The territory of Lagos is located on the Atlantic coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea, west of the river Niger. The Ogun river flows into it and a network of lagoons surround land; including clusters of islands interspersed by Badagry, Porto Novo and the Five Cowrie Creek lakes, which run into and sometimes parallel with the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese name Rio de Lago or Lagua da curamo morphed into Lagos; its approximate equivalent, though not by description but name was Eko, which was at all material times a monarchy ruled by a king, the Ologun (or possibly Eleko or more recently Oba).
Pre-colonial Lagos had a combination of maps, journals, historical recordings and oral history responsible for the construction of the dateline of its existence and its early political structure. From the writings of Duarte Pereira, Captain John Adams, Giambattisa Scala, Robert Campbell, George Otonba Payne and John Losi, we are afforded a recording of events from which to learn and source the near accurate beginnings of a recognised and somewhat orderly city state. In comparison to other empire states of its time, Lagos was a miniature state, whose importance and influence grew disproportionate to its size; and for which it received grudging acceptance into the league of kingdoms from the late seventeenth century onwards. Robert Campbell a member of the Niger Valley Exploring Party visited Lagods in 1859 aboard the Royal Mail Steamer Service- Ethiope, recorded in his journal:
[We]…..anchored in the roads of Lagos calling on the way tither at several ports on the coast. The surf and bar were at this time very dangerous so that we could communicate with the town only by signals… The town of Lagos is on a small island of about six miles in circumference located on the west coast of Africa…
Indeed it was one of many of these accounts that the law courts have relied on in arriving at some of the important decisions that affected the rights and obligations of the citizens as between themselves and between the citizen and the state.
We are fortunate both law and history in Lagos have become interwoven and therefore relatively settled early on (when compared to the rest of what is now Nigeria). Reference to decided court cases gives any reader a substantial understanding of the basic pillars of the origins and people of Lagos at that time.
One of the most forthright, incidental chronicles of voyages to old Lagos is Captain John Adams, a merchant officer and traveller. He writes at about 1750 and reveals a kingdom already in functional ascendancy:
The town of Lagos is built on a bank or island which appears to have been raised from Cradoo Lake by the Eddies after the sea and periodical rains had broken down the boundary which separated it from the ocean. The island is of inconsiderable size, about four miles from the sea and a foot only a foot only above the level of the lake at high water which is so shallow that boats that boats of only ten or fifteen tons burthen can approach the town… the population of the town of Lagos may amount to 5000; but there are two or three populous villages on the north side of the Cradoo Lake over which the caboceer of Lagos has jurisdiction. This chief’s (king’s) power is absolute and his disposition tyrannical to excess; his name is Cootry.
Therefore the unfortunate and often repeated saying ‘Lagos is no man’s land’ should at all times be stoutly rejected. It can only be a reflection of poor learning, ignorance and mischief; particularly where the commentator claims ancestry from some other part of modern day Nigeria whose true origins may perhaps be unrecorded, shrouded in exaggerated myth and doubtful in veracity.
For the willing student, the law courts and decided cases in the law reports provide a rich resource to learn from. For instance, Chief Justice Osborne in Oduntan Onisiwo v Attorney General was called upon to interpret a treaty of 1861 between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Lagos kingdom in a matter related to the vesting rights to land and whether the land rights in question were ceded or not under the treaty. He stated: ‘It will conduce to the better understanding of the treaty and of this case if the traditional history of the origins of the kings and white capped chiefs of Lagos as detailed in the Rev J. B Wood’s Historical Notices of Lagos West Africa be briefly alluded to.’
The early settlers on Lagos Island according to this court decision were people connected to a local chief called Olofin, having migrated from Isheri to Iddo but the rulers owed their roots to the ancient Benin Kingdom. As well shall see many of the people indigenous to Lagos can still effectively trace their roots back over 400 years to either the old Olofin or the Benin settlement.
As far back as the reign of Orhogbua as Oba of Benin in and around 1550 it is known that the Benin Kingdom had outlying territory due to infrequent expeditions on the coast. In 1603 Andreas Joshua Ulsheimer, a German Surgeon on board a dutch merchant ship recorded an encounter with an army at Lagos.
We left them and sailed on to Rio de Lago which we entered. On the way in our sloop ran aground and we lay in danger of losing our lives and possesions. We then threw out many cauldrons and basins to maake the sloop lighter and eventually with God’s help got away and sailed to the town which belongs to the King of Benin.
According to the evidence, an expedition from Benin had brought three chiefs to Lagos. One of them was Isheru who died in a conflict. Isheru’s remains were taken to Benin by Ashipa whereupon he was conferred with the title Oloriogun and he was given the paraphernalia of office a sword and a Gbedu drum. The suzerainty of the Benin Kingdom over the Eko settlement thus appears to have constituted the early rule in Eko into a ‘Vice royalty’ with an overload relationship with an overload relationship with the Oba at Benin. That was the case until at least 1850 when this formal relationship was brought to an end.