Royal Niger Company

Royal Niger Company post office stamp at Akkassa, 1895.
Royal Niger Company post office stamp at Akkassa, 1895. Tension between company and local traders caused a major strife in Akkassa, now in present Bayelsa state, in that year. Photo: Compustamp

Royal Niger Company was the entity which served essentially as precursor for the Nigerian state; the mercantile establishment which evolved from British trading firms granted royal charters in West Africa by Queen Elizabeth, whose activities, commencing in 1662 was under the name “Company of Royal Adventures.” In 1662, this name was changed to the “Royal Africa Company,” becoming later, the Royal Niger Company. The Royal Niger Company, in author, Sir William Geary’s words, was at best a makeshift to avoid the burden of a protectorate whereof England had taken on the rights and obligations. The government of Britain decided at the close of the 19th Century to cancel the charter of the Niger Company with compensation. Its southern territories and the Niger Coast protectorates were subsumed under a new protectorate of Southern Nigeria. Northern portions were made into the new protectorate of Northern Nigeria, directly under the British crown, and administered by the colonial office.

The transfer of rights and obligations from the Royal Niger Company to the British crown was necessary as the company could hardly hold its own against the challenges and the politics with which it is faced on daily basis. Initially, there was no will to establish a colony, and the British had in one instance in 1841, suspended the subventures for expenditures of the Niger area for failing to make returns on the crown’s investment. At this time, various business interests by Britons dotted the Niger. These independent traders made agreements with local communities, often withstanding hostilities alone, but made profit. Often, traders engaged in unproductive competition, a fact which nudged a company administrator, Sir G.O.T. Goldie, to champion the merger of British companies in 1879 to form the United African Company when in 1882 the company, now called the National African Company, was threatened by incursion of French business and political interests. Several treaties were entered with local communities, effectively putting them under its control. This happened just in time for the Berlin Conference, during which the British established their claims over the Niger territories. This was understood by conflicting interests in Europe as not affecting the status quo of popular trade ethics and that there would be no monopoly of trade in the Niger. It is assumed that the company will simply carry out its business under the British Crown colony and protectorate.

The Royal Niger Company’s charter lasted from 10 July 1886 to 31 December 1899, during which it presided over some 500,000 square miles de facto, and controlled the Niger and Benue rivers. The Royal Niger Company had a force of 1000 men. Native resentment of the company grew because of its systemic monopoly of trade, especially for the reason of the banishment of the King Jaja of Opobo. An enquiry into the affairs of the Oil Rivers, which was the coastal territory between Lagos and the Cameroons, exposed local traders’ dissatisfaction. Recommendations made in favour of a consular system of government by Claude MacDonald contributed to the decision of the government to take over the powers of the Royal Niger Company. From the first day of the new century, the company, stripped of its charter by Queen Victoria of England, had fully handed over its assets, becoming the “Niger Company” which enjoyed only vestiges of its near monopoly in the Niger. The sales of its holding to the British government for the sum of £865,000 is often interpreted as the price for which Nigeria was purchased. In 1929, the Unilever Group which bought the Royal Niger Company began to trade with the company’s original name by which it is known today, the United African Company.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer