A (not so) short history of early Lagos

The Carter Bridge in early Lagos

Lagos today is a prominent Nigerian city boasting more than 15 million inhabitants. But before the advent of country names and flags or borders, this coast of present-day Nigeria was no more than a coast, holding little significance among the many Yoruba cities of present-day western Nigeria. Lying on a path from Europe to the Cape of Good Hope further south, it featured continuously as one of the trade stops sea merchants made on their journeys to the east. As a result, there were a number of mentions in many an explorer’s diary, mainly Portuguese explorers who were some of the first to sail out into this region. At about the fifteenth century, little was known to foreigners about the area around this coast besides its feature of inter-connecting waterways and a dangerous bar inaccessible to large ships. Early maps showed this area as Rio de Lago, from which it will eventually derive its name “Lagos”.

Way before Portuguese visit, Lagos was founded as an early settlement by the Awori people, a Yoruba tribe which migrated south from the inner lands in search of refuge from persecution. These settlers seemed to have thrived in small-scale, weak coastal communities susceptible to attacks from a more organized people. By the mid-1550s there is some evidence to suggest the lands around Lagos ultimately fell under the control of the Oba of Benin, a strong kingdom further north. Lagos was made into a war-camp by the Benin Oba and used as a base to extend control over the coastal areas. Accounts by some early explorers confirmed the island became a military camp run by the generals of the Oba. This is probably where Lagos obtained its traditional name of “Eko” which means “war-camp” in Edo. Sometime later, Lagos got its own rulers and established its own line of dynasty. Conflicting accounts and the absence of written history puts firm doubt on when this line of kingship started, but some evidence point to sometime in the seventeenth century. By this time there was growing interaction between the indigenous settlers and foreign explorers who were seeking to trade. This interaction would blossom into one of the finest on the so-called dark continent, giving birth first to a slave port and then to a country.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the slave port in Lagos was a thriving one. A British explorer, Captain John Adams, wrote of an “active traffic in slaves” in Lagos carried on by “traders.” Its physical location no doubt allowed this trade in human to thrive, as ships could just wait beyond the Lagos lagoon where they are met by smaller boats bringing slaves through the system of inland waterways. Accounts have been shared of several Portuguese and Brazilian traders who were living in Lagos at that time for no other purpose than that of slave-trading. Supported by both the communities and the kings, slave-trading dominated the coasts of Lagos through the eighteenth century into the nineteenth century. Wars and subsequent displacement of communities fueled the trade and it wasn’t until British occupation in 1851 that Lagos lost its prime position in slave-trading.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, British explorers followed a stream of expeditions to the Niger in a bid to map the river’s path and locate its source. These expeditions of discovery later morphed into varying attempts at civilizing the native population, establishing trading relations with people further hinterland and spreading the message of Christianity. At this time, steamers of the Royal Navy also followed previous trails, conducting a number of failed expeditions into the territories of modern-day Nigeria. Down south, Lagos was going through a period of British contact characterized by a growing liberalism desirous of putting an end to the slave-trading that so dominated the coast. In 1849, a certain Mr. John Beecroft was appointed Consul for the Bights of Biafra and Benin with instructions to tender a treaty for the suppression of the slave-trade to the then King of Lagos, Kosoko. Kosoko, who profited in part from the city’s main economic activity of slave-trading, declined to sign the British treaty, thereby incurring the wrath of the imperialist nation. On 28th December 1851, the British, in a fight with Kosoko, ejected him from Lagos. This is famously described as the reduction of Lagos. His nephew, Akintoye, who had been deposed by Kosoko only six years ago for wanting an end to the slave-trade was reinstated by the British as King under a mutual understanding to support the British policy of zero slave-trading. Though there is reason to believe his new desire to end slave-trading might have formed part of a later realization by the deposed king, Akintoye signed the British treaty to abolish such trading activities in and around Lagos on the 1st of January 1852. In addition to the main objective of ending slave-trading in the coastal city, the treaty also provided for freedom of trade for British subjects and ensured that missionaries of all denominations spreading Christianity were to be protected at all times. In effect, the treaty opened up Lagos to British domination and might have allowed for more than was desired by the poor King. It would seem Britain desired to trade with the coastal regions of Lagos, but sought to do that on its own terms of zero slave-trading and no interference with the customs of the natives as long as these customs were in the interest of humanity, as they, the British, understood it. This marked the beginning of the consular period in Lagos during which Britain provided protection to Lagos while fighting off Portuguese, Cuban and American ships involved in slave-trading all around the coast. Partly, this also marked the beginnings of the country later called Nigeria.

By this mid-half of the nineteenth century, Lagos was bustling with growing trade between the native population and the many foreigners now resident in settlements along and around the coast. There were British settlers who had made Lagos their new home, British traders who visited time and again, emancipated Brazilian slaves who once worked in the Americas and Sierra Leonean immigrants yet to feel at home in their new free nation of Sierra Leone and had thus migrated to this growing coastal town. And though pockets of slave-trading still persisted, often sustained by the natives themselves, there was increased dedication from the British to fight off all such slave-trading activities.

The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by speedy expansion of British influence under watch of its new consul, Benjamin Campbell, in Lagos. As trading relations blossomed, British control took firm roots around the areas of the Niger and down to Lagos. Exports grew and the economic benefits of making Lagos a British dependency became more obvious. It didn’t take long then for Imperial Britain to annex Lagos in a cession on 6 August 1861 under the reign of Oba Dosumu of Lagos who took over after the death of Akintoye in 1853. The British met little resistance in the attempt at seizing control of Lagos and could easily have exerted this with force had Dosumu mounted a fight. Under the terms of the treaty which offered to the Queen, her heirs and successors forever, full and absolute dominion and sovereignty of the port and island of Lagos, freely, fully and entirely, Dosumu was allowed to use the title of King in its usual African signification and only permitted to decide disputes between natives of Lagos, but with resolutions subject to appeal to British laws. The treaty rendered all of Lagos a colony of Imperial Britain.

From then on, Lagos was governed by governors appointed by Her Majesty and the history of Lagos was written mainly in British ink in blue books, almanacs and foreign office journals most of which now sit in British archives. The first of such governors was Henry Freeman appointed in 1862 following the cession. At this time there was probably no reason to see Lagos as part of present-day Nigerian territory. If anything, this patch of coastal land with its interconnecting waterways was seen as sharing completely different features from the vast savannah areas of the North and more similarities with other coastal areas to the west. The vast mainland north of Lagos was immersed in constant wrangling and initiated trade wars with each other which extended oftentimes south to Lagos. Perhaps this was why in 1866 the Lagos Crown Colony was merged with other British coastal depencies along the stretch of the Atlantic administered centrally in Sierra Leone with a Governor-in-chief placed at Freetown. Later in 1874 this was moved to Gold Coast. However, serious agitation by the Lagos elites ensured autonomy was restored in 1886. By this time, a new British policy of hinterland expansion had opened up the areas of Lagos to other up-country tribes. Several incursions followed into the Yoruba hinterland mainly for trading objectives. Warring tribes situated along trade routes had continued to block and affect trade between the interior lands and coastal Lagos by levying some form of tax. By successfully curbing the activities of these tribes injuring trade with the inner lands, the British were able to significantly increase revenue accrued from trade in palm products over the later years of the nineteenth century. Trade boomed towards the turn of the 20th century as the hinterlands became gradually occupied by the British. Gradually, the economic significance of putting the interior lands and Lagos under one command started becoming apparent. If there were any doubts regarding British claims to Lagos and the lands around the Niger, the Berlin Act of 1885 laid all such doubts to rest. A country was now in its infant stages.

Sometime in the autumn of 1884, then then German chancellor, Prince Bismarck, put forward a proposal to clear all disputes regarding claims to new lands being discovered in Africa. In part, this was to definitely establish who had the rights to what resources. The conference opened on 15 November and featured several European powers giving reasons for their claims on territories they occupied or desired to occupy. As Britain had long developed firm roots on the Niger and in the areas around it, the territories spanning present-day Nigeria were recognized as legitimately held by English interests. This definitiveness provided to the scramble for Africa and to the borders under British control allowed the concentration of scarce resources to the occupied areas, including Lagos. Lagos, on its own part, continued to have its own governors who went on with the industrialization drive that characterized the last decades of the 1800’s and produced tremendous increase in revenue, putting the city on a sustained part of self-protection and self-reliance. This self-administration, which the natives took part in, ended in 1906 with William MacGregor, the last of Lagos’ Colonial Governors. In 1906, the colony was incorporated into Southern Nigeria to form the colony and protectorate of Southern Nigeria. Eight years later, it became the capital of the newly created Nigerian state, an amalgamation of the British-administered Southern and Northern protectorates.

Since then, Lagos has assumed prime position in the history of Nigeria which became independent in 1960. The city remained the capital of Independent Nigeria and the seat of government until 1991 when this moved to the new city of Abuja. Now the commercial nerve center of Nigeria, this coastal city which once held the littlest importance among Yoruba cities, a city to which the persecuted fled from more established Yoruba communities in search of refuge, has now grown into one of the largest cities in the world and, without doubt, the most significant in the country, with the promise to probably remain so for a long time to come.

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