The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies: A Colossus of Victorian Lagos by Adeyemo Elebute (2014) Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900 by Kristin Mann (2007)
Merchant sailor, businessman, farmer, pioneer industrialist, patriot, statesman, churchman, missionary and philanthropist.” So begins Adeyemo Elebute in this fabulous new book, The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies: A Colosuss of Victorian Lagos. What is missing in these opening monikers is “founding father”. When Nigerians talk about founding fathers, they refer to Ahmadu Bello (Sardauna), Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo. Whereas modern Nigeria existed before these three were born. The first time Bello arrived on the national scene was in 1947 after the new 1946 Arthur Richards Constitution amalgamated the North and South legislative assemblies. He led the northern legislators to Lagos, the seat of the national legislature.
Awolowo became known nationwide on 7 January 1937 when, as Organising Secretary of the Motor Transport Union, he organised a motor transport strike to protest the increase in tariff which the government imposed since the lorries were taking business away from the railway. The government had incurred a huge debt in building the railways. They counted on increased patronage to service the debts. But in the Western Region, lorry haulage proved a cheaper alternative so the government imposed tariff to force commerce back to the railway. Awolowo called out the pickets, which lasted for six days and held Lagos, the nation’s capital, to a standstill.
Azikiwe captured the nation’s attention when, in 1937, he arrived Nigeria with an electrifying personality, a bundle of talents and on 22 November 1937 he published the maiden edition of his popular newspaper, The West African Pilot. The first time all the three met together was on Friday, 19 June 1953. Enahoro’s Self-Government-Now bill and the consequent resignation of all Action Group’s federal ministers caused a constitutional crisis which made Nigeria ungovernable. Oliver Lyttleton, the secretary of state for colonies, tried to salvage the situation by inviting the main players to a constitutional conference in London. But Awolowo and Azikiwe, who had become friends since Enahoro’s bill was tabled, refused the terms and conditions. Sardauna was fine with them. And so Macpherson, Nigeria’s governor, brought Sardauna, Azikiwe and Awolowo together in his office to jointly fashion new terms and conditions.
After the meeting which ended 10:10pm, he presented the trio to the media and Daily Times the following day named them The Big Three. Since then it stuck that they were founding fathers because their tribes and their parties were the largest and because it offered an inclusive impression that all the regions had a say in the formation of the country. This is far from the truth. Modern Nigeria started at Windsor Castle, on 23 November 1851, when Ajayi Crowther, the first of Nigeria’s founding fathers, surveyed West Africa with Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert and said Lagos must be bombed.
On 7 April 1822, when the 13-year-old Samuel Ajayi Crowther was rescued from the belly of a slave ship heading for America, he thought all was finished. A year before, around breakfast, together with his mother and sister he was captured by Fulani slave raiders when they attacked his village of Osogun, 140km inland of Lagos coast. He wrote in his autobiography: “Men and boys were at first chained together, with a chain of about six fathoms in length, thrust through an iron fetter on the neck of every individual, and fastened at both ends with padlocks.” Later, the little Crowther’s chains and padlocks were removed to his relief, only to be yanked from his family and exchanged for a horse. Crowther fell sick and attempted suicide when he heard that his new owner planned to reap huge profits out of him by taking him south-westward to Little Popo, a flourishing high-paying Portuguese slave market (a major outlet for slaves from the Oyo Empire now known as Aného in Togo). The owner feared that the little boy’s suicide bid may succeed before the next slave auction so she quickly exchanged him for a bottle of English wine and some tobacco leaves. The Ijebu man who bought him took him south-eastward to Lagos and sold him to the Portuguese slave ship Esperenza Feliz, meaning Free Spirit. As he lay chained from the neck to the deck, he thought of his father killed during the Fulani invasion of their village, he thought of his mother and sisters whom he would never see again. He thought of how he was exchanged for a horse, wine and tobacco leaves. He despaired and awaited death as the ship sailed towards America.
Then HMS Myrmidon, captained by Sir Henry Leeke of the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery squadron, engaged the Portuguese slave vessel in a gunfight. Crowther and some other slaves were rescued and taken to the British settlement in Freetown (now in Sierra Leone). The Church Missionary Society managing the settlement taught him to read and write, enrolled him in Fourah Bay College and sent him to England to study. He spoke Latin, Greek and Hebrew and many West African languages. Being a fascinating personality, highly educated black man, an ex-slave and an inveterate writer, his public lectures all over Britain drew crowds. He later bagged an honorary doctorate degree at Oxford University. In Canterbury Cathedral on 29 June 1864 when Ajayi Crowther became the first black Bishop ordained into the Anglican Church, Sir Henry Leeke, the captain of the ship that rescued him from slavery in 1822, came over to witness the event. Lady Weeks who taught him the ABC alphabets was also there. It was a tearful reunion.
The highest honour given a visiting dignitary in England was to be asked to meet the Queen. On 18 November 1851, Crowther, accompanied by Lord Russell, was invited to the Windsor Castle. While waiting in the grand crimson drawing room, a lady gorgeously attired with a long train gracefully stepped in and without being prompted, Crowther paid her all the obeisance he could as he had been coached to address Her Majesty. When the lady left, he was told she was one of ladies-in-waiting, not Her Majesty. He said, “If the lady-in-waiting is so superbly dressed what would be that of the Queen herself?” Then he was called into another ornately furnished room where he met Prince Albert, husband to the Queen, and they started discussing how he was enslaved and the general situation of slavery in Lagos.
According to Professor Kristin Mann’s unsung scholarly tour de force, Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760–1900, the first recorded overseas slave export from Lagos was in 1652 aboard the English ship, Constant Ruth. She purchased 216 slaves and sailed them to Barbados to start a barbaric life, leaving a barbaric trend behind. As Crowther spoke to the Prince, export of slaves from Lagos peaked at 37,715 for 1851. That was not counting several slaves like Crowther’s mother and sisters who were used locally or beheaded for religious celebrations. Not to own a slave was an indication that you were poor. When the late Prince Odiri, the son of Akazua the Obi of Onitsha was to be buried in September 1864, some slaves were buried with the corpse; among them was an eight-year-old girl who carried a pair of shoes and foodstuff to serve as refreshment for the late prince on the long journey to the great beyond. Crowther and his fellow missionaries tried to offer money to free the slaves but Akazua said no; the tradition of the land must be respected.
In Ibadan, the war-crazed city, when the Balogun (War General) passed away, 70 slaves’ blood was drenched over his grave as a mark of honour to his accomplishments. Efunsetan Aniwura, the Iyalode of Ibadan, had several farms and households full of slaves. She made it an abomination for slaves to love or to make love. When one of her slaves became visibly pregnant, she marched her to the Ibadan town square and beheaded her there herself. The celebrated Madam Tinubu, Efunsetan’s dear friend and business partner, was also a slave dealer who owned an Ibadan-to-Lagos pipeline delivering slaves for Brazilian and Portuguese export. Her husband, Oba Adele, and the Lagos kings before and after him, were slave magnates who owned warehouses for processing or hoarding slaves to maximise their market value. As Slavery and the Birth of an African City correctly states, slaves sold from the king’s warehouse, farm or household usually commanded higher fees than other slaves. These kings also set up aggressive enforcements to lock down their own lucrative commissions from all slave deals. Prince Kosoko, who was Oba Eshinlokun’s son, did not wait to be king before becoming a major slave trader. Princess Opo Olu, Kosoko’s sister, owned 1,400 slaves. Oshodi Tapa, Dada Antonio and Ojo Akanbi, like Ajayi Crowther, were former slaves but unlike Crowther rose to become slave merchants themselves.
Of all Lagos Obas since Asipa and Ado, Akinsemoyin, Ologun Kutere, Eshinlokun, Akitoye and Kosoko were the biggest slave traders, sending their fellow Africans to the Americas more than any monarch. By 1840, the population of Lagos had swollen dramatically and half of them were either domestic slaves or slaves being processed for export. The females were usually domestic slaves while the males were processed for export. That was why Crowther was separated from his mother and sisters and transferred to a different market.