Published Date

May 1, 2004

Resource Type

Archival Resource, Primary Source



This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “Biafra, Nigeria, the West and the World” by David Trask. 

For much of the 19th century, Europeans occupied footholds in African port cities and relied on African middlemen and trade networks to bring trade goods and raw materials to the coast. Before the 19th century the most valuable elements of this trade had included slaves. But the English abolished the slavery in their lands in the 1830s; earlier the US Constitution abolished the import of slaves after 1808 even though slavery itself remained legal and some smuggling in slaves from Africa continued. As the 19th century moved along, European interest in African materials expanded to include items like palm oil as a lubricant for the machinery employed by the industrial revolution. But in the late 19th century the European countries negotiated a partition of African territory among themselves (without Africans present) at a conference in Berlin in late 1884-early 1885. Agreements in hand, the countries proceeded to make good on their claims essentially to move up the rivers, trade routes and trade networks to create a greater European presence while eliminating many local African economic arrangements.

But what should you do once you asserted your claim to territory? Specifically, how should you govern it? The British appraoch was called indirect rule and was applied to all of Nigeria including southeastern Nigeria.

The problems of colonial governance in this period are striking. Contemplate the differences in the cultural values of the European and the colonized. Consider the differences in power between the two groups. Consider the differences in what each group sought from the other out of their relationship. Indirect rule was the plan to use existing tribal structures and traditions as conduits for establishing rules and regulations while English officials worked behind the scenes and could exercise a veto power. In some cases the British designated a person to act as “chief” in settings where there was no clearly hierarchical structure in place. This was not the only approach to colonial rule. The French employed direct rule—the idea thatbecause of these differencesEuropean officials should call the shots for themselves by establishing and administering the rules and regulations for their African colonial subjects.

Study Guide

The two documents included for this issue discuss English indirect rule and include a section on French direct rule as a comparison. The first reflects the ideas used in Nigeria which are part of the colonial era background to Biafra while the second provides you with a contrasthow else could you organize and run a colony? The French had their answer.

Basic Questions

  1. What does each document say about the approach to ruling colonial African subjects?
  2. How do the two approaches seem to be different?
  3. What common attitudes do you see running through the documents?
  4. How did indirect rule prepare Nigerians for self government (or was that really the goal)?

Indirect Rule in Theory and Practice

From Lord Malcolm Hailey, Native Administration and-Political Development in British Tropical Africa (London, 1943).

The use of traditional native authorities as agencies of local rule is now so widely extended that it must necessarily occupy the chief part of our attention. Their value depends largely on the care taken in ascertaining the real seat of indigenous native authority before making the grant of those statutory powers which mark the position of a native authority as part of the machinery of our administration. There are large areas in which the seat of indigenous authority has been easily ascertainable. It has been mainly in conditions of which southeastern Nigeria, or some of the pagan areas of its [Nigeria’s] northern provinces present the most typical examples that difficulty has arisen and some mistakes have occurred in the past. …

It is of great importance that administrative officers should in their personal contact with native authorities have regard to the traditional position occupied by the council or elders. It is no doubt a temptation, especially in matters involving some urgency, to follow the easy course of dealing with the chief alone. But apart from the offense which this may cause to native custom, it is not possible to secure a true view of native opinion on any proposed measure unless the council or the elders are brought freely into consultation. There is moreover the risk that the native authority may seek to avoid taking its proper share of responsibility on the ground that it is “working under government orders.”

A further point of considerable importance arises in connection with the composition of the native authority councils. At various places in this report, attention is drawn to the necessity for securing that a place should be found in the councils for the educated and other more progressive elements in the community. It has, again, been pointed out that there are areas in which it is necessary that important elements of stranger natives should be represented on the council of any native authority to which they are subject. In the majority of cases, the composition of the native authority councils is now determined by native custom and usage. But men who at an earlier stage had sufficient position in their own society to voice its views or to exercise influence over the personal actions of the chief are not necessarily the most suitable in the conditions with which the native authorities now have to deal. It is, for instance, common for age to be the main qualification of the elders, and experience shows how serious a disqualification this may impose where advice is required on new situations. There is, again, a danger that the elder may be out of touch with the younger men, of whom increasing numbers have some education, and many of whom have experience gained in wage earning in industrial areas and in other European enterprises. …

… It would not serve the cause of African development if the administration, from a desire to strengthen the position of the native authorities, allowed them to distribute the benefits attendant on an expansion of the social or economic services, while itself accepting any odium which may attach to the measures which this may involve.

… It is important to impress on them the relationship between rights and duties. It seems advisable therefore that when minor revenues are handed over to the native authorities, responsibility for the services connected with them should be at the same time entrusted to them.

The difficulty occasioned by the lack of financial competency of many native authorities is not limited to the preparation of budgets. It is necessary for district officers to control closely the course of expenditure. In the majority of cases, their countersignature is required on every check drawn. In some of the less efficient treasuries, the accounts have to be maintained in the district office.

[This excerpt was taken from a larger excerpt located in Wilfred Carty and Martin Kilson, The Africa Reader:  Colonial Africa (Vintage Books, 1970).

The French Argument for Direct Rule

“Indirect rule” was not the only option available to the colonial powers; the French opted for a system of “direct” rule which is discussed below.

It would be helpful for understanding colonialism to identify the similarities and differences between these two forms of rule. But, remember, similarities and differences may exist in the underlying attitudes and values of the two approaches aswell as in the formal, stated structure of the two systems of colonial administration.

From Robert Delavignette, Freedom and Authority in French West Africa (London, 1940).

In fact, we are confronted with opposing and mutually contradictory necessities: on the one hand we are well aware that it is essential to preserve the native character of the canton chief and to make use of the traditional feudal spirit which still survives in him; on the other hand the very fact of colonization forces us to shape him to our administrative outlook. …

It does not matter if the chief is old, infirm or blind; the essential thing is that he should be there. If necessary he can take a young and active man as his colleague. If he is illiterate and has some difficult in dealing with natives educated in our schools, let him be given clerks and assistants. Only one thing counts, and it does not depend on education, age or health: that is the sacred character of his power. In the old Africa, the community which the chief represents lives in him and there can be no life without a supernatural element. Hence the force which binds the people to the chief; hence the ritual which permeates social unity and solidarity, which orders the form of greeting addressed by the people to the chief and gives a religious sanction to the authority of the humblest village chief, the chief of the cultivated and inhabited land. …

… it seems that after fifty years of colonization, the spiritual quality of native power has left the big chiefs to take refuge with the small ones, who have not been so much affected by European influence.

As the village chief derives from a primitive feudal Africa based on the holding of land, so the chief of a canton belongs to modern Africa, and is part of the mechanism of colonial administration.

Should the traditional authority of the canton chief be restored? We have already shown that this is a negative program. We could certainly reconstitute a decor of pomp and ceremony around them, but we should not be able to recreate the soul of their ancient authority. No, the tendency of the administration is all toward making these feudalists into officials. But then we must face the thing. They should be specialized officials and exercise a distinctive function. … They have a personal file in the records at the station and they are scrupulously given good and bad marks by their commandants. They are decorated, they are welcomed at receptions on national holidays, they are invited to visit exhibitions; they are sent as delegates to Dakar and even to Paris; they are brought together on councils where they collaborate with Europeans. And they are rightly treated as important persons; but what is needed is not to re-establish them, but to establish them. Not to re-establish them in a social structure that is dying, but to establish them in a modern Africa that is being born. And it is there that we should make officials of them. This need not mean making them robots or abstractions. To make officials of them is first to define their official duties, and then to establish not only their administrative status but their social personality. We must reconsider with them–and for them, as for ourselves-the problem of the function of the chief.

[This excerpt was taken from a larger excerpt in Wilfred Cartey and Martin Kilson, The Africa Reader: Colonial Africa (Vintage Books, 1970).