Book Review: What Britain Did to Nigeria

By Bob Newland

Max Siollun’s exploration of the history of Nigeria from the 15th century to independence in 1960 puts a different spotlight on Britain’s imperial history which has often been written and taught from the perspective of Empire rather than its victims.

Like many African states, Nigeria is an artificial construct bringing with it the divisions readily exploited by British Colonialism. It was created from two disparate Protectorates, Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria, with no common ‘National identity’.  The book demonstrates the disaster of British rule and its terrible consequences for the peoples of the region.

Britain’s intervention began early in the 19th Century.  Palm trees growing wild provided oil to lubricate Britains rapidly expanding industrial machinery and produced soap to help keep her workers healthy.  With the later advent of pneumatic tyres rubber plants became a key crop.  Siollun describes how this enterprise was managed by the dregs of British and European society, many transferring directly from the recently banned slave trade. 

Nigeria’s history is a litany of disputes between trading companies frequently supported by private armies. Kings and tribal leaders who had in many cases traded their people as slaves were subsequently persuaded to sign away their country, their natural resources and their people’s labour for minimal annual allowances.  Contracts between rulers and private companies contained amazing clauses such as ‘I … grant and transfer to (The Royal Niger Company) … my entire rights to the country on both sides of the River Benue .. and the sole right to trade in our territories … now and forever.’  

As the market grew, companies merged becoming bigger and more powerful with the largest eventually becoming Unilever. Occupation and exploitation met resistance.  Many workers disputes, tribal revolts and a women’s uprising took place and were put down in the most brutal fashion.  Unlike other British colonies in Africa, such as Kenya and Rhodesia, Nigeria was not a settler colony. The rapacious exploiting companies relied on indirect rule – an interesting and arguably cheaper way of maintaining control.  This led to considerable regional and tribal conflicts combined with tensions between Muslims and Christians.  Sadly, these continue in today’s Nigeria.

The detail and breadth of this history of Britain’s crimes in Nigeria makes the book an invaluable contribution to this ongoing discussion.  Even readers with a general appreciation of imperialism’s crimes will find Siollun’s insight fascinating.

What Britain Did to Nigeria by Max Siollun. Published by Hurst and Company £20 Hardback

Bob Newland is a Liberation member and formerly London Area Secretary of Liberation

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