A Commercial Confluence

Benin and Lagos Coast

An 1843 map of the Guinea coast, depicting the lagoons and the Niger Delta, home to Lagos and Benin.

A lagoon, a river and the ocean

West Africa became one of the major zones of the Atlantic trade system as early as the mid 1400’s. The area was known only vaguely to Europeans prior to this time from unconfirmed Arabic and classical records. The Guinea region of West Africa, what would come to be commonly called the Slave Coast, was a natural hub of trade. The region was home to numerous wealthy African states and a thriving and far reaching trade system prior to European contact.

Igbo War Canoe

Igbo War Canoe – 1830’s. Canoes constructed from a single, hollowed log were the primary vehicles used in the rivers, deltas and lagoons of West Africa for thousands of years.

Guinea was an important center of the Atlantic trade because the region hosted several major riverine trade arteries which penetrated deep into the interior of Africa and its littoral lagoons provided a safe means of long distance travel along the coasts. These lagoons were the primary channel of trade for the powerful coastal kingdoms. The lagoon system spanned from the Volta River in the West to the Niger Delta in the East. This aquatic highway would allow for the accumulation of the region’s trade output for access to the wider Atlantic system- powerful regional states like Benin would use the lagoons to assert military control over and expand their empire.

Lagos sat at the center of this ancient lagoon trade and transit system at one of the few locations where an oceangoing vessel might safely pass into the lagoon. Lagos Island and Lagos lagoon lake were therefore an important strategic area and were easily defensible. The settlement that would become Lagos was first taken as a semi-permanent Benin military outpost due to its strategic location. Only later would Lagos rise to prominence as the preeminent coastal trading center on the Slave Coast.

benin slave brass bronze

An Edo (Benin, Lagos culture) Bronze sculpture of a European trader and slaves.

Lagos was first mentioned by European explorers in the late 15th century – as a small, inconsequential fishing settlement. During this time Benin and Ijebu were the most important centers of trade. After the conquest of the Lagos settlement by Benin in the 1500-1600 period the settlement grew to be a city in its own right. Ideally located to access trade with the Europeans Lagos, then known as Eko to its inhabitants and Onim to the Portuguese, became powerful enough to challenge, albeit indirectly, its political domination by Benin. The Portuguese first landed at Lagos officially in 1572. In the late 1600’s the local Obas granted the Portuguese a monopoly over the rapidly growing slave trade.

The slave trade did not dominate the European-African exchanges occurring in Lagos until late in the 17th or the early 18th century.  Like in other trading posts the earliest trade with Europeans was mostly done through conventional goods. The Europeans would buy goods such as cloth to trade to other African cities in exchange for gold and some few slaves. The first recorded instance of a slave-ship visiting Lagos and ferrying its human cargo to a single location was in 1652 by a British ship which delivered the slaves to Barbados. The Portuguese record a growing trade in slaves through Lagos prior to this date but until that time the trade was still mostly not slave related.

Average Slaves Embarked Per Year

Average number of slaves embarked at Lagos per year. Note the relative lack of data from 1650 to 1750 during which time the Portuguese were known to dominate the trade with Lagos.

Records for slaves sold to Europeans in Lagos are extremely limited. By many accounts the slave trade had been occurring between European traders and Lagos for decades prior to the first official record in 1652. From 1652 to 1851 the Voyages Database mentions 252 separate slave shipments originating in Lagos. Of these incomplete records only 39,599 slaves are recorded as being shipped abroad. Including an averaged extrapolation for the voyages without recorded numbers of slaves the total is 89,118 slaves with an average of 363 slaves per voyage. The total estimate made by historians studying Lagos’ participation in the slave trade places the total at an estimated 500,000 slaves exported from the late 1500’s to the late 1800’s. During the 199 year period covered by these records Lagos exported a minimum of 448 slaves every year. The yearly average for the estimated total number of slaves is 2500 every year. In all likelihood Lagos would have exported far larger quantities of slaves in its later years.

Slaves by ship flag

Number of slaves by nationality of slave ship. Note the domination of Portuguese/Brazilian slavers even with the incomplete data available.

In the mid 1600’s Portuguese traders began settling in Lagos – at first temporarily and seasonally before a permanent presence was established. Lagos, as a subject city of Benin, remained independent during this time, only becoming controlled by a European colonial power in 1861 when the British seized the city.

The slaves sold to Europeans in Lagos were typical of the wider Atlantic slave trade. The soft majority of 66.1% of the slaves were male, a proportion which remained relatively constant throughout Lagos’ history as a slave trading hub. The overwhelming majority of Lagos’ slaves were transported across the Atlantic to the new world. The average mortality rate also remained relatively stable at 8.9%.

Records indicate that Great Britain was the primary party in the purchase and transportation of slaves from Lagos and that the majority of these slaves were transported to various British Caribbean colonies and Guiana. However, the Voyages Database’s information is incomplete and both the Portuguese histories and local custom have it that the Portuguese traders were the primary movers of slaves from Lagos until the 1800’s when Brazilian traders transporting slaves to Bahia replaced them. France, Great Britain and Portugal were the only slave traders to visit Lagos in significant numbers until the 1800’s when the United States and Brazil began transporting their own slaves.

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