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Shadows of Nigeria’s Colonial Past

May 4, 2012

From Fraser Ottanelli:

Liz explores the graveyard, with a local guide and our friend Emeka Okelum Okonta (in USF Anthropology T-shirt)

Hidden from view on a little side street between the bustling Nnebisi Road and the Niger River, are two adjoining reminders of British colonial presence in Asaba. The Expatriate Graveyard is the resting place of missionaries and colonial workers that came to Asaba as agents of British rule. The majority of the names on the graves have been bleached away by the sun. A few of the more imposing markers are still legible and provide brief biographical information on men who probably succumbed to yellow fever or malaria.

Next to the well-kept graveyard stand the Lander Brothers’ Anchorage monument and museum, built in memory of Richard and John Lander who anchored at about this spot of the River Niger during an expedition in 1830.

Born in Cornwall, the son of a local innkeeper, Richard Lander began his exploration of West Africa as an assistant to the Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton in 1825. Lander was the only European to survive this ill-fated expedition and returned to Britain in 1828. Two years later he was back in the southeast part of present-day Nigeria, this time accompanied by his brother, John.  The two men led an expedition that began in Bussa, the former capital of the Borgu region in northern Nigeria, and headed downstream to trace the course of the Niger River to the sea. The Lander Brothers are credited with the discovery of the mouth of the River Niger. This led to the opening of this part of Nigeria to British trade and colonization.

The colonial cemetery overlooking the Niger

In 1832 Richard Landis returned for a third expedition, financed by a group of Liverpudlian merchants who planed to establish trading settlements at the junction of the Niger and Benue rivers. This time, however, most members succumbed to fever and Richard died as the result of injuries he sustained during an attack by the local population.

Panels along the wall of the museum tell the story of the Landers’ journey. At the center of the room, is a full-size replica of one of the boats used by the explorers. The boat was used by an expedition in 2004, in which people from Britain, including some descendants of the Landers, retraced the 19th century voyage. They also founded the museum, which has a restaurant and information center. Across the entrance to the museum sit six abandoned vans, vestiges of a failed business venture that hoped to turn the exploits of the Lander Brothers into a major tourist destination. These rusting vehicles seem like an appropriate symbol of Nigeria’s conflicted relationship with its colonial past.

The replica boat and museum

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