Nigeria contains more historic cultures and empires than any other other nation in Africa. They date back as far as the 5th century BC, when communities living around the southern slopes of the Jos plateau make wonderfully expressive terracotta figures - in a tradition known now as the Nok culture , from the Nigerian village where these sculptures are first unearthed. The Nok people are neolithic tribes who have recently acquired the iron technology spreading southwards through Africa.
The Jos plateau is in the centre of Nigeria, but the first extensive kingdoms of the region - more than a millennium after the Nok people - are in the north and northeast, deriving their wealth from trade north through the Sahara and east into the Sudan. During the 9th centurya trading empire grows up around Lake Chad. Its original centre is east of the lake, in the Kanem region, but it soon extends to Bornu on the western side.
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In the 11th century the ruler of Kanem-Bornu converts to Islam. West of Bornu, along the northern frontier of Nigeria, is the land of the Hausa people. Well placed to control trade with the forest regions to the south, the Hausa develop a number of small but stable kingdoms, each ruled from a strong walled city. They are often threatened by larger neighbours Mali and Gao to the west, Bornu to the east.
But the Hausa traders benefit also from being on the route between these empires. By the 14th century they too are Muslim. In the savanna grasslands and the forest regions west of the Niger, between the Hausa kingdoms and the coast, the Yoruba people are the dominant tribes.
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Here they establish two powerful states. The first is Ife, on the border between forest and savanna. Famous now for its sculpture, Ife flourishes from the 11th to 15th century. In the 16th century a larger Yoruba empire develops, based slightly further from the forest at Oyo. Using the profits of trade to develop a forceful cavalry, Oyo grows in strength during the 16th century.
By the end of the 18th century the rulers of Oyo are controlling a region from the Niger to the west of Dahomey. Meanwhile, firmly within the forest, the best known of all the Nigerian kingdoms establishes itself in the 15th century from small beginnings in the 13th. Benin becomes a name internationally known for its cast-metal sculpture, in a tradition inherited from the Ife see Sculpture of Ife and Benin.
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In terms of extent Benin is no match for Oyo, its contemporary to the north. In the 15th century the region brought under central control is a mere seventy-miles across people and places being harder to subdue in the tropical forest than on the savanna , though a century later Benin stretches from the Niger delta in the east to Lagos in the west. But Benin's fame is based on factors other than power. This is the coastal kingdom which the Portuguese discover when they reach the mouth of the Niger in the s, bringing back to Europe the first news of superb African artefacts and of the ceremonial splendour of Benin's oba or king.
The kings of Benin are a story in themselves. In the 19th century they scandalize the west by their use of human sacrifice in court rituals. And they have stamina. At the end of the 20th century the original dynasty is still in place, though without political power.
All in all, among Nigeria's many historic kingdoms, Benin has earned its widespread renown. Living among the Hausa in the northern regions of Nigeria are a tribe, the Fulani, whose leaders in the early 19th century become passionate advocates of strict Islam.
From sheikh Usman dan Fodio and his two sons lead the Fulani in an immensely successful holy war against the lax Muslim rulers of the Hausa kingdoms. The result is the establishment in of a Fulani capital at Sokoto, from which the centre and north of Nigeria is effectively ruled for the rest of the 19th century.
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But during this same period there has been steady encroachment on the region by British interests. From the death of Mungo Park near Bussa in to the end of the century, there is continuing interest in Nigeria on the part of British explorers, anti-slavery activists, missionaries and traders.
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In the British government sponsors an expedition south through the Sahara to reach the kingdom of Bornu. Its members become the first Europeans to reach Lake Chad, in One of the group, Hugh Clapperton, explores further west through Kano and the Hausa territory to reach Sokoto. Clapperton is only back in England for a few months, in , before he sets off again for the Nigerian coast at Lagos.
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On this expedition, with his servant Richard Lander, he travels on trade routes north from the coast to Kano and then west again to Sokoto. Here Clapperton dies. But Lander makes his way back to London, where he is commissioned by the government to explore the lower reaches of the Niger. Accompanied in by his brother John, Lander makes his way north from the coast near Lagos to reach the great river at Bussa - the furthest point of Mungo Park's journey downstream. With considerable difficulty the brothers make a canoe trip downstream, among hostile Ibo tribesmen, to reach the sea at the Niger delta.
This region has long been familiar to European traders, but its link to the interior is now charted. All seems set for serious trade. After Lander's second return to England a company is formed by a group of Liverpool merchants, including Macgregor Laird, to trade on the lower Niger.
Laird is also a pioneer in the shipping industry. For the present purpose, an expedition to the Niger, he designs an iron paddle-steamer, the ton Alburkah. Laird himself leads the expedition, with Richard Lander as his expert guide. The Alburkah steams south from Milford Haven in July with forty-eight on board. She reaches the mouth of the Niger three months later, entering history as the first ocean-going iron ship.
After making her way up one of the many streams of the Niger delta, the Alburkah progresses upstream on the main river as far as Lokoja, the junction with the Benue. The expedition demonstrates that the Niger offers a highway into the continent for ocean vessels. And the performance of the iron steamer is a triumph. But medicine is not yet as far advanced as technology. When the Alburkah returns to Liverpool, in , only nine of the original crew of forty-eight are alive.
They include a much weakened Macgregor Laird. The next British expedition to the Niger is almost equally disastrous in terms of loss of life. Four ships under naval command are sent out in , with instructions to steam up the Niger and make treaties with local kings to prevent the slave trade. The enterprise is abandoned when 48 of the Europeans in the crews die of fever. Malaria is the cause of the trouble, but major progress is made when a doctor, William Baikie, leads an expedition up the Niger in He administers quinine to his men and suffers no loss of life.
Extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, quinine has long been used in medicine. But its proven efficacy against malaria is a turning point in the European penetration of Africa. The British anti-slavery policy in the region involves boosting the trade in palm oil a valuable product which gives the name Oil Rivers to the Niger delta to replace the dependence on income from the slave trade. It transpires later that this is somewhat counter-productive, causing the upriver chieftains to acquire more slaves to meet the increased demand for palm oil.
But it is nevertheless the philanthropic principle behind much of the effort to set up trading stations. At the same time the British navy patrols the coast to liberate captives from slave ships of other nations and to settle them at Freetown in Sierra Leone. From the British government accepts a more direct involvement. A consul, based in Fernando Po, is appointed to take responsibility for the Bights of Biafra and Benin. He undertakes direct negotiations with the king of Lagos, the principal port from which slaves are shipped. When these break down, in , Lagos is attacked and captured by a British force.
Another member of the Lagos royal family is placed on the throne, after guaranteeing to put an end to the slave trade and to human sacrifice a feature of this region. When he and his successor fail to fulfil these terms, Lagos is annexed in as a British colony. During the remainder of the century the consolidation of British trade and British political control goes hand in hand. In George Goldie persuades the British trading enterprises on the Niger to merge their interests in a single United African Company, later granted a charter as the Royal Niger Company.