced to purchase additional slaves in order to fulfill the growing demand for palm oil. Nonetheless, it is the charitable idea that drives most of the effort to establish trade stations.
At the same time, the British navy patrols the coast, rescuing slaves from foreign ships and settling them in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
The British government assumes a greater direct participation beginning in 1849. A consul is sent to the Bights of Biafra and Benin, who will be stationed in Fernando Po. He engages in direct talks with the king of Lagos, the main port for the shipment of slaves. When these fail, Lagos is invaded and conquered by a British force in 1851.
After promising to abolish the slave trade and human sacrifice, another member of the Lagos royal line ascends to the throne (a feature of this region). When he and his successor fail to meet these obligations, Lagos is annexed as a British colony in 1861.
The consolidation of British commerce and British political dominance runs hand in hand throughout the rest of the century. George Goldie persuades the British trade companies on the Niger to consolidate their interests in a single United African Company in 1879, which was eventually awarded a charter as the Royal Niger Company.
The Niger Coast Protectorate is established in 1893 in the delta region. In 1897, the fight against unacceptable indigenous customs reaches a pinnacle in Benin, a country known for both slave trafficking and human sacrifice at the time. This year, members of a British delegation to Benin’s oba are massacred. British forces partially destroy Benin City as retaliation.
The government is persuaded by the difficulty of governing Nigeria’s large and complicated area that the upriver regions, which had hitherto been left to the Royal Niger Company, must also be brought under central authority.
The company’s charter is signed in 1900.