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by Rapjoint Lagos


A short history of Lagos

By 'Wale Irokosu

by Rapjoint Lagos

A short history of Lagos

by Rapjoint Lagos

The Name 

The name “Lagos” is said to have been derived from either the Portuguese name for a lake “lago” or the City of Lagos in Algarve, Portugal, which shares similarity of natural sea harbor with Lagos. It is also called “Eko” or “oko” by the Aworis or “eko’ war camp by the Benin conquerors. Eko is still the local name for Lagos. It is undisputed that the Aworis from the nearby mainland settled in the small swampy island that became Lagos before the 16th century. 

The earliest recorded reference to Lagos was in 1472, when a Portuguese Explorer, Rue de Sequeira, visited the area and named it Lago de Curamo. Numbering about 5,000 as late as 1800, these inhabitants lived by fishing, farming and trading. 

The Traditional Rulers

A ruler known as Olofin governed the settlement from the neighboring Island of Iddo. Patrilineal descent groups founded by the sons of the first Olofin owned the land and fishing rights in and around Lagos. Members of these lineages enjoyed rights of usufruct, while strangers wishing to make their homes could obtain rights to farm or fish from the heads of the landowning lineages, known as the Idejo chiefs.

At the end of the sixteenth century, the Kingdom of Benin conquered Lagos. During the 17th Century, Benin appointed its own rule, founding both the kingship and the lineage that has filled the position of Oba of Lagos to the present day. Subsequently, the palace moved from Iddo to Idunganran, where it still stands today. Three classes of titled officials emerged to join the Idejo in advising the King: Akarigbere, Ogalade, and Abagbon. The Oba conferred these titles as a reward for service to the crown and recognize wealth and influence. Often titles became hereditary in the first holder’s lineage. The rules of succession to the stool and the rights and duties of various offices remained fluid, giving rise to political conflict that became chronic in the mid 19th century. At stake were both the division of power and authority among offices and the choice of who fill particular positions. Resources tipping the balance in these contests included political acumen, influence with the Oba and other officials, and number and strength of one’s wives, kin, clients, and slaves.

Slave Trade

Lagos became the center of the slave trade in the late 18th Century and began to change very rapidly. The commerce in slaves created vast new wealth and concentrated it in the hands of a few big traders. Also, this wealth increasingly took the form of slaves, firearms, gunpowder, war canoes, and imported luxury goods; the requisites and rewards of the slave trade. The famous Madame Tinubu, for example, became a wealthy slave trader before her association with Oba Akitoye and continued to trade on her own after she returned with him to Lagos. Undoubtedly, participation in the slave trade greatly increased the resources of the Oba and certain chiefs, who used them to consolidate their political control over Lagos and the surrounding area. Consequently, the resources amassed through the slave trade played a part in the protracted succession dispute between rival claimants to the throne that dominated the political history of the mid-nineteenth-century Lagos.  


Colonial Lagos 

Great Britain abolished her own slave trade in 1807 and subsequently pressured other nations to do the same. Between 1807 and 1868, the Royal Navy patrolled West African waters enforcing anti-slave-trading treaties the Foreign Office concluded with Western and African Governments. Also during these years, a market for West African vegetable oils emerged in Europe. In 1849 Queen Victoria appointed a consul to the Bights of Biafra and Benin to check the slave trade and encourage the growth of legitimate commerce in the area. Soon both the consul and the Navy were drawn into a local political dispute. In 1851, the Royal Navy bombarded Lagos, replacing Kosoko, an Oba hostile to British interests, with Akitoye, a more compliant claimant. The bombardment dealt a severe blow to the prestige of the Oba, who now held office at the pleasure of the British. After a decade of continued political instability, Great Britain annexed Lagos Island and a small strip of territory on the mainland. Legitimate commerce gradually replaced the trade in slaves. The volume of palm oil, Lagos’s first major agricultural export, crept from 4,000 tons per year in the 1850s and 1860s to 12,000 tons per year in the 1890s, while that of palm kernels, a later export, soared from 7,000 tons per year in the 1860s to 48,000 tons per year in the 1890s.

Following the annexation, the Colonial Office quickly established direct colonial rule over Lagos. A British governor began building colonial bureaucracy and legal system that in time usurped responsibility for most aspects of government. By the end of the first decade of colonial rule, Great Britain had created a rudimentary executive, treasury, customs, judicial, police, postal, printing, public works, and medical departments.  Ordinances enacted in the early 1860s introduced a new body of laws-common law, equity, and statutes of general application in force in England-established British Courts with jurisdiction over many matters.

Commercial Centre 

Lagos was not a typical nineteenth-century Yoruba town. Located on the coast, its inhabitants entered international commerce primarily as traders, not producers. Because Lagos lies at the mouth of a vast lagoon and network of creeks that stretch inward to major market towns, Lagosians faced fewer transportation problems than interior traders.

Rapid population growth accompanied Lagos’ rise as a center of international trade and a colonial capital. The town grew in size to 25,000 by 1866 and 74,000 by 1911, swelled first by slaves and later by Yoruba and non-Yoruba, who flocked to the coast in search of economic opportunities and refuge from the Yoruba wars in the interior. 

The Returnees

Between the 1830s and 1880s small but important groups of liberated slaves returned to Yorubaland from Sierra Leone and Brazil. They were referred to as Saro and Amaro (or Aguda) respectively, these repatriates descended from Yoruba-speaking people. They or their ancestors had been captured in the interior, marched to the coast, and sold into the transatlantic slave trade, often in Lagos itself. The Saro had been freed by Britain’s anti-slave squadron and set down in Freetown, Sierra Leone, founded as a home for liberated slaves. There some had fallen under the influence of Protestant missionaries, converted to Christianity, and learned reading, writing, and Western customs. Others joined the growing populations. By 1870 approximately 1,500 of the returnees made their homes in Lagos. The Amaro had completed the middle passage and worked as slaves in Brazil, where many had converted to Catholicism, learned Portuguese, and become familiar with Latin culture. Others had retained their Muslim faith.  An estimated 3,000 resided in Lagos by 1886.

Religious Harmony

Both groups included Muslims as well as Christians, illiterates as well as literates, merchants, and traders as members of other occupations. The Saro built houses and lived predominately in Olowogbowo and earned their living in commerce or as clerks. Whilst, the Amaro settled in the center of the Island around Campos Square and worked as builders and artisans to shape the face of colonial Lagos. Initially, the local inhabitants reacted hostilely to both the Saro and Amaro, reinforcing their respective identities. But soon both groups forged ties with the local inhabitants through inter-marriage, patron-client relationships, and participation in religious or voluntary associations. The differences are now blurred to the point of non-existence. This is the background to today’s Lagos of religious diversity and harmony.


Lagos was one of the earliest cities in the World to have electric power. The 1st power plant in Nigeria was built in Lagos in 1896. Whilst, the 1st electric generation station in the World was built in London in 1882. Similarly, the 1st railway in Nigeria was opened in 1898 between Lagos and Abeokuta. In the 1890s alone, work either began or was completed on electric lighting, improved sewage disposal, a bridge between the Island of Lagos and its Mainland (Carter Bridge,1906), and a railway linking Lagos with the rest of Nigeria started in 1886. 

Currently, Lagos has the highest number of Independent Power Plants in Nigeria (Akute, Alausa, Mainland, Island, and Lekki). Three bridges linking the Island to the Mainland (Carter Bridge, Eko Bridge ad Third Mainland Bridge). And, numerous infrastructural milestones including the national stadium, National Theatre and many others.

Culture and Entertainment

Lagos made a claim as the Capital of black art, culture, and entertainment with its hosting of the biggest black cultural event in the World: FESTAC 77. Also, known as the Second World Black ad African Festival of Arts and Culture.  The festival was held between 15th January-12 February 1977. FESTAC 77 showcased Black music, fine art, literature, drama, dance, and religion. About 16,000 participants, representing 56 African nations and countries of African Diaspora, performed at the event. 

Lagos now exports its culture in the form of music and films through its multi-billion dollar music and film, which now competes with India and the United States.


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