Long before Malaysia became a world leader in producing palm oil, the palm fruit is a native of the Niger Delta in what is now Nigeria and was much sought after throughout the 19th century by the British for the expansion of their industrialized economy. You’ll remember that Britain was the first nation in the neo-world to become fully industrialized, as such they needed resources such as palm oil to advance their industrialization efforts.
Around 1870, trade-in palm oil had become the dominant export commodity from the Niger Delta region. Initial trade in the commodity was largely uncoordinated and individualistic, with local sellers often selling to the highest bidder. This led to the rise of very wealthy local chiefs such as Jaja of Opobo, who traded in the community with the Europeans.
At this same time, there was fierce competition among the Europeans as to who will get unfettered access to securing the lucrative oil palm trade. In 1879, the United African Company (UAC) was formed by George Goldie (1846 – 1925), modeled after the former East India Company. He effectively assumed control of the Lower Niger River.
His company, by 1884, had expanded to controlling 30 trading posts along the Lower Niger. This market monopoly gave the British an advantage in the market share against both the French and the Germans in the 1884 Berlin Conference. After the Berlin Conference, the British were handed over the area the UAC operated in as their areas of influence.
After the British had secured market share from the Europeans, they started to deal directly with the local African chiefs. Within the span of two years, Goldie had successfully signed a treaty with local chiefs along the banks of both the rivers Benue and Niger, while also making inroads into the hinterland. This went against the verbal agreement the government had which limited its company’s activities to the coastal areas.
UAC had a name change in 1886 when it was renamed The National African Company and was subsequently granted a royal charter as an incorporated company. This authorized it to oversee the administration of the Niger Delta and all surrounding lands around the banks of the Benue and Niger Rivers. In no time, the company was again renamed, this time to the Royal Niger Company, which later morphed to Unilever and is used to this day.
To the understanding of the local chiefs, the Royal Niger Company negotiators had an agreement for a free trade in the region. However, behind the scenes, they went into private arrangements based on their terms. Since the deceptive private contracts were often penned down in English and signed by local chiefs (who didn’t understand English), the British Crown enforced them, making them binding on the signatories.
Thus, for instance, King Jaja Opobo was forced into exile for ‘obstructing commerce’ when he tried to sell palm oil on his own as he used to do. He was later to be forgiven, though, and allowed to return home in 1891, although he later died on his way back, having been poisoned with a cup of tea.
Jaja’s death made the rest of the local chiefs a little more unwilling, with some of them taking a more critical look at the deals they went into with the Royal Niger Company. One of such kingdoms was Nembe, where the king, Koko MIngi V111 was a former Christian schoolteacher. He was faced with one the task of rebuffing the Royal Niger Company creeping encroachment. He was also against the monopoly it enjoyed in the region, and tried to balance the terms by talking to the Germans in Kamerun (Cameroon).
Things got more heated in 1894, with the Royal Niger Company increasingly dictating who the local chiefs and natives transacted business with, denying them direct access to former trading partners. To take the situation head-on, King Koko renounced Christianity in 1894 and tried to ally with Bonny and Okpoma to form a united front against the Royal Niger Company and take back their trade routes. While Okpoma joined the alliance, Bonny kicked against it. This was the beginning of the ‘divide and rule’ tactic the British applied in Nigeria till date.
On the cold morning of January 1895, King Koko spearheaded an attack on the Royal Niger Company’s operational base, which was located in Akassa (Bayelsa State). The early morning attack undertaken by more than a thousand men succeeded in capturing the base. Although he lost 40 men, King Koko succeeded in capturing 60 white men and holding them as hostages. He also captured loads of goods, including ammunition and Maxim guns.
He thereafter tried to use the hostages as bargaining chips in exchange for the Royal Niger Company relinquishing its stranglehold on the trading routes. The British refused the offer for negotiation, leading to King Koko having 40 of the hostages killed. It was later claimed in a British report that the Nembe people cannibalized them.
A British Royal Navy, under the command of Admiral Before, attacked brass on 20th February 1895 and razed the whole place to the ground, killing scores of Nembe people. The survivors were later decimated by a smallpox pandemic.
Two months later, a semblance of normalcy was returned in the area; normalcy being the conditions that the British always wanted, and King Koko was sent into exile. Brass was made to pay a fine of £500 (£26,825 in today’s money) by the British. Also, they were made to return the looted weapons as well as all the surviving prisoners of war.
Based on the recommendations of a British Parliamentary Commission, King Koko was later offered terms of settlement by the British government, one which he vehemently rejected. He later disappeared again, prompting the British to declare him wanted with a bounty of £200 (£10,730 today) placed on his head. He later committed suicide in exile in 1898.
Around this same time, another ‘stubborn king’ in the person of the Oba of Benin, was haunted down and chased out of town. In essence, the pacification of the Lower Niger had begun in earnest.
The after effect of the Brass Oil war was that, in Britain, public opinion was already against the Royal Nigeria Company, leading to its charter being revoked in 1899. Following the revocation of the charter, the company sold off its holdings to the British government for £865,000 (£46,407,250 today). That amount, £46,407,250 (NGN12, 550,427,783.81 at today’s exchange rate) was in effect, the grand price Britain paid to buy the territory which was to later become known as Nigeria.