The British Empire Library

Trade Winds on the Niger: Saga of the Royal Niger Company, 1830-1971

by Geoffrey L. Baker

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by A.H.M. Kirk-Greene (Nigeria 1950-1966 Now Emeritus Fellow, Oxford University)
Mindful of the risk of being hauled before the Nolan Committee for suspected sleaze, and conscious of the charge of a prima facie case of corruption, let me declare my interest at the outset. Yes, I am Academic Consultant to the Radcliffe Press, publisher of the book reviewed here. No, I was not involved in its writing, editing or production, other than to reply that in principle a combination of this author and that topic sounded very promising. Indeed, thanks to a distributional hiccup, I did not know the book had even appeared until four months after publication, when your Editor asked whether I could square my conscience by reviewing a book all about 'my' kind of Nigeria. I rest my case... and get on with the assignment.

Trade Winds on the Niger is a well-crafted and flowingly-written narrative history of the dominant trading company in colonial and pre-colonial Nigeria. Geoffrey Baker, who out of his forty-eight years in Nigeria worked with the United Africa Company in senior management from 1948 to 1963, inflates the longevity ("1830-1971") of the Royal Niger Company of his sub-title, for in the event the R.N.Co. was not founded until 1886 when it changed its name from the National African Company; had its royal charter revoked in 1899; was taken over by Lever Brothers in 1920; and after further amalgamation, emerged in 1929 as the United Africa Company (UAC). But behind his pardonable exaggeration lies the far longer history of river trading in Nigeria, the focus of this delightful study with antecedents reaching back into the first half of the 19th century and a legacy stretching up to 1971, when UAC restructured its operations and sold off its celebrated and colourful river-fleet. It is no hyperbole to claim that the R.N.Co. and its UAC successor played an integral and influential role in the history of colonial Nigeria, and Baker pays notable tribute to that contribution.

When Geoffrey Baker and I first met in Yola in the early 1950s, he was already an authority on the history of the Royal Niger Company, having had the good fortune to immerse himself into it at the once thriving Delta station of Opobo, home of the famous King Ja Ja, where some of the old trading beaches gave him the impression of having been left behind by Sanders of the River. Together we spent our spare time in the Provincial records, dating back in vast detail to the capture of Yola in 1903 and devotedly gathered into an invaluable archive by Walter Paul, the Senior District Officer. Baker's sense of history is at its best when in his central chapters he describes the characters - and I choose the word carefully for all its nuances - of the R.N.Co. on the River Benue: for example, his vivid and compelling accounts of Sir George Goldie, of the agents-general like Joseph Flint, William Wallace and Walter Watts, of the flamboyant Charlie McIntosh {Sarki or King) in his suit of chainmail, and of the dramatic incursion up the Benue in the 1890s by the French naval Lieutenant Louis Mizon, complete with his eleven year old African female companion Zenabou.

Throughout the text the reader continually senses the spirit of the old riverain trading days, with their nostalgic vocabulary of mangrove swamps, malaria and manillas, of supercargoes and sandbanks, of blackwater, comey and hulks, of 'palm-oil ruffians', and of landlocked 'beaches' like the main street of Jos, still The Beach in the 1950s though 400 miles from the sea and 150 from the principal trading rivers, Niger and Benue. "Reeking of history" is Baker's description of the physical legacy of the 19th century river-fleet and riverside stations. Indeed, this is the heart and soul of the story, for the years from 1900 to 1971 are polished off in a mere three chapters, while Baker lingers long and lovingly in seven chapters on the high noon of 1880-1900.

If the list of sources tantalizes the serious researcher into R.N.Co. history by its give nothing- away umbrella entry "Unilever pic: UAC's records and reminiscences," he will be well served in D.K. Fieldhouse's history of the UAC from 1929, Merchant Capital and Economic Decolonization (1994), based on an exhaustive scrutiny of the company's archives before they were removed from their longstanding home in Blackfriars House. The map is extremely helpful but it is a pity about the publisher's howler on the title page, where 1830 becomes a shock 1930! Trade Winds on the Niger is a must for every 'Nigerian' among us. It is also, like the UAC itself, a significant contribution to the whole history of colonial Nigeria.

British Empire Book
Geoffrey L. Baker
The Radcliffe Press


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