Saturday, March 21, 2015

From Palm Oil to Crude Oil

In the 1500s the town of Badagry in Nigeria, some 40 miles west of Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, became one of earliest slave ports supplying the Americas. In the early years of American Independence an estimated 550,000 slaves travelled from there to the United States, until about the late 1780s (link). Access to the ocean was better to the east, at Lagos. That city became a focal point for two kinds of trade, in slaves and in palm oil. The city grew by leaps and bounds†.

In the map that follows, I show the points of early western contact at Badagry and at Lagos. The inset within that map shows where Lagos is within Nigeria; the second arrow points to the region of today’s chief Nigerian export, crude oil.

Slavery did not arrive in response to the slave trade; it preexisted “export” for a long period, both under pagan and Muslim rule. But European traders arrived with bars of iron, weapons, cotton, textiles, and alcohol. The slave-owning classes wanted these goods but had little else to trade than their slaves (link). The palm oil trade began around 1800 when its uses as an industrial lubricant became known. By 1870—with the slave trade under pressure—palm oil displaced it as the chief export from West African countries, including Nigeria. Soon Nigeria became the world’s largest producer, a rank it held until 1934; today Nigeria is still the third-largest producer of this commodity after Indonesia and Malaysia.

In support of this trade, Britain established two Nigerian Protectorates in 1900. Readers of this series will not be surprised that one was called Southern, the other Northern. (It almost goes with the landscape.) Suppression of the slave trade began with the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 by the British Parliament—the sentiment behind it traceable to the Quakers. Thank you, George Fox. Britain’s “protection” was of trade; it attempted to bring it under its control. In the process it disrupted traditional arrangements and, among others, effectively ended one of the oldest kingdoms in the region, the Benin Empire of the Edo peoples—once centered in the area between Lagos and the Niger River delta.

I attach a map of Nigeria’s states to make this plain. Note here particularly the very small territory of Lagos but with a huge population (circa 18 million) and the huge north-eastern Borno State with its low population (circa 5 million)—where Boko Haram is mostly active.

Nigeria’s oil industry began its current course in 1914 with the British Crown seizing all oil and mineral properties under Nigerian soil the legal property of the Crown. That situation still obtains today, with the Nigerian government controlling all oil activity—but doing so under joint ventures of which the foreign origins are revealed by name: Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Agip (Italian), Total (French), and Texaco (merged with Chevron). By law these joint ventures must carry the word “Nigeria” in their names. But call them what you will, I say. The flavor doesn’t change.

Virtually all of that oil is located in the Niger River delta region although some off-shore activity is also going on. A NASA picture I have found of that delta will conclude this post—except some thoughts about its implications. Lovely photo. You might never imagine what goes on invisibly below.

The situation we see here—extending back several centuries—is that of a mature and still energetic western culture intruding into an area which was predominantly pagan and primitive but with part of it, the northern portion, already organized by decentralized Muslim rule—no caliphate is present. The West is still dominant—principally through its westernized indigenous population. But its direct rule has obviously weakened. That Nigeria must now be tattooed on top of Chevron, say.

Arnold Toynbee held, in his A Study of History, that a decaying civilization will, as it looses its charm and élan, be attacked simultaneously by an internal and an external proletariat—the first characterized as marginalized, the second as barbarians. It is reasonable to suspect that in the case of the West semi-tribal and still-primitive Muslim groups (even if led by members of the Muslim elite) represent Toynbee’s “external proletariat.”  Locally, of course, as in Nigeria, they represent an “internal proletariat.” Boko Haram may be viewed as a representative group. In the minds of such insurgents, the history of the West in Nigeria—and the behavior of Nigeria’s own westernized elites—will produce a reaction. They do not share in the wealth. Furthermore, they are products of a still young culture (Islam) in which religious beliefs retain their meaning and lend energy which is completely dried up in the West.
†Nigeria has 10 cities with populations of 1 million or more and another 9 with populations from 900,000 to 500,000; call these second tier. I don’t think that’s common knowledge in the United States. Compare that with Texas which is close in size to Nigeria. Texas has 3 cities of 1 million or more and another 3 in the second tier.
I’ve shown one image of Lagos in an earlier post in this series. Here I’m showing another view.

Image credits:

Map of Badagry and Lagos: Google Maps.
Images of British Protectorates: Wikipedia (link) and (link).
State Map of Nigeria: Wikipedia “Nigeria” (link).
Niger River Delta: NASA, shown by Wikipedia (link) but turned by me to orient N-S.

Posts in this Series:

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