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Onwuka K. Dike

Instead of focusing on Britain’s cultural imperialism, other scholars credit the reduction to her expanding economic empire. This argument brings forwards in time the economic explanations of the partition of Africa. Onwuka K. Dike in Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta critiques historians who focus on the scientists, missionaries, and adventurers that travelled to West Africa, writing that they “harp unduly on these external manifestations of a movement that was at root economic.” The economic transformations occurring in Europe “canalized these discordant elements into one channel and provided a common ground for unity.” Dike asserts this “concentrated movement” of Europeans into the African interior entered to “exploit its resources, and open new markets for European manufactures.”[1] Thus, the military action at Lagos was “dictated by the development of trade” and conducted “partly to eject Portuguese slave traders whose economic aims were opposed to [Britain’s] own.”[2]


Anthony G. Hopkins

Anthony Hopkins contextualizes the reduction as part of Britain’s post-Napoleonic shift towards free trade. This new policy was designed to replace the “the old, ‘worn-out’ monarchies of continental Europe” with a new world order based on liberalism. Economic liberalism arose as an advertised panacea to Britain’s crises of national debt, mass unemployment, commercial unprofitability, and social dislocation.[3] British officials became missionaries of the gospel of Adam Smith. They launched a program of major reform in colonial Canada, Australia, and India and sought to implant new values through aggressive diplomacy in South America, China, and the Ottoman Empire. The suppression of the slave trade and encouragement of ‘legitimate’ commerce “was essentially part of this wider drive toward the creation of a new international order.”[4] Hopkins argues that Akitoye was installed with the hope that a “change at the top of the political system, supported by the consul, the merchants, and the navy would be sufficient to generate a thriving legitimate trade and to open up a large and supposedly wealthy hinterland.”[5] Hopkins employed staple theory to explain how a reformed West Africa would fit in this new system. Staple theory held that trade in cotton and palm oil would not only supply the raw material required by industrial England for the production of textiles, soap, lubricants, and candlePalmCandles; it would also produce a more equitable distribution of wealth and create demand for the inexpensive mass-produced goods made by British manufacturers. In particular Hopkins stressed the importance of palm oil to the new British economy, “soap was required for cleansing the population in the growing urban centers; lubricants were needed to oil the new machinery, especially the railways; and candles were in demand for lighting the expanding towns and factories.” [6]

However appealing these economic arguments may be to the modern reader distrustful of capital and industry, they do not withstand scrutiny as the explanatory factor of the reduction of Lagos. First, Dike does not isolate Lagos as a dependent variable. He overlooks crucial spatial and temporal particularities. He treats the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra as one analytical unit and describes the ouster of Kosoko in 1851 alongside the removal of a Cameroon King in 1852 and the King of Bonny in 1854. Second, Lagos was not the most commercially attractive site in the Bights. In particular, the Dahomean port of Ouidah had much greater economic potential. Third, force was unnecessary to secure palm oil for British industry. Imports quadrupled in the preceding twenty years and kept pace with demand throughout the first half of the nineteenth-century.[7] ‘Legitimate’ trade was flourishing in the Bight of Biafra, expanding at Ouidah, and even growing in Lagos where Kosoko “actively encouraged the palm oil trade as soon as there was a market for it.”[8] Fourth, Abeokutan cotton production was in its infancy and the Manchester cotton interest had yet to acquire its influence of later years.[9] Its lobbying had no impact on the policies or personnel selected by Palmerston in West Africa.[10] Lastly, aside from broad acceptance of liberal economics specific commercial interests lobbied against one another and “tended to cancel out” as each advocated for their own narrow positions.[11]

 Introduction | Debate (God | Gold | Gezo – Kosoko Pivot) | Alternatives to Suppression | Palmerston’s Position | John Beecroft | Lagos and Dahomey | Toward Conflict | casus belli | Appendices 


[1] Dike adopts the Eric William thesis that industrialization “reduced slave interests to manageable proportions and enabled the abolitionists to attack it successfully” but also acknowledges the humanitarians for not allowing the institution to “linger on – as indeed other decadent systems did linger on” (Onwuka K. Dike, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta: 1830-1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 12-14.

[2] Dike, Trade, 147, 204n.2

[3] Hopkins, “Property Rights,” 777. In Anthony Hopkins’ historiographical engagement on the nature of the African transition from the slave trade to legitimate commerce he emphasizes European.

[4] Anthony G. Hopkins, “The ‘New International Economic Order’ in the nineteenth century: Britain’s first Development Plan for Africa,” in From Slave trade to ‘Legitimate’ Commerce, ed. Robin Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 247-248.  Staple theory connects the physical properties of commodities with the broader economy – how the staple’s characteristics affect production, transportation, sale, consumption, and the societal implications of these affects. Unlike slaving which required large social and capital investments, the agricultural products of West Africa could be produced with near equal efficiently at all scales. Since small unit agricultural production could successfully compete in the market, British officials believed legitimate commerce broke elite control of the market and the wealth that flowed from it.

[5] Hopkins, “Property Rights,” 795.

[6] Hopkins, “International Economic Order,” 125-9.

[7] See Appendix D. The steady price of palm-oil indicates that demand did not outstrip supply.

[8] J.F.A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, History of West Africa, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 158.

[9] The Vice-President of the Board of Trade and Paymaster General, the Earl of Granville, dismissed the Manchester interest claiming that they took every “opportunity of indulging in what was the universal and useful privilege of grumbling…. Was there any one great and flourishing interest in the country from which they were not in the habit of hearing such complaints? The gigantic cotton trade had been more querulous and complaining than any other; and from those engaged in the silk, the leather, the iron trade, and indeed every department of industry, there came the same sounds of grumbling and discontent.” (Earl Granville, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, House of Lords, 3d ser., vol. 117 [June 1851], cols. 869-870).

[10] Manchester’s support of John Duncan and Palmerston’s eventual selection of him as the first Vice Consul at Ouidah is not an accurate measure of its influence. Duncan was an experienced African adventurer and served as master-at-arms in the Niger Expedition of 1841. His travels through Dahomey and his familiarity with King Gezo made him the most qualified candidate. Also it was common practice to appoint Britons with such experience to consular posts. For the relationship between Duncan and the Manchester Interest see Barrie M. Ratcliffe, “Cotton Imperialism: Manchester Merchants and Cotton Cultivation in West Africa in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” African Economic History no. 11 (1982): 87-113.

[11] Ajayi, Christian Missions, 61.

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