BACKGROUND TO THE EUROPEAN EXPLORATION
During the Middle Ages, the Europeans could not travel far. This was probably the reason why their knowledge of the outside world was very limited.
The Europeans could not travel far due to the following reasons.
Firstly, the Europeans could not organise themselves politically or intellectually and were not economically viable to engage in voyages into the sea and have trading interaction with the people by sea. This was due to the system of government- feudalism, which did not make them have Kings who could encourage voyages of exploration and trade.
Secondly, the 14th and 15th centuries were a period of political turmoil in the Eastern European countries as a result of constant raids from Ottoman Turks. There were religious wars caused by reformation. All these problems prevented the Europeans from promoting overseas adventures.
Thirdly, the Europeans could not venture into the overseas trade because they were able to obtain all their needs from Asia, through the Mediterranean and the Black sea.
There was a sudden change for the European exploration of Nigeria and Africa in general. This was as a result of certain changes and events which took place in Europe.
In the second half of the 15th century, there was a change in the European political arrangement, whereby feudalism was discarded and was replaced by a new political order – centralised government under strong Kings.
Secondly, by the 16th century, there was the willingness to venture into the unknown sea of Atlantic. The Kings of these nations (England Portugal, France and Spain) were already interested in this venture. They threw their weight behind voyages of discovery to Africa and India.
Thirdly, the problem of inadequate instruments for navigation was also solved, Sophisticated instruments were discovered. Compass and astrolabe were introduced into Europe from the East where they had been in use for centuries by the Chinese and Arabs. Important maps began to reach Europe from the Jewish map makers.
Fourthly, before this period, it was generally believed that the earth was flat. This belief was debunked, and it was clearly established that the earth was not flat but spherical. Thus, a sailor could start from one point of the earth and return to the same point. This knowledge contributed largely to the European exploration to the coast of West Africa and Nigeria in particular.
Lastly, by the 13th and 14th centuries, the lands between Europe and Asia, especially the Mediterranean and Black sea routes, were in the hands of the Muslim rulers. Thus, the products from Asia were so expensive and inadequate on reaching Europe. At this period, Asia was a major supplier of silks, spices and gold which were in high demand. Thus, there was so much desire by the European princes to have direct trading contact with China, India and Japan without passing through Muslim-controlled territories. It was during this period that the Portuguese first visited the coast of Nigeria and some other West African countries in the 15th century.
Early European contact with Nigeria-Portuguese exploration
The Portuguese were probably the first set of Europeans to visit the coast of Nigeria towards the end of the 15 century. This was evident in the account of Benin historians who recorded the visit of John Affonso d’Aveiro in 1486. This visit was the first whereby the European visited the coastal town of Nigeria. This visit marked the beginning of several contacts with the people of Nigeria. Not only this, it also influenced the socio, political and economic life of the people of the coast as well as the hinterland as time went on. Also, the visit played an important role in the neglect of trans-Saharan trade in favour of a more profitable trade through the Atlantic Ocean.
The Portuguese were encouraged to visit Nigerian coast because: firstly, the success they had in their visit to other parts of West Africa, most especially Gold Coast (Ghana). Secondly, the desire to venture into the unknown as a result of the invention of modern ships and scientific instruments of navigation like the compass. Thirdly, the Portuguese wanted to expand their trade and spread the religion of Christianity.
The Portuguese voyages to the coast of West Africa were organised by Prince Henry the Navigator. The Portuguese mobilised their natural resources along with the ships and capital for the overseas trade and adventures. They were endowed with navigational instruments like compass and astrolabe which were meant to measure altitudes of stars. Improved nautical charts and maps of greater accuracy reached Europe. The Portuguese of Prince Henry the Navigators’ time were very well equipped in order to undertake distant voyages than any other people in the European world.
Reasons for Portuguese exploration of West African coast
The Portuguese were attracted to the exploration of West African Coast because of political, religious and economic reasons:
Politically, Portugal is a small country located in Europe. In order to demonstrate her pride to the world despite her size, she had to embark on exploration. The first notable man to have championed this exploration was Prince Henry 1394-1460. He was a Christian who showed interest in science and business. He had his headquarters in Sagres. There, he established a school for navigation at his own expense. The school was well equipped with up to date devices of navigation. He was also surrounded by the best set of astronomers, geographers and map makers.
Religiously, the Portuguese also had the aim of taking the religion of Christianity to the pagan people of West African sub-region.
Economically, the principal reason for the Portuguese exploration was economic gain. The Portuguese, under Prince Henry, desired to gain access from the south to the gold trade of the western Sudan which was controlled by the Muslim of North Africa along the trans-Saharan routes. The trans-Saharan gold trade of the Moors was hidden to the Europeans. The western Sudan was the principal source of supply of gold to Europe in Prince Henry’s time. Thus, the middle class merchants of Portugal wanted a share of the trans-Saharan trade by suppressing the Moors in the Western Sudan from the West African Coast to the South.
European explorers and Nigeria trade
The Portuguese made contact with the people of the coastal states in order to trade. This made them to establish trading ports in Ughotan (Gwatto) and Warri. The main articles of trade that attracted the Portuguese to Benin were pepper and slaves. However, the development of spice trade with the far east made the Portuguese to lose interest in West African pepper.
The Europeans established forts and settlements along the coast. These forts and settlements served as the centres where products were to be transacted and exchanged with the people of the hinterland. The Europeans settled at the coast and traded with the interior through the middlemen.
The European products included mirrors, umbrellas, glassware, cloths, dates, beeds, salt and various attractive manufactured goods. These goods were exchanged for local products like ivory, pepper, palm products and gold.
Other European nations like the Dutch, French and British later joined the Portuguese in the trade by establishing trading contacts with the coastal people of Nigeria. These European nations concentrated on slave trade which was found to be more lucrative than other articles of trade. It must be pointed out that the activities of these European nations were limited to the coastal regions of Nigeria.
Portuguese efforts at Christianising coastal states
As stated earlier, one of the major motives of the Portuguese exploration of West Africa was to convert the people to Christianity. In doing this, missionaries were sent to her trading stations on the coast.
In Benin, the Oba and his subjects did not show serious attempt at the conversion. They were only interested in acquisition of firearms to wage wars of expansion.Thus,the kings’ conversion to Christianity was not spiritual but political.
Also, during the reign of Oba Esigie, a Portuguese, Alfonso d’Aveiro visited Benin and advised the king to become a Christian. The king sent the chief of Ughotan to accompany Alfonso d’Aveiro to Portugal, requesting the king of Portugal to send priests who could teach and preach the religion of Christianity. The king of Portugal sent missionaries and attractive presents to Oba of Benin. These missionaries were equally followed by Portuguese traders who traded in pepper, ivory, Benin cloths and other articles in favour of the king of Portugal. This clearly showed the Christian religion on one hand and trading activities on the other hand.
In addition, during the reign of Oba Orhogbua, some churches were built in Benin. However, Christianity remained a minority religion whereby few people embraced it and it was restricted to the king’s palace. At this period, agricultural products could not support the state-sponsored missionary work. Thus, the Portuguese missionaries could not achieve effectively in converting the people of Benin to Christianity.
It must be pointed out that the mission to the kingdom of Warri was successful.
Christianity was fully embraced and it persisted for more than 200 years. The efforts of Italian Capuchin mission in Sao Tome (Portuguese Guinea) was effective. They spread Christianity to Warri and Benin. In the 17″ century, an Itsekiri Prince, Mingi, travelled to Portugal for ten years in order to acquire western education. He came back with a Portuguese wife who gave birth to Antorio Domingo who later became the Olu of Warri in the 1680s. During Mingi’s stay in Portugal, he attended Christian school of theology for eight years. This made him to throw his weight behind the propagation of Christian religion among his people when he became the Olu of Warri.
Effects of Portuguese efforts at Christianising the coastal states
The Portuguese missionary efforts at Christianising the people of the coastal states of Benin and Warri kingdoms failed. The failure was due to the following reasons.
The new converts to Christianity found it difficult to cope with the new religion. They found it difficult to abandon their old pagan practices. Thus, Christianity did not take firm root in the area.
The Portuguese merchants who followed the missionaries exercised negative influence on Nigerian converts. Many of them married the natives, adopted local customs and practices and thus forgot their Christian religion and even their Portuguese origin.
Effects of European contact with Nigeria
The European contact with Nigeria led to introduction of trading activities. The Portuguese who were the first set of Europeans to visit Nigeria introduced coastal trade to the coastal people who became the middlemen with the people of the hinterland. This trade made the coastal people to be wealthy.
The European contact also contributed to the introduction of Christianity to the coastal people and Nigeria as a whole. This led to conversion of so many traditional worshippers. They were converted to the Christian religion. In the area of agriculture, the Europeans introduced new crops to Nigeria such as sugarcane, cassava, pineapple, pawpaw, maize, guava and tobacco. The result of this was improved quality of food and healthy living of the people.
The contact also contributed to the adoption of European cultural ways of life. The people began to dress and eat like the Europeans. The Europeans practice of one man one wife equally spread in contrast to African polygamous way of life. It must be noted that the cultural influence mentioned above dealt a great blow on the Nigerians who began to shift and adopted European ways of life at the expense of Nigerian culture.