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Toward Conflict

In January 1850, after allowing Gezo and his chiefs “time for full consideration and mature deliberation,” an optimistic Palmerston transmitted to Beecroft a completed treaty ready for Gezo’s signature and directed him and Lt. Forbes to return to Abomey during the king’s spring festival. He instructed Beecroft to reiterate the same terms previously offered but also to remind Gezo of “the continued measures of various kinds which the British Government are taking with a view to suppress the Slave Trade.”[1]

Rev. Henry Townsend

Rev. Henry Townsend

A month later Beecroft received further instructions to warn Gezo against harming missionary interests, that “the people who dwell in the Yoruba and Popo countries are the friends of England, and that the British Government takes a great interest in their welfare.”[2] It also requested that he investigate CMS claims that the Abeokutans were a “commercial people” with access to the “golden sands” of the vast African interior.[3] Along with this dispatch Palmerston also forwarded a letter from Reverend Henry Townsend, the head of the CMS station at Abeokuta. This letter detailed the threat posed by two men: Gezo who brought “rapacious cruelty” and “atrocious robbery and murder” down on Yorubaland, and his unofficial commercial agent José Domingo Martins who “endeavoured to set the chiefs and people there in opposition to us.”[4] It is important to note that the CMS did not affect Palmerston’s priorities in West Africa. His February orders did not override or even alter the January instructions to favor missionary interests; it merely provided more-detailed information. The January orders that sent Beecroft to Abomey also directed him afterward to “at a suitable season proceed on a mission to Abbeokuta, for which I will furnish you with instructions in another dispatch.”[5] Also, both instructed him first to “visit the chiefs on the coast within your Consular jurisdiction, that you should endeavor to ascertain the sentiments and intentions of such of them as have not already entered into amicable relations with Great Britain” and only then proceed to Abeokuta to “ascertain by inquiry on the spot, the actual wants, and wishes, and disposition of the Yoruba people.”[6] The missionaries at Abeokuta were such a low priority that Beecroft did not visit them until the following January.

Perhaps the strongest piece of evidence refuting the missionary and pivot theses is that Palmerston did not wait for of Beecroft’s Abomean or Abeokutan reports before calling for coercive action against Lagos. On 22 April 1850, Palmerston requested that Admiralty take action against Lagos similar to that employed at Gallinas, “the next step…would be to induce the Chief of Lagos to conclude a similar Treaty, and a rigid watch upon his port might probably bring him to agree to do so.”[7] That fall the Foreign Office received new intelligence that reinforced the need for concurrent action against Lagos and Dahomey. On 10 October a letter arrived from Hutton and Company detailing the demise of the Dahomean slave trade at Ouidah and the resultant indebtedness among traders, collapse of royal revenue, and rise of hostile forces around Dahomey. The letter continued,

One thing alone is wanting to compel [Gezo] to stop the Trade, that is, to get possession of Lagos, and either by treaty or force utterly extinguish the Slave Trade from there. The King of Dahomey says if that is done he will then be willing to listen to a treaty: he adds… ‘first stop [Kosoko] on the sea-side, and then, as the Slave Trade only exists between Popo and Lagos, being once stopped, I shall have no excuse but to submit to a treaty, if your cruizers compel me; but until the Slave Trade at Lagos is stopped either by treaty or by force, my chiefs will not listen to any proposition I may make towards its suppression’… Unless the Slave Trade is first put a stop to at Lagos, it will be useless for the British Government to send to [Gezo] treaties for his agreement, as he considers it would be derogatory to his dignity, and would lower him in the eyes of his subjects and the nations around, who would not be able to understand the reason that an interior King should be the first that is made to stop the Slave Trade, while the sea-side King of Lagos, so near to come at, is not even spoke to on the subject, and carries on the Trade as if he was sanctioned in it….. There would be little or no difficulty in the achievement in taking Lagos, and the best time of the year for it would be from November to February.” [8]

The following day Palmerston received Beecroft’s Abomean report which confirmed Hutton’s analysis and dispelled any doubts he might have held over the veracity of Hutton’s self-serving recommendation.[9] Like Winniett, Cruickshank, and Duncan before him, Beecroft reported that Gezo was eager to maintain British friendship but refused to sign a treaty abolishing the foreign slave trade. Gezo insisted that until Britain implemented a “blockade between [Keta] and Lagos” he would be unable to overcome the opposition of his chiefs. The king was also unable to make peace with Abeokuta. His chiefs were incensed by Abeokutan attacks on Dahomean tributaries and its capture of a royal drum in a previous ambush of a Dahomean force.[10] Gezo’s inaction and claims of domestic opposition left Beecroft with the conclusion that “the King of Dahomey’s power and wealth have been much exaggerated” and ended his report recommending a blockade of Ouidah and immediate regime change at Lagos.[11]

Upon reviewing Beecroft’s dispatch Palmerston sprang into action. Convinced by Hutton and Beecroft that Gezo “will not be induced to enter into any agreement to abandon the Slave Trade until the Chief of Lagos shall have previously been brought to enter into such an agreement and until the Slave Trade shall have been effectually stopped at [Ouidah]” he reiterated his April request to the Admiralty. He requested the “strictest watch” be kept over Ouidah and that Kosoko “should be invited to enter into an engagement… and if he should refuse to do so, that measures similar to those which were enforced against Gallinas, should be brought to bear upon Lagos, or that steps should be taken to replace in authority at Lagos, the former chief [Akitoye]… who would, it is believed willingly subscribe to the proposed engagement.”[12] That same day Palmerston wrote to Gezo in a “frank explanation of mutual feelings and opinions” that  “the British Government will be obliged to employ its own means to accomplish its purpose… the Slave Trade from Dahomey will be put an end to.”[13] He followed up on this note two months later by cautioning Gezo “it is useless for any African Sovereign or chief to suppose that he can be able to carry on that Slave Trade in defiance of the determination of Great Britain.”[14] These actions reveal Palmerston’s motives. Despite Gezo’s hostile intentions against the Egba in Abeokuta he refrained from threatening an invasion, raid, or blockade; instead he warned Gezo to quit the slave trade and to respect British subjects while moving forward against the larger slaving site of Lagos. He was confident that Gezo would heed British remonstrations and relieved by the latest CMS reports which assured him that their positions in Abeokuta and Badagry were safe.[15]

Old Admiralty - Ripley Building c. 1830s

Old Admiralty – Ripley Building c. 1830s

In February 1851, after four months passed without any movement by the Admiralty Palmerston directed Beecroft to “induce” Kosoko into signing a treaty.[16] Expecting that coercion might be necessary, Palmerston instructed Beecroft to coordinate with naval officers to find “the best arrangements for the execution of this service” and warned him not to place himself “hazardously in the power of that chief.”[17] Along with the now standard set of talking points on the benefits of British friendship and ‘legitimate’ trade, Palmerston included an unprecedented direct threat, to remind Kosoko,

That Great Britain is a strong Power both by sea and by land; that her friendship is worth having; and that her displeasure it is well to avoid. That the friendship of Great Britain is to be obtained by the Chiefs of Africa only on condition that they abandon Slave Trade and expel the slave traders, and that those chiefs who may refuse to do these things will surely incur the displeasure of the British Government. If the Chief should show a disposition to refuse compliance, you should beg him to remember that Lagos is near to the sea, and that on the sea are the ships and the cannon of England; and also to bear in mind that he does not hold his authority without a competitor, and that the chiefs of the African tribes do not always retain their authority to the end of their lives.[18]

Three local factors explain Palmerston’s comparatively hostile and impatient approach towards Kosoko. First, unlike Dahomey, there was an out of power Lagosian faction favorable to abolition exiled in Badagry. Second, in contrast to the inland capital of Abomey, Lagos, as Palmerston menacingly pointed out, was geographically vulnerable. Third, in comparison to Ouidah where the palm oil trade thrived, there was little ‘legitimate’ commerce in Lagos, freeing the foreign secretary to act without concern of harming legal European interests there.[19]

Rev. Gollmer

Rev. Charles A. Gollmer

Palmerston did not issue any pertinent instructions throughout the spring and summer of 1851. He was confident in his course of action and remained unconcerned by new intelligence on increasing tensions and violence in the region. Indeed he may have even welcomed these developments as signs of progress. In March, he received a forwarded letter from Reverend Charles A. Gollmer, head of the CMS station in Badagry, documenting the growing discord between rival Badagri factions, one favorable to Kosoko and the other, loosely aligned with the missionaries, supporting Akitoye. Gollmer attributed the strife to the effect of suppression in Lagos, “the Slave Trade is almost done for in that dreadful den of iniquity. The slave traders can ship no slaves, and therefore refuse to buy any more.” African slavers responded by targeting not “the white man” but his followers – the Saros, indigenous converts, and African chiefs allied with the British.[20] Gollmer’s information was soon corroborated by the Admiralty which also reported similar conditions at Ouidah and Porto Novo where “slave-merchants finding all efforts to get off slaves futile” declined to purchase them from African dealers.[21] Even José Domingo Martins refused, expressing his belief that “the Traffic thereabouts nearly at an end” and confided, “if the British took or destroyed Lagos, Slavery would be done away with in the Bights.”[22] When tensions in Badagry erupted into a devastating summer war, British naval officers cruising offshore refused missionary pleas to intervene. They judged the conflict to be “purely of a domestic nature,” nothing more than a “quarrel between Badagry and Lagos” that did not warrant “a neutral Power to interfere in a hostile manner.”[23] They remained neutral even after receiving information that Kosoko intended to isolate Abeokuta for an attack. The officers were satisfied that the Egba were strong enough to not only defend themselves but also, if unified with their allies, even take Lagos.[24]Palmerston remarked favorably on their decision not to interfere in “this quarrel between native tribes.”[25]

On 9 June 1851, Palmerston finally received news of Beecroft’s winter mission to the CMS stations in Badagry and Abeokuta. Beecroft recounted the eagerness of Sagbua, the head chief at Abeokuta, “to enter into any Treaty the English Government pleased to dictate” and related the chief’s desire “relative to Lagos and placing Akitoye on the throne.”[26] The consul’s own analysis, skewed by a rumored attempt on his head by “that vile wretch Kosoko,” called for placing Lagos “under the protection of the British flag” and a demonstration of force in Badagry. He advised Palmerston, “they all want coercion … Lagos ought not to be allowed to escape; place the right person there, all is well.”[27] Passing through Badagry on his return from Abeokuta, Beecroft met with Akitoye who had prepared a formal request for Her Majesty’s aid in reclaiming his “rightful throne at Lagos.” In exchange, Akitoye pledged “to enter into a Treaty with England to abolish the Slave Trade at Lagos, and to establish and carry on lawful trade, especially with the English merchants.”[28] Well aware of Akitoye’s tactical value in British plans for the region, Beecroft convinced Akitoye to flee Badagry and transported him to the safety of Fernando Po.[29]

A Dahomean Amazon

A Dahomean Amazon

A day after Palmerston received Beecroft’s Abeokutan report, the Admiralty informed him that the “deceitful” Gezo with the “promised assistance of Kosoko, the usurping King of Lagos” assaulted Abeokuta on 3 March 1851.[30] To the British the damning aspect of this event was not the attack itself, nor was it Kosoko’s support, but Gezo’s failure to give “his army a caution to respect the lives of British subjects.”[31] Notwithstanding the insult to British honor and Beecroft’s conviction that “coercive measures are the only means to tame or conquer [Gezo’s] marauding propensities,” the brazen endangerment of missionary lives did not affect Palmerston’s strategic thinking. His primary objective remained ending the slave trade – once achieved this would serve as the catalyst for other aspects of the civilizing mission. At Gezo’s request a fifth diplomatic mission was organized to Abomey and Palmerston, either unwilling to wait for Beecroft’s scheduled Lagosian visit or expecting it to fail, rallied military support for an attack on Lagos.[32] In August he wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Francis Baring, “I conceive that any civilised nation has a perfect right to say to a barbarous chief, ‘you shall abstain from piracy, and you shall cease to be a hostis humani generis, or if you won’t, we shall shoot you as we would a mad dog.”[33]


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


[1] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 23 January 1850, PRRL, no. 3. For the proposed Dahomean treaty see U.K., “Treat to be Proposed to the King of Dahomey,” PRRL, no. 3 en 20. Consul Beecroft was directed to go in the place of the recently deceased Duncan.

[2] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 25 February 1850, PRRL, no. 4. Yoruba and Popo country roughly fell within the Old Oyo Empire, see Appendix A Map 3.

[3] Royal Geographic Society, British Africa. 2d ed. (New York: Negro University Press, 1969; reprint, Kegan Paul Trench, Trubner & Co. 1901), 327; U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 25 February 1850, PRRL, no.4.

[4] U.K., “The Rev. H. Townsend to Secretary of the Church Missionary Society,” 17 October 1849, PRRL, no. 4 en. 1.

[5] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 23 January 1850, PRRL, no. 3.

[6] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 25 February 1850, PRRL, no.4. Palmerston’s January dispatch instructed Beecroft to “visit the different chiefs in the neighbouring country” following his Dahomean mission and then “after these services shall have been performed, and when other and more immediate duties will permit, you will proceed on a mission to Abbeokuta [sic].” U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 23 January 1850, PRRL, no. 3,

[7] U.K., “Lord Eddisbury to the Secretary of the Admiralty,” 22 April 1850, PRRL, no. 6.

[8] U.K., “Mr. Thomas Hutton to Mr. Hutton,” 7 August 1850, PRRL, no. 8 en 1.

[9] Suffering from British suppression efforts and allied with the Portuguese interest Oba Kosoko was hostile to British merchants.

[10] U.K., “The Missionaries at Abbeokuta to Commodore Fanshawe,” 7 November 1850, PRRL, no. 35 en. 3; On the Abeokutan ambush of the Dahomean army see Ajayi, History, 155.

[11] U.K., “Consul Beecroft to Viscount Palmerston,” 22 July 1850, PRRL, no. 9. The report of Lieutenant Forbes echoed Beecroft’s assessment of Gezo’s weakness (“he has not the power to treat”) and his recommendation that coercion was necessary to compel Dahomey to abandon the slave trade (U.K., “Lieutenant Forbes to Commodore Fanshawe,” 8 July 1850, PRRL, no. 13 en. 2).

[12] U.K., “Mr. Addington to the Secretary of the Admiralty,” 11 October 1850, PRRL, no. 10 en. 2.

[13] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to the King of Dahomey,” 11 October 1850, PRRL, no. 10, en. 1.

[14] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to the King of Dahomey,” 11 December 1850, PRRL, no. 19, en 1.

[15] For Commodore Fanshawe’s letter to Gezo see U.K., “Commodore Fanshawe to the King of Dahomey” 23 July 1850, PRRL, no. 15 en 2. For the reported conditions of the missionaries in the fall of 1850 see U.K., “Commodore Fanshawe to the Secretary of the Admiralty, 28 October 1850, PRRL, no. 21 en. 1; and U.K., “Messrs Gollmer and Van Cooten to Commodore Fanshawe,” 22 October 1850, PRRL, no. 21 en. 2. Fanshawe reported that the “present position of their Christian establishments was one of comparative security.” Reverend Gollmer reported that despite some hostility the Abeokutan mission was safe due to the protection by “almost all the powerful chiefs and people.” Due to the “marauding expeditions” of King Gezo, Gollmer wrote that the position in Badagry was less secure but only requested, “if convenient,” that the navy periodically make a show of force and declined offers of arms and ammunition. Gollmer does not mention any danger from Kosoko at Lagos, only the danger posed by the slave interest.

[16] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 20 February 1851, PRRL, no 23.

[17] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 20 February 1850, PRRL, no. 23.

[18] U.K., “Viscount Palmerston to Consul Beecroft,” 21 February 1850, PRRL, no. 25.

[19] Lagos was inhospitable to British merchants due to Great Britain’s suppression of the slave trade. Thomas Hutton did land a cargo there in 1850 but his “visit was not agreeable to Kosoko” U.K., “Consul Beecroft to Viscount Palmerston,” 21 February 1851, PRRL, no. 32.

[20] U.K., “The Rev. C. A. Gollmer to the Rev. H. Venn (Communicated to Viscount Palmerston by Mr. Venn March 27)” 3 January 1851, PRRL, no. 29; U.K., “The Rev. Henry Townsend to Captain H.D. Trotter (Communicated to Viscount Palmerston by Captain Trotter 7 April 1851),” 10 December 1850, PRRL, no. 30; U.K., “Rev C.A. Gollmer to Captain H.D. Trotter (Communicated to Viscount Palmerston April 7),” 13 January 1851, PRRL, no. 31. Saros were freed slaves repatriated to Sierra Leone. From Sierra Leone they joined Britons in commercial and religious pursuits across West Africa.

[21] U.K., “Lieutenant Dew to Captain Adams,” 27 February 1851, PRRL, no. 35, en 2; U.K., “The Rev. C.A. Gollmer to the Captain of Her Majesty’s ship of war off Badagry,” 25 March 1851, PRRL, no. 36 en. 2.

[22] U.K., “Captain Adams to Commodore Fanshawe,” 24 March 1851, PRRL, no. 35 en. 4; U.K., “The Rev. C.A. Gollmer to Consul Beecroft,” 18 March 1851, PRRL, no. 39, en 2.

[23] U.K., “Commodore Bruce to the Secretary of the Admiralty,” 31 July 1851, PRRL, no.41, en. 1. The civil war in Badagry between Kosokan and Akitoyean factions was not a minor conflict. An American missionary travelling through the region in August 1850 “estimated the population at 10,000. He returned in November 1851 to find ‘the site of this once populous town now covered with fields of India corn’ and only about 1000 people living there in rude shelters” Smith, Lagos, 23.

[24] For Abeokutan intelligence on Kosoko’s intentions see U.K., “Obba Sharon to Captain Jones,” 3 July 1851, PRRL, no. 41, en. 18. For the British response see U.K., “Captain Jones to Obba Sharon,” 18 July 1851, PRRL, no. 41, en. 9.

[25] U.K., “Mr. Addington to the Secretary of the Admiralty,” 18 October 1851, PRRL, no. 46.

[26] U.K., “Consul Beecroft to Viscount Palmerston,” 21 February 1851, PRRL, no. 32.

[27] U.K., “Consul Beecroft to Viscount Palmerston,” 24 February 1851, PRRL, no. 33.

[28] U.K., “King Akitoye to Consul Beecroft,” PRRL, no. 34, en 1.

[29] F.O., “Correspondence,” BFSP, 1851-1852, 41: Class B, no. 2.

[30] U.K., “Commodore Fanshawe to the Secretary of the Admiralty,” 30 March 1851, PRRL, no. 36, en. 1. Beecroft’s later report confirmed that Kosoko encouraged the Dahomean attack and even “fired salutes of honour of their expected victory” (U.K., “The Rev. H. Townsend to Consul Beecroft,” 20 March 1851, PRRL, no. 39, en 1).

[31] U.K., “The Rev. H. Townsend to Consul Beecroft,” 20 March 1851, PRRL, no. 39, en 1.

[32] U.K., “Commodore Bruce to Commander Wilmot,” 28 June 1851, PRRL, no. 40 en. 6. Commodore Bruce had launched a fifth diplomatic mission to Abomey, judging that continued decline in the slave trade and his defeat at Abeokuta, it was an opportune “moment for us to renew our efforts to induce the King” to sign a slave trade treaty. For King Gezo’s request for a palaver see U.K., “The King of Dahomey to Her Majesty Queen Victoria,” PRRL, no. 40 en. 3. Beecroft’s analysis of the necessity of coercion see: U.K., “Consul Beecroft to Viscount Palmerston,” 19 April 1851, PRRL, no. 38.

[33] Palmerston to Baring, 31 July 1851, Broadlands Papers; quoted in Gavin, “Palmerston’s Policy,” 185. hostis humani generis translates to ‘an enemy of humankind.’

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