G. UGO NWOKEJI. The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra: An African Society in the Atlantic World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

KRISTIN MANN. Chapter 1 of Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Chapter 1 is called “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port, 1760-1851,” 23-50.

Introduction

The readings for this week are the last in a series of four case studies about specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. This fourth case study is about the Eastern Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra. The entire Bight of Benin stretched from about the River Volta in the west to the River Nun in the east. In the eighteenth century, its eastern half included hinterland empires like Oyo and Benin and coastal towns like Porto Novo, Badagry, Lagos, Lekki, and Mahin. Meanwhile, the Bight of Biafra picked up where the Bight of Benin terminated. It stretched from roughly the Niger Delta eastward across present-day Nigeria and then south to Cape Lopez in modern-day Gabon. New Calabar and Bonny, located in the Niger Delta, and Old Calabar, located in the Cross Rivers Region, were just a few of its most heavily trafficked slave ports. Today, the combined area of the Eastern Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra encompasses the coastline of Nigeria, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea, as well as the northern half of Gabon. The readings assigned for this week are both secondary sources. The first is a chapter from the historian Kristin Mann’s book on precolonial Lagos, entitled Slavery and the Birth of an African City. The second is the historian G. Ugo Nwokeji’s 2010 monograph The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra.

Kristin Mann’s “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port, c. 1760-1851”

In her chapter, “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port,” Kristin Mann discusses the history of Lagos from 1760 to 1851.[1] The first date represents the decade in which European traders began visiting Lagos regularly, and the second date represents the British bombardment of Lagos, a watershed moment when British military forces helped the deposed monarch Akitoye retake the lagoon city from the Oba Kosoko. In this chapter, Mann provides a brief overview of Lagos’s history prior to the rise of the slave trade in the 1760s, outlines the dimensions of the slave trade throughout Lagos’s history, and then uses local oral traditions to recreate an indigenous narrative of the Kingdom of Lagos’s political history from roughly the reign of Akinsemoyin (1760-1775) to the reconquest by Akitoye with the help of the British in 1851. In the process, Mann shows how the Kingdom of Lagos “transformed its capital into an international port linking West Africa’s hinterland to the Atlantic World.”[2] Lagos went from a locus of regional trade in the eastern Bight of Benin to a primary international port of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Meanwhile, the institution of slavery moved from the margins of Lagosian society to became a major influence on its politics.[3]

Before the 1500s, the lagoon of Lagos was settled by a group of Yoruba-speaking migrants from Isheri called the Awori. The Awori intermarried with earlier inhabitants and later lived alongside the settlements of other Yoruba-speaking immigrant groups like Aja and Ijebu. They were led by a ruler called the olófin, and they traced their heritage to the ancient city-state of Ile-Ife. Portuguese sailors became the first Europeans to trade in the lagoon area around 1500. It was them who gave Lagos its name, derived from the Portuguese word for lake. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Lagos was occupied by an Edo-speaking military expedition from Benin City in the east. By 1682, Lagos had officially become as a royal province of the Kingdom of Benin, complete with its own dynastic, oligarchic, and administrative structure. Nonetheless, Lagos became “largely autonomous by the eighteenth century.”[4] Although European traders had periodically visited Lagos during the seventeenth century, they would not begin coming regularly until the 1760s. Slave exports from Lagos were minimal throughout the eighteenth century, but they soared during the first fifty years of the nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1850, Lagos emerged as the largest exporter of slaves from the Bight of Benin and then the leading port north of the equator.[5] Continue reading “Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Bights of Benin and Biafra”