Politics and the Hinterland

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An Oba of the Edo peoples, such as the people of Lagos, greeting European visitors. The Obas and other nobility attempted to maintain a monopoly on trade with the Europeans.

Military dominance and perennial conflict

The Portuguese first came across the territory that would become Lagos in the late 1400’s but recorded no significant settlement. During this time Lagos was inhabited by the Awori people who were fishermen. In 1508 the Portuguese sent Duarte Pacheco Pereira to do a survey of the lagoons’ commercial prospects. Pacheco Pereira noted the significance of the land Lagos now inhabits as the only permanent sea-entry to the lagoons from the Volta River to the Mahin River. The significance of the location, however, was no secret to the native polities of West Africa.

The history that follows is incomplete and records do not exist to confirm their veracity. For the most part the history of the founding of the settlement that would become Lagos is a patchwork of oral history and intermittent and irregular European observation.

benin warrior

In the early 1500’s the region directly north of Lagos was dominated by the Ijebu kingdom which participated in the Atlantic trade with Portuguese traders. Slaves, cloth, ivory and brass items were the main trade goods. In 1558 the European traders realized the extent of the lagoon system and its connection between Ijebu and Benin. Benin began to dominate the trade which consequently faltered with Ijebu though the trade there did not completely die out.

Sometime between the late 1600’s and the mid-1700’s Lagos (Eko, Onim) became an important regional trading center owing to its protected status as a dependency of mighty Benin and its strategic location. Oral traditions attest that the Lagos lagoon and island and its indigenous Awori population was conquered by an army dispatched from Benin. For a time Lagos was little more than a military outpost that nonetheless hosted regular trade with European visitors who, on occasion, assisted the outpost’s Bini soldiers in their battles whether for pay or favor is unclear. Lagos would develop its own partial independence and would grow significantly to a fully-fledged city – its Obas or kings would be chosen and approved by the Oba of Benin but its day to day administration was largely independent.

For about a century the status of Lagos is uncertain. It continued to grow during this time and eventually would become the most important trade node on the Guinea coast. The Benin kings list and the shorter Eko or Lagos kings list suggest that Lagos underwent periods of true autonomy but never officially left the Benin empire as a dependency or was perceived to by the resident Europeans.


The King of Ijebu – a neighboring Kingdom which became rich as a result of the coastal trade. The British eventually conquered the Kingdom as they resented the taxes the Ijebu levied on trade passing through their kingdom. Note Lagos’ location at the center of a triangle of greater, military states – Oyo, Dahomey and Benin.

The political landscape of the West African interior was critically important to Lagos’ development as a trade center. As the slave trade became more important and the European demand for slaves from Africa grew the Yoruba states of Benin and Lagos and their neighbors began to seek new sources for slaves and captives. Previously the majority of slaves had been the natural result of Benin’s expansionist campaigns – the same policies which had brought Lagos under Benin’s control.

A civil war in Benin in the mid 1600’s resulted in a decentralization of political power and a devolution of the Obas’ authority based in Benin. Tribal and regional leaders would gain significant independence after this period in Benin’s history. Lagos itself would periodically gain de facto independence but was usually restored as a dependency in short order. In the 1680’s Lagos was a much larger town but remained a military outpost. European visitors commented extensively on the ordered and well governed nature of the settlement.

Benin was the primary military power of the region until the rise of the Dahomey kingdom in the late 1700’s. Benin’s military power depended on its far flung power projection capabilities; Benin transported its large and well trained armies along the coast of West Africa using the extensive lagoon system which also facilitated trade. Using massive log-canoes which could hold more than 100 warriors Benin extended its control over much of the Eastern Guinea Coast. The interior was raided regularly and wars between Benin and its smaller neighbors in the interior supplied a regular flow of war captives.

The civil war coincided with a spike in European demand for slave labor and the helped bring European economic attention to the Guinea Coast which gained the name Slave Coast.

bagandan war canoe

At some point in the 1700’s European accounts claim the power and influence of Benin along the coast began to crumble. The Ijebu kingdom moved in to claim the territory between Lagos and Benin, the Warri seized the lower Benin River. Benin’s most westerly settlements were destroyed by the rising Dahomey. During this time Lagos gained relative independence once again and securely took the lead as the primary trade port on the Guinea/Slave Coast. Europeans do claim that the Oba of Lagos did rely on the approval of the Oba in Benin for legitimacy in rule but it seemed that the two states operated in effective independence of one another. Benin’s political influence or control over Lagos was only severed after the British seized Lagos in 1861.

Benin Oba

An artist’s depiction of the Oba of Benin. Unattributed [?] European traders approach the Oba likely seeking permission to establish official residency or trade relations in the Benin Empire. Trading with Lagos would have required the authorization of the Oba of Lagos – a direct subordinate of the Oba of Benin with a court styled to mirror that of Benin.

Many Yoruba polities like Lagos, Ijebu and Oyo owe their courtly culture and political makeup to the influence of Benin which was the most powerful Yoruba state for centuries. Benin’s military prowess however could not prevent regular seasonal warfare from taking its toll and alone could not meet the demand for slaves. Benin and Lagos eventually came to sell its own people to the Europeans. In Lagos the pressures of the slave trade became untenable and political fracturing took place. An Oba of Lagos attempted to cut off the slave trade but was deposed. The British, who had outlawed slavery, seized Lagos in his name and reinstated him as Oba.

The shift of trade to Lagos from earlier centers of trade coincided with interruptions in the slave supply from ports further West and the unfavorable terms that the Oba of Benin attempted to force on European traders. The Obas of Benin throughout this period attempted to maintain a royal monopoly on the trade with Europeans. The European willingness to seek new ports and the partial-independence of Lagos’ traders eventually motivated the Oba of Benin to grant special privileges to European traders visiting Lagos and Benin. Benin’s notice of Lagos’ strategic position centuries earlier paid off and Lagos came to dominate the regional trade.


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