To mark Nigeria’s 59th Independence Day today, I bring you the original article Flora Shaw, Frederick Lugard’s girlfriend (and later wife), wrote titled “Nigeria” in The Times (of London) on January 8, 1897 on p. 6 where she first proposed the name we are still known by. I requested my friend Professor Moses Ochonu to help me get a copy of the article when he went to the National Archives in London in May this year.
As you can see, Flora Shaw didn’t intend for the name “Nigeria” to refer to all of what is now Nigeria. She proposed the name for only the area that is today known as Northern Nigeria, which makes sense since that was the only area her boyfriend administered at the time. It wasn’t until 1914 that the Lagos Colony, the Southern Protectorate and the Northern Protectorate were administered as one country.
This article clearly gives the lie to the conspiracy theory popularized by one Natasha Akpoti that the name “Nigeria” is derived from “Nigger-Area.” As I pointed out in two previous columns debunking this unfounded conspiracy, “nigger” was not a racial slur in 1890s England, so Flora Shaw couldn’t possibly use it to intentionally insult us, although her article contains racist put-downs of the peoples of Northern Nigeria.
In 1890s England, “nigger” simply meant a black person, as it did at some point even in the US. A proof of this exists in the fact that in the same year that Flora Shaw’s article was published in The Times, famous Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad wrote a novella titled The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. Because “nigger” was already a racial slur in America at the time (and it wasn’t in England), his publisher changed the title of the American edition of the book to The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle.
But Flora Shaw clearly showed in this article that the River Niger was the inspiration for her choice of the name Nigeria (Niger-area). She didn’t invent the name Niger, either. As I showed in my columns, the name has existed in the travel notes of European explorers since at least the 1550s. In fact, Leo Africanus, whose real name was al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, was the first person on record to use “Niger” to refer to the river in his book published in 1550.
Nevertheless, I still strongly suggest that we discard the name “Nigeria” for a more creative, historically relevant alternative.