Casement’s maps of the Niger delta

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2006), Volume 14

Casement’s maps of the Niger delta  1Among the different instruments of power wielded by empire-builders, maps might be considered as special forms of evidence in state formation: symbolic representations of expanding colonial influence. The mapping of Africa is synonymous with its conquest and domination. From the fifteenth century, when the Portuguese first navigated the West African coast, cartographers imposed order upon empty space—terra incognita—while simultaneously encoding secret knowledge vital to commercial advantage, military strategy and colonial settlement. In Western eyes, land was only rendered meaningful once it had been mapped, and, as recent critical theory has demonstrated, the appropriation of territory by spatial description lies at the dark heart of imperial expansion.
Places with people without history
But for all the information maps include, they are simultaneously tools of deception. Consider, for instance, how they desocialise space and occlude the tidemarks of history. To most readers, the Niger delta is geopolitically unfamiliar. The old slaving ports and coastal markets at Brass, Bonny, Opobo, Old Calabar and Forcados, defining the coastline between the Bight of Biafra and the Bight of Benin, are places with people without history. Maps of the Niger delta, whether ancient or modern, do not reveal the successive waves of either exploitation or development defining the historical changes in this region.
The delta was once an integral part of the Luso-Britannic West African trading sphere. Liverpool merchants long profited from a slave trade supplying the plantations of the Americas. After Britain outlawed transatlantic slavery in 1807 they switched to what was termed ‘legitimate commerce’, and the trade in able black bodies was replaced by barrels of palm oil, the principal constituent in the production of soap necessary for maintaining the cleanliness of the working classes in the new industrial heartlands of Europe.
For most of the nineteenth century the British Foreign Office was content to let commercial enterprise govern. By 1879 one soldier-entrepreneur, George Taubman Goldie, had control of a highly profitable monopoly in the palm oil trade. Rivalry in Africa in the early 1880s between Britain and France grew more unsettled with the hoisting of the German flag in Cameroon in July 1884. A few months later, at the convening of the Berlin West African conference, under the guidance of Otto Von Bismarck, European diplomats drew up a series of articles defining free trade on the two greatest river systems of West Africa: the Niger and the Congo. In 1886 Goldie was granted a royal charter, established the Royal Niger Company and increased his aggressive policy in the area, laying commercial and administrative claim to the region and forcing local chiefs to initial treaties with an ‘X’ and thereby sign away their ancestral lands.
As British commercial presence increased, the Foreign Office was reluctantly obliged to augment administrative commitment. Lack of information was identified as a primary reason for the failure and shortcomings of policy in the area, and an efficient military intelligence officer, Major Claude Macdonald, was transferred from Evelyn Baring’s (Lord Cromer’s) staff in Egypt and ordered to undertake a series of intelligence-gathering missions in the lower Niger region, or Oil Rivers Protectorate, as it was originally called.

Roger Casement, survey officer

Having demonstrated his competence, Macdonald established his consular headquarters at Old Calabar and recruited an administrative team of mainly Irish and Scottish officers to his side. Among them were Henry Gallwey, Kenneth Campbell and Ralph Moor, a former RIC officer, who in 1900 became the first high commissioner for the protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The youngest and most able of his recruits was a 28-year-old Irishman, Roger Casement, who joined up as a survey officer. By the time of his appointment in 1892 Casement had already survived eight years in Africa, working in various capacities as a colonial officer, civil missionary and labour recruiter on the Matadi–Leopoldville (Kinshasa) railway. He was a useful man to have around.
The first few years of Macdonald’s administration were relatively peaceful. The consular residence became the hub for a very animated discussion on West African affairs. Among a line of distinguished visitors to the place was F. D. Lugard, the imperial administrator, later credited with defining the policy of indirect rule, and the unorthodox explorer Mary Kingsley, a personal friend of the Macdonalds’, who spent several weeks in Old Calabar in early 1895.
Of Casement’s different African postings, his three years in the Niger Coast Protectorate are relatively unknown. Few documents have survived from this formative period of his consular career. The most valuable material is a series of reports and maps describing short reconnaissance journeys he made into the hinterland around Old Calabar. Together they are an important testament to various ‘technologies’ he had learnt and the role of topographical information in the process of economic and administrative control. By then, he could navigate by the stars and take accurate astronomical readings with chronometers.
Casement’s reports display a remarkable diligence and a typically Victorian curiosity about the natural world. Descriptive passages make reference to local superstition, economic exchange, languages and local currency, methods of farming, resources, botanical observations and the cultural impact of European trade on indigenous ways of life. His keen eye for ethnographic and anthropological detail reveals important dynamics of colonial authority and a sympathy for Africans, unusual for white colonials of his ilk. His brief from Macdonald was to explore commercial possibilities in the region, make peaceful contact with local chiefs, and survey the territory in and around Old Calabar as the first step towards opening overland routes between coastal ports and interior markets.

Map 1—from Itu to Usé and Ibiaku.

Map 1—from Itu to Usé and Ibiaku.

Map 1: from Itu to Usé and Ibiaku

The first map accompanied a report narrating a journey from Itu to Usé and Ibiaku, along a route from the Cross River valley overland to the Opobo River and the lands of the Ogoni people. The expedition quickly ran into problems. At a village hostile to the presence of white men, a swarm of bees was let loose on Casement’s party and he was fortunate to escape with his life. He spent several weeks trying to negotiate a path through this territory, but eventually was forced to abort the journey.

 

 


Map 2: from Opobo via Eket to the mouth of the Cross River

The most detailed map illustrates two separate journeys undertaken in an effort to connect the vice-consulate and market at Opobo with the mouth of the Cross River via Eket.

Map 2—from Opobo via Eket to the mouth of the Cross River.

Map 2—from Opobo via Eket to the mouth of the Cross River.

Casement produced two reports from this journey, recording his efforts to find a path through the mangrove swamps and the coastal floodplains. The first part of the journey, from Opobo to Eket, was successful. The second journey was largely unsuccessful, hampered by heavy rain and the inundation of the swamps.

Map 3: from Calabar up the valley of the Cross River

A third sketch-map illustrates a journey north from Calabar up the valley of the Cross River, through an area that was about to be exploited for palm oil and untapped extractive rubber resources. An increased global demand for latex, vital to the manufacture of rubber tyres and electrical insulation, had transformed the most inaccessible forested regions of tropical Africa and South America into frontiers of financial opportunity. During this same period, Leopold II’s regime in the Congo Free State was brutally coercing central African communities into collecting rubber to finance his lavish building projects back in Brussels—a crime against humanity that Casement would officially investigate a few years later. Similar and largely unrecorded crimes were being committed throughout the Atlantic’s tropical belt.

Map 3—from Calabar up the valley of the Cross River.

Map 3—from Calabar up the valley of the Cross River.

Map 4: across the Cameroon border

A fourth map, accompanying an untraced report, describes the route of his journey across the Cameroon border into the forested highlands delimiting the frontier between the Niger Coast Protectorate and German Cameroon. This, too, was a point of constant diplomatic tension during these years.

Composite map: the Niger Coast Protectorate
Much of the knowledge and detail contained in these cartographic sketches was subsequently incorporated onto a large-scale map of the Niger Coast Protectorate published in 1894 under Macdonald’s name. The drawing of the map, enabling more accurate navigation, put an end to these few years of relative calm. In early 1895 the men from the city of Brass revolted against their colonial masters. It was an act of defiance met by force. Gunboats were despatched and Brass was razed to the ground. This was swiftly followed in 1897 by the decimation of the royal city of Benin, and the theft and sale of its priceless collection of bronze sculptures and court art, now innocently exhibited in museums around the world.
Casement resigned from his post soon after the Brass massacre. His reasons were never made clear and he seldom thereafter referred to his spell of duty in the Niger Coast Protectorate. Many years later, when giving evidence to a royal commission on the civil service, he commented that although administration had started out with the intention of protection it ‘quickly developed and the protecting power ultimately became the annexing power’. The comment reflects his disillusionment with the divide between the ideals of social imperialism and the reality of rule on the spot.

Map 4—across the Cameroon border.

Map 4—across the Cameroon border.

Among the earliest fragments of his vast archive of writing, a few scribbled notes, surviving in the National Library of Ireland, refer to this first official appointment. The paragraphs fuse geographical description with ethnographical observation. Consular administration in the delta is summarised as ‘grotesque’, the experience of ritual violence, superstition and sacrifice venturing beyond the threshold of diplomatic exchange into the realm of the unspeakable. His brief fragment of prose ends with an allusion linking history to prophecy and a reference to Ezekiel’s vision and an apocalyptic utterance by the Almighty: ‘Then will I make their waters deep, and cause their rivers to run like oil’.

Map 5: oil extraction in the bights of Benin and Biafra

Within a few decades of Casement’s hanging, on 3 August 1916, as the sixteenth Irish revolutionary to be executed for his part in the Easter Rising, the Niger delta entered its latest phase of interference. The discovery of huge deposits of oil and gas in the Niger delta region has left a ruthless legacy of violations against human and environmental rights. Those same areas that Casement traversed and mapped are now the demesne of transnational oil corporations. In recent decades, the crumbling locations of slave traders, palm oil dealers and ivory hunters have been strategically reactivated by British and US petrochemical companies. Because of its low sulphur content, ‘Bonny Light’, the name for Nigerian crude, is prized by Western refineries, where environmental guidelines are strict. Shell has a huge oil terminal at Bonny. Eket is the site of Exxon Mobil’s Qua Iboe terminal, soon to be joined by another massive refinery, financed by private investment from Texas.
At the start of this year (2006) Exxon Mobil recorded bumper profits of $32 billion. A few days later Shell announced a $23 billion harvest.

Map 5—oil extraction in the bights of Benin and Biafra today. (NASA)

Map 5—oil extraction in the bights of Benin and Biafra today. (NASA)

Respectively they were the highest recorded profits in American and British business history. Yet, in spite of the vast returns, the Niger delta remains socially ghettoised—few of the trappings of modernity have reached this place. Since the Biafran war (1967–70), when it tried to break with the federal government, its history has been defined by famine, oppression and successive waves of resistance met by ever-increasing levels of state-sponsored terror and violence. The delta region—or eye of the earth—once the home of fishing communities, is now indelibly scarred with the refuse of the petrochemical age: circuits of pipes rust in the foetid delta, and gas is blithely flared into the atmosphere. Transnational corporate savagery rules.

Roger Casement outside the consular residence at Old Calabar in January 1895. (West African Mail)

Roger Casement outside the consular residence at Old Calabar in January 1895. (West African Mail)

A decade ago, the writer, publisher and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged in Port Harcourt, along with eight other activists, for their peaceful campaign to expose Shell Oil’s environmental record in the region. Saro-Wiwa’s statement of 21 September 1995 to the Ogoni Civil Disturbances Tribunal bore many resemblances to Casement’s speech from the dock 80 years earlier. Both men were convinced that ultimately history would absolve them. Neither man doubted that their resistance to authority was rooted in a deeper ethical duty towards humanity and a universal responsibility to fight for environmental justice. These are facts the maps fail to record.

Angus Mitchell lectures in history at the University of Limerick.

Further reading:

J.C. Anene, Southern Nigeria in transition 1885–1906 (London 1966).

I. Okonta and O. Douglas, Where vultures feast: Shell, human rights and oil (London, 2003).

'


Copyright © 2017 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568