Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Naming Nigeria - Flora Shaw and Sexism

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Flora Shaw and Lord Lugard

By Robert Ojediran

It is an unfortunate consequence of our innate sexism as a people that when we hear the name Flora Shaw as the lady who named Nigeria, we see not a person - with a life, with achievements and with faults - rather we see the mistress/ wife to be of Lord Frederick Lugard. Ask any Nigerian and this is probably the only fact they know about Miss Shaw.

Our culture is one where a woman’s legacy is not a factor of her character or her achievements but simply by who her husband is. So when we think of the woman who named our country we cannot think beyond an ordinary mistress whispering ideas to her man in bed because that is her domain of control and of course it the man who carries out the act of the naming because only men can do important things. This could not be further from the truth.

Nigeria was named by Flora Shaw but not as a consequence her relationship with Lord Lugard as most people believe. She wrote an article in the London Times of January 8, 1897 suggesting that the territory around the Niger, which was then controlled by the Royal Niger Company, should be called Nigeria.

At the time she was the colonial editor of the London times in the 1890s. She had a column titled the colony, it appeared weekly. She wrote many articles about the acquisition of territories in Africa in the 1900’s and was considered as an expert on the issue. Her achievement in becoming the colonial editor of the London times was quite extraordinary. The paper was the leading voice at the time and widely regarded as one of the best.

Flora Shaw was unique in the way she wrote particularly about economic matters affecting the African Colonies. To be a serious female journalist in those times in a field dominated by male journalists meant she had to be really good at what she did. It was for these reasons that when proposed the name Nigeria people considered it seriously.

The Royal Niger Company was instrumental in bringing the British Protectorate to the area we now know as Nigeria. Flora by virtue of her job knew on a personal basis all the major players involved in the extending of the British Empire to this region and she came to think of herself as a critical player. Her credibility as writer and economic/political commentator was without question. There have been some suggestions that by virtue of her feminine charms she was able to develop relationships with empire builders like Lord Lugard and Dr Joseph Chamberlain that afforded her in-depth knowledge which she used to write her articles. Her letters would suggest that she was no leech though as she also advised them on a range of issues given her knowledge of the area.

Now this is not to say that Miss Shaw was perfect. Many of her ideologies as represented in her articles were imperialist, she was a firm crusader for the British Empire. She saw Africans as inferior, uncivilised beings compared to the British. She believed colonialism was a benevolent construct of the empire, spreading good wherever it went and incapable of evil. She also put forward as a trial name Goldiesia, named after the head of the Royal Niger Company, Goldie. In the manner which Rhodesia was named after Dr Cecil Rhodes.

The main reason I even decided to find out this much about Flora Shaw and rid myself of complicity in the accusations of the first paragraph is because I wondered, if she was just an irrelevant mistress then why didn’t our founding fathers attempt to change the name at our independence? The answer is they did. The name Nigeria Songhai was considered, a tribute to the famous ancient Songhai Empire in Western Sudan. The name Nigeria was practical for a myriad of reasons but in the end most agreed that the argument put forward by Flora Shaw was good enough to retain the name. The river Niger, the great river of Africa, with its over 20 tributaries and channels touched the lives of Nigerians one way or another thus we all feel connected by it.

Read the original Flora Shaw biography here

You can contact Robert Ojediran via email: and on Twitter: @robbyojay


  1. There is nothing to defend this woman about. Well read editor of fluffy mistress, she never meant good for Nigeria, and some of the mistakes she, her husband and co-imperialists made back then, is what we're suffering now.

  2. @Kemi....and how has your indegenous leaders tried to solve this problem?
    After all the pre-colonial era had a lot to be proud of. I am not in any way supporting her, but how have our own people tried to clear up the mess. Give me 3 notable things the Local Government Chairman of your hometown has done?

    1. GBAM! Can Kemi even tell us who her LG chairman is? The "imperialists" left 50 years ago & things have gone downhill since then at the hands of the indigenes.

  3. I never put much thought into it but now that I think about it, I think even I (a female) has been subliminally guilty of the same thing. But mostly because that's the way it was taught to us. In schools, all we were told is that Ms. Shaw, the mistress of Lord Lugard, gave Nigeria her name. Finish, nobody ever explored it any further.

    If we want women to get their due respect, maybe we should start by changing the textbooks. It's the little things that mold mentalities

  4. This article puts a lot into perspective not only about Flora Shaw but about how women are treated in the many areas. A lot of us are guilty of expecting a woman to be nothing short of a pretty face and incapable of adding any intellectual value. Great post.

  5. I didn't care that much for her (or Lord Lugard) based on her gender but because the name Nigeria is a mash up of Niger Area (black area) and I didn't think it was that impressive. Just as we don't even know, for example, who named Enugu as Enugu (Enu ugwu: which means on the hill).

    However, learning more of her background as a journalist in the sort of era that she lived in is actually really impressive and very interesting that you found that out!


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