Niger 1897: the end of two Empires
“whatever happens we have got the Maxim gun – and they have not”
In the long and complicated history of British imperial expansion, commercial companies have played a significant role. The old adage that “trade follows the flag” was in many cases the flag following trade. Some of the largest trading companies were given special status as “Chartered Companies” with powers not only to trade but to negotiate local treaties, to raise taxes and establish distinct areas of influence. Some were given the power to raise their own armed forces, initially to defend their trade and premises but equally to force their demands on perhaps reluctant neighbours.
The most famous of these chartered companies was the “Honourable” East India Company, trading in India from as early as 1600 and by the mid 18C effectively the British government’s agent in expansion, conquest and control. In the great “scramble for Africa” after 1882, three chartered companies were very much at the forefront of trade and expansion. These were the well-known British South Africa Company (1889) under Cecil Rhodes, eventually responsible for British control of the Rhodesias, the Imperial British East Africa Company under Sir Charles McKinnon (1888), largely responsible for British control of Uganda and Kenya, and the Royal Niger Company in West Africa.
The Royal Niger Company (RNC) under Sir George Taubman Goldie was created out of an amalgamation of the British companies vying for trade in the huge delta of the Niger. This area held one vital interest for British merchants – palm oil. It value as a lubricant for Britain’s thirsty industrial machinery made it a commodity of great worth, and it also found use in other products notably soap; Lever Brothers founded “Port Sunlight” on the back of this trade and “Palmolive” soap is one remnant of this 19C phenomenon.
Because of the huge local production and export of palm oil, the Niger delta became known as “the Oil Rivers”. Britain had attacked Lagos in 1851 and taken the city as a coastal base in 1862 and her “sphere of influence” in the Niger delta was internationally recognised at the Berlin Conference in 1885. The British companies trading there amalgamated in 1879 to form the United Africa Company, becoming the National African Company in 1884. Under Sir George Goldie, this was granted a Royal Charter in 1886 to become The Royal Niger Company. In 1888 it established its own fighting force, the Royal Niger Constabulary, recruited entirely from local men and under British officers. Such was the importance of the Niger trade that the area was formally taken as a British territory in 1891, known as “the Oil Rivers Protectorate” and as the RNC continued to expand its area of control by concluding local treaties, “the Niger Coast Protectorate” was proclaimed in 1893.
It cannot be said that “official” British interest in the area was very great – certainly if it came to spending taxpayer’s money. But in 1896, with the accession of Joseph Chamberlain as Tory Colonial Secretary, things moved up several gears. Chamberlain was concerned at the speed and extent of French (and to a lesser extent German) expansion in tropical Africa, which threatened to cut off or restrict the existing British territories like the Gold Coast, Gambia and Sierra Leone from their hinterlands and inland trade. He developed the theory of the “undeveloped estates” – lands which at the moment might seem to be of little value but may, in the future, prove to be valuable as sources of raw materials or as markets. Under Chamberlain, British expansion in tropical Africa was deliberately and officially stepped up (as witness the Ashanti campaign of 1896 and others). It was really a policy of “land grabbing” – taking control of huge swathes of territory before someone else did.
Northwards, beyond the coastal “band” of largely non-Muslim west African states, many of whom had by 1896 come under British or French “protection” (like the Fante of the Gold Coast) lay the great sub-Saharan Muslim empires and emirates. These highly organised states, often of some antiquity, could field impressive military forces, largely in the form of armoured cavalry. In the course of aggressive European imperial expansion after 1896, all were to come under the sway of Britain and France, most taken by actual military conquest.
For the Royal Niger Company, the two most formidable neighbours and potential blocks on inland expansion were the great Muslim emirates of Bida and Ilorin. The Fulani state of Bida was founded as recently as 1859 out of the ancient Kingdom of Nupe, which had adopted Islam c.1770. It was governed from the mud-walled city of Bida which became the main centre of the emirate by 1873. Across the Niger, Ilorin was founded in the late 18th century and became the capital of a kingdom which was originally subject to the powerful Oyo Empire. However, by the1820s, Ilorin had broken free, later destroying Oyo itself and by conquest created its own empire. Throughout the 19C, Ilorin was a major trading centre, controlling movement on the Niger between the Hausa of the north and the Yoruba of the south.
An excuse for British (or in this case, RNC) military action against the two states was easily found. There were claims about raiding into designated “British” areas and the usual claim that the empires were slave owning, slave trading and slave raiding and that, since they would not mend their ways by agreement, military action should be taken against them. There is no doubting the real interest in many British circles in acting against slavery and the slave trade around the world, but there were other more pressing reasons to embark on expensive military operations! In the post-1896 climate of British imperial politics, the need to subjugate the two emirates was clear – to allow the expansion of the Niger Coast Protectorate into potentially valuable new lands, to control trade further along the Niger and, not least, to thwart French expansion into the region. The French were already perilously close to Nikki and Bussa.
Once a decision to act against the two emirates had been taken, the RNC assembled a military force in January 1897 which, for what seemed a tremendous military task, looks remarkably small. Apart from the usual horde of porters and bearers (about 1,000 were used) the actual strike force comprised only 30 British officers and NCOs and about 500 men of the Royal Niger Constabulary – seven companies of about 70 men each being mobilised. Overall command was given to Lieut (local Major) A. J. Arnold of 3rd Hussars – an impressive appointment for a Lieutenant! The men were armed with Snider rifles – antiquated by 1897 – but the key point is that the RNC had two 7-pdr mountain guns and 5 new Maxim machine guns, which had been “loaned” by the War Office. A river flotilla of twelve ships, armoured with steel plates, under William Wallace, CMG, Goldie’s Assistant Director, was equally well-armed, with 1-pdr Nordenfeldt quick-firing guns and Gardner machine-guns. It would operate along the Niger itself, the river serving as a highway northwards and directly into “enemy” territory.
Since the emirates were well-aware that an attack was coming, defensive measures had to be taken on the border of RNC territory. In what was in effect the first of three expeditions, RNC forces were assembled at Akassa in the mouth of the delta and then carried by the armed steamers up to Lokoja, to establish a defended base in what was already the RNC’s “advanced post” where the Niger joined the Benue. Once this had been done, the main RNC fighting force was shipped to Lokoja.
Major Arnold intended that one army of Bida – estimated at 10,000 cavalry under their Emir Makum and camped fifty miles away at Kabba – would be the first to be confronted. Arnold would lead a “flying column” westwards to attack this army, while a smaller force under Captain Sangster carried in the boats would sail northwards, “securing” riverside villages, and head for Egwa. This town marked a crossing point on the Niger, across which Emir Makum might seek to retreat or receive reinforcements. By placing the RNC flotilla at Egwa, Makum’s force near Kabba would be isolated and, since the armies of Ilorin were not mobilised in their neighbour’s support, Arnold could deal with the separate forces of Bida in detail.
On January 6th 1897, Arnold (with the Protectorate’s Governor Sir George Goldie in tow) marched from Lokoja with a force of approx. 510 Constabulary, with all his Maxims and artillery, supported by a column of porters. Marching in single file along narrow paths – a dangerous necessity through dense bush – he reached Sura on the 11th where he left a small garrison and most of his porters before continuing towards the enemy base. Nearing Kabba on January 14th, Arnold had his men form square – and quite a small square, given the numbers – and marched forward, only to find that the Emir had already fled, heading back towards the Niger crossing at Egwa where he hoped to unite the entire armies of Bida. But harassed by locals who had no love for the Emir or his army, and finding the crossing blocked by the RNC flotilla, the Emir’s army simply ceased to exist, fleeing into the bush or trying in groups to cross the Niger. Without firing a single shot, Arnold’s first expedition had dispersed one powerful army. In the centre of Kabba, Sir George Goldie raised the union flag and proclaimed that the people were now “free” and that slavery was abolished.
Major Arnold lost no time in pursuing Makum and seeking out the rest of Bida’s army. Marching for Egwa with more or less the same force, he crossed the river and headed straight for the capital, Bida. However, just south of the mud-walled town, the second army of Bida made a determined attack on the RNC column. Forming his men into square, Arnold repelled several attacks by the impressive cavalrymen of the Emirate, with mass rifle fire and (in particular) the Maxims and mountain guns doing terrible damage. It has been said that over 25,000 cavalry were involved in these attacks against a square of less than 500 men. It must have been some sight – the chain mail-clad cavalry of Bida, like an army from the Crusades, repeatedly and bravely charging a force only a fraction their size, but armed with the very latest in death-dealing weaponry. This really was one world pitted against another. And, as at Omdurman a year later, it proved to be an absolutely destructive clash. The losses to the Fulani cavalry are unknown but must have been very high; the RNC force lost 1 officer and 7 men killed and only 9 wounded.
In the end, the cavalry of Bida simply broke and fled and on January 29th 1897, without the town offering any further resistance, the union flag was raised over the town. In the meantime, the flotilla had advanced northwards along the Niger and had captured Ladi, the southern capital of the Bida emirate.
Wasting no time, Arnold’s small army now sailed along the Niger to advance against the Emirate of Ilorin. Carried as far as Jeba (where a temporary base was established), it landed within striking distance of the capital city. Arnold must have been very confident : to take on the army of Ilorin he took with him only 320 Niger Constabulary (under 15 British officers and 7 British NCOs) with 20 gunners and only two mountain guns and four Maxims: an actual fighting force of only 362 all told, with 480 carriers. Starting out on February 10th 1897, the column neared Ilorin by the 15th and found that a force of up to 10,000 cavalry blocked their route and were preparing to attack their flanks. The men of the RNC Constabulary had no sooner formed square, with the porters in the centre, when they were attacked by the full weight of the Fulani cavalry. Once again, small though the RNC force was small, its sheer firepower, dominated by the Maxims, was devastating and more than enough to decimate the attackers, whose reckless gallantry was just as ineffectual as that of Bida’s army had been. The cavalry casualties must have been appalling. That night, the RNC column camped within two miles of Ilorin, a town of 30,000 inhabitants. Next morning, again marching his men forward in square, Arnold headed right to the city gates, facing only desultory firing. Hoever, when a messenger was sent forward demanding immediate surrender, firing broke out from the ramparts and Arnold ordered his mountain guns to open fire with shells and rockets. The effect was almost instantaneous: return fire ceased and the RNC force marched straight into the city. In the great market square of Ilorin, before the Emir’s burning palace, the end of slavery and the Emir’s rule were proclaimed and the surrender of 2,000 soldiers was taken. Two days later Emir Suleiman, who had fled with 8,000 men, returned to the city and offered his own surrender.
- So ended a remarkable and highly successful campaign, which, if more British troops had been involved, might be better known. In only five weeks two powerful emirates had been subjugated by little more than 500 Hausa constabulary – notably assisted by the most modern machine guns and light artillery.
Sir George Goldie received his reward very quickly; as soon as 1898, the British government bought out the RNC and brought its territories under British rule. The Royal Niger Constabulary became the foundation of the new West African Frontier Force (WAFF) and two new colonies soon emerged – Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria, in which the emirates of Bida and Ilorin (and others by 1903) were incorporated. Thus were empires lost and made!
A medal for the 1897 operations was quickly approved. Army Order 155 of 1897 authorised the award of the East and West Africa Medal with clasp Niger 1897 to those who had served between 6th January and 25th February 1897, including the garrison at Lokoja. It has always been a rare medal, especially to British military recipients. According to R.G. Magor in his African General Service Medals, only 24 British officers and 7 British NCOs with 651 RNC Constabulary qualified and comprised the fighting force which conquered two powerful emirates. A few civilians and RNC employees also qualified– but apparently not the porters.
At the same time, the Royal Niger Company awarded its own distinctive medal to its forces. The medal was awarded in bronze to African troops, with the simple clasp Nigeria and numbered (not named) around the rim and in silver to its European employees, British officers and NCOs. The latter are exceptionally rare (only 36 known to British army recipients) and carried a dated clasp, Nigeria 1886-97. The medal was awarded for a number of RNC military operations over the period, including the Bida-Ilorin expedition.
For those who want to read them, the official dispatches for Niger 1897 are in The London Gazette of 7th June 1897; the best account of the campaign – one of very few – is in Major Seymour Vandeleur’s Campaigning on the Upper Nile and Niger (Methuen, 1898).