Lagos History

Great men of Lagos History represented here at the opening of Shitta-Bey Mosque 1894
At the opening of Shitta-Bey Mosque 1894, Oyekan I (Oba of Lagos)On Right: Edward Wilmot Blyden(Pan-Africanist), 2nd From left: John Otunba-Payne, 1st From Right: Richard Beale Blaize(Businessman & Newspaper proprietor) 2nd From Right J.S. Adelabu Leigh, 3rd from Right: Hon. J.P.L Davies, Mohammed Shitta-Bey

Lagos History: One of the oldest references remotely made to Lagos was from a passerby, Duarte Pacheco Pereira who noted in 1485 that “there was no trade in the country nor anything from which one can make a profit”. The Portuguese maps that appeared around this time featured the Lagos lagoon but there was no settlement marked. This was to change 200 years later, when a Dutch map indicating Ichoo (an obviously corrupted form of Eko, the proper name for the city) was shown. This with other more indications show that the area known as Lagos today was uninhabited, at least not as a settlement, until a group of ebullient friends, led by happy-go-lucky prince, Ogunfuminire, on loosing his right to the seat of his father, left Ile-Ife, the original home of the Yoruba people, to continue in his playfulness.

18th Century Lagos

The good-humored manner by which those hunter friends decided their new home gives an insight to the often-controversial accounts that is normally given of this history. Ogunfuminire and his friends decided to stay anywhere the plate item that they carried sank. It eventually did in Isheri, about 10 kilometers from present day Lagos, and the people exclaimed cheerfully in Yoruba: Awori, meaning, “The plate has sunken”. More people from the interior, especially Bini fishers and hunters, joined this band of friends. They brought life into the circle, and malice; an inevitable reality of a growing community, being citizens of a bubbly kingdom. The once cordial community became increasingly political, but the Binis, for some unknown reason did not survive well in the place. Oba Overami II of Benin, learning about this, had sent his soldiers to keep peace. People identified to be the troublemakers including the founder prince himself, Ogunfunminire, were arrested and released.

Subsequent happenings shows that Overami was fair in his dealings with these adventure seekers, or at least, wisely made a show of his impartiality by arresting some of his own people too. It appears the aim of this militarization was never to expand the kingdom of Benin, but to keep fishing and hunting activities peaceful or to clear the way through which they can advance to Dahomey, a more attractive place at the time. Eko was too desolate to be called a home, and every Bini that died had his corpse taken home to the ‘city’. In one of those voyages, Ashipa who hailed from Ijebu Ibefun, a pacifist friend of Ogunfuminire had made acquaintance of Overami who suggested to him to lead his people. “Evil thrives,’ the monarch must have said, when good people do nothing.”

Thus Ashipa became leader, respected by a session of the population for his pacifist ideas, but the few remaining Binis still felt unsafe and they eventually left. This group of adventurers has at this time, through the leading of Ogunfuminire who they respected more (but not necessarily agree with), moved from their original settlement at Isheri to Iddo. A great fraction of the youths wanted more life in their settlement and even went as far as conducting rites by which they hoped they would gain large company. Most of the settlers, including Ogunfuminire’s children believed in Ashipa’s ideals of a fast growing Eko. His son, Ado became the first Oba of Lagos, and Ogunfuminire’s children, by authority of their founder father, constituted themselves into a powerful bloc. It was Ashipa’s grandson, Akinsemoyin who took the seat in 1704 that made contacts with visiting Portuguese. This relationship would make the enforcement of the British anti-slavery declaration of 1807 difficult in Lagos, thereby providing the British with a reason to annex the West African coastal town.

19th Century Lagos

On the 27th July 1861, the British warship entered the Lagoon of the West African coast, called Lagos and three days later, the traditional ruler of Lagos, Dosunmu went on board to negotiate the cession of Lagos to the British crown. He was eventually coerced into surrendering the land on behalf of the owners. Before this time, the few expatriates living in this costal town of 27,000 people carried on with their businesses quietly. The coming of the British was never at this time reckoned as mere expansionism. For the Brits and their African imitators, it was a chance to extend civilization to the Negros who would otherwise not find any means by which they could develop their own culture or thread the path towards a prosperous destiny. Though sounding self-righteous, the Brits were not totally wrong in asserting this, for all indications justified their claim.

The very well organized Oyo Empire had recently fallen and there was Civil War in the region, so the Yoruba who hitherto prospered in the sales of slaves from other tribes now freely sell their own kinsmen. Long before Lagos was anymore than a tiny lonely settlement, slavery had been the major trading activity in West African shores like Freetown and the Sao Tome, but it was the temporary abandonment of this practice in other coastal towns due to the anti-slavery surveillance activities of French Navy that brought about the attention on Lagos, being a safe haven to carry out the now illegal trade.

The Portuguese, having known the place called Eko since 1472, the ghostly town, which they termed uninteresting, eventually enjoyed special advantage when slave trade became outlawed and they, to the oblivion of the British anti-slavery Squad, continued in the trade. This privilege was partly a result of the special ties that was established with two successions of Lagos monarch, Akinsemoyin and Ologun Kutere. The name by which the place is now popularly known, Lagos, is from all indications originated from these Portuguese traders. It is the recalcitrance of traders such as these that provided the British with the justification to colonize Lagos.

Lagos colonized


Lagos in the 1920s
Lagos in the 1920s

The real motivation of the British Crown for taking Lagos is two tiered. In acceptance of the abolitionist Member of Parliament, Thomas Fowell Buxton’s suggestions as outlined in his 1838 book, The African Slave Trade and Its Remedy, an expedition was sent to Lokoja chiefly to convince local rulers against slavery and make treaties with them. The effort failed due to the death of travellers’ caused by their lack of immunity to the malaria parasite that was rampant in the area. This hindrance greatly depressed Buxton who later took ill and died, but his argument was further extended by one of the members of this expedition, a Yoruba returnee and former slave, Samuel Ajayi Crowther. “The influence of legitimate trade and the spread of Christianity” was put forward to Queen Victoria by this man as a way through which Africa slave trade might be destroyed. It will be naïve however, to recommend that all submissions to the Crown on this matter were without appendage agendas. Reverend Townsend of the Christian Missionary Society have mounted pressure on London for the benefit of returning slaves in Abeokuta for whom he demanded trade rights in the coast where the parochial activities of Oba Kosoko was constituting hindrance.

Crowther, originally from Oyo town, was one of those returnees who have developed a promising internationalized community in Abeokuta and wish to extend their influence to Lagos. He had made acquaintance of Palmerston on a visit to London, the British Foreign Secretary who oversaw the 1851 overthrow of Kosoko and installation of Akitoye on the basis of the former’s intransigence. The Lagos Consulate was established in 1852 and an anti-slavery treaty signed with Akitoye, therefore, when Akitoye’s successor, Dosunmu made his mark in the cession documents in which authority was fully transferred to the British, Lagos was already by fact, under the rulership of the Consulate.

It is alleged that the motive of the British in taking over Lagos was not altogether altruistic, but to take their own share of the resources of the interior. The race against the French (who were equally anti-slavery at this time) in acquiring the coastal town alludes to this, but it is the occurrences of the years after 1861 that serves as the judge on the veracity of this claim.

Saros & Amaros

Few decades back, there were social classes of the Whites, then the Yoruba returnees from Brazil and Sierra Leone, known as Amaros and Saros respectively, there were natives and finally, immigrants from the interior as far as Nupe land. The social calculation of the years after the cession got naturally reduced into the two classes of the expatriates and Negros. For the thinkers, it was all about ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘us’ being the black Africans. Lagos was directly governed from London at this time, joined administratively with Sierra Leone in 1866 and then Gold Coast in 1874. The energy of the Lagos intellectual community at this time was therefore directed to the debate on how much of African ways of life should be retained.

As Michael Echuro, author of Victorian Lagos observed, this was the time when the likes of Darwin and Galton were gallivanting around Europe, making radical lectures on evolution and civilization. It was necessary for the mildly westernized returnees or those who had the fortune of experiencing the Queen’s way of life to strenuously demarcate themselves from the proper Africans. Efforts were made to Anglicize purely Yoruba names, what will appear even to the youth of the 21st Century as superfluous. Oba Dosunmu, for example, was called King Docemo. A man would proudly say he is a Jebu man, not Ijebu. This wannabe lifestyle greatly nauseated Moslems who saw their own religion as more amenable to native life. A good number of dandies, taking an exaggerated view of the contrast between pre-annexation Lagos and the Colonial Lagos will put forward impenitent arguments in the defense of their lifestyle, which is a total tribute to western supremacy.

While today’s mind is apt to judge them harshly, it must be remembered that this was a generation that belonged not to the self-confident era of unified Yoruba country or the spirited times of independence. In spite of their efforts to align with everything British at all costs, a part of them still wanted to identify closely with African values. The dilemma faced by the enlightened population was real. Prejudiced ideas were flying around, and the social evolution theory that builded up to Nazi Germany was germinating in the soul of the time. The Lagos elite transferred their frustrations to the clamor for an autonomous Lagos, apparently hoping to say to the world; “our own Africa is different”. The British granted their prayer in 1886.

Everyday life in the century

Michael Echuro, by studying Newspapers published in this time presented a graphic account of the true life of late 19th Century Lagos. It was unhappy, and so was London or New York but the lucid imaginations of the poets of the day serve to mislead today’s observer. If any credit must be given those who stood up to be the spirit of their time in Lagos, it must be for the brilliant meditation by which they colored their world, that which made their reality excusable. The prose by which they streamed the lines of their existence showed that they had enormous hope for the future, or that they lived in some unseen higher state. In spite of progress made, present day Lagos elite cannot confidently anticipate the admiration of these expired movers and shakers if they were to rise from their vaults to observe.

To detect if the Colonial government’s intention towards Lagos was sincere one would find an easy insight in their attitude towards Education. It will be generally agreed after all that one who must attain civilization must be educated. For most part of the second half of the 19th Century, education was the exclusive enterprise of the Missionaries. The Christian Missionary Society established what started as a sub-secondary school in Cotton House, Marina in 1859. They carried on like the Wesleyan and Catholic schools that followed did, without any form of encouragement from the government. Growth was frustratingly slow. It was not until 1882 that a relevant ordinance was enacted. When eventually budgets were been made in support of schools, it was done with outmost reluctance. Expenses for prison facilities gulped more than twenty times the money for education in 1880. This embarrassingly indicated that the maintenance of the Queen’s authority was priority over the civilization of the people, a cause that was the strongest justification for foreign dominance.

For most part of the 19th Century, Lagos was monstrous and it consistently suffered unpleasant evaluations. Streetlights did not come until 1898 when it became an embarrassment to the government. There were only a few decent houses built with timber imported from England, and to think brick was to be megalomaniac. Thatched roofs were common. It was even alleged in a newspaper publication of 1884 that the city of Lagos was in a worse state than when originally taken over by the British government. Development commenced in the years following this. Railway was constructed starting from Iddo in 1895. The first bridge, which was a wooden footbridge, appeared over Five Cowrie Creek the same year.

20th Century Lagos

Carter Bridge was constructed in the opening year of the 20th Century to link steam tramways. This was a sure sign of technological development in those times. By the next thirty years, modern Quay has been built in Apapa, upgraded with a new petroleum Jetty in 1933. The Wharf aimed for transporting Coal came to operation in Ijora too. This helped in electricity generation. Motor transport, which was now popular, inspired the replacement of Carter Bridge with a new structure that indeed made many Lagosians feel like the real city dwellers they always wanted to be.

Vanity of Lagos

As should be expected, vanity was at its height among the culturally stranded Europeanized Africans who constituted Lagos elite group around this time. Even a short-time visitor like the German anthropologist, Leo Frobenius will not pass this over. The churches, he likened to Variety theaters. It has been said even before the 1911 Frobenius account that churches will be emptied in the favor of secular Joints if music were to be removed from its activities. The emptiness of soul in this increasingly busy town was arrested to a large extent by the advent of the indigenous churches. People for the first time were bestowed with experiences of native Christian charismata. This served to relax the contempt silently felt in some minds, evening out momentarily, the Christian and Moslem population. A comparative analysis of the 1952 and ’63 census shows many people who used to identify with indigenous beliefs abandoned them between those years for the two religions.

Yoruba politics

By the close of the 19th Century, the British had fully repented of their non-interference posture in the politics of Yoruba interior, having seen that there can be no profitable trade if the region remained in war. Several political treaties had secured many hinterland territories for the British government and when these were added in 1900 with the areas that the British Government bought from the profit-oriented Royal Niger Company, the Southern Protectorate was formed. Lagos was added to this protectorate in 1906 and central secretariat was maintained here when in 1914, the Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria were amalgamated. The island part of the former Lagos Colony became the federal capital territory of independent Nigeria in 1960, having had its Epe, Ikorodu, Ikeja and Badagary areas transferred to the government of the Western region some seven years earlier. It was in fact the whole of the former Colony that was subsumed under the Western Region between 1951 and ’53. Political status of mentioned areas were further changed with the 1967 creation of Lagos state, making up the parts of the new state.

21st Century Lagos

Undeniably, Lagos owes much of its meteoric growth in the first half of the 20th Century to its capital city status. Needless to say, it was the center of many dramatic post-independence events that saw almost an entire political generation of Nigeria murdered. These events however, did not really disrupt the Lagos economic history. Julius Berger company’s incursion into the terrain was marked by the building of Eko bridge in 1965 and this was followed by the construction of several overhead motorways. The blessings of the Post-Civil War years necessitated the expansion of the port at Apapa to Tin Can Island on the creek south of Apapa/Ajegunle in 1978. A new international airport was built the following year at Ikeja.

Ikorodu Expressway in the 1970s
Ikorodu Expressway in the 1970s. Source:

If the earlier mentioned cultural dilemma of the late 19th Century Lagos was indeed a soul-searching affair then one can say that the city decided in favor of Africanism in the 1970s as the rise of Afrobeat by Fela Kuti took off. Aladura churches became visible enough to warrant the recognition accorded a church founder, Bilewu Oshoffa during Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982. Like it was time to celebrate the newfound confidence of the country, Lagos hosted in 1977, a large celebration of African arts called the Festival of Arts and Culture, which informed the development of a major urban housing system. This was a prelude to the 1979 Obasanjo’s nationalization of British Oil interest in Nigeria.

As the city prospered in economics and culture, so did immigration from other parts of Nigeria and neighboring countries reached disturbing levels. It was recommended that a new federal capital territory be developed in Abuja. Movement to this new capital was effected in 1991, around the time Lagos was bequeathed with its longest bridge linking the island with the mainland, the Third Mainland Bridge.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer