Charles Ajunwa and Solomon Elusoji took a trip to Badagry, one of the darkest and most fascinating historical landmarks in Nigeria, and write about the town’s golden offerings
Twelve-year-old Happiness Anya, a student of Royal Christian College, Lagos, looked curiously at the rusty chains before her. She had probably never seen anything like it before this class excursion to Badagry. But, as she listened to the tour guide, clarity emerged in her eyes.
“We had read about Badagry before,” she would later say. “So I know about the history of slave trade. But today, I have felt the real impact of what really happened. I saw the chains they used; it was harsh. It showed the white men didn’t have any conscience.”
Located at the extreme edge of Nigeria’s border in the South-west and resting beside a lagoon in the Gulf of Guinea that feeds of the Atlantic, Badagry is an idyllic town. Till today, it is not difficult to see why the Europeans decided to conduct their illicit slave of trades from this axis. It was the perfect gateway into the mainland, and courtesy of the serene lagoon, it provided an ideal base for the Europeans, who would never have survived the hot climate of the hinterlands.
The Atlantic Slave Trade began in the 15th century, but Badagry’s active involvement would commence the next century, when the Vlekete Slave Market was built in 1502 by the Portuguese. The Badagry Slave Port would follow in 1510, ushering in a mass exodus of African men and women, as slaves, into the New World.
Historians who have studied the slave trade usually conclude that it was a vicious exercise conducted in the most inhumane of ways. The brutalities perpetrated by the trade, one historian concluded, could only be explained “by the assumption that blacks were seen as no better than inanimate pieces of equipment, to be used up and replaced as needed, or as fuel to be consumed in the fires.”
Today, thousands of people, schools and organisations visit Badagry just to see what’s remained of the slave trade’s history. “History is very important,” Mrs. Anya Bethel, an English teacher at Royal Christian College, told THISDAY. “We brought the children so that they could see the reality of what they read in books.”
Unfortunately, there’s not much left to see. In 1852, when the Slave Trade Abolition Treaty was signed by Badagry chiefs, there was a clause in the agreement that stated that all the implements used during the trade be destroyed.
That was when the Slave Port and Slave Market in Badagry were pulled down, canoes were buried, baracoon (prison) were shut down. “All this was done in order to wipe off the record of slave trade from Badagry,” a tourism officer with the Lagos State Ministry of Tourism who works in Badagry, Peter Mesewaku, told THISDAY.
However, not all was destroyed. Some Badagry families had actively participated in the trade, and some of them preserved some items. One of such families is the Mobee family. During the golden days of slave trade, the High Chief of Mobee was one of its major facilitators in Badagry.
The Mobee family items preserved would morph into the Mobee Slave Relic Museum, one of the oldest private museums in Nigeria which is still standing today, harbouring some of Badagry’s most original relics from the dark trade.
The museum is divided into nine galleries and arranged sequentially to tell the story of slave trade. The Introduction Gallery gives an insight into how slavery actually started. Then, there is the Capture Gallery, where you have some chains (some are replicas) used during the Slave Trade.
There is the Facilitators Gallery, which include both the Africans and Europeans, who helped the trade to thrive. Among the European facilitators displayed in the Mobee Museum is John Hopkins, who was the first British slave trader.
Immediately the protestant broke away from the Catholics, John Hopkins led a group of 23 British Slave traders to West Africa, and he personally went back to England with 300 slaves. And because of that feat, he was knighted by the Queen of England.
The museum also has the Equipments Gallery, where there are replicas of the slave drinking pots and prototypes of the slave ship and how the slaves were packed like sardines inside the lower deck. Then there is the Resistant and Punishment Gallery, where tourists can see images of how the slaves resisted and were punished. There is also the Industry Gallery, which shows the different categories of slaves, as determined by the Europeans.
The Mubee museum is only a small part of what attracts people to Badagry. The physical historical landmarks are numerous. One of such landmarks is the Brazilian Baracoon, a 40-room prison where slaves were kept in terrible conditions, chained from head to toe.
Apart from that, there is the Point of No Return. This is the last point of call for the slaves. When the slaves arrive Badagry, they are transported via the lagoon to an Island, where they commence a 2.5kilometre walk to the Atlantic. Although the island is called Gberefu Beach, it is popularly referred to as the Point of No Return.
Why? Before the slaves get to the Atlantic, there is a well dug beside the road to provide water for the slaves, who are tired and thirsty from walking with chains. But, ironically, the water from the well was said to have been charmed by the local people.
It was meant to make the slaves less aggressive, more submissive, and, at times, even wipe off their memory. The belief is that when that water is tasted, the hope of returning no longer exists. The well stands there till today, although covered with grime.
There is also the Badagry Heritage Museum. Although the building was converted into a museum, it used to be the District Officers office, during the colonial era, which was built in 1863. This museum, like the Mubee Museum, also carries a large collection of slave trade artefacts.
The Vlekete Slave Market is another fascinating historical landmark in Badagry. At least 18,000 slaves are said to have been sold at this market, which brought together the Europeans and slave hunters and middlemen from the hinterland. At this Slave Market sits the Vlekete Shrine, which is famous for settling disputes and trying accused individuals during the trade.
A British explorer, Richard Lander, was tried at the shrine in 1885. After the abolition of slave trade, Richard Lander and some other British explorers were sent to Africa to propagate legitimate trade. They arrived Badagry in 1825. Unfortunately, Richard Lander discovered that the Portuguese still continued with slave trade, after it had been declared illegal in Europe.
When the Portuguese saw them, they were not feeling too comfortable, because they felt Richard Lander could report their activities to their government in Lisbon. The only way out was to have Richard Lander terminated. So, they went to the then king and deceived him to believe that Richard Lander was a British spy.
Because of that, the British explorers were arrested, but they pleaded not guilty. In order not shed innocent blood, Lander was given a public trial. He was given a traditional medicine to swallow at the Vlekete Shrine, to prove his innocence.
He took the medicine and survived, meaning that he was actually innocent of that charge. And that was how the abolition struggle started in Badagry, although it was achieved 27 years later, in 1852.
Then there is the Agiya Monument, the spot where Christianity was first preached. The monument used to be a massive Agiya tree that sat at the heart of Badagry. It served as a shelter and a town square for both secular and religious activities.
When some returnees (freed slaves) from Sierra Leone arrived Badagry around 1839, one of them called James Ferguson wrote to the Methodist Commission in England, saying that they were in a place of darkness. Just like every other African community then, Badagry people were traditional worshippers, and the Europeans believed traditional religions belonged to the darkness. So that was why Ferguson referred to Badagry as a place of darkness, where there is no light. Christianity was seen as the light.
So, Ferguson requested that they should send them a missionary who would help them preach the gospel to the people. That was how Rev. Thomas Birch Freeman was redeployed from his base in Gold Coast to Badagry. He arrived Badagry in 1842 and was received by the few returnees from Sierra Leone.
Naturally, the Agiya tree was the only place where they could meet the number of people that a missionary would require to preach the gospel. So he was taken there and he preached the first ever Christian gospel in Nigeria, sowing the seeds of Christianity.
That same year, a young Anglican Missionary, Henry Townsend, arrived Badagry, and together with Birch Freeman, they observed the first Christmas service in Nigeria, under the same Agiya tree.
Henry Townsend later left for Abeokuta to preach Christianity. The tree fell around 1958 and 1959, after it was blown away by a heavy wind, and a cenotaph was erected at the spot, because of the importance attached to it. That’s why the place is now called the Agiya Monument.
It is also noteworthy to state that the Western architectural revolution in Nigeria started in Badagry, where you have the first storey building. Built in 1845 under the supervision of Rev. C.A. Gollemer, it took almost three years to build.
The first primary school is also situated in Badagry. It was established by the Wesleyan Mission of the Methodist Church and named Nursery of Infant Church, which later became known as St. Thomas’ Anglican Nursery and Primary School. It started in 1843, was relocated to its original spot in 1845, and it stands up to this moment in Badagry.
Still, the present state of these historical landmarks is nothing to write home about. It is true that thousands of people visit Badagry yearly, but these numbers could be in their millions if the right structures are put in place.
According to the tourism coordinator in the area, Mesewaku, the government was not doing enough to encourage tourism in Badagry. “Although tourism is private sector driven,” he said, “for it to thrive, it needs the involvement of the government, because they form the policies. We have some policies on ground presently, but they are in the cooler; they are inactive and are not being enforced at all.
“Here, the little success we have witnessed has always been private sector driven. The Mobee Museum is privately owned, the first story building is owned by the Anglican, the Agiya Monument is owned by the Christian Association of Nigeria, Badagry Chapter. For now, it is only the Badagry Heritage Museum that is owned by the Lagos State government.”
Still, according to Mesewaku, the past government of Lagos State, headed by Babatunde Fashola, really invested in tourism. “They started the reclamation of the Badagry Marina, and there is the upgrading of the slave route.
They also constructed the Vlekete Market museum and built a Tourism Information Centre. The DO Residence was also restored and there were plans of building an amphitheatre in Badagry. Still, a lot needs to be done by this administration.”
A major cause of concern should be the roads leading into Badagry, which are currently in a very deplorable state. These reporters spent hours on the road trying to gain access into Badagry.
There is an ongoing ten-lane road project that aims to connect Badagry with mainland Lagos. The success of this project will determine the seriousness of the present government, in terms of improving tourism in the state.