The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

22

West Africa

TOYIN FALOLA

A. D. ROBERTS

At the end of the nineteenth century British rule in West Africa expanded far inland, from a few coastal outposts that were by-products of the Atlantic slave trade and its abolition. In this way Britain became, for six decades, suzerain over the largest Muslim population in the Empire outside India. She also gained ascendancy over two great African empires: Asante and the Sokoto Caliphate. The way in which the British perceived their role in West Africa was duly transformed. For much of the nineteenth century they mostly worked in close, if often uneasy, association with coastal Africans, many of whom were Christian and largely British in cultural orientation. Thereafter this partnership disintegrated, as the British set about incorporating vast regions of the interior in new structures of administration and trade. The Imperial history of British West Africa can be read in terms of the tension and conflict arising from this enlargement of perspective, and the priorities which it entailed.

The areas which became British West Africa ranged in size from Gambia—4,000 square miles either side of the Gambia River—to Nigeria—356,000 square miles. Around 1900 there may have been 100,000 people in Gambia, 1 million in Sierra Leone, 2 million in the Gold Coast, and 15 million in Nigeria; altogether, a good many more than in the much larger region that became French West Africa. Most of what came under British rule was occupied by cultivators, though their habitats varied greatly. Much of the country nearest the coast—up to a hundred miles or more into the interior—was covered by tropical rainforest. Beyond lay huge tracts of savannah woodland where rainfall was markedly lower. Indigenous political systems included a multiplicity of states, large and small, and societies without any centralized government. Many areas had long been involved in trade, and were linked either to caravan routes across the Sahara or to coastal ports. Here, during the nineteenth century, European influence increased as palm-oil, instead of slaves, became the region's main overseas export, though the growth of such 'legitimate' trade often involved slave labour. Across the savannah of the hinterland Islam expanded during the nineteenth century, but was beginning to confront the advance of Christians, European and African, from the coast.

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