The next British expedition to the Niger is almost equally disastrous in terms of loss of life. Four ships under naval command are sent out in 1841, with instructions to steam up the Niger and make treaties with local kings to prevent the slave trade. The enterprise is abandoned when 48 of the 145 Europeans in the crews die of fever.
Malaria is the cause of the trouble, but major progress is made when a doctor, William Baikie, leads an expedition up the Niger in 1854. He administers quinine to his men and suffers no loss of life. Extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, quinine has long been used in medicine. But its proven efficacy against malaria is a turning point in the European penetration of Africa.
The British anti-slavery policy in the region involves boosting the trade in palm oil (a valuable product which gives the name Oil Rivers to the Niger delta) to replace the dependence on income from the slave trade. It transpires later that this is somewhat counter-productive, causing the upriver chieftains to acquire more slaves to meet the increased demand for palm oil. But it is nevertheless the philanthropic principle behind much of the effort to set up trading stations.
At the same time the British navy patrols the coast to liberate captives from slave ships of other nations and to settle them at Freetown in Sierra Leone.
From 1849 the British government accepts a more direct involvement. A consul, based in Fernando Po, is appointed to take responsibility for the Bights of Biafra and Benin. He undertakes direct negotiations with the king of Lagos, the principal port from which slaves are shipped. When these break down, in 1851, Lagos is attacked and captured by a British force.
Another member of the Lagos royal family is placed on the throne, after guaranteeing to put an end to the slave trade and to human sacrifice (a feature of this region). When he and his successor fail to fulfil these terms, Lagos is annexed in 1861 as a British colony.
During the remainder of the century the consolidation of British trade and British political control goes hand in hand. In 1879 George Goldie persuades the British trading enterprises on the Niger to merge their interests in a single United African Company, later granted a charter as the Royal Niger Company.
In 1893 the delta region is organized as the Niger Coast Protectorate. In 1897 the campaign against unacceptable local practices reaches a climax in Benin – notorious by this time both for slave trading and for human sacrifice. The members of a British delegation to the oba of Benin are massacred in this year. In the reprisals Benin City is partly burnt by British troops.
The difficulty of administering the vast and complex region of Nigeria persuades the government that the upriver territories, thus far entrusted to the Royal Niger Company, also need to be brought under central control.
In 1900 the company’s charter is revoked. Britain assumes direct responsibility for the region from the coast to Sokoto and Bornu in the north. Given the existing degree of British involvement, this entire area has been readily accepted at the Berlin conference in 1884 as falling to Britain in the scramble for Africa – though in the late 1890s there remains dangerous tension between Britain and France, the colonial power in neighbouring Dahomey, over drawing Nigeria’s western boundary.