Today, as in the old Kingdom, the law is important. It plays a central role in determining the principles upon which civil society is founded, the determination of justice and the quest for truth. Law acting in present day can be sterile, clinical and often has a ruthless edge to it. However, a studious account of the history of law is the lively and liveable study of the history of that society in which it operates.
The extent to which the law influences changes in society or whether ‘the law must adapt itself to the conditions of modern society…’ is a debate that will probably never rest, nor should it. Indeed law does and should both influence and adapt to society. To suggest, as nineteenth century colonisers did, that the legal order is to ‘civilise’ a society is to assume that such a society is lawless and uncivilised. This account should confirm that an orderly society is based on law and is civilised even if it is not ‘European’ in outlook.
Lagos in its traditional statehood of Eko or the kingdom of Lagos played a prominent, inevitable and eminent role in West African trade and society; prior to its colonisation and later in its transformation to the nation-state known as The Crown Colony of Lagos.
This Lagos role, morphed into part of a later country, The Colony of Nigeria and has played a crucial role in the legal and political history of modern day Nigeria. Indeed without Lagos and the events that lead to intervention in its internal affairs, the entire platform for amalgamation may not have been contrived. In some ways, Lagos is the mother city. This is no less than Lagos deserves, for it has endured its own tribulations in the constituent formation of Nigeria.
Fortunately there is a significant body of law, treaties legal instruments decided cases and other legal material hitherto available in different sources. Some, perhaps previously insufficiently evaluated in a collective manner to enable us appreciate the evolution of British law and justice on the fortunes – good or otherwise – of Lagos.
The collection is rich, it includes, testimonies and evidence in the legal cases including the story of the young Johnny Holt from the port city of Liverpool, his travels to Lagos and the West African Coast that brought about Attorney General v John Holt; the struggle and rebellion of a local king with a distant imperial empire that resulted in Eshugbayi Eleko v The officer Administering The Government Of Nigeria; the possession, title and enjoyment of land by the native, particularly the Idejo chiefs, in Amodu Tijani v The Secretary For Southern Nigeria; the tussle for ’26 Upper King Street’ that went back a century and established the official seat for the institution of the king decided in the House of Lords by the case Oyekan v Adele.
Also in this basket is a collection of international treaties starting in 1852 to ban the slave trade and later ushered in an exiled king’s return to his kingdom, establishing a consulate in its wake; the tragic and transformation Treaty of Cession of 1861 which installed the regime of colonial government and established a new country; The Colony of Lagos with a flag, its own constitution, government and subjects, some fifty-three years before the establishment off Nigeria.
Not to be overlooked are the motley bouquet of hearings and process – a parliamentary investigation into the proportionality of the British intervention (the five-day war) and possession of Lagos by the select Committee in 1865; the evaluation of the justice in the trial of Charles Carew, a Lagos African, The ward price Enquiry into succession to the throne of Lagos and others.
The common thread that runs through all these proceedings is the force of expedient policy, the African quest for freedom, liberty and the sometimes strange brand of justice served on the African subjects of the Lagos government under foreign colonial rule.
A recurring theme is the inescapable linkage between law and consequences; the fact is that if certain watersheds had not arisen in our history(or if events that were then rooted in law had not occurred), there might not have been the settlement that became Lagos – The colony. Certainly, had there not been first the Lagos consulate and then the first imperial colony established by the British in the Gulf of Guinea area in 1861, there may not have been in all likelihood, the country which some 50 years later was to be known as Nigeria, at least as we know it. This fresh perspective underlines the value of using a legal view to examine this developments.
One other justification for this medley of legal stories is the fact that it offers an unassailable record from which there can only be a dispute as to interpretation but not on the facts; a view that a pure historical analysis may not provide. we are therefore spared the mythology that can accompany a purely oral history and hidden tyranny of sentiments.
An immediate retort to the above could be that the postulation that the extent to which any myth and personal distortions are recounted and accepted in, for instance a trial where any judgement based on such testimony is itself only but a record of such mythological accounts. While this argument may have some merit, it is weakened by the simple assertions that courts do not act on myths and while they may refer to them, it is with explicit caveat and comment as to weight and reliability. In any event, the true value of a recorded case is then self-evident. It is at least a true record of what has transpired, thereby elevating its use for the future beyond speculation.
Every section of the public needs an appreciation of legal history. The mature and discerning individual obviously requires context to assemble his developmental ideas into a current understanding of whence and where. This is true not merely for lawyers but also the politically aware and socially active. Researchers and curricula providers also require an additional view if only to revisit the curriculum. Why did the colonialists feel able to intervene with military force in a local power struggle without regard to such established doctrines as sovereignty and territory? And what was the thinking behind the 1861 treaty being the basis of the new possession by the British Crown? How could the treaty be properly one of ‘cession’ given the circumstances?