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Gezo → Kosoko Pivot

Supporters of the missionary explanation overstate their influence, fail to situate the reduction in its broader context, and do not adequately weigh the motives and ideology of the decision makers. Arguments based on economic self-interest are equally unpersuasive. They ignore the fact that trade kept pace with demand, fail to isolate Lagos as the dependent variable, and miscontextualize the reduction as part of the scramble for Africa. Just as problematic are explanations that identify a pivot in British priorities. Robert Smith and R.J. Gavin exemplify this third more nuanced approach that acknowledges the complementary and conflicting impact of evangelical, economic, and humanitarian factors on British foreign policy. Though Smith gives greater weight to African and evangelical factors than Gavin, who leans toward geopolitical and economic self-interest, they both recognize that these were manifestations of Britain’s desire to abolish the foreign slave trade.[1] They specifically explain the reduction of Lagos as the consequence of a pivot in British priorities away from Dahomey, where their efforts to secure an anti-slave trade treaty met with continual disappointment, toward the well-known “center of slavery and barbarity Lagos.”[2] They identify the pivot as occurring in 1850 following the fourth diplomatic mission sent to the Dahomean capital of Abomey. According to the pivot theory, frustrated at these “fruitless efforts” Palmerston resolved that the “all powerful” King Gezo “could not be persuaded” and would “continue to engage in the slave trade so long as it was profitable,” and therefore turned his attention “from the despotic kingdom of Dahomey to the practically anarchic state of Abeokuta” and its “natural port” of Lagos.[3]

The Bight of Benin

The Bight of Benin c. 1850

The pivot theory ignores the interconnected character of littoral African politics and the British holistic approach of ending the slave trade in the Bight of Benin. The Papers Relative to the Reduction of Lagos reveal that no such pivot occurred. The Foreign Office pressured the Admiralty to move against Lagos six months prior to receiving Beecroft’s report of the fourth mission’s failure.[4] In addition, Palmerston never abandoned his efforts in Abomey. Just two months after receiving Beecroft’s Dahomean report, Palmerston filled the vacant vice-consul position at Ouidah under the same 1849 instructions issued to the first vice-consul.[5] Rather than viewing Gezo as an “all powerful” despot stubbornly resisting the march of progress, Palmerston was well-informed of the limitations of Gezo’s power and constraints placed on him by his chiefs.[6] The most discrediting piece of evidence against a pivot is Palmerston’s casus belli. It did not order action against Lagos alone but listed “two persevering offenders” of the slave trade, “the King of Dahomey and the Chief of Lagos, who still refuse to yield to persuasion, and who continue to thwart and to frustrate the measures of Her Majesty’s Government.”[7]


 Introduction | Debate (God | Gold | Gezo – Kosoko Pivot) | Alternatives to Suppression | Palmerston’s Position | John Beecroft | Lagos and Dahomey | Toward Conflict | casus belli | Appendices 


[1] Robert S. Smith, The Lagos Consulate, 1851-1861 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 32. Smith considers Gavin’s emphasis on self-interest motives as unwarranted “fashionable criticism” of the “counter-colonial” school. Smith counters that the African trade was of “relative unimportance” and that such an argument does not properly weigh the motives of Palmerston or other main figures in the “long tedious and costly fight.” Smith’s analysis flattens Gavin’s rich description of Palmerston’s grandiose foreign policy of forging a new world order under a hegemonic Great Britain that would ensure peace and material, spiritual, and eventually political improvement for the betterment of all humankind.

[2] Daily News (London) January 9 1847. A widely reprinted article reported that 3,000 slaves were beheaded at Lagos.

[3] Smith, Lagos, 19-20; R.J. Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy Towards East and West Africa 1830-1865” (Ph.D. diss., St. Johns College Cambridge University, 1958), 180-183.

[4] For Consul Beecroft’s Dahomean report see U.K., “Consul Beecroft to Viscount Palmerston,” 22 July 1850, PRRL, no. 9. For the Palmerston’s call for action against Lagos see U.K., “Lord Eddisbury to the Secretary of the Admiralty,” 22 April 1850, PRRL, no. 6.

[5] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Mr. Fraser,” 10 December 1850, PRRL, no. 17. John Duncan died of illness on 3November 1849.

[6] For intelligence reports detailing King Gezo’s limited authority see U.K., PRRL, nos. 3, 8, 9, 13, and 48. Gavin incorrectly attributes Palmerston’s comment, “the propensity to the slave trade exists only in the minds of the chiefs who get profit by the sale of slaves,” to King Gezo ignoring the fact that ‘chiefs’ was a generic term used to describe powerful men regardless of their level of political power, a distinction that Palmerston understood and frequently made elsewhere in his dispatches (Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 180). For an example of Palmerston’s language see U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to the King of Dahomey,” 11 December 1850, PRRL, no. 19 en. 1.

[7] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty,” 27 September 1851, PRRL, no. 43.

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