Colonialism and the expansion of empires

From slave coast to oil rivers

An extract from the Trade and Empire exhbition at The Whitworth Art Gallery

The photographs in the exhibition belonged to Tom Singleton Gardner, who was based in New Calabar, southern Nigeria, from around 1890 to 1917. Gardner was an agent for the British trading company The Africa Association Ltd, and was one of a web of traders stationed in west Africa.

Many west African ports had grown up around settlements originally established as slave markets. In the later nineteenth century the British worked to replace the monopoly they had held in the transatlantic slave trade with what became known as the ‘legitimate trade’ in palm oil. The mechanisation of the textile industry in Manchester and the spread of railways increased demand for palm oil as a lubricant and it was also used in soap. The area of west Africa referred to as the ‘slave coast’ thereby became known as the ‘oil rivers’.

Tom Singleton Gardner died in 1917 from tuberculosis, which he contracted in west Africa. We know little about what sort of man he was or about his time in west Africa; his diaries are lost. However, these photographs, which are on loan from his family, provide us with a glimpse of what life was like in west Africa at this time. Although it is possible that Gardner himself took some of these photographs, most are attributed to the black African photographer JA Green, whose studio was in Bonny.