There are two reasons for me to personally welcome a book on a leading light of 19th century Lagos –The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies: A Colossus of Victorian Lagos, by Professor Adeyemo Elebute (now published by Kachifo under its Prestige imprint). Firstly, it is a valuable new source on a critical period in the history of Lagos – the last decades of the 19th century. when the chemistry of the gene pool shake-up triggered by the British arrival worked its peculiar magic, creating the famous ‘Lagos state of mind’. Secondly, the book is an excellent example of another of my enduring preoccupations , the writing of worthy biographies of prominent West Africans. This goes back to learning the craft of writing profiles at West Africa in the1960s, which I still consider one of the most creative aspects of my early period there.
There was something especially life-enhancing about the rediscovery of their Yoruba homeland by those who had been saved at sea from slavery in Brazil and taken to Freetown, like Davies’ mother and father, who were from Ogbomosho and Abeokuta respectively. As Professor John Peel says in his insightful introduction, the West African 19th century pioneers were “cosmopolitan”, travelling far in their lives with varied experiences.
The many striking episodes in Davies’ life include his beginning as “missioner and mariner” – a schoolteacher with the CMS who became an officer in the Royal Navy’s Anti-slavery Squadron; a “ship-owner and merchant” who became a leading figure in Lagos society. Davies had a deep British involvement – he even took part in the British bombardment of Lagos in 1851. Moroever his wife Sarah (whom he married in Brighton), had been captured as a girl by forces of King Guezo of Dahomey in Egbado in 1848, and then presented to the British envoy Captain Forbes, Commander of the Squadron, She was taken to London and introduced to Queen Victoria whose protégé she became. The royal connection was one Davies valued and maintained even after Sarah’s death in 1880. For example, Queen Victoria supported the education of their daughter Victoria at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
His involvement with the British way of life did not prevent him from indignation at the Bedingfield-McCoskry annexation of Lagos in August 1861. His was the hand that drafted three petitions to Queen Victoria, from Oba Dosumu, twenty-four chiefs and eighty prominent Lagosians. The chapter on this is a riveting read (enhanced by some fascinating original documents) for anyone concerned with the scandalous tale of how the British acquired Lagos. In view of the ruthless bombardment of Olowogbowo ten years before, which flattened the area and killed many of its inhabitants, it is not surprising that Dosumu was intimidated into accepting a document he had not even seen or knew its contents.
The chapter reproduces the text of another petition specifically complaining about McCoskry, known in Lagos as Apongbon (after his ‘red beard’). The petition states “let us beg to inform Her Majesty that there is a merchant here, by name Wm. McCoskry Esq., whom the late Consul Foote made a Vice-consul who is a rather hard man….Of this gentleman we beg to say he knows nothing about the management of the town and we, in our commonsense, judge that he is not a fit man for the office [in which] he is placed.” Dignified but damning.
The petitions, although unavailing, were all sent for onward transmission to Henry Venn, the CMS missionary who had been one of JPL Davies’ mentors, and whose belief in African education had been one of the inspirations behind the 1859 creation of the CMS Grammar School to which Davies had given not just encouragement but a significant endowment. This must be considered his finest achievement, arising from a fierce attachment to the value of education, and the book will be of great value to the many old Grammarians.
Apart from his achievements in politics and education as well as different forms of business, Davies made a unique contribution to the development of cocoa in Yorubaland. Although a great business innovator, he had had financial troubles in the 1870s, but in the early1880s took the initiative to bring cocoa pods and seeds from Fernando Po to begin a cocoa plantation at his farm at Ijon, north-west of Lagos. This is accepted by most historians as being the real beginning of successful cocoa growing in the area, although, as the book recognises, there had been efforts by both Squiss Banego in Bonny and David Henshaw in Calabar to bring in cocoa in the 1870s. The book ventures (which I shall not) into the enduring controversy of how cocoa came to Ghana around the same period. What is clear was that around this time the increase in ”innocent trade” (ie. not slaving) as well as increasing local plantation recruitment to Fernando Po meant that Spain’s long global monopoly of the cocoa bean was bound to crack. And in what became Nigeria, Davies was the main agent.
By: Kaye Whiteman