Samuel Sani Abdullahi. PhD


Henry Gyang Mang, PhD

Department of History

Faculty of Arts, Management & Social Sciences

Nigerian Army University, Biu,

Borno State, Nigeria.


British military actions during the early period of the conquest of Northern Nigeria achieved two things. First, it gave the British a moral currency through which they justified the deployment of military force against indigenous people, and secondly, it set a precedent and course of action against the rest of the communities that were earmarked for conquest. However, the British never saw their actions, which were usually based on faulting the conduct of communities to carry out these military actions as violations of human rights and dignities, most especially of groups termed as stateless and ‘primitive,’ Which they had a duty to redeem. However, this was not the same with the experiences and actions of the same British colonial military on the emirates and groups of the Sokoto Caliphate, which eventually became vassals for their indirect rule policy, which primarily worked at subjugating and economically exploiting all groups theough the agency of created chiefs, still with a claim of redeeming the primitive groups. Thus the British presented the events around the conquest of these territories in documented reports as a humanitarian endeavour. This paper argues that such a description was tactful but not truthful, because the British actions during the early years of the conquest of Northern Nigeria are best understood from the perspective of the first objective of the European colonisation of Africa as contained in the protocol of the Berlin West Africa conference and not from its favoured redemptive stand point.


British colonial sources, in discussing the annexation of Northern Nigeria, have in almost all cases, explained the ‘pacification’ -as they termed it, in terms of a needed cause, in that communities within the area (most especially within the central areas known as the Middle Belt), disregarded British values and therefore needed civilization.

Since their colonialization of India and other parts of Asia, it had been a common policy of the British, to see themselves and their actions as that of harbingers of enlightenment.[1] This encouraged the deployment of British officers and men at any indication of intransigence within indigenous communities within their colonies.

Immediately after Berlin (1885), the British formalised their pursuit of gun-boat diplomacy, by the imperialising their interests with colonial rule. Although they still held their racist views of denigrating Africans, they moralised their authority by arguing the need for bringing those people ranked low in the scala naturae (Latin: “scale of nature”)[2] into a reasonable level of enlightenment for their (Europeans) own utility.[3] From the “Punitive Expeditions” in Benin to the Ekumeku Wars among the Igbo’s and those of central Nigeria, the common excuse and explanation was the aligning of the people to noble European ways, through what the British historian Nicholas Dirks describes as ‘cultural technologies of rule.’ More simply put, the British colonialists tried to devise, using the simplest methods they believed Africans (and the other ‘lower’ races) could understand and accept to be ruled by. That implicitly was what “indirect rule” was all about.

In fact, to show how British colonial thinking was inspired by the Scala Naturae, one not need go beyond the comments of one of the greatest Europeans of the modern world, Winston Churchill. A BBC commentary notes that In 1937, while in discussions with the Palestine Royal Commission, he was quoted as saying:

I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.[4]

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