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  When Flora Shaw, the British journalist and eventual spouse of Lord Lugard, coined the name Nigeria, it might have been difficult to pinpoint her motivations, that is, from a social standpoint. Was it dexterous thinking or something more insidious?
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At best, it might have been a romanticization of geography as the official colonial story goes. Still, the posture of high white society towards Africans, having documented the shipping of the last tranche of black bodies to the Americas on July 9, 1860, left in its wake many questions about the logic of Black subjugation and what role it might have played in the naming of Nigeria. The hegemonic colonial narrative of the naming of Nigeria was that it had been derived from a conjoining of two words, “Niger” as in the longest river in West Africa and “area,” the extent or measurement of a piece of land or surface. Nigeria’s previous name, the Royal Niger Company Territories, albeit unimportant, might have been left out of history books due to a clerical error. In corporations, clerical errors almost always happen for a reason but I digress. For as long as the subjects of Social Studies and History have been taught in Nigerian schools, the “Niger” and “area” narrative has been sustained. This article, however, seeks to problematize the narrative of the origin of the name “Nigeria” by analysing the original text, examining the contemporary milieu of 1890 colonial London, exploring the events and logic that may have justified such a name as befitting of the most populous African country on earth, and considering the likely impact that the renaming of the Gold Coast to Ghana had in the fabulation of a myth to sustain the name “Nigeria” even as it stands today. Many before me have taken swings at the name, Nigeria, declaring its qualities to be non-representative, commercial or even racial. My quest is with its meaning. What did Nigeria mean to Flora Shaw? Why did the British Imperial establishment ratify her suggestion? And what unintended consequences might “Nigeria,” the name of a country known in many circles to be the “Giant of Africa”, portend for Black peoples, even in the current moment? According to Miss Shaw’s essay, published in The Times, London, on 8 January 1897, she argued for a renaming of the Royal Niger Company Territories to Nigeria on the merits of the length of the former and white possessive logic. The nutshell of her essay was that the space now known as Nigeria was a piece of real estate whose owners, the Royal Niger Company (now known as Unilever), needed to rebrand. In marketing speak, one might have considered Shaw’s appeal for brevity — “Nigeria” instead of “Royal Niger Company Territories” — a stroke of corporate genius. The name was catchier, sexier and best of all, it masked beneficial ownership, properly. Masking ownership had always been a priority for the uber-rich, even in colonial times, because it also masked liability. It is why many hide behind the veils of corporations, even today, to avoid liabilities and protect wealth. It may intrigue you to know that hardly any young Nigerians today are aware that Nigeria was once the Royal Niger Company Territories. Except for a brief mention about Nigeria being an Eight Hundred and Sixty-Five Thousand Pound transaction in the 2019 Burna Boy track, “Another Story”, knowledge about the origins of Nigeria is scant and has been kept so, for a reason. Again, I digress. Looking at Miss Shaw’s essay in which she proposed the name, Nigeria, she argued that it would fittingly represent the “agglomeration of pagan and Mahomedan states,” which in the British colonial language was the first of many sleights of hand, the simultaneous recognition of imperial brigandage and indigenous sovereignty. Through a system of trade treaties, backhanded deals and business acquisitions, the Royal Niger Company largely extracted raw materials like palm oil from what Miss Shaw referred to as “the pagan states,” and shipped to Liverpool and Manchester to manufacture soaps and resins. The Royal Niger Company Territories thus existed for British industry. Any parties opposed to this purpose were systematically eliminated using a cocktail of trade diplomacy, military might and spycraft. Many leaders among the ethnic nationalities in today’s Southern Nigeria were pocketed, while others were crushed and exiled, like Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi of Benin and Nana Olomu of Koko, to allow for the first of many heists by the British establishment. This is how we might explain the works of bronze, ivory and wood, most of them crafted at Idu Igun (in today’s Igun and Igbesanmwan Streets, Benin City) landing in glass display cases at a museum on Great Russell Street, London.
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Speaking of London and its social atmosphere in the 1890s, soap had recently become the middle-class darling in the same way mobile phones, commonly referred to as GSM phones, were embraced in Nigeria’s urban centres in the early 2000s. But why soap and what connections did soap have with the normalization of “Nigeria” as an “agglomeration of pagan and Mahomedan states”? For this answer, we head to 1807 when an Oxford Street magnate named Andrew Pears started a soap factory. The orange translucence of the soap manufactured by Pears bore similarities with the oil palm taken from Southern Nigeria. By the 1890s when Shaw’s essay proposed the name, “Nigeria”, Pears soap had become an icon of white racial purity and civilizing the uncivilized through the work of advertising mogul, Thomas J. Barret. Splashed in newspapers across the Empire, from Britain to South Africa, Pears soap adverts carried the message of “brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances.” This was the setting in which Shaw’s brand, “Nigeria” was conceived. The reason it received mass appeal in London and throughout the Empire was that Nigeria as “an agglomeration of pagan and Mahomedan states” conformed with the overarching narrative of the Pear soap ads. White was pure, ‘Christian,’ civilized and civilizing. Black, on the other hand, was impure, ‘non-Christian’ and in need of civilization. From this point, it might have been safe to conclude that the social environment of 1890s Europe and not the River Niger necessitated the name, “Nigeria.”  This environment, suffused in no small way by the Jim Crow stories from faraway America, where whites had successfully subjugated and begun to civilize the “nigger”, shows up in Shaw’s rationale. To agglomerate also means to assemble or heap together in a mass. In Shaw’s mind, the pagan states in the south and Muslim states in the north, though separate, should be fused into one entity with the name, Nigeria. Isabel Wilkerson, in her book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, argues that “it is harder to dehumanize a single person.” Dehumanization must happen at the level of the group to be effective. “Nigeria” in this regard, was a sort of labelling of one’s property. Humans may have individual identities and agency but not chattel, not property and certainly not something one might want to agglomerate. In the words of Aime Cesaire, “Colonization equals ‘thingification.’” Cesaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism”, published in 1950, becomes the only way to understand Shaw’s proposal to agglomerate distinct ethnic nationalities that make up today’s Nigeria. Whether it was the people who had been dominated or their oil palm that had been carted off to Britain, the word “Nigeria”, to the British public on Friday, 8 January 1897, did not represent something human. To the Empire, it represented prime British real estate in Africa that might have been called anything from Oil Palm Coast to British Niger. “Nigeria,” on the other hand, held the most value, otherwise, Miss Shaw might not have proposed it in the manner that she did. To understand Shaw and the antecedents that led to her simultaneously innocuous and incendiary essay which named what would become the largest Black country on earth, “Nigeria,” it is pertinent to inspect her social locations as they led up to that moment in time. Flora Louise Shaw was born in London on 19 December 1852, seven and half years before the Clotilda, America’s last slave ship, disembarked at Mobile Bay, Alabama for the last time. Being an outsider of Irish aristocratic descent in 19th century London, she was a social climber combining the arts of professional competence, networking and marriage to her social advantage. Like her father, a British Army officer who would rise to the rank of Major General, Shaw had learnt how to be seen and heard in the British cause of Imperial expansion. From 1878 to 1886, she wrote five novels for children and young adults, taking on the role of governess to many families in Britain through fiction. She would later become a journalist, solidifying herself as an authority in the colonial milieu, writing about settling ‘empty’ lands, anti-slavery policy efforts, and economic possibilities for British would-be migrants created by Imperial expansion. By 1897 when Shaw proposed the name, “Nigeria,” it received massive support from the British business and political leadership because Shaw had become mainstream. She had developed friendships with Sir Cecil Rhodes, Sir George Taubman Goldie and Lord Frederick Lugard, whom she would later marry in 1902. Though the three men were very involved in the colonial exploitation of Africa, it would be the latter two, Goldie and Lugard, who would actualize the formation of Nigeria as it is today. Suppose Nigeria had been named after the Niger River because of its utility in transporting raw materials through the Atlantic Ocean to British ports. What had necessitated naming that river “Niger” in the first place? Niger is the Latin word for Black and a homophone of the racial slur, “nigger.” Now, while the English pronunciation of the word Niger sounds like nyjer, as in the seed, the meaning is not lost. Niger, nigger and nyjer in all three usages account for blackness. Shaw, being an expert in colonial spatial practices and mass media, must have thought about the ramifications of suggesting a name like Nigeria. As harmful as the idea of agglomerating diverse ethnic nationalities has turned out to be regarding the “Nigerian” project, one might also consider the name, “Nigeria” to be an identifier that is hegemonic and colonial. In other words, to see ourselves as Nigerian is to see ourselves from the eyes of a metropole to whom our sole value as its colony was one of perpetual extraction and debasement. Some have argued for the re-appropriation of Eurocentric meanings of Blackness to assert agency and sovereignty, but history has almost always disproved this idea as puerile. There could be no Black adults under a white man’s gaze. As American historian, Jason Sokol, notes of a point in time, “It was a cardinal sin for a white man to call a Black man ‘Mister’ or shake hands with him.”  Today, this gaze remains in the surreptitious manner in which the G7 — six Western countries and Japan — regulate the domestic policies of almost every Black country through the World Bank and IMF.  Instead of standing up to the colonizer as Dr Kwame Nkrumah did at the independence of the Gold Coast by changing the name to Ghana, several countries continue to kowtow under the pretext that colonial or Western identifiers can be modified over time to mean something else or perhaps, it is just the payer of the piper in Washington and New York.
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Indeed, for these eurocentric definitions of Blackness like “Nigeria”, “Africa” and the word “Black” itself, there will always be two meanings, one derived from the other, producing the infamous sensation of double consciousness. In the words of W.E.B Du Bois, “It is this sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” that makes Nigeria the biggest secret admirer of the Republic of Ghana.

Works Cited

  • Carrington, Bridget, Paths of virtue? The Development of Fiction for Young Adult Girls, Roehampton U, 2009.
  • Cesaire, Aime, “Between Colonizer and Colonized.” Discourses on Colonialism, MFR, 1972, pp.20-25
  • Du Bois, W.E.B., The Soul of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 1903
  • Omo, Omoruyi, “The origin of Nigeria: God of Justice not associated with an unjust Political Order.” Reworks
  • Shaw, Flora. “Letter”. The Times of London, Jan 1897,  p. 6.
  • Sokol, Jason. There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975, Vintage, 2008.
  • Wilkerson, Isabel, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Penguin, 2020.

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This article was first published on 8th May 2024


Patrick. N. Igbinijesu is a social researcher with expertise in Nigerian history, finance and spatial analysis. He is the author of many books among which is The Code: A Simple Story About Raising Great Women. When he is not working, Patrick enjoys travelling by road.

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