England's Indirect Rule in Its African Colonies

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 that--because of these differences--European 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 contrast--how 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?)?