4. West Africa

The kingdom of England had its first tentative dealing with West Africa in the reign of Queen Mary I when John Lok returned from a trade voyage to the Guinea coast with 5 Africans in 1555. British seamen were soon attracted by the profitable Portuguese slave trade to the Spanish colonies in America; John Hawkins conducted the first successful British slave trade voyages to Spanish ports across the Atlantic in the 1560s. However, as the Portuguese control of the slave monopoly weakened, the new Dutch Republic began to take over the trade and controlled it from forts built on the Gold Coast of West Africa. Early British trading ventures also began to take advantage of the slaving opportunities later in the seventeenth century. For many years British interest in West Africa was confined to establishing forts from which slaves could be despatched to the trans-Atlantic markets.

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1631 The Company of Merchants Trading to Guinea is established by Royal Charter. Its main interests are gold and other local products, but it has little success as England descends into the Civil Wars and then becomes involved in the first Anglo-Dutch war. The failing company sells its forts to the more successful East India Company which is predominantly interested in trade in the Indian Ocean.

1660 King Charles II establishes a new monopoly company called the Royal African Company, headed by the king’s brother James Duke of York.

1662 The RAC begins to trade African slaves to the new English colonies in the Caribbean.

1663 James Duke of York sends expedition to capture Dutch forts on the Gold Coast, but they are soon recaptured except for Cape Coast Castle which becomes the RAC stronghold on the Gold Coast, where there is an established market for slaves sold by the local ruler.

1668 The Gambia Adventurers Company receives a licence to trade north of the Bay of Benin.

1672 the RAC gets a new royal charter with rights to erect its own forts and factories, manned by its own militia, in West Africa. The RAC becomes profitable as the sugar planters in the Caribbean and the cotton and tobacco producers in the American colonies demand increasing supplies of African slaves.

1698 William of Orange, a Dutchman, has become king of England. The RAC is stripped of its monopoly and all African trade is opened to any English merchant in return for a 10% levy paid for 13 years. English traders begin to take over leadership of the slave trade from the Dutch.

1713 The Treaty of Utrecht. Great Britain (the Union of England and Scotland was agreed in 1707) gains the legal right known as the ‘Asiento’ to transport slaves directly to the Spanish colonies in Central and Southern America.

1720 However this is an over-valued concession and speculators bring about the great financial crash known as the South Sea Bubble. Nevertheless, superior British technology arising from the Industrial Revolution causes African rulers, who control the supply of slaves, to prefer dealing with British trading partners and their products. Britain’s colonies are also producing more and more products for the growing British market and, in turn, they require more slaves to produce those goods. Throughout the century Britain’s share of the trans-Atlantic slave trade increases, protected by the growing power of the Royal Navy.

1802-1815 The French Wars. Royal Navy supremacy makes the Atlantic a virtual British thoroughfare and the British grip on the slave trade is unshakable.

1807 After a long abolitionist campaign, Britain outlaws the trade in slaves.

1808 The Royal Navy West Africa Squadron is established to suppress the slave trade along the coast of West Africa.

1822 British holdings in Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Gambia form the new British West Africa administration.

1827-58 Britain leases bases on the island of Fernando Po from Spain for Royal Navy anti-slavery operations.

Sierra Leone

Britain’s first African colony, founded as an African home for black poor from Britain and patriot-supporting black people from the erstwhile American colonies.

1787 British abolitionists led by Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson organise a haven for black poor people from London and their dependents. The settlement is not a success: settlers are opposed by the local tribes and many die – some are taken into slavery.

1792 Black loyalists from Nova Scotia arrive at Freetown.  They, together with free blacks from Jamaica and others set free at a later stage, formed the Krios or Creole community.

1808 Sierra Leone becomes a Crown Colony and, soon after, home to the West African naval squadron formed to intercept slave ships. The population is increased by liberated slaves and Afro-Caribbean soldiers who have fought in the Napoleonic wars.

1822 Freetown becomes the capital of British West Africa which included other British administered territories in Gambia and the Gold Coast.

1827 Fourah Bay College, the only European-style University in sub-Saharan West Africa, is established by the Church Missionary Society.

1896 Sierra Leone becomes the British Protectorate of Sierra Leone. A protectorate was nominally self-governing under the protection and guidance of Britain.

1961 Sierra Leone becomes independent.

1971 Sierra Leone is declared a republic.

The Gambia

1664 Fort St James is constructed. It is the basis of a permanent presence in the following century and defends British slave trading interests in the area against incursions from the French settlement in neighbouring Senegal, which the British occupy during the Napoleonic wars.

1816 Bathurst at the mouth of the Gambia River becomes a base for the navy’s anti-slavery West Africa Squadron.

1822 The British Gambia territory is administered from Sierra Leone.

1889 The slim territory of the colony of Gambia is formally recognised in a Franco-British Agreement.

1906 Slave trading is banned from the colony.

1965 Gambia becomes independent.

The Gold Coast

1824 The British reduce their presence in the coastal area after suffering defeat by the slave-trading Ashanti tribe. Control of Cape Castle is handed to a consortium of merchants headed by a president.

1844 the Colonial Office resumes control of Cape Castle and assumed nominal protection of inland tribes living in fear of the Ashanti.

1872 Britain buys Dutch forts on the Gold Coast and takes over as the chief European power in the area, but the Ashanti remain a powerful threat to British tribal allies.

1874 A strong military force under a senior commander, Sir Garnet Wolseley, is sent to defeat the Ashanti. They accept British control of the forts, agree not to interfere with trade and to discontinue human sacrifice. The Gold Coast, together with Lagos, becomes a separate Crown Colony.

1900 Further Ashanti uprisings are caused by inter-tribal problems and encouraged by other great power encroachment on adjoining territory.

1902 The British finally overcome the Ashanti Empire and annex it as the Ashanti Protectorate.

1919 German Togoland becomes a League of Nations territory. The Western part, which adjoins the Gold Coast, is mandated to Britain and the rest is taken into French care.

1956 A plebiscite in Togoland decides to merge with the Gold Coast, Ashanti and Fante protectorates.

1957 All these territories become independent as the Republic of Ghana, the first black African state to leave British colonial control.


1851 The Royal Navy bombards Lagos and replaces the ruler with a rival claimant who, it is hoped, will eradicate the slave trade out of Lagos.

1861 Britain acquires Lagos to assist the navy’s anti-slave trade efforts. The port quickly becomes an important supplier of palm oil and is part of the British West African Settlements administered from Sierra Leone.

1874 Lagos is administered as part of the Gold Coast.

1884 The Oil Rivers protectorate is established on coastal territory in the Niger region.

1886 Lagos receives its own colonial governor.

The Royal Niger Company (a revival of the discredited monopolistic chartered company system) is allowed to administer inland areas around the Niger River to help keep feared German colonial expansion at bay.

1894 The Niger Coast Protectorate is formed.

1896 A punitive expedition sent to Benin from the Niger Coast Protectorate is chiefly remembered for the looting of the celebrated bronzes from the royal palace.

1900 The Royal Niger Company gives up administration of upper Niger territory. The Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria are created.

1903 The Sokoto Caliphate in the southern Sahel region is conquered by Sir Frederick Lugard, who tries to suppress slavery and forbids cruel punishment but generally supports the continued rule of local leaders. Parts of the Caliphate are assimilated into the Northern Protectorate of Nigeria and German Cameroon.

1906 Lagos and the protectorate of Southern Nigeria are united.

1914 Lugard returns to help unite North and South Nigeria, with widely different contrasts between their cultural foundations and forms of government, into the Protectorate and Crown colony of Nigeria.

1960 The Federation of Nigeria becomes independent.

British Cameroon

1922 The former German protectorate of Cameroon is taken over by the League of Nations after the Great War and is mandated into French and British rule. The British territory adjoins Nigeria and consists of two strips to the north west of the larger French territory.

1960 the French territory becomes the independent country of Cameroon and Nigeria becomes independent later the same year. The northern strip of British territory with a Moslem majority opts by plebiscite to become part of Nigeria. The southerners choose to join Cameroon.


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