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Logo of the Anglican Church Missionary Society

Logo of the Anglican Church Missionary Society

Within the imperial historiography the predominant explanation focuses on the influence of European missionaries, particularly the well-connected Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) which had established missions in the diverse coastal town of Badagry and the inland Egba town of Abeokuta by 1846. C.W. Newbury in the Western Slave Coast and Its Rulers argues the reduction cannot be “treated as a by-product of the anti-slavery campaign,” since Lagos “was not the only slave port between the Volta and the Ogun rivers. Nor was it the most important.” Instead Newbury draws attention to the biased intelligence sent by missionaries to government officials critical of the Egban enemies of Lagos and Dahomey. He concludes that Lagos’ “selection for ‘reduction’ and the installation there of the puppet ruler owed… to the alignment of missionary and Egba interests.”[1]  J.F.A. Ajayi writes that in Africa “the state had to be dragged along to follow the initiative of the Evangelicals.”[2] The correlation between CMS opposition to Kosoko and subsequent government action persuaded him that the missionaries’ greatest success “came at the end of 1851 when they got the British government to order the bombardment and occupation of Lagos.”[3] Likewise, Suzanne Miers in Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade emphasizes how “this high-handed action was prompted by missionaries” who “mounted a campaign in England to secure government, public and parliamentary support” for their followers in Abeokuta and Badagry.[4]

The missionaries undoubtedly advocated for their adherents; however, the evidence does not support the assertion that they shaped British priorities in West Africa. First, Newbury is correct that Lagos was not the only slaving port in the Bight of Benin; however, by 1850 it was “easy to discern that Lagos is the focus of the slave trade in the Bight of Benin.”[5] Second, while it is clear that the missionaries influenced Akitoye, even preparing his official request for British support, there is no evidence they had a similar effect on Beecroft or Palmerston.[6] Third, regional events and the missionaries’ own reports lay bare that their greatest threat did not come from Kosoko at Lagos, but from the slave raiding of King Gezo of Dahomey.[7] Fourth, the Foreign Office did not pursue an ‘Abeokutan policy.’[8] Palmerston ignored repeated Egba requests for an alliance. Despite receiving word that the Egba were “most anxious for legitimate trade” and ready “to enter into any Treaty the English government pleased to dictate” in June 1851 Palmerston waited until December, three months after issuing Britain’s casus belli against Dahomey and Lagos, to authorize Beecroft to engage in a treaty of amity and commerce with Abeokuta.[9] This delay indicates that Palmerston viewed British relations with Abeokuta and Lagos as separate matters.

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


[1] C.W. Newberry, The Western Slave Coast and Its Rulers: European Trade and Administration among the Yoruba and Adja-Speaking Peoples of Southwestern Nigeria Southern Dahomey and Togo (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 49.

[2] J.F.A. Ajayi, Bishop Crowther: A Patriot to the Core, in Tradition and Change in Africa: The Essays of J.F. Ade Ajayi, ed. Toyin Falola (Trenton, N.J.: African World Press, 2000), 94.

[3] J.F.A. Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891: The Making of a New Elite (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), xv.

[4] Suzanne Miers, Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade (Africana Publishing Company: New York, 1975), 49.

[5] U.K., “Consul Beecroft to Viscount Palmerston,” 5 December 1850, PRRL, no. 28; also see Appendix C.

[6]Ajayi asserts that Palmerston changed Beecroft’s mission as Her Majesty’s Consul from “only the protector of British trade” in 1849 to a “philanthropist” after he met a CMS delegation in 1850 (Ajayi, Christian Missions, 67-69). I argue that Palmerston was uninfluenced by the CMS. As foreign secretary, Palmerston met with a myriad of well-connect domestic delegations. His meeting with the CMS should be interpreted within this context since he was not a member and generally “had little time for what he termed ‘humanity mongers” (Anthony G. Hopkins, “Property Rights and Empire Building: Britain’s Annexation of Lagos, 1861,” The Journal of Economic History 40.4 [December 1980]: 778). Ajayi’s argument understates the broad scope of Lord Palmerston’s 1849 instructions to “encourage the chiefs and people” to engage in legitimate trade and exaggerates his 1850 instructions to “ascertain by inquiry on the spot, the actual wants, and wishes” of the Abeokutans (U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 30 June 1849, PRRL, no. 1; U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 24 February 1850, PRRL, no. 4). Supporters of the missionary explanation cite Reverend Samuel Crowther’s visit to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as evidence of CMS influence on West African policy. However, Crowther’s 18 November 1851 visit occurred much too late to affect decisions regarding Lagos. In addition, since Palmerston bitterly resisted royal meddling in foreign affairs the Queen and Prince focused their energies on more critical European relations (David Brown, Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1846-1855 [New York: Manchester University Press, 2002], 57).

[7] Foreign Office, “Correspondence of Great Britain, relative to the Slave Trade,” British and Foreign State Papers, 1849-1850, 38: Class A, no. 174 en. 1. (Hereafter F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP); U.K., “Consul Beecroft to Viscount Palmerston,” 22 July 1850, PRRL, no. 9; U.K., “The Rev. H. Townsend to the Secretary of the Church Missionary Society,” 17 October 1849, PRRL, no.4 en 1.

[8] Cf. Jacob Oluwatayo Adeuyan, Contributions of Yoruba People in the Economics and Political Developments of Nigeria (AuthorHouse: Bloomington, IN, 2011), 63.

[9] For the casus belli see U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty,” 27 September 1851, PRRL, no. 43. For the Abeokutan treaty see U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 23 December 1851, PRRL, no. 51. It is significant that, in contrast to the proposed treaties with Gezo and Kosoko, the Egba were sent the “usual model of Treaties” (F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, no. 25). For the Dahomean treaty see U.K., “Treaty to be Proposed to the King of Dahomey,” PRRL, no. 3 en 20. For the Lagosian treaty see U.K., “Engagement to be proposed to the Chief of Lagos,” PRRL, no. 23 en 1.

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