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Lagos and Dahomey

Map of the Oyo Empire

The Oyo Empire

At the time of Beecroft’s appointment the foreign slave trade had been effectively suppressed north of the equator except in the Bight of Benin where exports rose in Lagos, Dahomey and Porto Novo.[1] Here the slave trade was fueled by the slow dissolution of the Oyo Empire and its final collapse during the 1830s. Its former tributaries and constituent kingdoms dominated by the Fon of Dahomey and the Egba of Abeokuta engaged in a series of internecine wars as each sought to expand their control.[2]The boom in the slave trade transformed Lagos “from a small and marginal state on a crossroads of regional trade into a major commercial and political power” and aggravated longstanding dynastic tensions within its ruling family.[3] When Oba Akitoye’s Portuguese ally and principal slave buyer José Domingo Martins left Lagos in 1844 it left him vulnerable to palace intrigues. The following year Akitoye’s nephew Kosoko allied himself with the Lagosian land-chiefs and Dahomey to over throw his Egba-descended uncle. Akitoye fled first to Abeokuta then to Badagry, where he waited for an opportune moment to reclaim his throne. In 1846 Martins returned to the region and deployed four of his slave-ships in several failed attempts to eject Akitoye’s increasingly powerful nephew.[4]



The Lagosian royal family. Numbers represent the order of kingship, dates are their reigns

Although the royal family did not enjoy a monopoly or command trade in Lagos, the differential tax rates they offered traders made the palace the market of choice. In addition to his palace trade and the ‘gifts’ he received from merchants, between 1846 and 1851 Kosoko netted 37,000 Brazilian mil-reis by shipping slaves directly to Brazil and approximately £3,600 in customs and duties.[5] His considerable trading concern relied on equally large and extended lines of credit made precarious by British patrols. This, ironically, trapped Kosoko in a debt-cycle and left him reliant on the slave trade’s large profit potential.[6] The young oba and the European slavers forged a relationship that extended far beyond commerce. They served as mutual agents in the collection of debts and sale of goods, they threw each other feasts and socialized, they consulted each other on political and military maneuvers, and they solidified their alliance through marriage. Even children traded hands as wards. Kosoko sent his own children to be educated in Brazil and oversaw the care of several Brazilian children in Lagos.[7] Given his failure to reclaim the throne with the assistance of slave-traders, his rival’s dependence on that trade, and the growing British presence in the region Akitoye changed his strategy. He renounced his previous alliances and requested British support on the basis that his chiefs overthrew him for supporting abolition and promising to ban the foreign slave trade if restored to power at Lagos.[8]


King Gezo of Dahomey

Since the seventeenth-century European merchants, adventurers, and officials remarked on Dahomey’s wealth, stability, and size of its slave depot at its port of Ouidah. The prospect of shutting down a renowned slaving center while simultaneously solidifying commercial bonds with a strong African state made Dahomey an attractive target to the foreign secretary. In March 1847, Governor William Winniett of the Gold Coast travelled to Abomey to sign a treaty of “true friendship, reciprocity, and good understanding” with King Gezo, who on the issue of the slave trade requested time to consult with his chiefs.[9] Later that summer, Palmerston lobbied unsuccessfully for expansion of the Gold Coast territory and the re-establishment of a British fort at Ouidah.[10] In the fall of 1848 a second mission led by Brodie Cruickshank arrived in Abomey to convince the king to abandon the slave trade in exchange for an annual payment of £2000.[11] After a palaver with his chiefs Gezo rejected the proposed slave trade treaty in “the least offensive manner.” He excused himself citing “the state which he maintained was great; his army was expensive; the ceremonies and customs…could not be abolished” and that his “government could not be suddenly changed, without causing such a revolution as would deprive him of his throne.” Despite his inability to sign the treaty he remained “desirous to acquire the friendship of England.”[12] Cruickshank returned bearing a letter from King Gezo inviting Queen Victoria to station a plenipotentiary at Ouidah to establish permanent relations. Palmerston seized this opportunity to counter Portuguese influence east of the Volta. In May 1849, he appointed John Duncan as Her Majesty’s Vice-Consul to Ouidah and replied to Gezo assuring him, “if you would stop the Slave Trade, and if you were to encourage legal commerce instead… your revenue… would very shortly be much increased; for it is well known that agriculture and commerce are more useful than the stealing and selling of men, women, and children”[13]


The Dahomean throne and other official symbols of power.

The Dahomean throne and other official symbols of power.


When Duncan accompanied by Lieutenant F.E. Forbes of the HMS Bonetta arrived in Ouidah the small European community of commercial agents did not greet them warmly or extend to them the usual courtesies. Duncan and Forbes encountered “every opposition”, “interference”, and “unprincipled conduct” from Portuguese and French merchants but also obstruction and dissembling from agents of the British firm Hutton and Company.[14] Duncan and Forbes proceeded to Abomey where Gezo declined to negotiate a treaty but invited them to return the following spring to observe his lavish annual festival. Despite this third failure Palmerston had reason to be confident. Duncan reported that Gezo “admits the injustice of slave-trading… and as soon as he finds that by any other means he can raise sufficient revenue, he will readily abandon it.”[15] Lt. Forbes recounted that Gezo “holds the British and French people in great respect, while, on the contrary… treats [the Portuguese] with much contempt.”[16] Their reports provided evidence that suppression policies were working. They relayed Gezo’s complaints that he was losing revenue and described “panic-stricken” merchants, including the relocated José Domingo Martins, diversifying into palm oil. They also characterized Gezo as a potential partner in Africa. They wrote that he was relatively civilized, “good-looking, with nothing of the negro cast of countenance”, modestly dressed, polite, and generous.[17]

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


[1] See Appendix C. Porto Novo was a tributary state to the Kingdom of Dahomey. The trade listed under Sierra Leone ended following the second assault on the Gallinas.

[2] Ajayi, History, 155; F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, no. 23 en. 2.

[3] Mann, Slavery, 4. See Appendix B.

[4] David A. Ross, “The Career of Domingo Martinez in the Bight of Benin 1833-1864,” The Journal of African History 6.1 (1965); 80.

[5] Mann, Slavery, 52-66. £2,771 and £4,473

[6] Hopkins, “Property Rights,” 782. Kosoko’s debts were not only economic in nature. They were also political. The accumulation and re-distribution of wealth along with patronage were “essential to the creation and maintenance of a political following.”

[7] Olatunji Ojo, “The Organization of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Yorubaland ca. 1777 to ca. 1856,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 41.1 (2008): 85-88. These “Brazilian” children may have been Portuguese. Although independent from one another, British officials involved in suppression frequently did not distinguish between the Brazilians and the Portuguese due to their historical connection and because they were part of the same specific slave interest.

[8] Newberry, Western, 48; U.K., “King Akitoye to Consul Beecroft,” PRRL, no. 34 en. 1.

[9] House of Commons, “Report of the Select Committee on Africa (Western Coast); together with the Proceeding of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix,” vol 1. Sessional Papers, 1865, Appendix 3 “King of Dahomey.”

[10] Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 172.

[11] Marika Sherwood, After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807 (I.B Tauris & Co Ltd: New York, 2007), 123. The payment of African kings for acting against the slave trade was an established practice. King Pepple of Bonny was given a yearly sum of $2,000 in 1848 and in 1851 King Amacree of New Calabar was granted a yearly sum of $1,000.

[12]  “The Slave Trade – Missions to the King of Ashantee and Dahomey,” The Anti-Slavery Reporter: Under the Sanction of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (London), 1 August 1849, 125.

[13] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to the King of Dahomey,” 29 May 1849, PRRL, no. 3 en. 1; U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to the King of Dahomey,” PRRL, no.3 en. 2.

[14] U.K., “Lieutenant Forbes to Commander Harvey,” 6 October 1849, PRRL, no.3 en. 8; U.K., “Lieutenant Forbes to Commander Harvey,” 11 October 1849, PRRL, no.3 en 10; U.K., “Lieutenant Forbes to Commodore Fanshawe,” 1 November 1849, PRRL, no.3 en. 12. British officials were doubtful of the trustworthiness of Hutton and Company agents, Commodore Fanshawe reported “how impossible it is to place any reliance on the information Her Majesty’s officers receive from the Agent at [Ouidah] of Messrs. Hutton” U.K., “Commodore Fanshawe to the Secretary of the Admiralty,” PRRL, no. 36 en. 1.

[15] U.K., “Vice-Consul Duncan to Viscount Palmerston,” 22 September 1849, PRRL, no.3 en 18.

[16] U.K., “Lieutenant Forbes to Commodore Fanshawe,” 5 November 1849, PRRL, no. 3 en. 13.

[17] U.K., “Lieutenant Forbes to Commodore Fanshawe,” 9 November 1849, PRRL, no. 3 en. 15; U.K., “Lieutenant Forbes to Commodore Fanshawe,” 1 November 1849, PRRL, no. 3 en. 12; U.K., “Vice-Consul Duncan to Commander Harvey,” 24 April 1849, PRRL, no.3 en. 16. Perhaps most importantly Duncan assuaged fears of Dahomean barbarity, “It is with much satisfaction I am enabled to inform your Lordship that all the gibbets exhibited in the market-places in Abomey on my former visit are now done away with, and the skulls placed on the walls by the former King suffered to decay without being replaced. This is one step towards civilization.” U.K., “Vice-Consul Duncan to Viscount Palmerston,” 22 September 1849, PRRL, no.3 en 18.

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