Selective Nigerian History Fails To See True Heroes
There are many attributes of history. For one, it’s not set in stone. History may be facts; that much is true. However, what constitutes history for a set of people may be far removed from what actually happened at that defining time period.
Today, we look back at the Roman times with awe. Impressive aqueducts, noble architecture, intense mythology of warring gods and the stunning Spartans are only a few of some of the stories passed down through the generations and which have taken several expressions of form from Hollywood blockbusters to children’s books. Many, however, do not know that interest in the Roman period only gained traction sometime into the 17th-18th century. Men of the middle ages were so blind to the advancements of the Romans that they never realized how easily some of their aged inventions could have lifted them out of their poverty and misery. And though the ruins stood there for centuries, they evoked no more than glancing interest in those who lived around them. In other words, the history they sought to take inspiration from was not of Rome (at least at that period), but of their immediate ancestors who lived not too far into the past.
For all its many other attributes, history is clearly fluid, adaptable. For this reason, a people are able to choose their own history and to retell it until it becomes universally acceptable thought. Sometimes, this is conducted down the generation unwittingly and the story’s lack of durability ultimately ensures its dissolution into oblivion; at other times, it is a deliberate attempt to simply rewrite the canons and ensure that a Weltanschauung prevails. For instance, chances are you have never heard of Ziryab, an 8th century black slave, poet, musician, astronomer and cosmetologist who introduced to society a range of significant changes which still live with us to this day. Among other things, he initiated the idea of a three course meal and also introduced the use of crystal, as opposed to the widely used metal, as a drinking glass. Similarly, the first black fighter pilot is scarcely known to history. No singular biography has been published about him and there’s hardly weighty reference to his exploits, if there were, in history.
While these may seem uninspiring in the face of great tales of civilizations that have endured till today, it is perhaps instructive to note that there have also been tales of great civilizations lost to history, part out of the absence of written records and part out of the complete nonchalance of those who cared to document history. Canokia, a 12th century civilization in the Americas, is one of such for which records exist, but of which no one has really seemed to care. The Nupe kingdom in the area of modern-day Nigeria is another, but for which only archaeological evidence and no written records exist.
This is hardly surprising. History has always remembered what a people have chosen to remember while preserving that which they have chosen to record. It is in this light we should regard the modern history of Nigeria with some care and perhaps a little more distrust. For many history books which share details about the heroes of the country, the founding builders of the nation began their effort only in the 20th century. In most history books, these heroes birthed the country only some few years before independence in 1960 during imperial British rule; other historical researchers put efforts no earlier than 1914 after the fusing of the then contiguous Northern and Southern protectorates. The more generous historians extend efforts at nation building into the 19th century to include the host of Nigerian catechists and religious leaders who worked across the country while Christianity was at its infancy. Common among all, however, is the color of these national heroes: they are all black, Nigerian and nationalists.
In perpetrating this idea, historians discount the fact that Nigeria did not just spring into existence from nothingness. They ignore the reality that there was a long, winding process from the birth of the Nigerian society to the creation of the Nigerian state, that there were players involved in this evolution and also that these players deserve as many mentions as the glorified nationalists of modern Nigeria. They fail to recognize that these heroes paid just as much in effort, if not more, as did the latter nationalists, in a Nigeria then devoid of form and structure, and of which no plan existed to transform into a country. But it isn’t especially strange that this crop of ancient heroes get no mention. Could it perhaps be because most are not of the same stock as those currently occupying this region of western Africa?
In the lead-up to the emergence of boundary lines around modern Nigeria, the region experienced an influx of explorers, traders and missionaries, mostly in that order. In the 18th century, much of Africa was unknown, with repeated trips to the Dark Continent required by numerous explorers who sought to reveal what they encountered to the world. Once news about the bountiful chances of trading travelled back far enough to European lands, traders followed in numbers. Along with these came missionaries who brought news of Christianity to the pagan population living in these areas. While the first two group of adventurers collected facts and profits, the last went quite some extra length in its interaction with the locals. Both, however, exerted considerable influence on the thoughts that would emerge among the pagan locals. Some of the early explorers, for example, started the quest to gift the population with a written form of their mostly non-written language, and were the first to truly conduct an intricate study of the culture, language and ideals of the native society. The missionaries, on the other hand, stayed long periods and not only taught the population the bible, but also shared hygiene practices, farming methods and other quite important daily routines, preparing the locals on a path to civilization and independence. One of these missionaries, David Hinderer, an English Christian missionary, started the first newspaper in the area that will become modern Nigeria. This was written in the local Yoruba language and was the one of the first tools for molding the language’s written form. Another of the explorers, Wilhelm Bakkie, a student of philology, was almost single-handedly responsible for opening to the world the north-western interiors of what became modern Nigeria.
Sadly, selective historiography has belittled these men’s effort over the years, only stopping short of thrashing them outright; they are seen in no clearer light than Nigeria sees the militaristic, appropriative colonial officer. In fact, some suggestive theories have been advanced that their actions set the precedence for the eventual colonial domination of the country; that their early arrival was significant in preparing the triumphal entry of the British Crown into Nigerian territory. These suggestions hardly meet any criticism in a country still reeling from the consequences from colonial interference in country formation.
Nevertheless, nothing is farther from the truth. While, of course, some made sinister efforts to advance British interests in a world then unaware of universal liberty, it would be unfair to claim the labors of most were intentionally directed towards subjugating the people they encountered in their travels. The passion demonstrated by a handful, such as Bishop Tugwell, for instance, who travelled the length of the country and as far inland as Kano and Zaria to spread the Christian gospel, leaves a lot of impression about their drive to eradicate some of the pernicious practices (one of which was slavery) of the Nigerian locals. And while Macgregor Laird’s entrepreneurial motives might not have been out-and-out selfless, there is no denying the enormous impact his pioneering ideas would have on trading in the Niger area. Goldie’s following objectives, one can’t speak much of.
Not a lot has been written on these stories; and certainly, not a lot has been regarded as significant “Nigerian history” about the episodes in which many of these players were dominant characters, episodes which, without doubt, left indelible marks on events on Nigerian soil. It follows as a natural consequence of the dearth of materials that the present population, both of educated and uneducated natives, feel no influence of these “heroes”. Will this change in the coming years? There is little reason to suppose so. Perhaps, one could put this to the innate grudge Nigerians continue to maintain against foreign influence on country formation, or very well to the national apathy characteristic of most of our countrymen. But do we have reason to change this? Certainly! Not if we care about who real heroes are, and not continue to revel in the sycophancy that is common occurrence in these parts.
F Deaville Walker, The romance of the Black River: the story of the C.M.S. Nigeria Mission, London : Church Missionary Society, 1930
Martin Sandler, Lost to Time: Unforgettable Stories That History Forgot; Sterling, First Printing edition, 2010