European traders were an important group in the series of European contacts and presence in Nigerian areas, before they subsequently conquered and colonized the areas. It is noteworthy that many Nigerian rulers felt the threat of colonialism long before it became a reality. The Saharan and Atlantic trade routes carried information, as well as commodities. On the Niger, the various competing British firms were united into one by Sir George Taubman Goldie. The newly created mega firm then received a mandate to govern, as Royal Niger Company, a mandate that lasted from 1886 to the end of 1899. This development was highly welcomed by the British government. It had the advantage of maintaining “effective presence” on the Niger, which excluded other nations, at no cost. Goldie, in practice though not in theory, was able to exclude all commercial rivals, Africans as well as Britons. African merchants based in Lagos or Sierra Leone suddenly found that they were foreigners on the Niger and so did the Delta peoples.
The men of Brass, living on the margins of the salt-water delta, depended on Niger trade for their livelihood. However, because of ill treatment by the company, the men of Brass in January 1895, driven by desperation to a war they knew they could hardly win, and sacked the Royal Niger Company’s station at Akassa. In other places such as Asaba where the company’s headquarters was located, the company became a great threat to the people. Its staff was catching goats, fowls and cows for their food and pleasure.
In 1888, the company destroyed half of Asaba. The following year it sacked Obosi, the site of its commercial headquarters, going to the lengths of stealing the yams from the ground, the seeds for the next year’s harvest.
In 1897, its forces, led by Goldie himself, invaded Nupe and Ilorin: an attack under the false claim to stop slave raiding, but actually made to keep both the French and the Lagos government out of the area. The war itself was a conflict between two contrasting military technologies. The company’s forces were highly drilled and trained and armed with the latest weaponry, heavy artillery, machine guns, and shells specially designed to ignite thatched roofs. The Nupe relied, disastrously, on their traditional cavalry charge, and were massacred. Then Bida was pounded in to destruction by the field artillery. The same thing happened at Ilorin.
The Royal Niger Company’s regime incorporated the evils of colonialism, such as its destructive violence and subordination of the economic interests of the governed to those of the ruling power, without its attendant benefits such as education or any other form of development. The company used its illegal monopoly to exclude ‘foreign’ African merchants and other rivals; this enabled it to lower both the prices given for produce and the quality of the goods it supplied.