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  • Document 2:Letters Found in the House of Kosoko, King of Lagos (1851)
  • Olatunji Ojo (bio)


In December 1851, when British forces sacked Lagos and deposed its king, Kosoko, Commodore Henry William Bruce of HM Penelope, the leader of the operation, seized 48 Portuguese letters between Brazilian and Yoruba slavers.2 The letters were sent to the British Admiralty Office, transcribed and published with English translations in the 1852/53 issue of the House of Lord Sessional Papers under the title “Letters found in the house of Kosoko, King of Lagos.”3 Dealing with the shifting socioeconomic and political realities engendered by global anti-slavery, the letters, 36 from Brazil and others from traders in Africa or aboard trade vessels, were written between 1848 and 1850 and dealt with issues of trade, friendship, education, healthcare, politics, and abolition. Thus, they compare with well-known papers of African merchants like Antera Duke of Old Calabar, Adandozan of Dahomey, George Lawson of Little Popo, and Jose Francisco dos Santos of Ouidah.4 Coincidentally, there is an overlap between the Kosoko and dos Santos papers showing that both men traded with some of the same Brazilian traders including Domingos Gomez Bello, Joaquim Pereira Marinho, Marcos Borges Ferraz and Joaquim Alves da Cruz Rois and they used similar trade tactics.5 While the Kosoko letters have been in public domain for a long time, scholars have hardly explored them.6 This essay explores what the letters reveal about the operations of the Yoruba-Brazil slave trade during the last days of the Atlantic slave trade. They also highlight the nexus between trade and politics, the concerns of slavers in the age of anti-slavery, and tactics for circumventing the abolitionists.

The letters raise some historiographical questions. First, they relate to the last three years (barely 6 percent) of the nearly five decades of the [End Page 37] Lagos-Brazil slave trade so we probably do not have enough data to draw any major conclusions about trade patterns. In addition to writing letters merchants also communicated through face-to-face meetings and sent verbal messages through third parties among others. So these letters give us neither a full picture of commercial correspondence nor of Kosoko’s operations. Second, we lack full knowledge of events mentioned in these letters since certain issues raised in one letter appear to have continued in the missing ones. For example, two writers protested that they had received to their letters while three traders resent copies of letters that had not reached their destinations.7 Upon close scrutiny, I found references to 34 other letters including twenty from Kosoko, eleven from Brazilian traders, and three from a Chief Acheron who could have been the Osoun-Ejidun of Lagos. Furthermore, the letters discussed in this essay are mostly about the business operations of a single African trader, albeit a major one, but whose trade represented a small fraction of total trade for the period. So how representative of the broader trade in slaves are captured in the letters? Third, the original letters have not been found so I have relied on British transcripts with no way of judging their accuracy. Unless the original Portuguese copies surface, the authenticity of transcripts might remain unknown. However, with a working assumption that these are accurate I corrected the English translation where necessary. Incomplete names like “J. Y. do Couto,” “D. Je Mey” or “name illegible” and “Roiz” became Jose Joaquim de Couto, Domingo Jose Martinez (d. 1867) and Rodriguez respectively and in letter 46, I translate “charutos” as cigar and not “cheroot.”

Trade and Politics in Lagos, 1790s-1840s

The Yoruba town of Lagos became a major port of the transAtlantic slave trade in the 1790s and within two decades it was the leading slave port in the Bight of Benin. This development was not lost on European and African slave traders who thronged to the city. Yoruba and Hausa traders called the town Eko while Europeans called it Lagos. Though the Portuguese gave the name Lagos in the fifteen century up to the eighteenth century Brazilian traders mostly used the name Onim (also “Awani” or “Aonin”). This may have been a...


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