The region was an important port of trade for European traders, not the least because of the regular supply of slaves and palm oil. Before the advent of missionaries and British consuls there was a symbiotic relationship of sorts between the European traders and the coastal peoples. In fact, some historians have argued that trade with Europeans was what led to the strengthening, if not the creation, of the city-states of the Delta region. The Europeans, on their part, found the state of things at that point – this was in the early nineteenth century – appealing. In order to secure their trade many European traders actually became members of native cults, and became part of local politics, up to the point of sometimes backing a party against the other. This was mainly to make sure that they kept getting regular supply of goods. By then, owing largely to the banning of slavery by the British government the European traders had started shifting focus away from slave trade and concentrated on the trade in oil palm.
Many of the Europeans actually ‘bought’ themselves Egbo membership because they could then use the mechanisms of the institution to recover debts from Africans who owed them money. It also meant that the Europeans could come into the town whenever they wanted, without being afraid that they might be accosted for being on the street when the Grand Egbo was on display. They could also escape any embargoes that might be imposed on foreign traders.
Perhaps the most interesting bit in all this was that, by and large, the traders did not try to ‘civilise’ the natives. When they did interfere in local politics it was to make sure that the ‘right’ person filled thrones, in order to ensure continued trade relations. And they sometimes supported the ‘right’ candidates with a supply of arms and ammunitions. Do not get me wrong, I find this despicable in itself. The point is that there was a semblance of a relationship between equals in the dealings between the two parties. Things started changing when the British became interested in staking a claim to the region, and things completely changed when the region finally became part of the British colonial empire. The traders who had abstained from too much interference in local matters, and who had displayed respect for the traditions and institutions of the people, were emboldened by the power of the British Empire, represented by Consul Hutchinson. As if that was not enough, they were actually advised to disregard the traditions of the peoples.
It is interesting to note that even though there have been different regimes in international development, one can find fragments of the thread that was implicit in the statement of Consul Hutchinson running through them all: the assumption that the ‘natives’ need to be saved from themselves, and that many of their ‘practices’ have to be changed in order for them to prosper. But of especial interest to me is that one can find the beginnings of the idea that trade could not only be deployed as an agent of development, but that, by extension, the restriction of it could serve as a punishment.