TWO NIGER DELTA TOWNS BURNED TO THE GROUND
[ 22 February 1895 ]
In the late nineteenth century a boom in the demand for palm oil, used in everything from soap and candle manufacture to explosives, lured the Royal Niger Company to expand its presence across the Niger Delta. This process accelerated after 1886, when the British government granted it a royal charter giving it a virtual monopoly over the delta region. This gave the company the pretext it needed to deploy military force to oust local traders from the region, an act of economic warfare which inevitably incited a rebellion.1
On 29 January 1895, about 1,600 men in forty canoes from the Niger Delta town of Nimbi, armed with Enfield rifles they had previously bought from British traders, attacked a Royal Niger Company trading post at Akassa, killing at least one company official and taking a number of its workers hostage.2 The following month, Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Bedford led a punitive expeditionary force in three river gunboats twenty miles up the Brass river.
According to an Admiralty telegram, cited in the London Standard, ‘at daybreak on February 22 we attacked and after an obstinate defence… a landing was gallantly effected, and Nimbi completely burned.’3 Three days later, the neighbouring settlement of Fishtown was heavily shelled and ‘then the bluejackets (sailors) and marines completed the work by setting fire to the place and burning it to the ground.’4
Sir John Kirk, a foreign office official, who was sent out to investigate the conflict, reported that twenty five people had been killed in Nimbi alone. Locals, he wrote, had complained that the company prevented them from participating in the palm oil trade unless they paid a virtually impossible annual tax of £150 a year. However, there had been no easy alternatives, since the soil in the vicinity was too poor to grow sufficient food and the population was left with little choice but rebellion.5
Although the Foreign Office knew the company had provoked the unrest, publicly the blame was placed entirely on the local population and the indiscriminate destruction inflicted by the punitive operation was lauded in the British press. An editorial in the Northern Whig declared that ‘their (the local people’s) conduct plainly called for a sharp lesson,’ and the Globe reprimanded an MP, Henry Labouchere, for his ‘curiosity as to the number of natives killed,’ reminding him that British troops had ‘something better to do than go hunting in the jungle for dead and wounded negroes’ and that ‘the “Pax Britannica” can only be enforced in such a country by fear.’6
- Michael Peel, A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria’s Oil Frontier, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., London, 2011, pp. 36-37.
- ‘The Niger Protectorate – Punishment of the Natives,’ A Supplement to the Manchester Courier, 2 March 1895, p. 8.
- ‘Fighting on the Niger – Destruction of Nimbi,’ The London Evening Standard, 26 February 1895, p. 5.
- ‘Fishtown Burned,’ The Edinburgh Evening News, 26 February 1895, p 4 .
- Michael Peel, op. cit., pp. 38-39.
- Editorial, The Northern Whig, 26 February 1895, p. 4 and ‘Niger Land,’ The Globe, 26 February 1895, p. 1.
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