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John Beecroft, Her Majesty’s Consul for the Bights

Between Palmerston’s return to the Foreign Office in July 1846 and the first assault on Lagos in November 1851 forty-one separate treaties were signed with sovereigns and chiefs along the West African coast banning the foreign slave trade and other ‘barbarous’ customs.[1] As the only representatives of Her Majesty’s Government in the Bights region, the officers of the West Africa Squadron negotiated these agreements until the rapid multiplication of diplomatic commitments and the concurrent growth of trade compelled the Foreign Office to establish a consulate.[2] On 20 June 1849 Palmerston appointed John Beecroft as Her Majesty’s Consul for the Bights of Biafra and Benin citing his “knowledge of African affairs and of the habits of the Blacks, and because of the influence which [he] acquired over the native chiefs.” He instructed Beecroft to leverage his knowledge and influence “to prevent quarrels and misunderstandings between those chiefs and the crews of British ships… thereby, on the one hand, legal commerce will be promoted, while, on the other hand, the Slave Trade, which can scarcely co-exist with legal commerce, will be much discouraged.”[3]


Island of Fernando Po (Present day Bioko). The British settlement was concentrated at Port Clarence (present day Malabo)

Beecroft was uniquely qualified to serve as Palmerston’s emissary in the Bights. He was a seasoned veteran of African service with twenty years of experience. He arrived in Fernando Po to serve as superintendent of works in 1829 and quickly earned a reputation for advancing British interests while attaining the goodwill and friendship of Africans.[4] In just his second year the compliant Spanish government, which held nominal sovereignty over the island, named Beecroft acting governor and bestowed upon him the rank of lieutenant in the Spanish navy. During the 1830s, he gained regional notoriety for his successful explorations of the African interior, a region considered so genetically inhospitable to Europeans in the age before quinine that it was called the “white man’s grave.”[5] After Great Britain formally withdrew from Fernando Po in 1833 Beecroft remained on the island as a partner in a commercial firm and continued to act as the de facto governor, managing the island’s affairs and maintaining a court of justice. Between his administrative experience, commercial relationships, and extensive explorations he was the “most knowledgeable and influential European in that part of Africa and was continually being called on by traders, missionaries, and humanitarians for advice or to sort out local disputes.”[6] Beecroft was held in such high esteem that when the Spanish resettled Fernando Po in 1843 they appointed him governor of Fernando Po and two other Spanish islands – an office he held until his death in 1854. Such local expertise and esteem made him the ideal candidate for consul. These traits were highly valued since consuls were granted wide discretion due to the slow speed and unreliable medium of mid-nineteenth-century communications.[7] This however, did not mean that Beecroft had complete autonomy or that he was in a position to unduly influence policy. The Foreign Office had access to several alternative sources of information. It received periodic reports from naval officers, missionaries, merchants, travelers, even Africans themselves. Palmerston did not merely retroactively rubber-stamp the actions of his consuls; he gave considered guidance and detailed assignments to his subordinates in the field. His correspondence with Beecroft indicates that he carefully reviewed the consul’s dispatches, compared them to other intelligence and frequently requested omitted details or clarifications before granting his approval.[8]

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


[1] For treaties, engagements, agreements, and oaths between Great Britain and West African sovereigns and chiefs see Foreign Office, “Great Britain and West Coast of Africa,” British and Foreign State Papers, 1846-1852, 35-41. This figure does not include treaties of commerce and amity that did not address the foreign slave trade or cultural practices.

[2] For naval officers’ instructions see, Admiralty, Instructions for the Guidance of Her Majesty’s Naval Officers Employed in the Suppression of the Slave Trade (London: T.R. Harrison, St. Martin’s Lane, 1844).

[3] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 30 June 1849, PRRL, no. 1.

[4] Fernando Po (modern day Bioko) is an island strategically located in the Bight of Biafra. The British leased the territory from the Spanish government which had abandoned its own colony there in 1827 and did not resettle the island until 1843. Fernando Po served as a vital base for the Bights Division of the West Africa Squadron. It not only served as a resupplying station for the navy, it also hosted the primary administrative and judicial offices in the Bights. See Appendix A Map 1.

[5] Philip D. Curtin, “The End of the “White Man’s Grave”? Nineteenth-Century Mortality in West Africa,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 21.1 (1990), 63. Beecroft’s successful explorations which stood in sharp contrast to the well-publicized failures of European-based expeditions, most notably the Niger Expedition of 1841 during which 130 out of 150 European crew members fell ill.

[6] Howard Temperly, “Beecroft, John (1790–1854),” rev. Elizabeth Baigent, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).

[7] Delays were so frequent, including one of eight months, in the transmission of dispatches that Beecroft requested an inquiry into the issue and blamed the administrators in Sierra Leone (F.O. 84/858, no.55).

[8] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, no. 5; Cf Martin Lynn. “Consul and Kings: British Policy, ‘the Man on the Spot’, and the Seizure of Lagos, 1851, The Journal of Imperial History 10 no. 2 (Jan. 1982): 150-167. This contradicts Martin Lynn’s thesis that Beecroft acted on his own initiative forging an alliance with the Egba and in an effort to “make good his failure in Dahomey” acted aggressively and without authorization.

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