George Taubman Goldie -The founder of Nigeria


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George Taubman Goldie -The Founder of Nigeria


Tatabonko Orok Edem

The name ‘Nigeria,’ applying to no other portion of Africa, may, without offence to any neighbours, be accepted as co-extensive with the territories over which the Royal Niger Company has extended British influence, and may serve to differentiate them. Flora Shaw, the London Times, January 8, 1897.


August 2, 2005 


History does not exist in a vacuum, and in most areas of the world whose history had been brutally shaped to serve the interests of foreign powers, the area known today as Nigeria, was created or formed as part of the outcome of the industrial revolution, and the American independence of 1783. These events forced the European industrial barons to look for other markets for their goods. Africa was seen as an important strategic stop gap between the British – India imperial axis, and its subsequent extension to Australia and the Far East. Following the discovery of quinine, the threat of malaria receded. This, coupled with the discovery of gold in South Africa, sealed the fate of Africa. Prior to this, there had been trade being carried on between the coastal African dwellers, acting mostly as middlemen and Europeans, which were not controlled by the later. This was frowned upon by the Europeans, but as they could not penetrate the hinterland because of the biological barrier posed by mosquitoes, there was not much they could do.


The three most notorious European players in this regard were the French, British and Germans. The intense rivalry between these European nations almost led to war, as Britain and France attempted to control Egypt, because of its strategic access to the Middle and Far East. Britain usurped the French in 1882, by unilaterally taking over Egypt. In 1870, Prussia defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War. The French then turned their eye to Africa, quietly egged on by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, as it raised hostility between the French and the British, who also had their eyes on Africa, even though, the subterranean efforts made by Bismarck to secure the basin of the lower Niger and Lake Chad were more dangerous to British interests. These growing tensions led to the negotiating table, where these powers decided to carve up Africa. The Berlin West Africa conference took place from 1884 to 1885. West Africa was partitioned into separate and vague European spheres of influence[1]. It was now left to a party to establish its authority before its rival could intervene.


Early life

As it most often happen during the course of British history, an individual arose within this period that changed the course of events, leading to the creation of what is now called Nigeria. That man was George Taubman Goldie. Very little is known of him as compared to Cecil Rhodes, or the mercenary Lugard. Primarily, because Goldie had ordered his personal memoirs destroyed after his death. George Dashwood Goldie Taubman, was born at the Nunnery in the Isle of Man, Scotland in 1846, the fourth and youngest son of an officer in the Scots Guards. He was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and held a commission in the Royal engineers for about two years.  He married Matilda Catherine, daughter of John William Elliot of Wakefield.

A small compact and lean man with a large head, on which rested a pronounced nose with the arrogant and haughty look of a visionary. Born to money (his family made its fortune from smuggling goods into Ireland and England, prior to the Isle of Man becoming a political part of the United Kingdom); and rank. (his father Lieutenant Colonel John Taubman, by his second wife Caroline, daughter of John E. Hovedon of Hemingford, Cambridgeshire., was Speaker of the House of Keys in the Manx Parliament, for all but two years of Goldie’s time on the Niger). He was a professed atheist; he ran off with his governess and later married her at the age of thirty, after a life of loose living, licentiousness and irresponsibility. He conceived the idea of adding to the British Empire, the then unknown regions of the lower Niger and Benue basin. He devoted over twenty years of his life to this concept and his method was through the revival of an old British tradition that was jettisoned for free trade, and had been used earlier by the East India Company - government by chartered companies throughout the Empire.  Goldie also introduced indirect rule earlier used by the Romans to administer conquered territories. He believed that civilization was a product of increasing prosperity and he set out to achieve his goals amidst contending interests of the then European powers and African rulers.


Goldie’s methods

He is reputed to have landed on the west coast of Africa in 1877. He realized the nature of the competition posed by the traditional Efik and Brass traders of the Oil Rivers, and other European traders, and to circumvent this, he utilized monopoly, which in this case could only come about through amalgamation. He bought out several French traders including Holland Jacques and Company, and formed a new company to create the United Africa Company (UAC). This company then bought the assets of the member firms which received shares according to the proportion of the assets it sold, with a caveat that such companies would not operate within a thousand miles of Akassa on the Nun River branch, with the exception of Miller Brothers and James Pinnock. These were allowed to pursue their other activities in the Oil Rivers at Opobo and Benin, and were only allowed to trade independently outside a limit of twenty five miles of any of the mouths of the Niger. Goldie lent his private fortune to the company to break the will of other recalcitrant traders, by trading at a loss. The largest French company, Compagnie Francaise de l’ Afrique Equatoriale, held out until a week before the Berlin conference, where it agreed to amalgate after lengthy negotiations, with the National African Company (NAC) in like manner to that of the original firms that formed the UAC in 1879.

This monopolistic strategy gave Goldie a greater bargaining power with the primary producers, especially of palm oil, and with the influx of capital, the balance of power tilted from the natives. This was later challenged with the infiltration of the French as competitors. Prices paid to the natives went up by 25%, and competition became cut throat. Goldie responded by unearthing an old British system of Royal Charter. Under this system, a company could engage in a headlong rush for territories while the politicians bickered, as it served both parties. In 1881, he sought a charter from Gladstone’s government but was rebuffed, based on several objections mainly tied to capital and law[2]. Goldie thus formed another company the NAC which purchased the assets of the old company. He introduced ‘creative accounting’ (Goldie is thus the first to introduce this into Nigeria) to overcome the government’s misgivings, by raising the capital of the company from 125,000.00 pounds to 1,000,000.00 dollars, appointed reputable people with influence in high places to the board of the company, and pursued an aggressive drive to build stations along the Niger River. He thus brought the Niger and Benue River area under the British sphere of influence, with its attendant then estimated 20 million people. This enhanced Goldie’s reputation and the status of the NAC, as the quasi official representative of the British on the Niger.


Even with these achievements, the British government resisted the granting of the charter to a company, carte blanche, to raise duties and taxes for revenue and profits. Goldie had to resort to blackmail by proposing to the NAC board for consideration and leaking the information in official circles, that if there was no government action soon, the NAC would begin negotiations with any foreign power with the intention of placing itself under the flag of that country and transferring to it, its treaties and the territories the company was effectively occupying. The government capitulated with a compromise solution of retaining a certain control, but the actual document was worded in such ambiguous language that actually legitimized the NAC’s position. The NAC was renamed the Royal Niger Company (RNC) in 1886, when it received the charter, which placed it under direct British protection, with Henry Austin Bruce (later Lord Abedare) as governor, and Goldie as vice governor. On Lord Abedare’s death in 1895, Goldie became governor of the company, which he had created. He thus solved the headache for the British government by making sure that France and Germany were denied a foothold or access to this area.

This arrangement was mutually beneficial to the British government that did not want any extra expenditure on its treasury, preferring to establish protectorate and exert control through the consul and vice consuls. Goldie exploited this dilemma and attracted to the NAC an official status as agent of the British government. Lord Abedare who had been made governor of the company board, was a friend and ex-colleague of the prime minister and foreign secretary, was put in charge by the same British government of finding out the views of the traders in paying taxes to meet the cost of recurrent expenditure. Abedare ignored others and only sought the views of Goldie and Hutton, both directors of the NAC. Goldie had realized that with the finances derived from taxation by the government, there would be no incentive for the British authorities to hand over the administration of the Niger area to NAC. This forced the government to appoint David McIntosh, who was the NAC chief agent, as a consul to assist in the struggle against the French.

The NAC issued its first regulation on the day it received its seal of charter in 1886, when it became known as the Royal Niger Company (RNC) on tariff and licensing regulations. Throughout the lifetime of the RNC, the only regulations made that affected foreigners[3] were the ones dealing with commerce. This rule effectively shut out competitors. Ships could only trade at listed ports of entry where import duties were charged. The greatest grouse of other European firms was the 100% duty charge on spirits which were an intimate part of the palm oil trade. Vessels proceeding up river beyond Lokoja, had to pay double duty. The RNC also claimed property rights on all lands adjacent to the river and would not sell any for the construction of wharves and warehouses. (A forerunner of today’s coastal land use decree.) The Lagos government which administered Lagos Colony, whose sphere extended into the Yoruba heartland, was ordered by the British government to cease corresponding or trading with the Nupe of the hinterland, the area of the middle Niger being regarded as the company’s sphere.

The charter provided Goldie with far-reaching rights to administer these territories in the lower Niger. He signed several treaties with the Niger River chiefs, which enabled him administer these territories. The same system was employed along the Benue River, and these two thrust penetrations and control of the hinterland, whose stated purpose was to guarantee free trade and navigation on the Congo and on the lower reaches of the Niger, served as the submissions of Goldie as proof of British sphere of influence at the Berlin Conference of 1884/1885. This was his defining moment where he was present as an expert on matters relating to the Niger and Benue Rivers. He stated that on the lower Niger only the British flag flew and thus invoked the Principle of Effectivity.[4]   He procured several gunboats to enforce trade and laws thus gave meaning to the word ‘gunboat diplomacy’, where with the help of Joseph Thompson, David McIntosh, D. W. Sargeant, J. Flint, William Wallace, E. Dangerfield and other numerous agents, over 400 treaties drawn up by Goldie were made with the chiefs of the lower Niger and Benue Rivers, and enforced by the presence of gunboats. With Goldie at the helm, this company expanded very rapidly at the cost of much bloodshed.

This entity was declared the de facto government and natives were compelled to pay custom duties and obtain trade licenses from him. His influence was most felt between the beginnings of the 20th century to the First World War, as there was an increase in the fortunes of the British companies with world prices moving to the stage before the downturn of the 1880s.  He thus succeeded in bringing these areas under the British ‘spheres of influence’, the first reference to such an expression in an international act and the obligations attached, as contained in the Berlin Act. In June 1885, a British Protectorate[5] was notified over the coast lands known as the Oil Rivers.


French interests

With the moving in of French companies into this region encouraged by their Premier Lyon Gambetta, and Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor, (motivated more by European political motives than economic interests). French traders started operating on the Niger; the French aim was to link up their possessions in Africa from Senegal to Somaliland, an east-west axis, to block Cecil Rhodes’s goal of achieving a Cape to Cairo, British controlled empire. The British after prevaricating could not denounce the need for a proposed international commission which could have prevented the argument to obtain territorial rights, based on control by British interests at the Berlin Conference[6].

The following year, France mounted more pressure which led to another round of negotiations, with Goldie being instrumental in the preservation of the whole of the navigable stretch of the lower Niger for Britain. In 1894, a Captain Decoeur approached the chief of Nikki to whom the chief of Bussa, which was in RNC’s territory, was vassal according to French claim. Goldie dispatched Captain Frederick Lugard, then employed by the RNC to forestall him. The French later sent another expedition that occupied Bussa, and attempted to sail up the Niger. This threatened the RNC’s monopoly but, unfortunately for the French, a Lieutenant Mizon, one of their men was discredited in France for deploying artillery in a local dispute between two emirs. This coupled with other happenings in the upper Nile between Kitchener and Marchand, brought the Niger dispute into the international arena.


German interests

Germany had quickly established protectorates in Camerouns, South West Africa and Togo. Otto von Bismarck, mounted pressure on Britain from 1884 to 1890 with strenuous efforts to secure a foothold in the Niger basin. Eduard Robert Flegel, was sent by the German Colonial Society in 1885 to also sign treaties on behalf of Germany. After Flegel’s death, Dr. Staudinger, continued his work till 1886. Herr Hoenigsberg, was dispatched as an agent provocateur to stir up trouble in the territories of the RNC. He was arrested at Onitsha and tried by the RNC’s Supreme Court at Asaba, then expelled from the country. Bismarck then sent his cousin Herr von Puttkamer, as the German Consul to Nigeria with special orders to report on this incident. This report was published in a white book, (fore runner of today’s white paper) after which Bismarck demanded heavy damages from the RNC. Bismarck maintained pressure on the British for a third of today’s Nigeria’s territory, but he fell from power in March 1890 and the following July, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, concluded the Heligoland agreement with Germany, which ended the aggressive intent of Germany on the Nigeria area. This agreement led to further negotiations in 1893, initiated by Goldie as a means of halting the French advance into the area from the direction of the Congo. He conceded a long narrow strip of territory between Adamawa and Lake Chad, to which Germany had no previous treaty claims, to Germany. This move checkmated French advance into Nigeria from the East, later another thrust was made by France into Nigeria from the western or Dahomeyan side, even though Goldie had concluded an agreement with France regarding the northern border.


British interests

The British Home government realized how untenable it was for a chartered company to control vast acres of territory, making the areas vulnerable to other foreign competitors. On the appointment of Joseph Chamberlain, a firm believer in colonialism as colonial secretary, the days of the RNC were numbered. Relations with France on the western boundary became so strained that in 1897, Chamberlain raised a local force, afterwards known as the West African Frontier Force, for the special defense of the West African frontier dependencies. It was clear that with the sort of pressure mounted by the French and German governments, it was impossible for a chartered company to hold out against the machinations and the state supported protectorate thrust of the French and German, this led to the RNC controlled territories coming under direct control of the British government in 1900, in exchange for the sum of 865,000.00., British pounds.


Niger Delta interests

Like in most affairs of men, the RNC became a victim of his success and excesses. As an example, the penetration of the RNC led to the displacement of Brass people, and other traders belonging to the African Association, a group of Liverpool companies, this led to the first Niger Delta war. Goldie spread the rumor that the RNC was going to amalgamate with the African Companies, with the capital base to float their own shipping line, thus alarming the shipping companies, who jointly exerted influence in London to force a re-consideration of responsibility and control of the area overseen by the RNC. In 1889, a Major Claude Maxwell MacDonald, was appointed to inquire ‘into certain questions affecting imperial and colonial interests in the west coast of Africa and into the position of the RNC’.


The traders of Brass complained bitterly of their mistreatment and being treated as foreigners in their own country, as they were not able to trade with other peoples of the Niger Delta under the jurisdiction of the RNC, except through smuggling. MacDonald found that the RNC was operating within its rights, but the regulations spelling out those rights were unfair, an eerie resemblance to the current edicts and promulgations controlling the oil wealth of the Niger Delta.  In January 1895, matters came to a head, warriors from Brass attacked the Akassa company headquarters of the RNC, destroying its factory, the Krios working for the company were slaughtered. This attack triggered off a retaliation which in spite of the handsome apology of King Koko, resulted in the destruction of Brass town once known as the Venice of the Niger Delta, in what is now known as “the Akassa Massacre of 1895”.

The Oil River protectorate was not part of the acquisition of Goldie, their chiefs having signed over 400 individual treaties with the British crown, Goldie’s ceded territories, along with these smaller Niger Coast protectorate already under imperial control was formed into the protectorate of southern Nigeria in January 1, 1901., and was formally united with northern Nigeria Protectorate as the ‘Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria’ in 1914.


Northern interests

Simultaneously, the RNC was also feeling resistance from the natives up the Niger, with Nupe and Ilorin, being the seats of rebellion. Their supposed crime, was daring to raid for slaves in areas controlled by the RNC.  In 1897, the hostilities of several Fulani princes led Goldie to organize and personally direct an expedition along the upper Benue, which was completely successful. He imposed terms on them which included the recognition of the suzerainty[7] of the company. He followed that by abolishing the status of slavery within the RNC controlled territories. This though only meant that slavery was not recognized in the RNC’s courts, but slavery still thrived within the hinterlands. Goldie’s sagacity in striking a lenient political settlement with the Emirs set the tone for their preferring British nominal rule as opposed to French direct control of their affairs.


Goldie and Lugard

Goldie’s greatest move was in calling Frederick Lugard to Nigeria, based on Lugard’s experiences in pacifying the Muslim societies of Sudan and Burma. Lugard also had checkmated French interests in Uganda, Goldie a good judge of his lieutenants knew that Lugard was the ideal mercenary to carry out his vision. Even though, Goldie did not have the high profile of Lugard who was greatly admired by Flora Shaw, the Times correspondent whom he later married, Goldie’s genius was in laying a concept of indirect rule on the emirates, which Lugard was instructed to follow. Thus, Lugard put flesh on the ideas of Goldie. It is on record that much of what Lugard achieved in Nigeria was done as a private citizen employed by the Royal Niger Company.


Later life

George Taubman Goldie, was knighted in 1887, and changed his name from Taubman to Goldie by Royal license. He became a privy councilor in 1898. In 1905 he was elected president of the Royal Geographical Society. He was chosen an alderman of the London County Council in 1908. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, honorary D.C.L. of the University of Oxford (1897) and honorary L.L.D. of the University of Cambridge (1897). Goldie died in 1925.


The author declines to acknowledge any referral source as to the information above, in deference to the curse placed by Goldie on anyone who assisted in any way to the writing of his biography.


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[1] Sphere of influence is a metaphorical area of political influences surrounding a country. When a country falls into another’s sphere of influence, that country frequently becomes a subsidiary to the more powerful one, operating as a satellite state or de facto colony.

[2] Charters were instruments of incorporation and a company already incorporated under the Companies Act might not receive such a charter.

[3] Foreigners were classified as any persons not born in the company’s territories including Britons and Africans from the Oil Rivers or Lagos.

[4] That powers could only possess colonies if they actually possessed them.

[5] A protectorate is a state or territory controlled by a more powerful state. The controlled state generally retains some degree of autonomy over internal affairs and is not a possession of the controlling state. The relationship is established by treaty. In this sense a protectorate is a type of dependent area.

[6] Leopold 11, of Belgium was able to convince France and Germany that common trade in Africa was in their best interest. On Portugal’s insistence, Otto von Bismarck called on the representatives of the United States of America, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway and Zanzibar to attend and work out the best policy to exploit Africa.

[7] A situation in which a region is a tributary to a more powerful entity which allows the tributary some limited domestic autonomy or limited self rule, but controls its foreign affairs. It was originally used to describe the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and its surroundings.


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