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The Euro-African Encounter in Historical Perspective

Africa has always held a fascination for Europeans. As Pliny once observed, “Ex Africa simper aliquid novi” ( There is always something new out of Africa). The so-called ‘Dark Continent’ was an object of both folklore and derision to the Europeans who harboured abysmal ignorance about Africa and its peoples. Aside from biblical references to the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba and a mythical Christian Kingdom of Prester
John, in the European mind, Africa was generally terra incognita. It was not until the Age of Discovery that Europe began to evince a smattering knowledge of Africa and its peoples. By the time the Portuguese arrived at the Benin River in 1486, Benin was already a flourishing state with diplomatic relations with Oyo and beyond.1 By 1494, the Portuguese had not only established diplomatic relations with Benin, following the visit and positive report of Joao Afonso d’Aveiro to Lisbon but also firmed up their trade with the people of Benin in pepper, ivory, cloth and which, regrettably, was later to be extended to slaves, an activity which was to endure for the next 300 years.2

The entry of Britain into Benin in 1553 through Captain Wyndham, first to trade in pepper and soon after, slaves marked the beginning of the long British connection with what later came to be known as Nigeria.3 The concentration of the British on slaves rather than tropical produce, like the Portuguese before them helped to consolidate the transformation of Africa into “a warren for the hunting of black skins.”4 Having broken the monopoly of the Portuguese, the British wasted no time in establishing their dominance in the entire West African seaboard.

Paradoxically, it was under the guise of stamping out the unholy traffic in human beings that the British were able to entrench their colonial hegemony in Nigeria. It should be recalled that throughout the period of trade between the British and their local suppliers, no attempt was made by them to venture into the interior, not only on account of the tight hold of the local potentates on their domain, but also because of fear of contracting any of the innumerable tropical ailments for which they were yet to provide a cure.5

Furthermore, the British never owned land in the localities where they operated but had to lease land from the local population for the erection of their warehouses or barracoons for holding slaves prior to their trans-shipment to the New World.6 This testified to the acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the native rulers by the British at the outset of their interaction with Africa. In fact, no British vessel could enter a rover nor could any transaction commence without the offering of presents or “dashes” to the local rulers. With time, these presents matured into full-scale custom duties known variously as “shake hands”, “topping”, or “comey”, levied on every ton of cargo or slave exported.7 It is instructive that not infrequently, the local chiefs resolved commercial disputes between the British and their

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suppliers as well as providing the requisite security for the various transactions, thereby enhancing a mutually beneficial rellationship.8

In sum, the transitional period before the confrontation that led to the colonization of Nigeria formally recognized some parity between alien powers and the local potentates in accordance with the norms of classical international law. The British implicitly and explicitly acknowledged the sovereignty of the local rulers by accepting their own status as being no more than that of foreigners trading in territories over which as yet they could not exercise any political control. However, as the power and influence of the British trader increased, the autonomy and independence of the local chiefs suffered some diminution. By the beginning of the 19th century, the power and authority of the chiefs had all but evaporated so much that they could not withstand the machinations and shenanigans that ultimately resulted in the forced incorporation of their territories into the British Empire. Thus, by stealth and treat, the British were able to establish their hegemony in the various places where they had interacted with the local population.

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