- Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900
Urban space provides useful grounds for examining the dynamic interactions between the global, regional, and local processes over time and space. In the context of the Atlantic slave trade, research on port cities, maroon settlements, and the development of urban ghettos has inspired scholars to consider the repercussions of the Atlantic slave trade on North and South Atlantic settlements and cities. While many of these studies have revealed varying degrees of ramifications of the Atlantic commercial system and the African slave trade on the Americas, the relationship between the Atlantic slave trade and urbanization in West Africa has received comparatively very little attention. Kristin Mann's book Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900 is a major contribution that addresses this gap through a study on the rise of Lagos and a critical assessment of its relationship with the long-term changes in the local and regional political economy and culture of the Atlantic world.
Mann is primarily concerned with the transformation of Lagos as a tiny polity that sprang "from a crossroads of regional trade and the village capital of a small and comparatively insignificant kingdom into one of Africa's most important cities" (p. 2). Mann argues that during the mid nineteenth century, Lagos became one of the most important port cities north of the equator. It outpaced its sister cities such as Ouidah and other important port cities that thrived as a result of their involvement in the Atlantic slave trade in West and West Central Africa. According to Mann, factors contributing to Lagos's sudden rise to preeminence were its unique and lucrative commercial exchange and its linkages with the international commercial slaving empires, such as Brazil and Cuba. Yet, in seeking to unravel the full range of [End Page 857] multiple factors that influenced the rise and transformation of Lagos, Mann also stresses the importance of local political economy by highlighting Lagos's links with networks of lucrative regional trade opportunities. Thus in assessing how Lagos rose from a "small and marginal state on the crossroads of regional trade into a major commercial and political power on the coast connecting the interior with the Atlantic world" (p. 4), Mann is careful to avoid the paradigmatic interpretations that are common in several studies dealing with the Atlantic slave trade and underdevelopment theories in Africa. Instead, Mann considers how Lagos achieved unprecedented growth in the Bight of Biafra by considering the role of multiple factors within the framework of Lagos's interaction with the broader Atlantic world and the continuous developments brought by changes in the Atlantic commercial system after the banning of the slave trade in the early part of the nineteenth century. Mann also aptly shows that a key to Lagos's success lay within the structure of Lagos's oligarchy and political economy. Lagosian "bigmen," along with obas (the kings) and the new class of entrepreneurs, capitalized on the emergent cash crop revolution that followed the cessation of slave trading (p. 52). According to Mann, not only did Lagosians consciously position themselves to gain from the changing commercial dynamism in the Bight of the Biafra region following the banning of the slave trade and its replacement with the so-called "legitimate commerce," but they also redefined the terms of labor to adapt to economic and political changes by introducing cash cropping into the region.
A major contribution of the study concerns the ramifications of the economic changes on the households and urban landscape of Lagos. In documenting the rapid growth of Lagos, Mann employs a "wealth-in-people" paradigm (p. 3) and explores how this growth coalesced with land, labor, and production processes. As settlements grew and expanded along the Bight of Biafra and its hinterland, economic growth culminated in the socioeconomic expansion of Lagosian households. Men took more wives to augment the productive capacity of their households, and prominent market women who...