You may notice something odd when visiting the Twon Brass Community in Bayelsa State, around the present-day Niger Delta region in Nigeria.

An aerial view of the Twon Brass Community in Bayelsa, Nigeria [Guardian Nigeria]

There is a piece of land called “Whiteman’s Graveyard” in Ada Ama area of the region. It is a cemetery dedicated to the graves of British Soldiers who died in the Akassa Assault of 1885.

“The White Man’s Graveyard” [Nairaland Forum]

Today’s story will explain the history behind the ‘white graves’. 

It is a story of the trickery of a British mercantile company and the revenge of a local king. 

This is the story of Frederick William Koko Mingi VIII (aka “Koko”) and his fight against the defunct Royal Niger Company (RNC). This was the Akassa Assault of 1895 or the Brass Oil War.

We must know the Royal Niger Company and its origins to understand this story. 

The Royal Niger Company (RNC)

The flag of the Royal Niger Company [Wikipedia]

Known as the “African Steamship Company” in 1832 and later the West African Company, it was founded by British explorer Richard Lander and 49 others as a trading post. The company’s trading post was located at the confluence of the rivers Benue and Niger in present-day North Central Nigeria. 

A flyer for the African Steamship Company [Wikimedia Commons]

Richard Lander, the British Explorer [Cornwall Guide]

A trading post is typically a store or small settlement in a remote place where trading takes place. 

Their first expedition was unsuccessful, as 40 out of 49 members died of fever or wounds. However, one of the survivors, Macgregor Laird, remained in Britain. He directed and funded the company’s expeditions until he died in 1861.

In 1863, the company’s name changed to the West African Company (WAC). Around that time, other competitors sprang around their trading area, making it difficult for them to profit. 

Here, we bring in an ambitious colonial administrator, George Goldie.

George Taubman Goldie and the National African Company

Sir George Dashwood Taubman Goldie by Sir Hubert Von Herkomer c. 1931 [National Portrait Gallery, London]

When Goldie arrived in the Niger Delta region in 1877, he clamoured for all the trading companies to be registered as single chartered company. 

By 1879, he had combined James Crowther’s WAC, David Macintosh’s Central African Company, and the Williams Brothers and James Pinnock’s firms into a single United African Company. He then acted as the firm’s agent in the territory.

Kingsway Stores and the United African Company (UAC) in 1960 [Kirby Histories/Twitter]

This amalgamation brought international competition from foreign trading companies from France and Senegal, which was not good for business profits. 

To solve this, he needed to obtain a royal charter. This is when a member of the ruling monarchy issues gives the company access to certain rights or powers to trade in an area without competition. 

However, the government was not giving it to him for two reasons. This avoided unnecessary conflict between the companies and the NAC’s poor financial status. However, he soon secured £1,000,000 in investments under a new name — National African Company

By 1885, after the Berlin Conference, his company acquired 30 trading posts along Niger, giving the company a huge advantage over foreign trading companies. 

This also helped him gain the British Monarchy’s royal charter in 1886, changing the company’s name to the Royal Niger Company Limited (RNC). With this, he could now authorise aides to supervise the Niger Delta and lands around the rivers Niger and Benue without any competition.

The crafty negotiations between RNC and local chiefs

With the royal charter, Goldie started meeting local rulers for trade negotiations on their most valuable product, palm oil. Goldie spent two years signing treaties with the rulers to give them free trade in their regions — but these treaties had clauses that the rulers didn’t know.

Why was Palm Oil important? We touched it here: How Britain Bought Lagos with Blood and £1,000 

The Royal Niger Company making a treaty with local chiefs c. 1899 [Financial Times/Getty Images]

Due to the language barrier, the local leaders agreed they couldn’t export goods without RNC permission and taxes. As time passed, the leaders began to grumble about the unfair nature of the deal and started to take matters into their own hands. 

King Koko takes revenge against the RNC

Frederick William Mingi Koko, the Brass King [Alamy]

By 1894, the Royal Niger Company dictated whom the locals could trade with and denied them direct access to formal markets.

This limited their profits and kept them under the caprices of the RNC. In neighbouring communities such as Opobo, where the leader refused to bend, the Brits found a way to exile them to continue trading.

As a result, local chiefs and kings were angry at the Brits and their ways. One such person was Koko, who converted to Christianity and was a school teacher at some point. 

Koko rose to prominence as King of Nembe. This was alongside other chiefs and kings in the Niger Delta region who had burnt their gods to show allegiance to the white man’s God.

Tired of the unfair trading conditions, Koko soon reverted to his traditional religion, refusing to worship a God used to oppress his people and allied with the neighbouring region, Okpoma, against RNC to take back their trade.

King Koko goes to war

On January 29, 1895, King Koko led an attack on the RNC headquarters in Akassa in present-day Bayelsa. He was accompanied by 22 war canoes and 1,500 soldiers.  

King Koko in His War Canoe on His Way down the River, from The Daily Graphic of March 30, 1895 [Wikimedia Commons]

They destroyed the warehouses and offices, vandalised official and industrial machines, and burnt down the entire depot. 

70 men were captured, 25 were killed, and 32 Brits were taken as hostages. This was part of the spoils of war to Nembe, and 13 were not accounted for. Many Brits were allegedly executed at the “Sacrifice Island” the next day, January 30, 1895.

He then attempted to negotiate the release of the hostages to the RNC and choose his trading partners in exchange. Britain refused to negotiate, and, in retaliation, he had 40 hostages killed.

The RNC reacts

On February 20, 1985, British Royal Navy, led by Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Redford, attacked Nembe and killed most of its people. They also burnt the town to ashes.

Admiral Redford [Wikimedia Commons]

In April 1896, Koko refused the British settlement terms and was declared an outlaw. Britain then offered a £200 bounty for King Koko. He was forced to flee from the British, hiding in remote villages.

Koko fled to Etiema, a remote village in the hinterland, where he died in 1898 in a suspected suicide.

The RNC’s many atrocities led to its charter being revoked in 1899. It had to sell all holdings and territories for £865,000. 

This is equivalent to  £110 million today, which in today’s exchange in naira is ₦53 billion. This was the money used to buy the territories now known as the country Nigeria.

The RNC is still present today in Nigeria, only that it is known by a different name— Unilever.



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