Victorian Lagos

There are vestiges of Victorian Lagos in Sefi Atta’s novels. Vestiges in the sense that these aspects of Victorian Lagos are quiescent and invisible, somewhat like the appendix, that is until inflamed. In The Bead Collector we have Regina Hernandes and Eugenia Hernandes both Aguda, Lagos Brazilian Catholics. Our heroine, Remi Lawal’s visit to Eugenia’s house is a throwback to Victorian Lagos if there was one

She now lived in Onikan, in a house with a bougainvillea garden, floral plasterwork and wrought-iron windows. Indoors her hardwood floors and tapestry chairs were worn out. Her sitting room looked like a second-hand shop in England. She had silver teapots and trays, china cups and plates on display. Her ceiling fan circulated a medicinal odour, which may have been camphorated oil. She wore her grey wig with a centre parting, but the pupils of her eyes had faded.

In Everything Good Will Come, we have the Francos who

were one of those Lagos families, descendants of freed slaves from Brazil, who once formed the cream of Lagos society. They considered themselves well-bred because their great-grandfather, Papa Franco, was educated in England. In his time, Papa Franco acquired a huge estate which survived the slum clearance that wiped out most of the Brazilian Quarter in Lagos. Some of the buildings now looked as if a giant fist had come down from heaven and punched them into the ground.

These characters remind me of people from my childhood. One of my godfathers was Mr Claudius-Cole, and my godmother Modupe Isaacs, both with surnames that flapped like flags in the Lagos breeze signalling their pedigree. Then there was my mother’s cousin, Mr Thomas, an inspector for the Lagos Municipal Transport Service buses, popularly known as LMTS. He was red skinned rather than yellow and came calling on Sundays after church in a well ironed white shirt and always a tie and polished shoes. If he had turned up in a suit, he would have been indistinguishable from the Jehovah’s Witnesses who also came calling on Sundays. One year, Christmas 1963, I think, he gave my mother Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. The previous year he had given her Albert Luthuli’s Let My People Go. That was the period when the infamous names of Verwoerd and Ian Smith were talked about around the dining table in our home and as children, we somehow came to know that there was a world out there and people who thought less of us than we did of ourselves. 

I often wonder what happened to Mr Thomas and his mother who was next door neighbour to my maternal great grandmother in Isale Eko, downtown Lagos. After the compulsory purchase of the homes of these descendants of Saro, Sierra Leonean returnees, to make way for the Second Lagos Bridge, and the consequent dispersal, we lost contact with several members of our extended Lagos family.

I can remember walking across Carter Bridge or Gada Bridge as it was called and wondering whether it was Carter or Girder Bridge. My mother telling me that in her day, you were rowed across for a fee. At the time we lived in Ikeja, and when we approached the bridge, it seemed as if we were about to be transported to a different country. The Iddo train terminus was to our right, the chimney tower of the Lagos power station just beyond the terminus and to our left the Mainland Hotel and the Barclays Bank where my mother worked. And of course, Oyingbo Market which in my mind is forever linked to the name Jesu Oyingbo and the legendary accounts of his sexual liaisons with his parishioners. Here at the start of the bridge was a natural conjunction of land, water and sky and if you were lucky you could just about see pedestrians, cars, aeroplanes and the train at the same time.

But, to return to Victorian Lagos, that extraordinary flourishing of Yoruba life after the disgraceful Lagos Treaty of Cession of 6 August 1861 signed under duress by Oba (King) Docemo (Dosunmu) and Norman B Bedingfield Commander of Her Majesty’s Ship Prometheus, etc. I will pass over the duplicity of the British, usually glossed over in British accounts, and simply say that Lagos was occupied by force in 1851 and bombarded in 1861 with loss of life. My interest is in that wonderful capacity of the Yoruba both to adapt to the new reality and to adopt and extend a novel influence whilst retaining the richness of its own traditions.

First as for language, as Echeruo quotes from the Eagle of April 28 1883

It is of vital importance, in writing, always to come straight to the point, that the reader may not dive as it were, the recesses of dense jungles, nor get hopelessly entangled in meshes of verbal embarrassment, in endeavouring to discover the meaning of what is written…the facts should mark the basis of their information, the style should be perspicuous, and the form condensed.

Here we have the Yoruba declaring what constitutes good writing in the oppressor’s language at the same time indicating their mastery of it, keeping in mind all the time that their mastery of their own language was faultless and enviable, see Ajayi Crowther’s translations of the Bible into various languages.

Next as for music, in notes of a meeting between the Chiefs and the Governor of Lagos in 1904

This is almost strange in the land. If people are drumming in connection with marriage ceremonies, they are prevented from doing so. If those who are drummers by trade go about from house to house to beat for hire, they are also prevented from doing so. A town without a sound of the drum is like a city of the dead.

The Governor’s response is ‘it would be impossible to allow people to go on drumming all night to the inconvenience of others’, ignoring the fact that he is imposing his own values on others, his preference for the desolation and sterility of silence against the Yoruba love for drumming and music, for joyfulness, at whatever hour!

And for weddings, as Echeruo quotes from the Record in regard of the wedding of Dr James Coker and Miss Stella Forbes Davies on November 23 1898

A large and fashionable company composed of the elite of the community assembled at St. Paul’s Breadfruit Church. The two bridesmaids wore dresses of cream Bengaline silk with embroidered seams. Satin striped gauze covering bodices, Leghorn picture hats with chiffon and ostrich tops; Stockings, Parasols and Fans to match. The younger bridesmaids had pale yellow canary crepe de chine accordeon pleated empire yoked frocks, bolero in plan de soir of darker shade, hat od silk muslin, stocking, gloves, fans and parasols to match.

One has to recognise the perfidious context in which the Yoruba flourished in this period following the Treaty of Cession, that is, notwithstanding the inglorious nature of the Treaty. Not only had King Dosunmu signed away his own sovereignty but also signed to terminate the Lagos monarchy itself after his own death. But for James Johnson, better known as Holy Johnson, or sometimes as Wonderful Johnson, all would have been lost. James Johnson (1836-1911) was a quintessential Victorian Lagosian. He was born in Kakanda Town, Benguema, south of Waterloo in Freetown and educated first at a Methodist school and then at the CMS Campbell Town School. He entered the Freetown Grammar School as a CMS scholar in 1851 and then went to the Fourah Bay College, graduating in 1858.  He arrived in Lagos on June 9 1874 and like a number of other Western educated Africans was already questioning the legality and ethics of British action in 1861 and it had become more widely known that King Dosunmu at his deathbed cried out aloud that he had not signed the Treaty of Cessation out of free-will. To exemplify the demeaning context of this period, an English civil servant wrote

I do not believe (and I speak without Racial prejudice) that the African, however well educated, of the West Coast has not undergone for a sufficiently long period the gradual process of brain development which is necessary towards the higher intellectual functions and without which a human being cannot apply the knowledge which he may have acquired by aid of memory from books – a facility which the savage emerging from barbarism enjoys much in the same way as the European child […]

This kind of reasoning which itself demonstrates and displays the barbarism of the author was often used to justify the iniquities and disparities in the terms and conditions of employment of Africans and Europeans in the Colonial Service. It fell to people like James Johnson and others to argue against these obvious injustices and in doing so, to foster the environment for dissent and ultimately for independence from European domination. These others included Curtis Crispin Adeniyi Jones, a doctor, who was the first Superintendent of the Yaba Asylum in 1909.

The rise and rise of the educated elite is well described by Kristin Mann in her book Marrying Well. From 1880 onwards to 1915, the numbers rose from 54 to 117, with increasing numbers of doctors and lawyers. Their wealth also increased and as Mann records between 1886 and 1945 the median value of the estates brought before the probate court was £ 25 and for the elite males was £ 300, mostly contributed to by merchants and followed by professionals. Examples of considerable wealth are that of PJC Thomas who mortgaged his property for £ 100,000 in 1919 and JPL Davies who mortgaged his real estate for £ 60,000 in 1909. 

I want, now, to return to music in the life of Victorian Lagos. In the Observer of November 9 1882, a commentator wrote

We are a musical race and though it may be a bold assertion, it is a fact that this beneficial gift of the creator has been acknowledged to fall more largely to our share than to any other nation in the world.

This self-belief despite the varied attempts by Europeans to demean and define Africans in general and Lagosians in particular as less than human showed how stubborn self-assertion and confidence was in Lagos. 

Another commentator wrote in the Observer on August 11 & 18 1888 in response to the newly published CMS Yoruba Hymnbook

The Yoruba Nation at least is a nation of poets. Without music they are inert; without poetry, they are inane … Take away singing from the Churches of Lagos today, and the pews will be vacant and innumerable “music halls” and “entertainment houses” will sprout up.

Finally, Regina and Eugenio Hernandes in Sefi Atta’s novel are descendants of Afro-Brazilians, sometimes described as Aguda and at other times as Amaro. In 1880, they constituted 12% of the elite males in Lagos but by 1915, their influence had significantly diminished to 5%. This change hid another interesting fact, namely that as the proportion of foreign born Amaro diminished, the proportion of their offsprings born in Lagos increased. This underlines the increasing dissolution of the distinctions made between Saro, Amaro, old established Lagos lineages and Yoruba from the interior. I suppose that I attest to the confluence of influences- my father’s family from the interior as it used to be said whilst my mother’s, Saro, with family along the West African coast from Freetown through Cotonou, to Abeokuta and finally to Lagos.

The prejudices of old, Victorian Lagos die hard as is wonderfully demonstrated in the hilarious exchange between Eugenia Hernandes and Remi Lawal born Thomas culminating in this most revealing statement by Eugenia

“Your father was a good man, she said.” “He did a lot for the commoners. We called them commoners then. Now they’re ‘the masses.’ But he did a lot for them. Personally, I never thought they were ready for independence. It came too soon. They should have been better educated and more detribalized. That’s why we had all that trouble in the interior.”[…] She lifted her chin. “Yes, those were the days, when people were people. These days, anyone can be anyone.”

It takes very little time for the attitudes of the oppressor to be internalised and then to be further transmitted as fact rather than as erroneous opinion.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

4 thoughts on “Victorian Lagos

  1. “It takes very little time for the attitudes of the oppressor to be internalised and then to be further transmitted as fact rather than as erroneous opinion.”
    This should be etched into granite and never forgotten!

  2. I enjoyed the article very much and my thanks also goes to my friend and classmate that shared it with me. As I have told my friend, the author reminds me of Anton Chekhov.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s