The First Punitive Expedition in Nigeria

Nigeria’s colonial history is dotted all over from Sokoto to Benin with punitive expeditions which impressed imperial power on the subjugated folk. Designed to shut down local unrest or enforce Crown rules, these expeditions represented the most rudimentary forms of the proselytization of democratic thought through military intervention as conducted today by global superpowers. Unlike today, however, where initial deliberations often proceed among member states in a UN, only one state was judge and jury in the savage 19th century years. It was during one of these early decades in this century Nigeria experienced its first punitive expedition led by a British naval force. Its intention: to topple a belligerent Lagos king who stood in its way.


In the early 19th century, the kingdom of Lagos was experiencing a power tussle between Kosoko, who sat on the throne, and his uncle Akintoye, who had had to take refuge in Abeokuta away from the bloodily intense rivalry. The slave trade was rife in and along the coast of Lagos, provided economic sustainability to the coastal town and fueled relations between the neighbouring kingdoms of Dahomey and Lagos. Around the same time, the British were active in the business of quelling slavery around Lagos while seeking to introduce legitimate trade to the peoples of the Niger. British efforts, however, seemed insufficient in the face of the increasing trade in humans earnestly fostered by the kings and chiefs in and around the Niger. Of these, the Lagos king seemed to cause the most worry, and repeated attempts by British representatives to discourage him from persisting in the trade did not yield any fruit. On one such visits, John Beecroft, who oversaw British interests in Lagos and the Bight of Benin, arranged meetings with the king and pressured him to give up the slave trade. The ruler’s obstinacy led to one of the first punitive expeditions arranged by the British in areas that later became modern Nigeria.

This expedition took place on the 25th November 1851, led by Commander Forbes and Consul Beecroft. Forbes, an experienced naval officer, commanded the British ships anchored off Lagos. The attack had as goal an intention to compel, through show of force, the then Lagos Oba, Kosoko, to accede to the terms offered by the British and put an end to the slave trade in his domain. Kosoko had not only repudiated Britain’s offer of friendship extended to him by Beecroft during his visit, but also probably humiliated him by his obstinate posturing. Armed with crown dispatches which empowered him to negotiate on behalf of his native government, but stopped short of vesting him with military decisions, a dissatisfied Beecroft took it upon himself to follow the disappointing occasion with a show of military might, intending to either force the Lagos king to change his mind or to depose him and install the acquiescent Akintoye in his stead.

One of the dispatches, dated 11th October 1850, from the foreign office and addressed to Mr. Beecroft, highlighted that Lord Palmerston was quite convinced that the decision of the Chiefs of Lagos regarding ending the slave trade depended fairly strongly on the decision of the allied King of Dahomey to exit the trade. Nevertheless, Kosoko did not appear ready to sign any British treaty, supposing the King of Dahomey did the same. In another dispatch dated 21st February 1851, Lord Palmerston urged Beecroft to remind the Lagos King of the extent of British military might, should he (Kosoko) refuse to halt the savage trade in humans. Evidently relying on the weight of these communications, Beecroft managed to get Forbes to deploy his resources against the Lagos King and by the morning of the 25th the team was sailing on the Lagos river towards the reprobate.

The action began at 6.15am with Commander Forbes, in the “Philomel”, instructing the boats to proceed in tow; the “Harlequin” piloted by Captain Wilmot and sailing 200 yards ahead of the “Bloodhound”, on both ships a flag of truce fluttering in the wind. Notwithstanding their peaceful declarations, the team met with a rush of fire on rounding the first point around the Lagoon at 6.25am and coming into sight of the enemy. Nevertheless, they kept the flag flying and proceeded steadily onto the town. The firing continued until 7.25am during which “great guns of different calibre” entered the fray and the British team felt in great danger. The flags of truce were hurled down shortly after and the boats returned fire “with great guns and small arms”. One of the ships, the “Bloodhound”, ran aground in the signature shallow Lagos waters, failing to sufficiently serve as effective cover for the advancing men against the heavy firepower from the Lagos fighters. Forbes managed to organize a small force and landed on ground determined to set fire to a part of the town. He achieved this in the face of incessant fire, but ultimately had to abandon it half-done. In his estimation, over 3000 men armed with muskets fought them off the Lagos coast, and their small force of only 300 officers were fortunate to have successfully contested with this army and suffered the loss of only 2 men.

The British ships had to retreat before mid-day, their force unable to keep up equal contest with the overpowering firepower of Kosoko’s shifty army. In disappointment, Beecroft and Commander Forbes communicated to England their failed attempt to rein Kosoko in. Beecroft attempted to justify the operation by making references to Palmerston’s dispatches. Forbes, on the other hand, explained his decision to abandon the fight in his writing to Commodore Bruce, his superior in Britain. He noted:

“With the very small force I had to oppose the vast numbers of men, armed with good muskets, and who were keeping up an incessant fire from behind clay walls, and the town being quite a stockade, I determined on setting fire to tit, which was gallantly done, in the face of a heavy and destructive fire at 9 a.m. My force not being sufficiently strong to keep up this unequal contest, and having accomplished all that could be done without great sacrifice of life, I ordered the men off to their boats, and proceeded down the river, taking care to keep the enemy in check whenever they showed themselves”

A miffed Commodore Bruce dispatched scathing replies to Beecroft and Forbes, expressing total dissatisfaction with their military move and reminding the overzealous Forbes of the limits of his power as a commander. In his letter, Bruce wrote:

“It appears to me, that after the failure of the negotiation on the 20th of that month, an attempt to treat with the present Chief of Lagos upon any terms, was extremely ill-advised.
While I acknowledge the zeal for the honour of the service which I have no doubt actuated you, I cannot, under all the circumstances of the case, approve of your proceedings.”

Though the British maneuver failed, the events set the stage for a second punitive expedition that will see the coastal city captured and eventually brought under preliminary British control in 1851. Scholars have asserted that this later “Reduction of Lagos” set the ground for the subsequent colonization of the territories around the Niger, ultimately resulting in the creation of the Nigerian state in 1914. There is good reason to consider this true.



  1. J.U.J Asiegbu, Nigeria and its British Invaders (1851-1920); New York: NOK Publishers International, 1984.
  2. Robert Sydney Smith, The Lagos Consulate (1851-1861); University of California Press, 1979

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