Studies of the West African shipping trade in the twentieth century have focused essentially on the activities of the conference lines and reactions to them, the business histories of particular firms, the impact of shipping on port development, the reactions of shipping lines to port tariffs and administration, and the overall contribution of shipping to the development of the colonial economies.1 They have devoted much attention to the commodity trades but passenger shipping remains a neglected theme in the literature, in contrast with studies of shipping in other parts of the world.2
This article begins to bridge this gap in the literature by examining the controversy generated between the wars by attempts to preserve the passenger shipping of colonial Nigeria to the Elder Dempster line in the face of intense foreign competition. The bone of contention was the imperial policy of supporting the national line regardless of loud complaints about the quality of its service and prospects of superior alternatives offered by foreign lines. The key issues were the fares charged and the differential qualities of the services rendered by Elder Dempster and its rivals; the regulations which were passed to forestall or penalise the patronage of foreign lines by colonial officials; and the reactions that these generated in Nigeria and Britain. The discussion illustrates the dimensions and consequences of business-government relations in the colonies, the negative impact of monopoly, and the price often paid by colonial officials in the defence of the national interest.
Passenger shipping to the end of the First World War
Steam shipping was inaugurated in West Africa with the establishment in 1852 of the Elder Dempster line. The development of the shipping industry, the entry of foreign lines, and a sustained increase in traffic as the colonial economies developed, culminated in the West African Conference in the 1890s.3 Subsequently commodity shipping completely overshadowed passenger traffic, in response to a steady growth in the colonies' exports (mainly forest products and minerals) and imports of European manufactures.4 With the formal establishment of colonial rule from the late nineteenth century, passenger traffic consisted essentially of colonial officials going on, or returning from, annual leave, or those taking up fresh appointments, as well as members of their families. Unfortunately, no precise figures exist to show what proportion of all passengers were official, but it appears that they constituted the bulk, compared with the fewer expatriate businessmen who shuttled between Britain and the colonies.
Regrettably, details of the passenger traffic until the outbreak of the Great War are lacking. Coherent data on passenger fares and reactions to them are, however, available from the outbreak of the war, and this forms a convenient starting point for an examination of the subject. As is clear from Table 1, there were rapid changes in passenger fares during the war, which provoked reactions in official circles in Nigeria, especially in the last year of the war.
Most striking were the rates levied in January 1918, which were 40 per cent higher than prevailing rates, though the war surtax had been waived. Single fares from Lagos were now L68 10s first-class and L50 second-class.5 It was this astronomical increase, compared with pre-war rates, that provoked an outcry in official circles in Nigeria. As the new rates were 160 per cent higher than pre-war rates, Governor General Lugard highlighted the implication for colonial finances. Official passages required an addition of approximately L37,000 to the Estimates for 1918, a not inconsiderable burden on a colonial government that was required to pay its way. Lugard emphasised that the rates were higher than those charged by the French line, Chargeurs Reunis, to Bordeaux.6
Opposition to the new rates centred on the burden they imposed upon colonial finances, an addition of L10,000 to the Estimates of the Nigerian Railways, for example. …