- Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760–1900
Kristin Mann's fat and heavy book—473 pages of very small print, produced on very superior paper and in very ornate format—is written at several levels. It is first and foremost on Nigerian (and therefore African) history. Second, it addresses the history of the slave trade across the Atlantic and the history of slavery (and thus also Atlantic history). Finally, it explores British imperialism in two eras: that of free trade imperialism, and that of full-blooded political, economic, social, and cultural imperialism. The topic it treats—the British occupation of Lagos and what came after—has two storylines that are already well-known. One, a line we may regretfully call sympathetic to colonialism, is that Britain intervened in Lagos to assuage her abolitionist conscience and to maintain her international reputation as the world's number 1 enemy of the slave trade and of slavery. The other line is that Britain seized Lagos to get control of an important overland trade route that brought natural produce from the far interior—for this was a time when Britain, the most industrialized nation in world, sought tropical goods for her industries. This line is the favorite of the "disciples" of Eric Williams and of African nationalist historians. Without giving reasons, Mann chose the first line, thus making her book one that will convince those who need no convincing but that will not pass muster with those who need convincing.
No sooner had the would-be crusaders against the slave trade and slavery arrived into Lagos, thus making sure of their control of the Atlantic terminal of the overland route to Oyo and beyond, they lost their will and zeal to engage their enemies frontally. Instead they became apostles of festine lente, which they said would over time put the slave trade and slavery to a painless death. The fact of the matter was that the indigenous institutions that were implicated in the slave trade and slavery were the same ones that were pioneering and handling the much desired legitimate trade. The dilemma was how to assault slave trade and slavery directly and achieve total success without harming the expanding legitimate trade. With no easy way out of this dilemma, the British retreated to the traditional pastime of imperialists down the ages—prevarication and double talk—thus betraying those they said they had come to save. This unfortunate development is well covered by Mann without emotion and in measured language.
However, the very fact of British presence in Lagos as colonial overlords, coupled with their masterly inactivity in the matters of abolition and emancipation, created a new situation for slaves, other dependents, and slave owners. The attempt by all concerned to negotiate this new ground created by British presence and hypocrisy—on the part of the British prevaricators [End Page 174] themselves, the slave owners and other overlords, the slaves and other dependents—affected everything else in Lagos: abolition, emancipation, labor, land ownership and use, and trade and relations with the Yoruba of the interior. By 1900 the result was the port city of Lagos, whose evolution into the living hell and the frontier of opportunity we know of today still lay in the womb of time.
This story is told by the author with the skill of a master—master researcher, master analyst, master story-teller, and master essayist. Had it been presented simply as "The Economic and Social History of Lagos, c. 1760–1900" without the mix-up of trying to read the kaleidoscopic minds of practiced imperialists on the question of motives, one would have nothing but praise and still more praise for the work because of its scintillating scholarship.
Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, Nigeria