The Arrival of Europeans In West Africa

Europeans in West Africa
The history of West Africa which had hitherto been mainly events committed in West Africa by the West Africans themselves was forced to change course and pattern at the wake of the fifteenth century.


This change was to a large extent due to the sudden appearance of the Europeans, mainly of Portuguese origin, at the coasts of this part of the world. These unusual visits which started as a child-play at the beginning eventually changed the history of the people of the region of West Africa.

One may even wish to ask the questions why did these Europeans decide to visit West Africa? What effects did these visits have on the history of West Africa? First, let us examine the motives behind the visits.

Why Did the Europeans Visit West Africa?

Evidences have shown that the Portuguese who visited the coasts of West Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, did so for a number of reasons. One of these, and perhaps the most important was the urge in Europe during this period to establish a sea-route, possibly along the coast of Africa, to India and the spice island. What brought about this urge was the inconveniences encountered by the European traders in these areas along the overland routes, these overland routes along the bank of the Mediterranean Sea ran through important towns like Milan, Florence, Genoa and Venice, in each of these towns traders from Europe often paid tolls for going through them.

In addition, some vagabonds had made these routes terribly unsafe to traders; in fact, they had converted them into a den of highway robbers. The end-result of these inconveniences was the sky-rocketing prices of article from, the Far East. Such articles like ginger, pepper and spices became luxurious articles for a significant number of people in Europe.

It was the uneven social situations caused by these high prices that inspired some people in Europe to look for an alternative route to India possibly along the coast of West Africa. If this route could be established, it was thought, the tedious trekking along the overland route, coupled with the paying of exorbitant customs duties, would disappear since the sea which was going to be the highway was nobody’s property.

Arrival of Europeans in West Africa
Again, there was the intention to spread Christianity to what the Europeans described as the lost peoples of Africa. In the first instance, the crusade against the Turks in the thirteenth century encouraged the Christians in Europe to carry faith and salvation to the land of the heathens especially to Africa, where the work of evangelism had not been known. Added to the above was the urge in Europe during this period to look for the empire of a mighty African ruler called ‘Prester John’ who, they thought, could help them on their task of Christianising and civilising the ‘unfortunate’ and ‘primitive’ inhabitants of the ‘dark continent’. It was also thought that was his famous king would certainly be willing to begin with Europe a profitable trade, particularly in gold, gold-dust, diamond and other mineral deposits which were believed to exist in abundance in this place.

Finally, the European visits were motivated by the burning desire of some Europeans to collect more knowledge about the peoples of other lands as well as the types of life led by them. This urge became extremely great as a result of the invention of the compass and other sea-faring equipment.

These inventions, in no small measures, fired the inspirations of these academically hungry European biologists to get in touch with the “black monkeys” that inhabited the African continent in order to study their structural build-up properly. It can thus be summed up, therefore, that what brought the Europeans to the coasts of Africa in general, and West Africa in particular, were multifarious. These included the intention to establish an alternative sea-route to India and the Spice Islands, the urge to introduce Christianity to the lost peoples of other lands, to spread the European brand of civilisation to other peoples, to contract commerce through Prester John, with the rich peoples of West Africa; and to know more about the biological structure of the people who inhabited other lands, African continent inclusive.

Now, all these said and done, let us ask this question – “What were the consequences or these visits? “

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The National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA)

The National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA)
Members of the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA)

The National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA) was founded in Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1920 by the educated elites from English-speaking West African colonies led by Joseph Casely Ephraim Hayford, a Ghanaian and Dr. Akinwande Savage from Nigeria. Other co-founders and early officials included Edward Francis Small, F. V. Nanka-Bruce, A. B. Quartey-Papafio, Henry van Hien, A. Sawyerr, Chief Oluwa and Kobina Sekyi.


The NCBWA’s first meeting was held at the Rogers (African) Club in Accra from 11th to 29th of March, 1920. It was attended by fifty-two delegates: forty-two from Gold Coast (Ghana), six from Nigeria, three from Sierra Leone and one delegate from The Gambia.

In 1921, the NCBWA sent a delegation to London to present a petition stating its demands to Lord Milner, the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. The delegation, led by Chief Oluwa, included Mr. Herbert Macaulay, Mr. Egerton Shyngle, Dr. Akinwande Savage and Mr. Casely Haford, the president of the congress.

However, the journey to London was an exercise in futility. The members of the congress were accused of self-centeredness and were also said to have represented no one but the educated and elite class of their colonies. The colonial office also argued that West Africans were not yet ripe for representative institutions and it would amount to foolhardiness allowing them this.

Demands of The National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA)

  1. One major demand of the NCBWA was granting elective principle in West Africa. They demanded that in the selection of representatives into the Legislative and Executive councils, the elective principle must be used.
  2. Another demand is that improved educational and social facilities must be provided for West Africans and that at least, one University must be established in West Africa.
  3. The NCBWA also demanded the establishment of a federal form of government for the four British West African colonies.
  4. They also wanted African judges and magistrates to be appointed and a West African Court of Appeal be created as the highest court of appeal in the British West African sub-region.
  5. They demanded the establishment of a legislative council in the four Anglophone West African colonies.
  6. The Congress also demanded the judicial system to be independent of the Executive Council.
  7. They demanded that African kingmakers should be granted the right to select, install and depose African chiefs.
  8. The National Congress of British West Africa demanded that Africans be appointed to occupy high positions in the civil service and the judiciary
Joseph Casely Ephraim Hayford
Joseph Casely Ephraim Hayford

In 1929, Sir Hugh Clifford, when setting up the legislative council for Nigeria, made a recommendation for elective representation which was granted by the new Secretary of State of the colonies, Winston Churchill. Nigeria then became the first colony to adopt this elective principle in British West Africa.

It must be noted that when the elective principle was granted, only those earning £100 and above which as of then was a large amount of money, can vote.

However, the accusation of being self-centred spelt a big doom for the NCBWA as the congress became a shadow of itself after 1930, even though it met thrice after the London tour; its members met in 1924 (Freetown), in 1926 (Bathurst) and 1930 (Lagos). The National Congress for British West Africa achieved some of its aims before its demise.

Achievement of NCBWA

  1. Through the efforts of the Congress, the elective principle was introduced in British West Africa.
  2. It contributed to the establishment of a legislative council in each of the West African colonies.
  3. It helped in creating more room for Africans in administering their own government.
  4. NCBWA contributed to the political awareness in British West Africa by organizing conferences in Accra, Lagos, Freetown and Bathurst.
  5. It helped in the establishment of political parties in British West African colonies, e.g, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) formed by Herbert Macaulay in 1923
  6. It helped in the establishment of higher institutions in West Africa, e.g. the Achimota College in Ghana, the Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and Yaba College in Lagos, Nigeria.

Challenges or Problems of NCBWA

  1. One of the major problems the National Congress of British West Africa faced was finance. Since the financial base was not too strong to shoulder these expenses, the Congress could not be as effective as it should have been.
  2. The leadership of the Congress was isolated. One of the reasons was that the chiefs did not support them and their activities. Another reason is that they couldn’t convince non-members that NCBWA’s struggles would benefit them.
  3. The Congress was faced with rivalry from similar groups in the colony, one of which was the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society. The society worked tirelessly against the success of the National Congress of British West Africa. For example, the Society indicated in a cable to a Secretary of State for the colonies that the Congress had not been given the mandate of the Gold Coasters to represent them in London.
  4. The activities of the National Congress of British West Africa were a threat to the smooth administration of the colonial territories. Therefore the governors in the respective colonies in West Africa did everything they could to frustrate them.
  5. Another problem of the National Congress of British West Africa was that they could not bring along the mass of the people to support them in their efforts.

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  1. C. C Dibie; The Essential Government for Senior Secondary Schools; Feb. 2003, Tonad Publishers.
  2. Eluwa, G. (1971). Background to the Emergence of the National Congress of British West Africa. African Studies Review, 14(2), 205-218. doi:10.2307/523823
  3. E. Ola Abiola. A Textbook of West African History; 3rd edition; Ado-Ekiti; Omolayo Standard Press & Bookshops co. (Nig.) Ltd., 1984
  4. Olusanya, G. O. (1968-01-01). “The Lagos Branch of the National Congress of British West Africa”. Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria. 4 (2): 321–333. JSTOR 41856752