Stamps & History: Oil Rivers Protectorate (to Nigeria)

Stamp collecting opens up a world of history, geography, economics and politics.  The former British colony of Oil Rivers is one such example.  When Germany annexed Togoland and Cameroon, the British and French realized that decisive action was required before they started losing more of their colonial territories in Africa.  A major Conference was held in Berlin (1885) where the major European powers carved up Africa for colonization, thus, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, all of Africa was to be ruled by the Europeans.  Needless to say, no African ruler was invited.  Britain was given the area that would later become Nigeria.

Historical Background

In 1807 the British Parliament passed laws prohibiting British subjects from engaging in the slave trade. The subsequent decrease in trade indirectly led to the collapse of Oyo Empire.

  • Britain withdrew from the slave trade when it was the major transporter of slaves to the Americas.
  • The French had abolished slavery following the French Revolution,
    • they briefly re-established slavery in their Caribbean colonies under Napoleon
    • by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, France officially ended slavery in its possessions.
  • Between them, the French and the British had purchased a majority of the slaves sold from the ports of Oyo.
    • The Oyo economy suffered from the decline in the slave trade but smuggling of slaves to the Americas continued for years.
    • in 1817, when the transatlantic market for slaves increased, Oyo was invaded and its own people taken into slavery.

In order to create an alternative to the slave trade, the British tried to develop “legitimate” trade – the principal commodities were palm oil and palm kernels, which were used in Europe to make soap and as lubricants for machinery.  Although this trade grew—palm oil exports alone were worth £1 billion a year by 1840—it was concentrated near the coast, where palm trees grew in abundance.  Thus the Niger Delta and Calabar, which once had been known for the export of slaves, became notable for the export of palm oil and the Niger river delta streams were called “oil rivers.”

Due to the hazards of climate and tropical diseases for Europeans, merchants moored their ships outside the main harbours or in the delta, and often used their ships as trading stations and warehouses.  In time they built depots onshore and eventually moved up the Niger River to establish stations in the interior.

  • 1841, one third of the people associated with the Niger River Expedition died
  • 1849, John Beecroft was accredited as consul for the bights of Benin and Biafra
  • 1850, a Liverpool merchant, Macgregor Laird, opened the river and expanded inland
  • 1857 the present settlement at Lokoja was established by the British explorer William Baikie
    • 1886 Royal Niger Company established its headquarters far at Lokoja
    • 1914 Lokoja became the capital of the British Northern Nigeria Protectorate
  • 1862, January 1 – Lagos Island is annexed as a colony of Britain
  • 1884, Britain announced formation of the Oil Rivers Protectorate
  • 1885, Oil Rivers Protectorate proclaimed by the British after they had defeated King Jaja of Opobo
    • 1885 the Oil River Irregulars were established, a unit of Africans commanded by British officers.
    • 1891 re-named the Oil Rivers Constabulary; they served in several campaigns against native emirates.
    • 1892 the British undertook an expedition against Ijebu, the only Yoruba state to refuse access to missionaries.
      • The Ijebu army was routed; the Yoruba states recognized British military superiority and signed treaties.
  • 1893, Oil Rivers Protectorate expanded and renamed Niger Coast Protectorate
  • 1900, Southern Nigeria Protectorate formed by joining Niger Coast Protectorate with territories from the Royal Niger Company
  • 1906, Lagos became part of Southern Nigeria
  • 1914, Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria were combined to form the colony of Nigeria

The First Stamps

The main post office was established at Old Calabar in November 1891; sub-offices existed at Benin, Bonny, Brass, Opobo, and Warri.

Initially the postage stamps of Britain were used; and these would have cancels from the above post offices.  Some stamp collectors (and postal historians) limit their collections to British Stamps “used abroad” which would usually have been quite a narrow timeframe, i.e. the time between setting up a colony and that colony’s administration issuing its own stamps. In July 1892, these British stamps were overprinted with “BRITISH / PROTECTORATE / OIL / RIVERS”.

Nigeria - 1891 oil rivers protectorate (overprinted on GB stamps) to 1sA pressing need for halfpenny values in mid-1893 resulted in a variety of surcharges on 2d and 212d stamps. While most simply read “HALF / PENNY”, with a horizontal bar to obliterate the old value, some were overprinted “1/2 d” twice, with the intent that they be bisected diagonally to produce two 1/2d stamps.

Nigeria - 1891 oil rivers protectorate (overprints)Nigeria - 1891 oil rivers protectorate (bisects)Then, in 1893, the Oil Rivers Protectorate was expanded and re-named Niger Coast Protectorate.  In 1895 the British took the city of Oyo under artillery fire, to force the ruler of Oyo to accept British conditions. When several Englishmen had been killed in the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, the British launched an expedition, confiscated their art treasures (most famously, the Benin Bronzes which are still held by the British Museum in London) and burnt their capital.

A new stamp design was required.

Nigeria - 1894 niger coast protectorate
In 1900, the Southern Nigeria Protectorate formed by joining Niger Coast Protectorate with territories from the Royal Niger Company.  Once again, a new stamp design was required.

Nigeria - 1891 southern nigeria (victoria)In 1906, the previously autonomous colony of Lagos became part of Southern Nigeria.  They too had their own stamps up until this merger.

Finally, in 1914, the protectorates of Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria were combined to form the colony of Nigeria – just before World War I erupted.  The map below illustrates how the area developed under British colonial rule.

Nigeria - 1901 (map)

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