The Colonial and Pre-Colonial Eras in Nigeria

This project is based on the goal of explaining an event in the relatively recent past by working progressively further into the past to uncover more and more information that seems to bear on the issues. Even though the effort to create Biafra came out of the context of the challenges of independent Nigeria, don't historians need to look further back to see what happened in the (earlier) colonial and precolonial eras to learn more about the world from which Nigeria was created? Of course we do. After all, this is a history course.

Before going further, we need to be aware of the flow of events. For the purposes of this project the "colonial" period is essentially the period between World War I and World War II while the precolonial material presented here covers the 19th century up to World War I. During the precolonial period there is already direct contact with Europeans who operate in port cities such as Bonny as well as indirect contact though the purchase of European goods through trade as well as the production of products intended to be sent to port cities. This commerce of course was added onto the slave trading networks which had existed since around 1500. As a result of a meeting of European powers in Berlin in 1884, the interior of Africa was divided into colonial possessions of European countries. The English move into the land of the Igbo followed shortly thereafter, covering the period from 1889-1914. And, in 1914, northern and southern Nigeria were united for administrative purposes into a single British colony.

World War I was truly a world war with participants drawn from five continents and military actions spread around the globe. There were some specific outcomes and impacts for Africans as a result of WWI. These include the fact that military conscription (draft) of numerous African colonial subjects into European armies generated great amounts of anger. But the war had more concrete consequences. Africans who fought alongside European whites found out that these "masters" were ordinary people, not supermen. Furthermore Africans expected to be rewarded for their service to their colonial masters with social and constitutional changes as well as economic concessions in ways that would improve their living conditions at home. The educated elites followed up on President Woodrow Wilson’s (United States) call to reorganize governments on the basis of national self-determination. The term means that people should be independent and live within political boundaries that corresponded to where they lived.

Rather than relaxing colonial strictures in gratitude after the war, the European presence in Africa intensified. "The period 1919-1935 was colonial imperialism’s last territorial drive in Africa. By 1935, all those areas that were still holding out against the imperialists and clinging to their sovereignty ... were all brought under effective occupation and put under the colonial system. This meant that more Africans were feeling the pinch of colonialism by the 1920s than were by the 1910s. One would therefore expect to see a corresponding change in the scale of anti-colonialist or nationalist activities. Moreover, the new administrative measures and ordinances that were introduced during this period to underpin the colonial system—this was the heyday of the British system of ‘indirect rule’—gave more and more powers to the traditional rulers and the newly created chiefs to the exclusion of the educated elite. Frustration and disappointment therefore grew among the educated elite, and since their number increased during the period, their became reactions not only intensified and anti-colonial but anti-traditional rulers as well." (Boahen, African Perspectives on Colonialism, 76-77)

And economic conditions changed. The 1920s and 1930s saw worldwide economic crises which caused the price for those things produced in African countries—raw materials and cash crops—to drop sharply (remember that this is the period of the Great Depression and the events leading into it). At the same time the prices of goods imported from Europe skyrocketed.

Furthermore, this period saw the rise of efforts by African Americans and others of African descent outside of Africa to link the condition of colonized Africans to universal concepts of justice, natural rights, and human rights with the goal of eliminating colonialism by promoitng independence. This Pan-African movement attempted to gain a hearing immediately after World War I by issuing a manifesto that called for ... well, why not read some excerpts yourself.

In the midst of these events the British inaugurated a system of "indirect rule" as the most effective way to manage their colonies. This system represented the backdrop to the post-World War II move to create an independent Nigeria and represented the framework for relationships between all Nigerians and the "mother country." Before looking at more evidence, we need to look a little more fully into the ways colonies were ruled by looking at material on Indirect Rule.


As you look at the different topics offered for small group study and collaboration, keep these questions in mind:

  • How do you think Africans responded to the English approach to government?
  • What would be an African critique of these policies?

The readings in this section deal with Igbo memories of life before or outside the direct presence of Europeans in their society and with a famous riot/rebellion. From these readings you can not only gain some additional understanding of British ideas but you will also gain a lot of insight into who the Igbo were and how they saw themselves as a people. These concepts represent 1) a critique of British assumptions about their colonial subjects and 2) reasons why the Igbo would want to develop their own literature and to have an independent state. Can you also find in these readings any indications of the issues that will trigger civil war?

Aba Women's Rebellion
This event around 1930 caused significant concern among colonizers because it was a rebellion of women who took actions into their own hands in reaction to their belief that England was expanding its colonial role by issuing a new tax.

Indictment of Colonialism
This excerpt, written in 1944, adds a new dimension to the discussion with a strong criticism of Africans who were the first Africans to hold positions in England's colonial administration and trading companies.

Igbo Voices:

These three readings are excerpts from a book that seeks to recover the history of the Igbo people in the nineteenth century on the eve of colonialism. While #2 is a travel report from 1840, the other two readings are partial transcripts of oral histories of old people taken in the 1970s. These documents represent views of village life at a time when European influence was minimal or absent.

The White Man's Burden
This reading is drawn from a contemporary account describing conditions in northern Nigeria from the perspective of someone who wants the English to become more involved in the affairs of northern Nigeria.