Academic journal article African Economic History

"A Bottle of Gin Is Dangled before the Nose of the Natives": The Economic Uses of Imported Liquor in Southern Nigeria, 1860-1920

Academic journal article African Economic History

"A Bottle of Gin Is Dangled before the Nose of the Natives": The Economic Uses of Imported Liquor in Southern Nigeria, 1860-1920

Article excerpt

The trade in imported liquor rose to prominence during the first half of British colonial rule in Southern Nigeria. But not all was drunk. Single bottles or whole cases of liquor went from hand to hand through barter transactions. Imported liquor's economic functions complemented its social role, with the supreme examples being its use as a colonial revenue-earner and as a transitional currency. This paper takes up a challenge to historians "to trace out the implications of sudden aggressive surges in particular imports" by examining the economics of the growth of the trade in imported liquor in Southern Nigeria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.1

Nigerians had fermented low alcoholic drinks for ages. Liquor consumption mixed concerns on personal, communal and ritual levels throughout the lifecycle of many Nigerians: from naming ceremonies, entertaining guests at weddings, chieftaincy installments and funeral obsequies, to pouring libations to the ancestors. Although with a huge variety of indigenous liquors to consume, Nigerians did not know how to brew lager beer or distil spirits. Their expertise was restricted to tapping palm wine or fermenting grain beers. The Atlantic slave trade, which encouraged the purchase of slaves with rum and whisky, fostered the fashion for imported liquor. Imported drinks did not completely displace local beverages, however: they coexisted, complemented and competed with each other. When the slave trade ended, the liquor trade continued, reaching large volumes in the second half of the nineteenth century. The demand for imported liquor in Nigeria grew to a large extent in tandem with the growth and expansion of British control over the territory from the 1860s onwards. Liquor was the most significant import in terms of volume and value in the British colonies of Lagos, oil Rivers Protectorate, Niger Coast Protectorate and Southern Nigeria, all of which were eventually integrated into the Southern Provinces of Nigeria in 1914.2

The Nigerian liquor trade provoked fierce debate: was it advancing development or fashioning an economy based on the economically unproductive consumption of alcohol? The liquor trade was caught between two prevailing colonial perspectives on economic development in Africa: the Darwinian-based notion that Western civilization had a duty to protect Africans from all bad external economic influences, and the civilize-through-trade concept which sought to modernize Africans by economically exploiting colonies to their fullest potential. Humanitarian concerns and economic interests became entangled. Positive views of the liquor trade claimed its necessity in developing the Nigerian economy. Some admitted that the trade formed a necessary evil, but did not fail to emphasize its role as a transitional currency, promoter of cash-crops-for-export, and a desirable commodity among those with money to spend. Merchants saw commerce as a great civilizing agent with the liquor trade as its most important constituent. On the other hand, liquor trade critics used the temperance equation to further their cause: drinking alcohol was bad, abstinence was good. The critics included a wide crosssection of Nigerians concerned for their fellow citizens in face of the liquor deluge, as well as such foreign bodies as the Native Races and Liquor Traffic United Committee (NRLTUC), the Aborigines' Protection Society and the Church Missionary Society (CMS) led by the vociferous Bishop Herbert Tugwell. They believed the imposition of "a Rum and Gin Civilization" would be "a hydra that devours the natives," halting useful commerce and hindering economic development.3 Nigeria would have a purely zero-sum economy, with merchants' profits gained at the expense of the indigenous population. Critics argued for Prohibition and a restructuring of the economy along alcohol-free lines.

Ironically the one group in Nigeria sure of the economic value of the liquor trade was the British colonial administration. …

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