“When the people stand up, imperialism trembles.”
— Thomas Sankara
This story of British tyranny and resistance began when the British Empire declared Northern Nigeria a protectorate in 1900.
Northern Nigeria Protectorate (1900-1914) [Dead Country Stamps and Banknotes]
In reality, there was no “urgent” need to conquer the territory. Northern Nigeria at the time held no economic resources for them, and the local traditional rulers didn’t even like the British due to their previous activities of tyranny in other regions.
To understand this, read: How King Koko Created the White Man’s Graveyard in Bayelsa
To justify their actions to the public, they decided to go with the narrative of “keeping the peace” in the Sokoto Caliphate due to their corrupt, oppressive rule and incessant slave raiding.
View of Kano City, Nigeria, capital of the Sokoto Caliphate in 1851. [Heinrich Barth]
But really, they had their own fears. They knew that their European rivals like France and Italy could easily take over the territory if they slacked on their authority, and the local leaders may never give them the respect they felt they deserved.
Thus, they felt it expedient to conquer the North and conquered it fast.
For this task, they chose one man. This was the man behind the amalgamation of Nigeria and the nation’s “founding father”, Lord Frederick Dealtry Lugard.
Lord Frederick Lugard, 1st baron [Elliott & Fry]
Lugard’s origin story
To understand the story of Lord Lugard, we need to understand his origins.
He came from a polygamous family, with his mom being the third wife to his father, a chaplain in the East India Company.
Lugard was a British Army soldier who later received a posting to India, where he began an illicit relationship with an unnamed married woman and later got jilted by her. The heartbreak was so intense that he decided to go to Africa to escape unhappy memories under the British East Africa Company. This was from 1889–1892.
Before he came to Nigeria, he was already knee-deep in controversy concerning his time in Uganda. In his efforts to capture the nation for the British Crown, he was accused of playing a key role in the massacre of natives and using excessive force.
Uganda under colonial rule in government reports, 1903-1961 [Microform]
Arrival into Nigeria and military promotion
When Lugard arrived in Nigeria in 1894, he nearly died from a poisonous arrow.
The incident happened as he returned from his negotiation duties with the local chiefs in Borgu (a region in present-day Niger State), under the Royal Niger Company. He only survived on the herbal potions that the native doctors in the area administered to him.
Three years later, in 1897, he was appointed commandant of the newly formed West African Frontier Force and, in 1900, High Commissioner for Northern Nigeria.
And as a high commissioner, he needed to show the natives that a new force in town needed to be obeyed.
Lugard as colonial administrator, Northern Nigeria [Britannica]
The plot truly thickens here, with one line of correspondence that would change the course of history for Nigeria’s northern territory.
The spark of defiance that led to a full-blown war
After the official declaration of the North’s transformation as a protectorate in 1900, Lugard needed to inform the local leaders officially of Britain’s presence in the area.
To achieve this, he sent a Hausa translation of the proclamation to the Sarkin Musulmi, or “leader of all Muslims”, Abdulrahman. He had been in power for nine years before the arrival of the British.
The latter didn’t respond, but the messenger reports that he turned to his court and said, “No letters ever brought fear like this one. I will read no more letters from these white men.”
The refusal to respond made Lugard extremely angry, as it was interpreted as an insult to him and the King of Britain.
With this in mind and to also teach Abdulrahman, Lugard made his way to the ancient cities of Bida and Kontogora to claim them under British command — without the Sarkin’s permission.
Want to know more about the tyranny and fall of the Bida Empire under the British? Then check out this weekly time machine again at the same time next week.
This article draws inspiration from Max Silloun’s “What Britain Did to Nigeria”