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  • Making Headway. The Introduction of Western Civilization in Colonial Northern Nigeria
  • Risto Marjomaa
Andrew E. Barnes. Making Headway. The Introduction of Western Civilization in Colonial Northern Nigeria. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2009. Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora. xii + 330 pp. Maps. Graphs. Abbreviations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $95.00. Cloth.

The colonial history of Africa is all too often regarded as a story of how Western civilization was introduced to the continent by outsiders, rather than how Africans reacted to new influences and opportunities, adjusting them to fit their needs. Andrew Barnes turns this viewpoint around. While concentrating on the motives and actions of colonial administrators and missionaries in Northern Nigeria, he shows how their aims were increasingly reformulated by the Africans they were supposed to be ruling and guiding.

According to Barnes, Northern Nigeria appeared to the conservatively minded British administrators, mostly products of public schools, as an Arcadian utopia in which to create an ideal society under the wings of a Muslim aristocracy. Disillusioned by liberalism and working-class democracy back home, they craved an African Camelot, an idealized society of lords and subjects under their own control. Protestant missionaries shared much of this sentiment, dreaming of remaking the North as an idyll of Christian yeomen working the fields of their traditional hamlets.

What divided the two groups was the issue of religion, the administrators fearing that Christianity would undermine Muslim aristocracy while introducing the unwanted effects of egalitarianism and social mobility. Struggle over proselytizing weakened the ability of both parties to influence [End Page 187] the changes in Northern Nigeria, eventually leading to a society that was very different from what the expatriates had expected.

While persuasive in his approach toward the aims of the white administrators and missionaries, and the reactions of the Africans, Barnes is in some danger of stereotyping his subjects. The letters and biographies of the colonial administrators reveal that they included adventurers, romantics, and careerists, as well as the unthinking (rather many of those) and the bewildered, who just happened to find themselves in the middle of Africa. One would expect at least some of these generalizations to fit the missionaries as well, many of whom lacked previous knowledge of Africa when they came to the North.

Undoubtedly, it was the reflective few, like Lugard, Temple, or Walter Miller, who mattered most, but there is a more serious side to this. When the utopian fantasies of the Northern expatriates came under attack, it was from other colonial administrators and missionaries. The Irish Catholics arriving in the North held different convictions, and their competition compelled Protestant missions to adopt a more realistic attitude toward local concerns. The Catholics had a longer experience of Africa, but this still does not explain how the missionaries of the SIM and the SUM originally formed their idealized views, which did not comply with earlier missionary experiences.

More liberal colleagues in South Nigeria and elsewhere similarly pressured the Northern administrators. While Barnes creates a convincing picture of a conservative circle within the Colonial Office, he does not explain how it maintained its coherence throughout the decades of changing personnel. The existence of the "Northerners" is hardly in doubt, as contemporaries already noted it, but something appears to be missing to explain why just there and why so long?

All in all, however, Making Headway is an excellent addition to our knowledge of the colonial Northern Nigeria, winding together a wide scope of themes that cover several generations. While the white expatriates never found their Camelot, their actions and dreams certainly influenced the future the Africans of Northern Nigeria made for themselves.

Risto Marjomaa
University of Helsinki
Helsinki, Finland


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pp. 187-188
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