British contact with the Nigerian people was made through three categories of people namely; the explorers, Christian missionaries and traders. The explorers included Mungo Park, Lander brothers and Henrich Barth. In the case of Christian missionaries, there was Rev. Schon, Henry Townsend and Bishop Ajayi Crowther among others. There was George Taubman Goldie and a host of others who came in as traders.
The explorers were concerned with discovering the natural and human resources of the areas they visited especially on the Niger and Benue rivers. They were fascinated by the river system, the people, their culture and industries. They recorded what they saw in the Nigerian area and reported back to their country. The Christian missionaries in most cases accompanied the explorers to the Nigerian area. They were interested in converting the people to Christianity. Accordingly, they established mission stations and schools to convert people to Christianity and teach them how to read and write.
The traders, on the other hand, were interested in trading with the people; buying commodities such as pepper, ivory, palm produce in exchange for European goods such as mirrors, cloths and other industrial products.
As early as the middle of the 15th century, slavery started. The European traders became more interested in buying slaves. The slave trade became the dominant commercial activity in the area.
By 1700s, the Bight of Benin and Lagos became important slave trade centres. From 1790 to 1807, British slave traders took away between 1000 and 2000 slaves each year from Lagos alone. In the Bight of Biafra, the major ports were Old Calabar, Bonny and New Calabar. The British became the major slave traders form this area.
In 1807, the British Parliament enacted the Slave Trade Act, prohibiting British subjects from participating in the slave trade. Britain subsequently requested other European powers to stop the slave trade as well. It made anti-slavery treaties with West African states, which it enforced militarily.
This Slave Trade Act provided opportunity for naval expeditions and reconnaissance throughout the region especially against communities that were suspected of carrying out the trade. By 1826-1850, the British navy was interfering significantly with Lagos slave exports. Whether sincere motive to end slavery resulted in British conquest of Nigeria or there were hidden motives of wealth and power remains a disputed issue between African and European historians.
It is difficult to know the true motive of the British in abolishing the slave trade, although churchmen in Britain had been influential in the drive to abolish the slave trade. Significant missionary activities for Africa did not develop until the 1840s. For some time, missionaries operated in the area between Lagos and Ibadan. England’s Church Missionary Society (CMS) was the first mission to be opened. Other Protestant denominations from Britain, Canada and the United States also opened missions. In 1860s, Roman Catholic religious orders established their missions. Protestant missionaries tended to divide the country into spheres of activity to avoid competition with each other. Catholic missions similarly avoided duplication of effort among the several religious orders working there. Catholic missionaries were particularly active among the Igbo, while the CMS worked among the Yoruba.