Review of Kenneth Dike's Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830 - 1885


Paul Conton

I was drawn to this book by Fyfe’s revelation, in the preface to his A History of Sierra Leone, that he had written several hundred pages of his history before he came across Dike’s book. After reading it he had felt compelled to rewrite most of what he had written, as Dike led him to see the material in a new light. If the doyen of Sierra Leone history, Fyfe, could have been so influenced by Dike that he rewrote several hundred pages of his masterwork, then I had to have a look at Dike. So, after an internet search and a long wait I finally was able to get my hands on a copy of this 1956 publication.

Dike (1917 - 1983) was one of the first Africans to acquire advanced Western training in history, earning his doctorate from the University of London after earlier tertiary training at Fourah Bay College (yes, in those days the top Nigerians came to Sierra Leone to study), and the Universities of Durham and Aberdeen. He was the first African professor of history and head of a history department, at the University of Ibadan, where he later rose to the position of vice chancellor. He revised the history curriculum at Ibadan to give it an African focus, and is widely credited with introducing an African perspective into the study of African history, which hitherto had been largely recounted through the perspective of the European. The book under review, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830 - 1885, published in 1956, shot him to prominence, inspired a generation of African historians and influenced Europeans like Fyfe who had previously been dominant in the study of African history. Africanists have hailed him for rescuing the history of Africa from white authors and giving the African story a more sympathetic hearing. His book paints a different picture, one that Africanists might not like to see. Brutally honest, yet totally dispassionate, the book reveals a grim, even sordid West African landscape in the period under survey.

Dike's style is pedantic, not as down-to-earth or human as Fyfe’s. Dike uses copious footnotes, where Fyfe eschewed them altogether, for which he was roundly criticized. For the general reader, such as myself, footnotes and references break the rhythm of the story and can be conveniently ignored most of the time. The academic reader, though, will want to know the authority for the writer's statements and conclusions, and in this arena scholarship is often judged by the number of references cited. Fyfe used copious references, but he deliberately chose to list them at the end, so as not to break the rhythm of his story. The general reader might be inclined to interpret copious references as more a sign of weakness than of strength: if the writer has the reader’s confidence (and if not one wonders whether reader would follow writer for several hundred pages) then writer need not justify every assertion with a reference.

Dike divides the history of modern West Africa into two convenient periods. From 1481, at the Portuguese advent to 1830 Europeans barely held an inch of West African territory and the African chiefs were firmly in control. After 1800 a "revolution...swept away...400 year old political systems built on the slave trade.." Two central spurs of this revolution were the 1807 prohibition of the slave trade by the British and the 1830 discovery by the Lander brothers that the Delta region was the estuary of the mighty Niger river, providing a riverine highway from the Atlantic into the vast interior.

In the early, pre-1830 period, Dike stresses that the African chiefs were fully in control of affairs in their territories and the Europeans were quite happy to involve themselves only in trading. Once ashore they were absolutely in the control of the chiefs. Slaves were the main commodity, and Dike maintains not only that the African chiefs benefited from the slave trade, something that is perhaps only somewhat acknowledged in West African popular opinion, but, much less accepted in the region, that the political systems during this four hundred year period had their very foundations in the slave trade; coastal chiefs maintained their grip on power by trading slaves to European slave ships whilst jealously guarding and restricting access to the hinterland, from whence the slaves came; interior chiefs shipped down the Niger a constant supply of slaves captured from a wide area of the hinterland. Over a 400-year period the political structures evolved to support this the main export and the main avenue for imported manufactures. Again and again, Dike makes the point that, "Delta society...rested on a foundation of slavery" (p. 36).

During the early period when Europeans involved themselves exclusively with trading, successive waves of immigration by the interior peoples had taken place towards the Niger river and to the Delta area which had previously been sparsely populated. This area became the principal source in West Africa for slaves, taken via the Niger to coastal settlements such as Bonny, which thrived on trade with the white men. The Ijaw people were probably the first to arrive in the then sparsely populated Delta, even before the arrival of the first Portuguese in the fifteenth century. The Ijaw were probably migrants from the Kingdom of Benin, which was then very powerful and extended its influence over a large region. Some seeking to escape this influence  sought refuge in the swampy seclusions of the Delta. After this came Ibo-speaking peoples seeking opportunities for trade with European seafarers.

The house system was the basic unit of social organization in the Delta. Each house comprised a master, his relations and a retinue of slaves which could number up to several thousand depending on the status of the master. The house conducted trading activities in the interior and brought export slaves to market on the Delta. Although there could be extreme brutality within the system, the house (domestic) slaves, according to Dike, were in a better position than export slaves sold to the West, for house slaves could and did rise within the system. In the hinterland, the absolute dominance of the Aro oracle was used to subjugate the people and provide a mechanism for obtaining slaves in large quantities. When the dreaded Aro oracle was reported to have “eaten” miscreants, in reality they had usually been sold into slavery at the coast.

Whilst his tone is studiously neutral, Dike does not hesitate to lay all the facts bare, some of which one assumes he would have found repugnant. For a historian of his day this was a courageous decision. It would be even today, when knowledge of the extent of African involvement in the slave trade is not widespread among the general population and calls for reparations from the West are active. At every stage Dike documents how the Niger Delta chiefs actively participated in the trade, profited handsomely from it and based entire political structures throughout this vast region upon it. He reveals the opposition by the African chiefs to the British decision to ban the slave trade  and the cynicism of both parties, European buyer and African seller. The British government emerges as the unlikely, unsung hero, deciding in 1807 not only to ban the trade, but to actively pursue development of alternative, legitimate trade. This decision engendered a fierce struggle lasting for many years. Several candidates for legitimate trade (ivory, gold dust etc), proved to be unsuitable, but ultimately palm oil emerged successful. 
The two sides, slave traders and legitimate traders, were mortal enemies and could not survive side by side. In some areas, whenever a slaving ship showed up, all legitimate trade ceased and locals concentrated on filling up the slaver with its illegitimate cargo. Violent confrontations between the two sides were common, with the British Navy active on the high seas to proscribe the trade. Not having a suitable nearby site on the mainland, the British Navy found Fernando Po an important base from which to operate. In the late thirties the British government sought to establish anti-slave-trading treaties with the coastal states. In a power struggle in Bonny, the center of the slave trade, the British intervened to restore King Pepple to power, marking the beginning of the end of independence for the coastal states. Numerous treaties followed, accompanied by payments to chiefs for the specific purpose of ending the slave trade. At one point in 1841 Dike shows (p. 85) King Pepple bargaining successfully for an annual payment of 10,000 pounds sterling to end slave trading in his country.

Eventually, legitimate trade won over illegitimate. In the legitimate trade again the Delta region became key in West Africa. Just as it had produced slaves from deep in the African hinterland via the Niger, so its entrepreneurs scoured  the swamps and river banks of the hot, humid Delta basin for the native  crop. Domestic Delta slaves were again heavily involved in getting the new export commodity to the coast. Like the earlier export, palm kernels were brought to coastal ports from a wide region of the Delta via the Niger. This period saw the continued dominance of the Delta coastal states, Bonny preeminent among them, each with trading outposts up the numerous creeks and rivers protected by fleets of heavily armed war canoes dispatched from the Delta.

The struggle between the slave trade and legitimate trade was followed in the 1830s by a struggle between the old order of coastal trading through which the coastal states had grown rich and a new order which sought direct trade with the hinterland. Expeditions up the Niger were organised by Macgregor Laird to establish the viability of direct trading in legitimate products with the hinterland. These expeditions were met by violent but ultimately unsuccessful opposition from supporters of the old order.

The 1850s and 1860s saw the rise of British power in the region and the revolt of the domestic Delta slaves. Even though the British had worked hard to eliminate the Atlantic slave trade and replace it with trade in palm oil, there still existed in the Delta region an extensive slave system. Indeed it was slaves who primarily worked the plantations that produced the palm oil for the new export trade. An extensive class and caste system governed the region with hereditary rulers at the top supported by the wealthy heads of Houses that controlled the slave classes. As the British gradually came to dominate affairs on the Delta coast, best illustrated by their removal of the powerful King Pepple of Bonny and of the ancient Pepple dynasty, so the slaves gradually began to revolt against the Delta city-states and the system that kept them in servitude. Ex-slaves, initially a subservient class, gradually began to vie for political power within the House system that governed the states. Thus, for example, Chief Madu, an ex-slave, rose by dint of hard work to become regent in Bonny despite fierce opposition from the free classes. The revolt of the domestic Delta slaves was exemplified by the rise of Ja Ja, an ex-slave who ultimately trumped the kingdom of Bonny and founded his own state, Opobo.

Perhaps the great merit of Dike’s book that so influenced Fyfe is that it so clearly demonstrates that slavery was as much an internal African problem as it was a trans-Atlantic one; that it was as much a black/black confrontation as it was a black/white one; that the underlying motivation was economic rather than racial.  This coming from an African writing from Africa at the brink of Independence must have been revelatory. Dike himself makes no such claims and is content to restate the facts he has uncovered in his rather dry style without much comment, as perhaps befits the classic academic  historian. The rest of us, Fyfe included, are free to add our own interpretations. In the sixty odd years since Dike’s book was published, his material has perhaps become even more of a revelation rather than less, as African popular culture has spun its own tale around the whole sorry mess. The Africanist would no doubt argue that societies should not be judged with others' yardsticks. That each society has its own culture, tradition and system of values, and it can only be judged by these yardsticks. No one is better or worse than the others. W..e..l..l, m..m..m..aybe, if it is able to exist in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. But once regular contact is made, can any society afford to ignore events and peoples outside its narrow confines? Can any society afford not to judge itself against others?

 In Dike one finds justification, whether or not intended by the author, for a position that would be anathema to his Africanist admirers - that colonial occupation was a necessary and proper thing in order to sweep away "400-year old political systems founded on the slave trade." Perhaps the real problem with colonial occupation was that it didn't do a thorough enough job. In a world hurtling into modernity, many of the old African political structures are still in place.