Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

The British in West Africa

While the Sudan was being brought under law and order by the British, a large tract in West Africa, known to-day as Nigeria, was looking to Britain for protection and help.

In Western Africa lie our oldest possessions. Sierra Leone was the very first portion of African soil formally recognized as British in the eighteenth century, and was acquired for the purpose of settling freed slaves.

Beside this British colony of Sierra Leone, Britain during the Victorian era purchased adjoining land from the Dutch and the Gold Coast Colony, and spread British influence farther along the coast. But in the hinterland of this newly acquired territory lived a fierce tribe of warriors, known as Ashantis. These Ashantis deeply resented the influence of the British, they felt their trade was now cut off from the coast, and under their black king, Koffee, some 40,000 Ashantis invaded the British protectorate.

"I will carry my golden stool to Cape Coast Castle and there wash it in English blood," said the king, who still indulged in human sacrifices. Britain was obliged to take steps for the safety of her people.

So in 1873 Sir Garnet (afterwards Lord) Wolseley was sent to lead an expedition up country, in order to break the power of the Ashantis. It was January 1871 when a start was made from Cape Coast Castle. A march of 70 miles brought the expedition to Prahsu, the borderland of the Ashantis; 100 miles of jungle lay between them before they reached the capital, Kumasi; through dense tropical jungle, with huge trees matted together with creepers, they marched, pressing onward under stifling heat. Some 20 miles from their capital the black army stood in great force. They had chosen a commanding height surrounded by thick bush, and outnumbered their invaders by five to one.

On January 31 a ten-hour battle was fought. It was one of the many cases in the history of Victoria's reign, when modern warfare triumphed over savage ignorance. Gun and rocket did their work, and a sudden forward sweep of Highlanders, playing their bagpipes the while, dispersed the Ashantis, who fled in the wildest disorder. They left the ground strewn with relics of their flight; umbrellas, drums, muskets lay about with dead and dying men. King Koffee himself, who had watched the battle, seated on his golden stool under a red umbrella, fled with the rest. The British then entered Kumasi—the place of death, which reeked with the blood of human sacrifice. But torrents of rain made the place uninhabitable, and the British were glad to turn their faces towards the coast. Peace reigned for a time.

Sir Garnet Wolseley


But in 1888 King Prempeh succeeded to the throne of the Ashantis, and troubles broke out again. Human sacrifices were restored, and the slave-trade flourished.

In 1896 another expedition was sent to Kumasi. It was accompanied by Prince Henry of Battenberg—the Queen's son-in-law. But Kumasi was deserted. Not a shot was fired; quietly the troops entered, and formally annexed the kingdom of the Ashantis to the Gold Coast Colony. The climate was unhealthy. Prince Henry caught fever and died, leaving his wife a widow with four young children.

Changes followed. The British brought peace and prosperity to the savage tribes plunged in the deepest ignorance. The Ashantis welcomed their new masters, missionaries got to work, the country was opened to traders, and shortly after the Queen's death the first railway train steamed into Kumasi.

Meanwhile the great tract known as Nigeria, about four times the size of the British Isles, was being added to the Empire. As Cecil Rhodes added Rhodesia, so another Englishman, Sir George Goldie, added Nigeria to the possessions of the Queen.

In 1886 the Royal Niger Company was formed to trade in the Niger Valley. Foremost among the merchants was one Mr. Goldie Taubman, once an officer in the British Army, a man of keen foresight, courage, and public spirit.

Owing to the energy of these British traders the whole navigable part of the River Niger cane under British control; gradually trade developed, treaties were made with native States, till more and more territory came under the Company's direction. But certain districts opposed the advance of civilization, the native chiefs revelled in their slave-trade, and the native State of Benin, ruled by a little band of fetish priests, refused any trading rights within their land. Not only did the men of Benin indulge in human sacrifice, but also crucifixion.

Englishmen could not tolerate the existence of such superstition and cruelty in their midst, and a mission of Europeans was sent to interview the King of Benin. The city stood on the river which flows into the bight of the same name: it was known to be a real death-trap—

"Beware and take care of the Bight of Benin,

Whence few come out though many go in."

The mission was made up of seven British officials, two interpreters, two British merchants, and two hundred natives; but while they were yet struggling through the thick bush, before ever they reached the city of Benin, shots rang through the air, and soon the little mission was attacked, and all but two Englishmen were killed. They crept unobserved into shelter, and lived on bananas for five days, till they were rescued by friendly natives.

When the news of the outrage reached England, the Government decided to send an army to punish the offenders. Admiral Rawson with a thousand men and Maxim guns started for a 16-mile march, through thick bush and jungle, for Benin. They took the city by storm, and found a truly appalling state of things. The king had fled, leaving behind a "city of blood" indeed; there were crucified bodies and the remains of human sacrifice amongst other terrors. The city was set on fire, and one of the worst spots in Africa was destroyed. The ruins of the past became a new centre of civilization, and on January 1, 1900, the whole of Nigeria came under the administration of the Crown.