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Nigeria - Early History

All evidence suggests the early settlement of Nigeria millennia before the spread of agriculture 3,000 years ago. The earliest culture in Nigeria is identifiable by the distinctive artifacts of the Nok people. These skilled artisans and ironworkers flourished between the fourth century BC and the second century AD. in a large area above the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers. The Nok achieved a level of material development not repeated in the region for nearly 1,000 years.

Long before 1500, much of present-day Nigeria was divided into states, which can still be linked to the modern ethnic groups that trace their history to the origins of these states. These early states included the Yoruba kingdoms, the Edo kingdom of Benin, the Hausa cities, and Nupe. In addition, numerous small states to the west and south of Lake Chad were absorbed or displaced in the course of the expansion of Kanem, centered to the northeast of Lake Chad. Borno, initially the western province of Kanem, became independent in the late fourteenth century.

Kanem-Borno: While there is no direct evidence to link the people of the Jos Plateau with the Nok culture, or the Eze Nri of today with Igbo Ukwu, the history of Borno dates back to the 9th Century when Arabic writers in north Africa first noted the kingdom of Kanem east of Lake Chad. Bolstered by trade with the Nile region and Trans-Saharan routes, the empire prospered. In the next centuries, complex political and social systems were developed, particularly after the Bulala invasion in the 14th Century. The empire moved from Kanem to Borno, hence the name. The empire lasted for 1,000 years (until the 19th Century) despite challenges from the HausaFulani in the west and Jukun from the south.

Hausa-Fulani: To the west of Borno around 1,000 A.D., the Hausa were building similar states around Kano, Zaria, Daura, Katsina, and Gobir. However, unlike the Kanuri, no ruler among these states ever became powerful enough to impose his will over the others. Although the Hausa had common languages, culture, and Islamic religion, they had no common king. Kano, the most powerful of these states, controlled much of the Hausa land in the 16th and 17th Centuries, but conflicts with the surrounding states ended this dominance. Because of these conflicts, the Fulanis, led by Usman Dan Fodio in 1804, successfully challenged the Hausa States and set up the Hausa-Fulani Caliphate with headquarters in Sokoto, commanding a broad area from Katsina in the far north to Ilorin, across the River Niger.

Yoruba: In the west, the Yoruba developed complex, powerful city-states. The first of these important states was Ile-Ife, which according to Yoruba mythology was the center of the universe. Ife is the site of a unique art form first uncovered in the l93Os. Naturalistic terracotta, bronze heads and other artifacts dating as far back as the 10th Century show just how early the Yoruba developed an advanced civilization. Later, other Yoruba cities challenged Ife for supremacy, and Oyo became the most powerful West African kingdom in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The armies of the Oyo king (Alafin) dominated other Yoruba cities and even forced tribute from the ruler of Dahomey. Internal power struggles and the Fulani expansion to the south caused the collapse of Oyo in the early 19th Century.

Benin: Benin developed into a major kingdom during the same period that Oyo was becoming dominant to the west. Although the people of Benin are primarily Edo, not Yoruba, they share with Ife and Oyo many of the same origins, and there is much evidence of cultural and artistic interchange between the kingdoms. The King (Oba) of Benin was considered semi-divine and controlled a complex bureaucracy, a large army, and a diversified economy. Benin's power reached its apex in the 16th Century.

Many Nigerian cultures did not develop into centralized monarchies. Of these, the Igbo are probably the most remarkable because of the size of their territory and the density of population. Igbo societies were organized in self-contained villages, or federations of village communities, with a society of elders and age-grade associations sharing various governmental functions. The same was true of the Ijaw of the Niger Delta and people of the Cross River area, where secret societies also played a prominent role in administration and governmental functions. But by the 18th Century, overseas trade had begun to encourage the emergence of centralized systems of government.

The sixteenth century marked a high point in the political history of northern Nigeria. During this period, the Songhai Empire reached its greatest limits, stretching from the Senegal and Gambia rivers in the far west and incorporating part of Hausaland in the east. At the same time, the Sayfawa Dynasty of Borno asserted itself, conquering Kanem and extending its control westward to Hausa cities that were not under Songhai imperial rule. For almost a century, much of northern Nigeria was part of one or the other of these empires, and after the 1590s, Borno dominated the region for 200 years. Despite Borno's hegemony, the Hausa states wrestled for ascendancy among themselves for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

By 1471 Portuguese ships had reconnoitered the West African coast south as far as the Niger Delta. Portugal's lasting legacy for Nigeria was its initiation of the transatlantic slave trade. The Portuguese monopoly on West African trade was broken at the end of the sixteenth century when Portugal's influence was challenged by the rising naval power of the Netherlands. The Dutch took over Portuguese trading stations on the coast that were the source of slaves for the Americas. French and British competition later undermined the Dutch position, and Britain became the dominant slaving power in the eighteenth century.

As in Europe and parts of the Americas, most Africans tilled the soil. Their skill in farming was derived from the development of iron production, which may have begun in West Africa while Europe was still in the Stone Age. Iron implements increased agricultural production that in turn spurred population growth. By the time of European contact with the West Coast of Africa, a number of large empires had risen. Almost five hundred years ago ships captained by Europeans began transporting millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. This massive population movement helped create the African Diaspora or dispersal of Africans to the New World.

A large majority of slaving activities took place along the West African coast, chiefly between the Senegal River to the north and the Bight of Biafra in the south, though some slaving expeditions stretched around Cape Horn to todays Tanzania. Slaving forts, such as James Fort, Sierre Leone and Cape Coast were a vital feature of the slave trade, and served as a central clearinghouse where slavers could exchange material trade goods for human chattel. Thirty-six of the forty-two known slaving fortresses were located in Ghana. Aside from Ghana, Africans were shipped from eight African coastal regions, later dubbed the "slave coast," including Senegambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia region, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, Central Africa, and Southeast Africa (from the Cape of Good Hope to the Cape of Delgado, including Madagascar).

Thus, the slave trade had the greatest impact upon central and western African. West Africa supplied 3/5ths of the slaves for exportation between 1701-1810. Existing evidence indicates that half of the kidnapped Africans were exported to South America, 40 percent to the Caribbean Islands, 7 percent to British North America, and 3 percent to Central America. Overall, at least twelve million Africans -- numbers vary widely and no estimate can be made with certainty -- were kidnapped, sold into slavery in Africa and shipped to the Americas from 1450 to 1850. This figure reflects only the numbers of Africans exported to the New World who arrived alive. Perhaps one-third of all kidnapped Africans perished before being forced onboard a slave vessel, and perhaps another third died on the voyage across the Atlantic.

Following a triangular route between Africa, the New World and Europe, slave traders from European countries delivered Africans in exchange for products such as rum, tobacco, and especially sugar, the products European consumers desired, and to fill labor shortages in the Americas. African kingdoms, eager for European trade goods, warred against each other to gather captives to supply a portion of the Africans demanded by European slavers.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the area that was to become Nigeria was far from a unified country. Furthermore, the orientation of north and south was entirely different. The savanna states of Hausaland and Borno in the north had experienced a difficult century of political insecurity and ecological disaster but otherwise continued in a centuries-long tradition of slow political and economic change that was similar to other parts of the savanna. The southern areas near the coast, by contrast, had been swept up in the transatlantic slave trade. Political and economic change had been rapid and dramatic. By 1800 Oyo, a constitutional monarchy, governed much of southwestern Nigeria, while the Aro, another polity, had consolidated southeastern Nigeria into a confederation. Both Oyo and the Aro confederacy were major trading partners of the slave traders from Europe and North America.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, two unrelated developments that were to have a major influence on virtually all of the area that is now Nigeria ushered in a period of radical change. First, between 1804 and 1808 the Islamic holy war of Usman dan Fodio established the Sokoto Caliphate, a loose confederation of emirates centered in northwestern Nigeria. By the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Sokoto Caliphate was at its greatest extent, it comprised 30 emirates and the capital district of Sokoto. All the important Hausa emirates, including Kano, the wealthiest and most populous, were directly under Sokoto. Second, in 1807 Britain declared the transatlantic slave trade to be illegal, an action that occurred at a time when Britain itself was responsible for shipping more slaves to the Americas than any other country. Although the transatlantic slave trade did not end until the 1860s, other commodities, especially palm oil, gradually replaced it. The shift in trade had serious economic and political consequences in the interior, which led to increasing British intervention in the affairs of Yorubaland and the Niger Delta.




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