The captured slaves fought their enemy crewmen of the French merchant ship Regina Coeli for their lives and liberty; they fought with everything they had – hastily made cutlasses, knives, cudgels and even bare hands. improvising, as they did all they could to overpower the crew and gain control over the ship. It was an uncommon and astounding mutinous recovery by the African cargo of men otherwise destined to a life of slavery.
One African survivor, Peter, spoke in English when he revealed the marks on his ankles and wrists where irons and manacles had been used to restrain him to deck of the ship. Peter and over 200 ostensible emigrants – men kidnapped into slavery – all whooped, expressing utter joy when they saw Joseph Jenkins Roberts, then former President of Liberia board the ship to investigate their circumstances and question the men.
Peter’s story was, by the mid-nineteenth century, an increasing occurrence along the West Coast of Africa because while it had become more difficult by the 1850’s to capture Africans solely for slave trade. It was however still possible to promise work and travel while surreptitiously clamping the slave irons on the unsuspecting Africans by stealth, deception and outright fraud.
For weeks in the April heat, Captain Simon and his crew had been collecting collecting labourers to travel aboard the Regina Coeli from Liberian shores, no sooner had the number of men been established on board, and the hatches closed did captivity become clear and present to the Africans. Peter and his companions became vocal, disturbed and desperate but the Coeli continued on its real journey to Havana, Cuba where the cargo was destined for sale.
As the Regina Coeli arrived at Cape Mount, the captain, purser and three crewmen disembarked leaving eleven others on board. Then the African cargo struck, freeing their chains and mortally attacking the crew. The rebellion entered full swing by the its end all the crew, except the ship’s doctor, were killed. With the ship now under the African slave command, it idled along the shore.
When the Royal Mail Steamship Ethiope arrived at Monrovia, officers of the free Republic of Liberia prevailed on the Ethiope’s Captain Croft to head out to the sea to search for the Regina Coeli. The Ehiope found the Coeli, her decks crowded with people; the foresail, canons and swivel guns by then rendered superfluous and a white shirt flapping in the wind serving as a flag of truce. The Ethiope then guided the retrieved ship to shore.
From about the year 1850 the Royal Mail Steamer Service ships were frequent callers at the port town of Lagos some 900 miles ease of Cape Mount. The same Royal Mail Steam Ship Ethiope was a main vessel in this intercontinental transport, mail and news bearer. It had carried the news of the mutiny aboard the Regina Coeli of some emigrants turned unsuspecting slaves, many of whom were later attacked by the captain vessels for the revolt before a war steamer bailed both both vessel and crew from justice. The coeli news was received in Lagos and London with alarm.
Fortunately the Ethiope’s other journeys in the 1850s from Liverpool to Lagos were less eventful typified its frequent task by carrying a burden of cargo, cotton, gin, guns, medicine, mail and passengers. It would frequently anchor in the Lagos port.
At that time, the notorious Lagos sand bar across the mouth of the harbour was known to be dangerous, and it would require the steamship Ethiope to communicate with the town only by signals at first, due to the impossibility of immediate approach. Only in the early hours of the morning would the local Lagos Africans, under instructions tto serve the newly arrived vessel, approach the vessel from the island by canoe to deliver outgoing mails and supplies. The small boats would also carry by return any passenger and goods scheduled to land safely on shore. The canoe ride was by no means an easy venture – the strength of fourteen experienced Lagos Africans powered the journey; twelve of the men paddling, one steering, another in front facing seaward and directing the steering through the maze of sand and slit. The hour-long paddle often in early morning mist brought passengers up to the town of Lagos in the Bight of Benin straddling latitude 6:24 North and longitude 3:29 East approximately 360 miles from Fernando Po, which was literally at the arm pit of Africa.
The locals shared the Lagos kingdom’s inland territory with leopards, antelope, hyena and other wildlife. Already visibly below sea level, Lagos was a predominantly flat land with some mud brick, a smattering of clay bricks building and a keen factory activity. Some parts of the island were richly fertile with luxuriant vegetation and mangrove growth; it was also fertile for produce – sugarcane, coconuts, palm and fruit.
In 1850, the population was estimated at about 30,000. They predominantly spoke the Oyo language dialect of what was later to be widely referred to as Yoruba – the kingdom already had some 1,500 emigrants from Sierra Leone, Brazil and Cuba.
The political power structure of the old kingdom at Lagos all but rested on its dynastic line, and the throne was held by its local indiginous ruler, the Ologun possibly also Eleko or later Oba. The line had by 1850 been in continuous rule over 200 years.
Lagos or Eko was a relatively small domain, which by 1850 would soon be engulfed in a war with one of the world’s most powerful maritime forces. Its significance as a growing port of trade commerce and exchange of goods would see Lagos emerge as a gateway to trade from inland communities and a port of call for European and South American traders. The export of slaves for the trade perpetuated by sea-dominated nations such as Britain, Holland, Portugal, France and Spain conformed to the national interest of these countries from as early as the mid-sixteenth century. By 1690 slave trade had already brought many state-supported as well as rouge slave traders to Lagos in search of slave cargo.
With time, the commercial trade interests of these nations were so sufficiently strong that by 1850 there was Italian, French,German and British trade representation on the West Coast of Africa. Some paid particular attention to, or were residents in Lagos.
As of 1851, the British established a formal consulate and appointed a succession of resident consuls with a wide and undefined mandate to protect trade and offer support – in dealings with Europeans – to the local Lagos traditional ruler and his people.
Up until 1851 social cohesion, governance and law and order was maintained by the power and authority of the king and his court of chiefs, the continued survival of the dynasty over the past two centuries was conclusive proof of the existence of a regime of law in the Kingdom of Lagos.