H.A.S. Johnston.
The Fulani Empire of Sokoto

London. Ibadan. Nairobi: Oxford University Press. 1967. 312 p.

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Chapter Twenty
The Royal Niger Company

While Rabeh, like a rogue elephant, was moving slowly westward towards Lake Chad, another more serious threat to the integrity and independence of the Fulani Empire was beginning to build up in the south.
In medieval times West Africa was almost completely cut off from Europe by the double barrier of the Sahara and the Moslem powers of North Africa and Spain. In the fifteenth century, however, the seamen of Portugal turned the flank of these obstacles by sailing their ships down to the Gulf of Guinea.
Next, at the end of the eighteenth century, the geographers, fascinated by the mysteries of the still unknown continent, suddenly conceived and imparted to the public a new interest in Africa. This was soon enlarged by the humanitarians who at about the same time launched the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. In accordance with the theory that the best way of eradicating the traffic in slaves was to supplant it by legitimate trade, this in turn led to a new commercial interest in Africa as a source of raw materials and as a market for manufactured goods.
Even so, however, because of the difficulties of geography and climate, progress was extremely slow. After the death of Clapperton, Richard Lander returned to Africa and in 1830, by sailing down the Niger from Bussa to the sea, established the fact that the river flowed into the Bight of Benin. Two years later some Liverpool merchants, under the leadership of MacGregor Laird and with the backing of the British Government, sought to use this discovery to open up trade with the hinterland. The two ships which they commissioned succeeded in steaming 500 miles up the river, but the climate killed three-quarters of the European company and so the project was abandoned,
In 1841 the British Government made another attempt to penetrate into the interior. This time a naval expedition was sent up the river with instructions to suppress the slave trade, make treaties with friendly Chiefs, and establish a model farm. Once again, however, there was very heavy mortality among the Europeans-over a third in the space of two months-and the scheme was abandoned without achieving anything except the founding of the town of Lokoja.
It was not until IS 1854, by which time the prophylactic use of quinine as a safeguard against malaria had been introduced, that the British had any success with their riverain ventures. In that year another expedition organized by MacGregor Laird and led by Baikie was completely successful. Not only did all its members survive but the trading that they were able to do paid all expenses and still yielded a profit. This proved to be the turning-point.
During the next few years MacGregor Laird and Baikie succeeded in developing the riverain trade. In doing so, however, they aroused the hostility of the other Liverpool merchants and their allies on the coast, the Brassmen, who found themselves losing the profitable entrepôt trade with the interior that they had hitherto enjoyed. Indeed, in the late 'sixties, by which time Laird was dead and Baikie had been compelled by ill health to retire, their opposition almost strangled the new line of communications with the interior. But once again the British Government, faithful to their belief that fostering legitimate commerce was the best means of stamping out the slave trade, decided to intervene. In 1871 they therefore sent an envoy to the Emir of Nupe to enlist his support and protection for the river traffic against those who were trying to kill it. The Emir, Masaba, was quick to see the advantages which such an arrangement would have for himself and his people and so he accepted the proposals on condition that Nupe, in return for its protection, should become the sole channel for trade between the British companies and the Fulani Empire. The British, who were anxious to withdraw their naval patrols from the river, accepted this stipulation 1.
Up to this point there had been little or no rivalry in Africa between the European nations. The curiosity shown had been scientific and the interest either humanitarian or commercial. The absence of any atmosphere of competition along national lines was illustrated by the fact that, as late as the 'fifties, the British Government was employing Germans to undertake its exploring. In 1861, it is true, Lagos was declared a Colony, but this move was made in the interest of suppressing the maritime slave trade and not for the purpose of territorial aggrandizement. Indeed, a few years later a Select Committee of the House of Commons, reflecting the political indifference of the day to colonial expansion, recommended not only that there should be no more acquisitions in Africa but that Britain should consider freeing itself from some of its commitments.
In the next decade the attitude of the principal European powers towards Africa suddenly underwent a radical change. It was perhaps inevitable that the bitter rivalries that divided them at home would sooner or later affect their activities abroad. The indirect cause of the change was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. After her defeat France sought to assuage her wounded pride by a policy of expansion overseas. Before long Germany, fearful lest France might be stealing a march on her, also entered the race and soon became the pacemaker. Last of all, encouraged by one faction and restrained by another, now thrustful, now hesitant, came Great Britain. The principal consequence of the sharpening and extension of these rivalries was the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’ which occupied the European Powers during the last two decades of the century and several times brought them to the brink of war,
At this point there appeared upon the scene a remarkable man, Sir George Goldie, whose vision and determination were to be the main factors in deciding the course that events were to take in this part of Africa. Coming of a good family and possessing a considerable private fortune, he had had a short and chequered career in the Army before resigning his commission to take over a small firm in which his family had an interest. This firm was engaged in the Niger trade and had recently run into difficulties. In 1876 Goldie went to West Africa to find out for himself exactly what was amiss. Having diagnosed the trouble as excessive competition between companies that were individually weak, he next persuaded his competitors to agree to a series of mergers which led to the formation of a single British group called the United African Company, later renamed the National African Company 2. Then in 1881, having emerged as Chairman and undisputed leader of the new Company, he applied for a Royal Charter, but with this request he was unsuccessful.
At this time the political situation in the Bight of Benin was highly confused. The French had established themselves in Dahomey and the Germans in the Cameroons. Between them the British had set up the Colony of Lagos and the Niger Coast Protectorate, but these were not contiguous and in any case did not cover the hinterland to which all three powers were laying conflicting claims.
To resolve these disputes the Germans called the Berlin Conference of 1884. This proved to be Goldie's great opportunity. First of all he persuaded the British Government that they had no chance of getting their claims to the Niger-Benue hinterland recognized unless they accepted the National African Company as their chosen instrument and based their arguments on the monopoly which the Company had established on the rivers and the numerous treaties which it had concluded with neighbouring Chiefs. At the eleventh hour Goldie's scheme was almost upset by the appearance of two French firms to challenge his monopoly. By engaging in a ruthless price-war, however, he broke them both just before the Conference began. His plan was therefore adopted by the British Government and the British Government's claims to a sphere of influence over the whole area were in turn accepted by France and Germany 3.
In 1885 Goldie consolidated the position of the Company still further by engaging the explorer Joseph Thomson and sending him up to Sokoto to make treaties with the Sultan and the Emir of Gwandu 4. A year later the British Government acknowledged the commanding position that Goldie had thus built up by granting the Charter which they had previously refused. In this way the Royal Niger Company came into being 5.

The ambivalent attitude of Britain to colonial affairs has already been mentioned. On the one side there were men like Rhodes and Goldie, with their supporters at home, who fervently and sincerely believed that the country had an imperial mission to perform and who were determined to do everything in their power to extend British influence in the world. On the other there were men who, with equal sincerity and fervour, questioned Britain's right to interfere in the affairs of other people and deplored the expense of colonial entanglements. The ordinary British voter, pulled this way and that between the two factions, probably shared both the pride of the imperialists in the achievements of their countrymen in distant parts of the world and the dismay of the Little Englanders at the expense that these achievements involved. Chartered Companies, though they were Elizabethan anachronisms, were therefore resuscitated with the idea that they would resolve this contradiction and, by combining government and trade, would enlarge the British Empire without adding to the burdens of the British Exchequer.
When the British Government gave the Royal Niger Company its charter they conferred upon it the right to govern as well as to trade. Armed with the Charter, the Company immediately began to create the machinery of government that it needed to discharge these responsibilities. The Board of Directors became the Council and were invested with supreme legislative, executive, and judicial powers. As a legislature they enacted the laws of the territory, as an executive they were the source of all policy decisions, and as a judiciary they were the final court of appeal. The Chairman, now styled Governor, was a figure-head and Goldie, as Deputy Governor and Political Administrator, continued to keep all the reins of power in his own hands 6.
The Council now proceeded to set up a civil service and a judiciary. For the most part this simply meant endowing the Company's District Agents with administrative and judicial powers, but a few new posts were created at the top of the staff pyramid and a number of fresh appointments were made to fill them. The major innovation, however, was the creation of a Constabulary. At first its strength was 150 African rank and file under three European officers, but the numbers were later increased to nearly 500. The name Constabulary was misleading for it was, in fact, a small army, equipped with modern rifles, supported by machine-guns and artillery, and kept concentrated for use as a striking force 7.
The Company's whole commercial and administrative organization was based upon the river systems of the Lower Niger and Benue. Its administrative headquarters were at Asaba, opposite Onitsha, and its depots and workshops were in the Delta. Its fleet consisted of twenty to twenty-five river steamers of which, however, only one-third were large vessels 8. They were employed as circumstances dictated, for taking trade goods up river, evacuating the produce of the country, moving staff from one station to another, or transporting the Constabulary on punitive expeditions. Within its limitations this system of communication served the Company fairly well, but it had two great weaknesses. The first was that a series of rapids above Jebba prevented navigation much beyond that point. The second was that, above the confluence at Lokoja, the drop in the water-level of the Niger and to an even greater extent the Benue made navigation impossible, at any rate for the larger ships, during much of the long dry season.
The Company's dependence on water transport was revealed by the distribution of its stations. Of the forty which it had in 1889, all were situated on the river system and over half were on the Lower Niger below Lokeja. On the Niger above Lokoja there were seven and along the whole length of the Benue only ten. In these two sectors the principal stations were Lokeja, Eggan, Loko, and Ibi 9.
In deploying its administrative and trading stations along the Niger and Benue, the Company was brought into touch with all the southern Emirates of the Fulani Empire and particularly with Nupe, Ilorin, Muri, and Adamawa. Through the town of Wase, with which it had trouble, it also made contact with Bauchi, whose Emir consented to sign a treaty.
In addition to the Emirates, however, many of the petty pagan Chiefdoms that lay outside the borders of the Empire also came within the Company's purview. As the two sides were often at war with one another, the Company, which was bound to both sides by treaty, was constantly in danger of becoming embroiled in their disputes. Furthermore, as the main cause of the fighting was the slave-raiding of the Emirs and the reprisals of the Chiefs, the difficulties of the Company's staff were aggravated by the fact that, whereas the treaties entered into by the Emits did not bind them to desist from slave raiding, those of the Chiefs entitled them to call upon the protection of the Company if they were raided 10. In these circumstances it was inevitable that the Company was often faced with the choice between failing one side or coming into collision with the other.
All the expenses of the administration, Constabulary, and judiciary had to be borne on the trading revenues of the Company. To meet them Goldie used the Company's legislative powers first to set up tariff barriers and then to preserve a rigid commercial monopoly within those barriers. In this way he managed to pay his way, but his actions provoked such bitter protests, including some which the German Government took up, combined with so many allegations of maladministration and abuse of power, that the British Government was compelled to set up a commission of inquiry 11.
The Commissioner, Major C. M. Macdonald, completed his inquiry in 1889 and his findings throw an interesting light on the contemporary scene. It is clear, for example that the Emirs who had signed treaties or concluded agreements with the Company did not consider that they had made over any of their sovereignty. The Emir of Nassarawa, it is true, had sold a strip of land covering the north bank of the Benue throughout his territory, but had entered into no other commitments. The Emirs of Muri and Keffi had signed treaties, but had conceded no political rights. Indeed, in the Muri Treaty, so far from the Company's obtaining concessions in return for a guarantee of protection, it was the Emir who was required to protect the Company. In Nupe, likewise, the Emir had always considered himself as the protector of the Company and consequently, when offered a treaty in which the roles were to be reversed, he refused to sign it and would do no more than make an ordinary commercial agreement 12.
Difficulties of language probably lay at the root of many of the misunderstandings that now came to light. Nearly all the treaties had been concluded through the medium of interpreters. Being men of humble position, they perhaps did not themselves fully understand the affairs of state that they were called upon to discuss. In any case, they would have been anxious to please their employers without offending the Emirs and so there was a constant temptation to skate over difficulties and leave misunderstandings unresolved.
Of course, the treaties between the Company and the vassal Emirates were to some extent overridden by, and therefore of much less importance than, the treaties between the Company and the two overlords. Thanks to the explorer Thomson, Goldie had secured these as early as 1885, even before he had gained his Charter. The Sultan at that time had been Umaru and he, no doubt recalling that it had always been the desire of his grandfather Bello to make an alliance with Great Britain and open a channel for maritime trade, had signed a treaty, as had the Emir of Gwandu, Maliki, soon afterwards.
Under the terms of the Sokoto Treaty the Sultan had first of all granted to the Directors of the Company “my entire rights to the country on both sides of the River Benue and rivers flowing into it throughout my dominions for such distance from its and their banks as they may desire” 13. Secondly, he had recognized that ‘among foreigners’ the Company should have the sole right to trade and to extract minerals. Thirdly, he had acknowledged the Company to be the sole channel for all communications between him and foreigners ‘coming from the rivers’. Fourthly, he had agreed that the grant of these rights was irrevocable. In return for these concessions the Company had undertaken to pay him an annual subsidy of 3,000 bags of cowries, then valued at about £1,500 14.
The terms of the treaty with Gwandu had been similar, except that the cession of land had related to the banks of the Niger and its tributaries as well as to the Benue and had been more definite, specifying a distance of ten hours' journey inland, or such other distance as the Company might desire, from each bank 15.
It is regrettable that Macdonald did not visit Sokoto and Gwandu and therefore never had the opportunity of questioning the Sultan and the Emir about their understanding of these treaties. We know, however, that when he revealed to the Nupe Council the terms of the Gwandu Treaty, and particularly the clause about the cession of land along the banks of the Niger, they were frankly incredulous and stoutly maintained that the Emir of Gwandu would never have signed such an agreement 16. It is therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that in these two major treaties, as in many of the minor ones, the contracting parties had different ideas about what had been agreed upon. It is in any case certain that, whatever Goldie and later Lugard chose to read into the agreements, neither the Sultan nor the Emir of Gwandu supposed for a moment that they had bargained away any of their own sovereignty or their inherited authority over their vassals.
Macdonald's general conclusions were that, while the Company had gone too far in establishing a monopoly, the graver charges of abuse of office that had been brought against it were unfounded. But on the political side he had to report that, despite its treaties, which in any case were often ambiguous, its practical jurisdiction was limited, even along the rivers, and that its writ hardly ran at all beyond their banks 17. To the British Government the Company's lack of real authority came as disturbing news, because in international affairs the importance of effective occupation was now beginning to outweigh the mere possession of treaties. Similarly, Macdonald's criticisms of the Company's monopolistic practices placed them in a dilemma, because they knew that it was only by exploiting a commercial monopoly that the Company could afford to carry its administrative and military expenses.
The Liberal Government which was then in office was unwilling either to assume direct responsibility for the Niger Territories or yet to surrender them to another European power. It therefore took the line of least resistance and did nothing.

It is now recognized that Goldie was one of the originators of the system of colonial administration which later came to be termed Indirect Rule. From the start he insisted that it was not the Company's business to establish a system of government in the Niger Territories. The policy which he laid down, therefore, was that the Company would interfere as little as possible in the internal affairs of local States or tribes but would leave government to the traditional feudal or tribal authorities 18. He held these views from conviction, Dot out of necessity, but the pattern of events proved to be a good deal more complicated than he had expected and in the end he was compelled to modify his policy.
Indeed, at this period the political situation along the Niger and Benue Rivers was highly unstable. The fact that some of the States belonged to the Fulani Empire and that others did not was only one of the causes of the turmoil in which they all lived. Other reasons, apart from the constant slave-raiding of the Fulani and the periodic reprisals of the pagans, were risings such as those of the Tiv in 1885-6, dynastic disputes such as those of Muri Emirate in the 'nineties, land piracy such as that of the Takum renegade Kachalla on the Benue caravans 19, and, finally, the intrigues of the agents of other European powers such as Hoenigsberg in Nupe and Mizon in Muri and Adamawa 20.
It was all very well to say in theory that the Company would not interfere in such matters, but in practice, as Goldie discovered, it was drawn into them by its treaties and by the need to defend its allies and uphold its prestige. In any case, if trade was to flourish and the Company pay its way, it was imperative to establish a measure of order. Punitive expeditions became fairly common, therefore, and these sometimes culminated in fighting.
A further complication was that international tension, which had been relieved by the Berlin settlement of 1884, now started to mount again. The agreement of 1890 between Britain and France had fixed the northern boundary of the British sphere of influence and that of 1893 between Britain and Germany had settled the eastern boundary. But only half the western boundary had been determined and so, as the principle of effective occupation was coming to be generally accepted, the French felt free to press their claims to the Nikki-Bussa-Kaiama area which had hitherto been regarded as part of the Company's territories. These moves caused consternation in London and Goldie was called on by the Government to forestall the French.
At the same time, now that the British Protectorate over the Yoruba States was becoming more of a reality, the war between llorin and Ibadan, which had been going on intermittently ever since lbadan had been founded after the destruction of Old Oyo, was beginning to cause concern. In London it was assumed that florin was the aggressor simply because the Fulani had started the war two generations earlier and because they had subsequently earned a bad name as slave-raiders. As Ilorin fell within the Company's sphere of influence, the British Government now began to press Goldie to bring the Emir to heel, if necessary by the use of force 21.
Goldie at the time was too preoccupied with the Company's internal problems, especially Nupe, to care much about these external difficulties. Nupe had never made a political treaty with the Company and the differences between them were now coming to a head. In the 'sixties the Emir Masaba had overrun the small tribes — Yagbas, Bunus, Kakandas, Kupas, and Eggas — who inhabited Kabba and ever since then the Nupes had regarded Kabba as one of their preserves 22. In recent years, however, their raids had been carried out on a scale that had brought trade to a standstill and threatened to depopulate the whole country. Even Lokeja, the headquarters of the Company's northern region, had been threatened and so the Company, in defence of its vital interests but in contradiction of its avowed policy of non-intervention, had been compelled to warn the Nupes to keep their distance 23. This had led to great tension.
Towards the end of 1891 Goldie decided to go to Bida himself in the hope of reaching a settlement. When he met the Emir Abubakr there he assured him that the Company had no intention of attacking and occupying Nupe and he promised that its servants would not interfere in the internal affairs of the Emirate. In return he demanded that the Nupes should stop raiding for slaves in the Company's territories outside the Emirate. If they persisted, he threatened to declare war, blockade them, and divert their trade to other Emirates. Although the Emir professed himself satisfied with these terms, Goldie left Bida with the feeling that war would not be long delayed 24.
In fact, the Emir did not keep his bargain. Before long his men were operating in Kabba again and a clash between them and the Constabulary became almost inevitable. It came when the Nupe forces surrounded one of the Company's patrols and took prisoner two British officers and forty-five African rank and file. Although they were all subsequently released, this episode seems to have convinced Goldie that the time had come for a showdown with Nupe. As he had already undertaken to send an expedition against Ilorin, he determined to combine the two operations and to mount them in the forthcoming dry season 25.
Goldie did not make the mistake of underrating his opponents. He determined to command the expedition himself and he saw to it that his troops, who numbered only 500 under 30 British officers, were given every possible advantage of modern science and technology. Their equipment included searchlights and wire to foil night attacks and they were supported by artillery and six machine-guns 26.
In the Nupe campaign Goldie exploited two weaknesses in the Emir's position, the presence of half his army on the south side of the Niger and the fact that to recall these troops to the defence of his capital he had to rely on the canoes of the river tribes, who were neither Moslems nor particularly loyal to the Fulani régime. While Goldie and the troops marched against the Nupe contingent In Kabba, Wallace with the river steamers raised the river people in revolt against them and so cut their line of retreat. When they fell back, therefore, they were unable to get across the water and took no further part in the campaign.
The expedition, coming up behind them, was soon ferried across the river and continued its march on Bida. The main Nupe army, massed in considerable strength in front of the capital and nearly all mounted, put up a stout resistance. On the first day they charged the column with such dash and determination that for a time, while the troops were forming square, the issue of the battle hung in the balance. Though they failed to break the square, they did succeed in forcing Goldie to fall back on his camp.
On the following day the troops advanced again, this time in square formation from the start, and the volleys of the riflemen, supported by the fire of the machine-guns, beat off all the attacks of the Nupe cavalry. A mile and a half from the city they halted while the artillery cleared the defenders from the walls. After this they advanced again until they were within range of the centre of the city. An artillery bombardment was then begun, which set the town ablaze and scattered the remaining defenders 27. And so, on 27 January 1897, Bida fell to the troops of the Royal Niger Company and Nupe capitulated.
After a few days rest Goldie returned to the Niger and, with about half the original forces, was transported upstream to Jebba. From there he marched south on Ilorin. The battle for Ilorin was a repetition of the battle for Bida except that the opposition was less stiff. The llorin cavalry charged courageously against the square but could make no headway against the rifle and machine-gun fire. When Goldie called for a surrender his demand was refused. The city was therefore shelled, set on fire, and finally occupied 28.
In this campaign Goldie had employed most of his military resources and risked the Company's very existence. In a military sense he had been brilliantly successful, but his victories had left him with political and administrative problems to solve. In llorin his solution was to reappoint the defeated Emir Sulimanu, in Bida to depose the Emir Abubakr and appoint another member of the ruling family, Muhammadu, in his place. Both Emirs on appointment had to acknowledge the Company as their new suzerain and to agree to conform to such directions as the representatives of the Company might from time to time give 29.
The handicap from which Goldie now suffered was that, at a time when he needed the backing of a great nation to exploit his success and carry out his ideas, he could call only upon the resources of a medium-sized company. They were not enough for the task and the settlement that he had imposed by force was soon to crumble away.

1. J. E. Flint, Sir George Goldie and the Making of Nigeria, London, 1960, p. 25.
2. Flint, op. cit. pp. 30-33 and 44-46.
3. Flint, op. cit. pp. 62-70.
4. Ibid. pp. 89-90.
5. Ibid. pp. 70-87.
6. Flint, op. cit. pp. 91-92.
7. Ibid. pp. 93 and 142.-4.
8. Ibid. p. 142.
9. Flint, op. cit. pp. 144-5.
10. Ibid. pp. 129-55.
11. Ibid. pp. 98-119.
12. Flint, op. cit. pp. 129-55.
13. Ibid. p. 89.
14. For the texts of the treaties see The Map of Africa by Treaty by Sir E. Hertslet, London, 1909, vol. I, pp. 122-56. The fact that the Sultan agreed to accept a subsidy does not mean that he regarded himself as in any way dependent on the Company. On the contrary, it is significant that Alhaji Junaidu (op. cit. p. 69) uses the word gaimwa to describe it, a term that denotes either a sweetener or else the gift offered by an inferior to a superior.
15. Flint, op. cit. p. 89.
16. Ibid. pp. 140-1.
17. Ibid. pp. 151-2.
18. Flint, op. cit. pp. 94-95.
19. Gazetteer of Muri Province, pp. 6-20.
20. Flint, op. cit. pp. 144 ff. and 168 ff.
21. Flint, op cit. pp. 232 ff.
22. Gazetteer of Ilorin Province, p. 19.
23. Flint, op. cit. pp. 234-5.
24. Flint, op. cit. p. 235.
25. Ibid. p. 240.
26. Ibid. pp. 243-63.
27. Flint, op. cit. pp. 250-3.
28. Ibid. p. 255.
29. Ibid. pp. 254 and 256.

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