Did Flora Shaw really name Nigeria?

That Nigeria was christened by Flora Shaw (later Lady Lugard) is almost sing-song knowledge in the country, yet research shows she wasn’t the first to use the appellation “Nigeria” for the area around the Niger (or Nigeir1).

In her flowing letter to Lugard, she revealed how, beset by a troubling writer’s block, she took herself out into the cold night in search of some peace. Drums in the distance woke nostalgic feelings in her, convincing her of the similarities present among these people of the Niger. In that fit, she made her way back inside, brushed aside the novel she was working on and began that famous article for the Times of London.

In that article published on 8 January 1897, Shaw wrote:

“In the first place, as the title “Royal Niger Company’s Territories” is not only inconvenient to use but to some extent is also misleading, it may be permissible to coin a shorter title for the agglomeration of pagan and Mohammedan states which have been brought, by the exertions of the Royal Niger Company, within the confines of the British Protectorates, and thus need for the first time in their history to be described as an entity by some general name….The name “Nigeria”, applying to no other portion of Africa, may, without offence to any neighbours, be accepted as coextensive with the territories over which the Royal Niger Company has extended British influence….”

In giving this name, Shaw clearly expressed its distinction from the British colonies of Lagos and the Niger Protectorate on the coast, both independent of the greater Niger territories at that time. For her, the title of “Royal Niger Company’s Territories” was inconvenient and the oft used name of “Central Sudan” had the disadvantage of ignoring political frontiers. The latter is especially true as, over the decades, the name “Sudan” applied to the regions across several boundary lines from the western end of the Atlantic to the east of the Niger River.

The areas of modern Nigeria were once known as the “Royal Niger Company’s Territories”

However, Shaw certainly was not the first in her use of “Nigeria” in describing the people of the Niger. As early as 1788, William Hurd, in his compilation, A new universal history of the religious rites, ceremonies, and customs of the whole world, detailing a complete and [supposedly] impartial view of all the religions in the various nations of the world, employed the word “Nigeria” as a description for the people living in the areas from the south-western extremes of the Sahara (Senegal, Gambia, etc.) to the areas north-east of the Niger’s confluence with the Benue (Shaw’s Sudan?). Hurd used the name “Nigeria” as a substitute for “Nigritia,” another more commonly used name for the same region in ancient times. At this time, the lower Niger region was Guinea. A doctor of divinity, Hurd possibly formulated his “Nigeria” easily from combining the Latin suffix “-ia” with “Niger,” the river then reputed to run from the western extremities in a straight line to the east across all the areas of “Nigritia”. While there is no evidence for this in his book, it is also probable that Hurd simply borrowed his use of the word from someone who had employed it much earlier. A 1790 book conducting a “full inquiry into the subject of suicide” and written by Charles Moore quoted Hurd’s description of religious practices in “Nigritia or Nigeria” and went no further in its use of the name. Though the 1799 and an 1814 reproduction of Hurd’s book repeated Hurd’s “Nigeria”, it clearly did not catch on as the appellation “Nigritia” persisted for many years after him.

Hurd’s 1788 book gave one of the earliest mention of the word “Nigeria”

In his 1854 book, The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, J.R Logan also used the word “Nigeria” in the same sense that Hurd used it. For him, Nigeria was “West Nigritia”, the province which has “the Atlantic on the west and south, and the Desert on the north [and] Hausa [on the east].” Logan used “Nigeria” to refer to the region and “Nigerian” the attributes of the people occupying this region. In Logan’s book, the Yorubas occupied “Lower Nigeria”; Calabar was in “East Nigeria.”

The areas around Upper Niger were once Nigritia, while the lower region was Guinea

Logan & Hurd were not the only two who used the word “Nigeria” or “Nigerian.” In his 229-paged “Journal of an African Trader” published in 1862, William Cole mentioned the word “Nigerian” 12 times. He never mentioned “Nigeria.” Detailing his experiences on this trading expedition to “Ibo” which they arrived at after entry into the interior through the River Nun entrance of the Niger in the Atlantic, Cole apparently used the word “Nigerian” to refer to attributes of the people he encountered in this region. For Cole, “Nigerian” was limited to no more than the areas around “Ibo” not far north of the river’s delta mouth.

Cole’s reference to “Nigerian” exploration in his 1862 book

This “Nigerian” delta, another author, Richard Burton, referred to in his narrative, Abeokuta and the Camaroons Mountains. Burton, writing in 1863, also described “the Moslems of the Sudan, or Upper Nigerian regions [as] pressing heavily upon the peoples of the South.” Again, Burton did not use the word “Nigeria”; instead, like Cole, he merely utilized the “Nigerian” expression to refer to the attributes of the people he met and the places he encountered around the places visited in the Niger River. Burton repeated his use of the word in the same sense in his other book, Wanderings in West Africa, published the same year.

How the two came upon this word is not clear. But evidently, the word “Nigerian” would have circulated around travelers as at the mid-1800s, even if only among a few. By then, the course of the Niger had been charted to a great length by numerous explorers and it wouldn’t have seemed out of place to describe the people occupying its bank or the areas around it as “Nigerians” much the same way the people of Crusoe’s Lilliput were described as Lilliputians.

But clearly, Cole’s & Burton’s designations did not register in public consciousness, for as at 1898 when names were being discussed for the two new colonies in the areas of the Royal Niger Company’s territories, “Niger Sudan” and “Niger Coast” came up. Evidently these had been bandied about quite exhaustively. But according to Carland, “Antrobus (a staff at the Colonial Office) thought that, strictly speaking, the base name for both [colonies] should be ‘Negrita’, but since ‘Nigeria’ had by then become a familiar term, Antrobus thought they [Colonial Office] should stick with it.” Apparently borrowing from the historical designation of this region, Antrobus considered “Negrita” or “Nigrita” to be more correct2.

The familiarity of which Carland speaks possibly followed from Shaw’s feed of the term into public awareness through her Times article. Without doubt, Shaw was the first to specifically propose the name for the region of today’s Nigeria. Nevertheless, it is not out of place to consider that she might have encountered the term “Nigerian” increasingly used in the years following Burton & Cole’s books. The main entrance into the Niger was through its mouth in the Atlantic, and as some travelers began using the term “Nigerian” to describe attributes of the people they encountered on entry, the name could have taken increasing affinity for these people. Was this how Shaw picked it?

In a Spectator article the following 13 February after Shaw’s article, a journalist describing the Battle of Bida (to which Shaw hinted in her own article), wrote: “Every one, however, will read the thrilling account of the battle of Bida, and no one who reads it will, we think, doubt that negroes can fight, or that we are undertaking in the territory which we begin to call “Nigeria,” as if the right to revolutionize the maps were already ours, a work of the greatest difficulty and importance.” In another article in the same newspaper seven days later, the use of the word “Nigeria” did not appear in quotes. Apparently, by then it was as good as adopted.

The Spectator was only one in a number of newspapers and authors who began using the Nigeria name once Shaw cast it on the table. By 1 January 1900, it was time for the Royal Niger Company to transfer its territories in the northern and southern regions to the Colonial Office. Officers, administrators and country names had been selected after elaborate meetings. Preparation was in high gear. When it took over, the Office announced the names of its new territories: Northern and Southern Nigeria. In 1914, both were amalgamated into one and a “Nigeria” was born.

Nigeria got its official name in 1900



1 C.K. Meek has argued in his paper, The Niger and the Classics, that Nigeir is etymologically more correct than Niger. According to him, “Nigeir” (the name given the river by the natives) apparently became confused at some point with the Latin word “Niger”, which means black. Ptolemy described the river, “Nigeir”, and its metropolis “Nigeira” as the land of the people around the river. Thus, “Nigeira” would be the more correct word, as opposed to the current “Nigeria.”

2It’s quite a surprise that Nigerians are not called Nigritians today given the widespread use of “Nigritia” in the years preceding British colonial rule. One valid explanation would be because Nigritia applied more to the Soudan area and could never accurately describe the people of the Lower Niger. This could be one reason the “Nigeria” name became a compromise.



  1. John M. Carland; The Colonial Office and Nigeria, 1898-1914; 1985
  2. William N. M. Geary; Nigeria Under British Rule; 1965
  3. Charles Moore; A Full Inquiry into the subject of Suicide; 1790
  4. William Hurd; A new universal history of the religious rites, ceremonies and customs of the whole world; 1788
  5. William Cole; Life in the Niger or, the Journal of an African Trader; 1862
  6. Flora Shaw; article in the Times of London, 8th January 1897
  7. Flora Shaw’s letter to Lugard; http://www.premiumtimesng.com/arts-entertainment/5838-letter-to-lugard-from-flora-shaw.html
  8. J. R. Logan; The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, Volume 8; 1854
  9. Wikipedia article on the Northern Nigeria Protectorate; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Nigeria_Protectorate
  10. Richard Burton; Wanderings in West Africa, Vol I & II; 1863
  11. Wiktionary article on etymology of the suffix “-ia”; https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/-ia#Latin
  12. Thomas Newborough, George Sawbridge; The Gazetteer’s Or, Newsman’s Interpreter. The Second Part The Second Edition; 1707
  13. Richard Francis Burton ; Abeokuta and the Cameroons Mountains; 1863
  14. C.K. Meek; The Niger and the Classics: The History of a Name; 1960
  15. Spectator article; The Administrative Muddle in Africa; 20 February 1897, http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/20th-february-1897/8/the-administrative-muddle-in-africa
  16. Spectator article; The Battle of Bida; http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/13th-february-1897/6/the-battle-of-bida

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    March 28, 2017 at 2:15 pm

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