As with many areas in Africa, a lot our early interaction with the territory that is now Nigeria was involved with the slave trade. As early as the seventeenth century, Brits were trading in slaves here, but we didn’t take great interest in seizing land at this stage.
Finally, in the early nineteenth century, we abolished the slave trade and attempted to bring an end to it by preventing others from carrying it on. Our West Africa squadron conducted extensive operations with this in mind, with its 3rd Division responsible for covering the Bights of Benin and Biafra.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, we were ready to start expanding influence over big chunks of territory. Our first target was Lagos, now the capital of Nigeria, and during the slave trading years a major slave port. In 1851, we bombarded Lagos in order to replace the local ruler with someone we preferred, and in 1861 we sailed and seized it for ourselves.
As the nineteenth century wore on, we proceeded to expand our control of territory, usually by signing treaties with local leaders. It became a race for control against the French, and then against the Germans as well. In 1882 Edward Hewett, the British Consul in the area, ventured up the Niger on board HMS Flirt (great name), attacking those whom he felt were resisting British rule, and signalling firmly to the French that this was a British area of influence – a fairly heavy-handed form of flirting then.
In 1886, the Royal Niger Company was chartered to run the area and the game of expansion by a mixture of treaty and force continued. Our expansion did not come without resistance. For instance, the Brassmen’s rebellion – a local revolt by the king and people of Brass against the Royal Niger Company – caused a fair amount of destruction and slaughter, and came as a big shock to us. But it did not stop us.
In 1895, we faced down the French when they attempted to expand their area of influence into what is now Nigeria and attempted to establish their right to sail down the Niger. Then in 1896, with the Kingdom of Benin reluctant to acquiesce to our plans for it, an expedition under James Phillips headed for Benin in a badly planned attempt to deal with this issue. The expedition was ambushed and pretty much wiped out. In February 1897, a punitive expedition under Rear Admiral Henry Rawson invaded Benin. After ten days of heavy fighting, our troops reached Benin City, looted it and burned part of it. This is how many impressive Benin Bronzes came to be in Britain.
In 1900, the Royal Niger Company transferred control of its territories to the British Crown and the expansion accelerated.
Then there was the war in which we smashed the Aro Confederacy. The campaign started in November 1901 and by 28 December we had captured Arochukwu, though resistance dragged on into 1903.
In 1903, Frederick Lugard attacked Kano and then he attacked Sokoto as well. In 1906 an expedition was sent to destroy the Satiru rebellion. Other wars dragged on, like the Ekumeku War, and all in all our invasion of what is now Nigeria could be described as long, messy and violent.
Nigeria became independent in 1960.