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Colonial Meltdown

Northern Nigeria in the Great Depression

Moses E. Ochonu

Publication Year: 2009

Historians of colonial Africa have largely regarded the decade of the Great Depression as a period of intense exploitation and colonial inactivity. In Colonial Meltdown, Moses E. Ochonu challenges this conventional interpretation by mapping the determined, at times violent, yet instructive responses of Northern Nigeria’s chiefs, farmers, laborers, artisans, women, traders, and embryonic elites to the British colonial mismanagement of the Great Depression. Colonial Meltdown explores the unraveling of British colonial power at a moment of global economic crisis.

Ochonu shows that the economic downturn made colonial exploitation all but impossible and that this dearth of profits and surpluses frustrated the colonial administration which then authorized a brutal regime of grassroots exactions and invasive intrusions. The outcomes were as harsh for Northern Nigerians as those of colonial exploitation in boom years.

Northern Nigerians confronted colonial economic recovery measures and their agents with a variety of strategies. Colonial Meltdown analyzes how farmers, women, laborers, laid-off tin miners, and Northern Nigeria’s emergent elite challenged and rebelled against colonial economic recovery schemes with evasive trickery, defiance, strategic acts of revenge, and criminal self-help and, in the process, exposed the weak underbelly of the colonial system.

Combined with the economic and political paralysis of colonial bureaucrats in the face of crisis, these African responses underlined the fundamental weakness of the colonial state, the brittleness of its economic mission, and the limits of colonial coercion and violence. This atmosphere of colonial collapse emboldened critics of colonial policies who went on to craft the rhetorical terms on which the anticolonial struggle of the post–World War II period was fought out.

In the current climate of global economic anxieties, Ochonu’s analysis will enrich discussions on the transnational ramifications of economic downturns. It will also challenge the pervasive narrative of imperial economic success.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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Front Matter

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p. vii


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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

I incurred many debts in the course of writing this book. During my research I received enormous financial and moral support from various facilities at the University of Michigan: the Department of History, the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, the International Institute, and the Rackham Graduate School. The staff of the University Library put up with my incessant requests ...

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Introduction: Crisis, Colonial Failure, and Subaltern Suffering

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pp. 1-24

... W. R. Crocker, a British colonial district officer, traversed Idoma Division, a remote district of colonial Northern Nigeria, raiding villages and hamlets and confiscating the food, livestock, and property of tax defaulters. As his haul of goats and chickens increased—and the owners did not come forward to redeem them—Crocker wondered what to do with “the ...

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1. From Empire to Colony

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pp. 25-45

... of the Depression, British economic recovery policy in Nigeria focused on the strict implementation of austerity measures approved by the Colonial Office in London, whose prescriptions, in turn, were inspired by the economic recovery consensus in Britain. But as my analysis will demonstrate, the economic recovery plan of the Nigerian colonial state existed merely to ...

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2. The Depression and the Colonial Encounter in Northern Nigeria

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pp. 46-70

... off by the state’s pursuit of revenue at the Northern Nigerian grass roots, as well as the unintended consequences of economic recovery policies, undermined the administrative system of indirect rule in a region that scholars regard as its cradle and laboratory. This weakening of indirect rule was particularly harsh on its most important legitimizing institution—chiefs ...

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3. Social Transformations and Unintended Consequences in a Depressed Economy

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pp. 71-99

... consequences of colonial economic recovery policy as well as local reactions to, and innovation in the face of, rising prices of imports and falling prices of domestic products confounded colonial efforts to draw more Northern Nigerians into the export economy through colonial economic institutions. As I have shown, colonial officials desired increased, not decreased, African participation in, and dependence on, the imperial marketplace as a ...

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4. Protests, Petitions, and Polemics on the Economic Crisis

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pp. 100-120

... illuminated colonial failures and the hollowness of colonial claims about economic paternalism with an unprecedented clarity. Members of Northern Nigeria’s embryonic elite quickly picked up on the ways in which the Depression exacerbated and highlighted the failures and weaknesses of the colonial system. Most of them had become casualties of the state’s cost-cutting ...

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5. The Periphery Strikes Back

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pp. 121-145

... crisis was experienced in the Northern Nigerian economic mainstream as a collapse of the export economy. The anticolonial commentaries and critiques of the period bear this point out (see chapter 4). This economic collapse resulted in mine closures, a drastic reduction in household incomes in export crop–producing regions, retrenchments, criminal and legitimate self-help initiatives, and anticolonial activism. Outside the Northern Nigerian ...

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6. Economic Recovery and Grassroots Revenue Offensives

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pp. 146-165

... stigma attached to Idoma Division returned during the Depression to constitute a site of crisis mediated by the British attempt to recapture and reexplore the division as a valuable, revenue-generating colonial unit. Not only a hurried afterthought, this effort became a policy alternative authorized by the economic recovery strategy of revenue generation and the bolstering of ...

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pp. 166-174

... is not about colonial success in exploiting Africans to cushion metropolitan economic anxieties and problems; that story has already been told. Rather, it is about the colonial failure to exploit Africans—in spite of a desire to do so—in the service of metropolitan economic recovery, and the multifarious fallouts of that failure. What I have tried to do here is write a history of colonial failure and its social, economic, and political effects on ...


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pp. 175-204


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pp. 205-212


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pp. 213-217

E-ISBN-13: 9780821443118
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821418901

Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 742512936
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Colonial Meltdown

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Nigeria -- Colonial influence.
  • Nigeria, Northern -- History -- 20th century.
  • British -- Nigeria, Northern -- History -- 20th century.
  • Depressions -- 1929 -- Great Britain.
  • Depressions -- 1929 -- Nigeria, Northern.
  • Great Britain -- Colonies -- Africa -- Administration -- History -- 20th century.
  • Nigeria, Northern -- Economic conditions -- 20th century.
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