Alcoholism in Nigeria, c. 1880 to 1940

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Simon Heap, History, Oxford Brookes University, UK

“ ‘In the Hot and Trying Climate of Nigeria the European has a Much Stronger Temptation to Indulge in Alcohol than the Native’: Alcoholism in Nigeria, c. 1880 to 1940”


Presented to the conference:

Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society

St Anne’s College, Oxford, 29-30 June 2017

See: All ‘Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society’ conference podcasts

Abstract:Precolonial Nigerians did not distil alcohol; their expertise was restricted to tapping palm wine or fermenting grain beers, both with low alcohol. The Atlantic slave trade, which encouraged the purchase of slaves with rum and whisky, fostered the habit for imported strong liquor. It became a socially prestigious commodity, a transitional currency and a powerful catalyst for trade. The liquor trade continued after the slave trade ended, reaching large volumes in the second half of the nineteenth century with the growth and expansion of British control. While Northern Nigeria became an imported liquor prohibition territory, liquor was the most significant import in terms of volume and value in the British colonies of Lagos, Oil Rivers Protectorate, Niger Coast Protectorate and Southern Nigeria, all of which were eventually integrated into the Southern Provinces of Nigeria in 1914. By that time, Nigeria imported over four million gallons of German and Dutch gin (schnapps).


Debates over the physical injury that drinking spirits could induce became a key battleground over the Nigerian liquor trade. The paper examines all sides of the arguments: the level of alcoholism and the differences, if any, in alcoholism between Africans and Europeans.

Imported liquor had stronger intoxicating effects than palm wine or grain beer. Liquor trade critics argued that the taste for alcohol was already in place and imported spirits’ much more potent strength would wreak widespread drunkenness, alcoholism and psychiatric destruction on Nigerians. Arguing that the imposition of 'a Rum and Gin Civilisation' would be 'a hydra that devours the natives', they agitated for Prohibition.


Nigeria’s statistical breakdown of alcoholism cases by the patient’s racial background – African and European – makes possible comparisons between the way alcoholism affected the two sections of Nigerian society. Most medical opinions at the 1909 Nigeria Liquor Trade Inquiry stated that there were no inherent differences in the psychological and physiological effects of alcohol on the two races. However, with a belief at the time that the average Nigerian was probably physically stronger than the average European, some observers concluded that the former could take more alcohol without ill-effects. Others believed that this was wrong, and that Africans were more susceptible to spirits’ effects.


Wild accusations were drawn of the drinking habits of both Africans and Europeans in Nigeria. The paper looks in detail on one such occasion in 1899, when CMS Bishop Herbert Tugwell proclaimed that 75% of European deaths were caused by alcoholism. While sued in court (but eventually dropped), there was some truth in Tugwell’s claim arising from the fact that many deaths could well have been accelerated by alcoholic over-indulgence. For Europeans, the local climate was debilitating, and coupled with frequent bouts of ill-health, made their residence particularly wearing on both their mental and physical shape. Cases of the alcoholism among colonial staff drinking too much alcohol are grouped by profession: colonial officers, doctors, railwaymen and traders. The paper concludes as to the level of alcoholism in Nigeria, and the differences in alcoholism between Africans and Europeans at the time.



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