During the second half of the nineteenth century, Lagos became an increasingly diverse, urban node on the Atlantic circuit, where slavery and freedom defined individual identities and shaped the city itself. A series of political and economic transformations contributed to the social dynamics of Lagos. The nineteenth-century transition from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the “legitimate” commerce in palm products created new economic opportunities for non-elite Africans; in particular, many Yoruba-speaking people from the hinterland brought goods and services to the town as part of the supply chain for the new Atlantic demand.
The British bombardment of the port in 1851—followed by the town’s annexation in August 1861—prompted further changes. Runaway slaves from the interior flocked to the burgeoning colony, seeking freedom and protection under the new administration. Liberated Africans—those whose slave ships had been intercepted by the British Royal Navy’s anti-slavery squadron and rerouted to Sierra Leone—also migrated to the town. There, they formed a community of Christian, African elites called the Saros. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Lagos also became the primary destination for African emigrants from Bahia who, after years of enslavement in Brazil, bought their freedom and boarded ships bound for the African coast.
Thousands of formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants repatriated to West Africa from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil over the course of the century. Multiple factors contributed to returnees’ increasing interest in Lagos as a destination for resettlement after 1850. First, like other self-liberated Africans in the region, these Amaros—as Afro-Brazilian repatriates were called in Lagos—sought British protection from re-enslavement. Benjamin Campbell, the consul of Lagos from 1853 to 1859, encouraged these freed Africans to emigrate from Brazil; he promised to protect them in exchange for their cooperation with the colonial administration. These returnees’ decisions to settle in this particular urban port may have also been guided by their interest in trans-Atlantic commerce; the economic inflation and periodic blockades in other West African coastal cities—which resulted from the British Navy centering its activity around Ouidah and other, more western portsin an attempt to suppress the Dahomean slave trade—were not issues in Lagos. Finally, many of these emigrants came from Yoruba-speaking towns in the interior. By settling in the colony, these individuals returned to their region of origin.
At the same time, while many Amaros perceived Lagos as a space of freedom in contrast to Brazil, slavery continued to exist in the colony. While the British insisted on abolishing the foreign slave trade in Lagos after their bombardment of the port in 1851, they delayed abolition in the colony itself. In her examination of slavery in nineteenth-century colonial Lagos, Kristin Mann purports that it was not until after 1866 that British officials in London argued for the prohibition of slavery in the town. However, she explains, “In the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonial state largely left it to the slaves themselves to redefine their relationships with owners. Struggle over the contested and shifting relationship between owners and slaves … dominated the history of the town in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.”
In this way, an examination of the Afro-Brazilian community of Lagos illuminates the ways that the burgeoning colony was comprised of a series of contradictory, complex dynamics involving slavery and freedom, old and new, and local and Atlantic networks. For African returnees from Brazil, the memory of enslavement continued to impact their lives in Lagos, at the same time that it also defined policies and relationships in the colony during the period. In addition, for non-elite, repatriated Africans, Lagos was a space in which they reengaged with local kinship and commercial connections, while simultaneously asserting themselves as “Atlantic citizens.” Indeed, after these Afro-Brazilian repatriates settled in the colony, their social and commercial networks included new relations, emigrants who they had known in Bahia, and Yoruba family members with whom they reunited. Within these relationships, they constantly (re)negotiated spaces of freedom, both in the colony and in the larger Atlantic world.
Nineteenth-century courtroom testimonies from these emigrants, contained in documents housed at the Lagos State High Court, reveal these dynamics and the ways that they impacted the lives of returnees in the colony. Ewusu, a freed Yoruba emigrant from Bahia, serves as one such example. The late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Yoruba wars dispersed Ewusu and her family from their town in the interior; as a young girl, she was captured and sold into slavery in Bahia. In 1843, she emigrated to Lagos with her husband and a Brazilian-born child named Maria Mariquinha; ten years later, in 1853, her sister came to the port city from Sierra Leone, where she had been taken by the British after her initial capture. In an 1892 testimony, Ewusu’s nephew remembered the scene when the two sisters met for the first time in Lagos, after being apart for a quarter of a century. He told the court, “They embraced and wept together. They related the stories of the troubles they had passed through in captivity.” Upon Ewusu’s death, however, her Saro relatives went to trial with Maria Mariquinha, the young girl who had emigrated with her. In a fight over who would inherit her estate, the question became whether Maria Mariquinha was a kin relation or Ewusu’s former slave. In the end, the court ruled that Maria Mariquinha did not have rights to Ewusu’s property, illustrating the ways in which slavery continued to be an important element of defining identity and kinship in Lagos colony. These mixed families of formerly enslaved Amaros, Saros, and Brazilian-born relations, like that of Ewusu, illuminates the complicated identities and kinship dynamics in the city during the second half of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, while the condition and memory of slavery still shaped these returnees’ lives in Lagos on both individual and institutional levels at times, the colony also became a refuge for freedom for many formerly enslaved emigrants.
In addition to being a city comprised of complex relational networks, Lagos also served as a node of Atlantic engagement that facilitated the free movement of formerly enslaved returnees between West Africa and Brazil. While these emigrants often rekindled their Yoruba social and commercial relationships in the region, the Amaros maintained the networks that they had forged across the Atlantic, as well. Passport registers from the port of Salvador show that many emigrants made multiple trips to Bahia after repatriating to Lagos, in order to visit family or to participate in trans-Atlantic trade. The colonial policy of issuing British passports to Brazilian returnees—despite the fact that they were not considered British citizens—allowed these Amaros to travel without the risk of re-enslavement. Lisa Earl Castillo’s work on mapping the nineteenth-century Brazilian returnee movement provides insight into the origins of this practice, which Consul Campbell implemented in 1858. Castillo explains, “He [Campbell] initially envisioned this as a way of assisting those who wished to resettle in homelands in the interior rather than remain in Lagos.” Campbell extended this practice to those returnees who wished to travel back and forth between Lagos and Brazil or Cuba. As Castillo notes, soon these Brazilian emigrants used their British passports “not only for international voyages but also for domestic travel within Brazil, much to the local authorities’ displeasure.” Such was the case for José Godinho Bastos, a liberated African who left for Lagos in April 1876. In November of the same year, Bastos returned to Salvador on a ship that embarked from the colony; he arrived in Brazil with a British passport. In March 1877, he again set sail for Lagos; police records from Bahia note that he was still in possession of his British documents. Another liberated African, Augusto João Barcellos, traveled from Rio Grande do Sul to Salvador, where he obtained a passport to sail to Lagos in 1868. He settled in the colony, where he became a farmer and a merchant. However, his trans-Atlantic business dealings brought him back to Salvador by 1889, at which point he had a British passport. He again sailed for his home in Lagos in March of that year, and the Brazilian police recorded his status as a British subject.
Using their British passports, these Afro-Brazilian emigrants exercised their freedom by expanding their mobility. The colonial policies, the changing dynamics, and the diverse population of Lagos allowed these returnees to maintain and create new trans-Atlantic connections, while simultaneously rekindling the social, ethnic and commercial ties they had lost when they were sold into slavery. In this way, the city of Lagos became an important freedom hub for Africans and their descendants throughout the Atlantic during the second half of the nineteenth century. While the early-twentieth century brought additional changes and increasingly restrictive colonial policies toward Africans, the Afro-Brazilian emigrants who settled in the city during the decades before used this urban space to contest the legacies of slavery and to reimagine themselves as free members of both their local community in Lagos and their commercial and social networks that spanned the Atlantic.
Susan A.C. Rosenfeld (@sarosenfeld) is a Ph.D. Candidate in African History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Based on multi-sited research, her dissertation—“Apparitions of the Atlantic: Afro-Brazilian Freedom, Mobility, and Self-Identification in Lagos and the Atlantic World, 1851–1900,” focuses on non-elite, formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who emigrated from Brazil to Lagos during the second half of the nineteenth century.
 Robin Law, ed., From Slave Trade to ‘Legitimate’ Commerce: The commercial transition in nineteenth-century West Africa (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
 There is an ongoing scholarly debate over the number of nineteenth-century repatriates. See Pierre Verger, Flux et reflux de la traite des nègres entre le Golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (Paris: Mouton, 1968), 633; Jerry M. Turner, Les Brésiliens: The Impact of Former Slaves upon Dahomey (Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University, 1975), 78; Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, Negros, estrangeiros: os escravos libertos e sua volta à África (São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1978), 210–16; Clément da Cruz, “Les Apports culturels des Noirs de la Diaspora à l’Afrique” (Contonou: UNESCO, 1983), 5.
 Lisa A. Lindsay, “‘To Return to the Bosom of Their Fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century Lagos,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (1994): 26–27.
 Lisa Earl Castillo, “Mapping the Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Returnee Movement: Demographics, Life Stories, and the Question of Slavery,” Atlantic Studies 13, no. 1 (2016): 35.
 Kristin Mann, “Finding Slave Voices in British Colonial High Court Records: Lagos, 1879,” Conference on “Finding the African Voice: Narratives of Slavery and Enslavement,” Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Bellagio, Italy, 24–28 September, 2007. Mann also discusses this dynamic in her book, Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760–1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).
 This phrase is adapted to the Afro-Brazilian context from Leslie Eckel’s work on nineteenth-century writers in the United States; see Atlantic Citizens: Nineteenth-Century American Writers at Work in the World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
 Lagos State High Court (hereafter LSHC), Judge’s Notebook, Civil Cases, 386–88, Maria Mariquinha v. David Williams, 9 February 1892.
 Castillo, “Mapping the Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Returnee Movement,” 36.
 Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia (hereafter APEB), Lista de Entrada e Saída de Passageiros (1876), maço 5953; APEB, Saídas dos Passageiros, Republicano No. 52; APEB, Registros de passaportes (1875–77), maço 5905.
 APEB, Registros de passaportes (1864–68), maço 5901; APEB, Registro de passaportes (1885–89), maço 5910; LSHC, Judge’s Notebook, Civil Cases, 48–53, Augusto João Barcellos v. Roqui João Gonsalo, 14 April 1891.
A decade before the American Civil War, James Churchwill (“Church”) Vaughan set out to fulfill his formerly enslaved father’s dying wish: that he should leave his home in South Carolina for a new life in Africa. With help from the American Colonization Society, he went first to Liberia, though he did not stay there long. In 1855, Vaughan accepted an offer of employment in Yorubaland—about which Americans knew virtually nothing–with Southern Baptist missionaries. Over the next four decades in today’s southwestern Nigeria, Vaughan became a war captive, served as a military sharpshooter, built and re-built a livelihood, led a revolt against white racism in missionary churches, and founded a family of activists. When his relatives were struggling in South Carolina in the late 1860s, he sent them canvas bags filled with gold. His descendants in Lagos and those of his siblings in the United States maintained contact for the next century. When Church Vaughan died in 1893, he left his widow and three children land, businesses, and multiple houses in central Lagos, and he was buried under an imposing monument in Ikoyi Cemetery.
Vaughan’s remarkable story reveals two fundamental features of Lagos life, a century ago and now. First, this is a place where strangers came, and still come, to seek their fortunes. Originally a fishing village, Lagos had developed as an outpost for international slaving and then “legitimate trade” in palm oil and other tropical produce. By the late nineteenth century, the city was known as the “Liverpool of West Africa.” New settlers arrived, pulled by economic opportunities generated by the export trade and pushed by violence and insecurity in the interior that had begun with the disintegration of the Oyo Empire in the 1820s. In the 1860s, when Vaughan, his African wife, and their little son walked there after being expelled with other Christians from the inland town of Abeokuta, Lagos’s population was estimated at 25,000. He prospered as a carpenter and then as a merchant of building supplies, importing hardware and other materials for the houses and stores that newcomers continued to build. By 1881, the city had grown to 38,000, which included only 111 Europeans, despite the fact that Lagos had become a British colony twenty years earlier. The numbers kept increasing, so that by 1911 Lagos’s population numbered three times what it had been in 1866. People came for many reasons, including to escape interior warfare or slavery, or as part of another migrant’s retinue of dependents. But it was the lure of wealth through trade that called many of them to the city, even though few new migrants ultimately became rich. “The real Lagosian loves above everything else to be a trader,” a resident missionary wrote in 1881.
Many of the most visible and prosperous traders were, like Church Vaughan, refugees from Atlantic world slavery. Ex-slaves from Brazil and Cuba, most of them Yoruba or of Yoruba descent, had resettled in Lagos (and nearby Whydah and elsewhere) since the late 1830s, largely through their own initiatives. They formed a residential and commercial quarter in the city, and many of them worked as carpenters, builders, or other artisans, giving Brazilian-style flourishes to the homes and businesses of their clients. Vaughan, in fact, lived among them and became their supplier when he went into the hardware business. The other significant group of newcomers were the so-called Saro, people who themselves or whose parents had been enslaved in the disintegration of the Oyo Empire, forced onto slave ships headed to Brazil or Cuba, been rescued at sea by British antislavery patrols and landed at Sierra Leone. They later made their way back to their areas of origin. By the mid-1860s, probably around 1,000 Sierra Leonians and equal numbers of Brazilians had settled in Lagos, and their numbers tripled over the next two decades. Their prior commercial experience, initial capital, contacts with Europeans, and western education enabled some Sierra Leonians to move quickly into the import-export trade and ascend to the top of the local elite. In fact, it was mostly Saro whom Martin Delany was describing when he noticed, passing through Lagos in 1859, that “The merchants and business men of Lagos [are] principally native black gentlemen, there being but ten white houses in the place…and all of the clerks are native blacks.” Both they and the Brazilians literally made their mark on the city’s landscape. To this day, central Lagos’s streets bear the names of early returnees, including Savage, Cole, Doherty, and Davies in the Olowogbowo area settled by Sierra Leonians and Bamgbose, Pedro, Martins, and Tokunboh in the Brazilian quarter (Tokunboh meaning a person who has returned from abroad).
Church Vaughan’s remarkable life also serves as a reminder of the persistent ability of Lagosians to borrow creatively and make something new. In his case, it was his connections with the African diaspora that helped inspire him to lead a rebellion against racist white missionaries in the late 1880s. Taking inspiration from African Americans who formed their own churches and schools as a response to discrimination, in 1888 Vaughan and several others formed the first non-missionary Christian church in West Africa, the Native (later Ebenezer) Baptist Church in Lagos. But Yoruba people had long appreciated the potential of new ideas from elsewhere to improve things locally. The term ọ̀lajú, meaning “enlightenment” or “civilization” (from the Yoruba verb meaning “to open the eyes”) was first used in the mid-nineteenth century to describe the cultural package brought by European missionaries, including technical, medical, and clerical skills as well as Christianity. It also referred to those who were not necessarily well educated, but who gained worldly knowledge by pursuing opportunities away from home. Either way, the central idea was to use knowledge or experience from somewhere else to bring progress back home. This was certainly what new arrivals in Lagos tried to do, building on trading connections or using ideas from places they had lived in order to pursue success in their new hometown.
The most famous Lagosian of the twentieth century may have been Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the pioneer musician and inveterate political critic, who died in 1997. Fela grew up in the town of Abeokuta, where his father had been a school principal and his mother led a massive women’s protest against a colonially-backed local ruler. After stints in London, Ghana, and Los Angeles, in the 1960s Fela made Lagos his lifelong home and creative muse. There, he created Afrobeat, an infectious musical style that blended local highlife, Yoruba melodies, jazz, and the funk of James Brown into something altogether new. Fela, like Church Vaughan and countless others, brought to Lagos the creative vitality of people on the move. The city has been built by people like them—refugees, entrepreneurs, and hustlers, who “opened their eyes” in multiple directions.
Lisa A. Lindsay is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. A specialist in the history of Nigeria, the slave trade, and the Atlantic world, she is the author of Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa, which won the African Studies Association’s prize for the best book in any field of African studies published in 2017. Previous publications include Working with Gender: Wage Labor and Social Change in Colonial Southwestern Nigeria (2003); Captives as Commodities: The Transatlantic Slave Trade (2008); and the co-edited volumes Men and Masculinities in Modern Africa (2003) and Biography and the Black Atlantic (2014).
Featured image (at top): James Churchill Vaughn’s tombstone, Ikoyi Cemetery, Lagos, Nigeria.
 Lisa A. Lindsay, Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
 J. Buckley Wood, “On the Inhabitants of Lagos: Their Character, Pursuits, and Language,” Church Missionary Intelligencer (1881): 683-91, 687 quoted.
 M.R. Delany, “Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party,” in Howard H. Bell (ed.), Search for a Place: Black Separatism and Africa, 1860, edited by (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 113-14.
 J.D.Y. Peel, “Olaju: A Yoruba Concept of Development,” Journal of development Studies 14 (1978): 139-65.
In its section on Nigeria, Lonely Planet’s 1995 edition of its Rough Guide to West Africa advised that getting the most out of one’s visit to the country depended on avoiding “Lagos and the sprawling congested cities of Ibadan, Port Hartcourt, Enugu, and Onitsha.” Several years later, a 30th anniversary edition offered a more nuanced take suggesting that some travelers might find the city “compelling” but that the metropolis remained a wild ride: “Lagos is chaos theory made flesh and concrete.”
To be fair, Lagos struggled mightily in the early 1990s. “Lagos’s prosperity peaked in the early 1980s,” notes sociologist Oka Obono, “before military coups and difficulties with the IMF drove Nigeria into recession.” Military rule ensued, as did restrictions on civil liberties and a debilitating crime wave. Over time, although crime rates fluctuated on the whole they remained high. During 2007, 50 people per month perished in Lagos State robberies. “Home invasions were extremely common in Lagos in the 1990s, they still happen, though less frequently,” the unnamed protagonist of Teju Cole’s Everyday for the Thief —a Nigerian ex-pat returning to the city for the first time in over a decade—tells readers.
During the ‘90s, the city became the epicenter for political resistance to the authoritarian government. Even with such dissent, Lagos had lost some of its governance mojo as Nigerian leaders moved the capital to Abuja in 1991. Abuja bloomed under the jaundiced influence of malfeasance and graft as greedy military leaders and contractors conspired to build the new capital for personal benefit and largely at the public’s expense. “The stink of corruption, presumed to be too much the vernacular of life in Lagos, become the breath of air in this Medina,” famed Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun observed.
Amidst economic, political and social struggle, Lagos still made its mark on Africa, let along Nigeria. The proliferation of VCR’s and hand-held recording devices during the late 1980s and early 1990s intersected with a city struggling through economic depression and a debilitating crime wave. No longer safe enough to venture out to the cinema nor able to afford its cost, Lagosians invested time and money in “home movies,” as they are sometimes referred. Film making on Lagos streets emerged as a popular new and widely disseminated media form. Known as Nollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry, the third largest in the world behind America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood, soon asserted itself continentally.
Due in part to Lagos’s “low capital” economy dominated by informal employment, directors and producers discovered cost efficient strategies to scatter celluloid stardust across Africa. “Nollywood is cheap and nimble,” a 2010 Economist article summarized. “Films are shot on digital video cameras. Scripts are improvised.” Pirates understood how to smuggle and distribute Nollywood products across national boundaries and over vast distances, thereby creating the pan-African movie market. It gave voice and representation to not only Lagosians and Nigerians, but Africans generally. “Nollywood is the voice of Africa, the answer to CNN,” Lancelot Idowu, one of Nigeria’s best-known directors noted. The Economist furthered this argument by declaring film “Africa’s dominant medium, replacing music and dance. It links distant societies, fosters the exchange of ideas and drives fashion trends.”
Due in part to Nollywood and a burgeoning art scene, a new Lagos—or, at the very least, a new projection of Lagos—has come to dominate the media narrative about the city. A February 2019 New York Times article depicted the Lagos art world as an edgy, transnational, and still developing affair, though emergent enough that Lagosians refer to it as an art “ecosystem.” Gallery showings draw Lagos’ upper crust and exude an air of excitement amidst the chaos that many point to as the metropolis’s defining characteristic. “Cars snaked out from the hideous traffic and deposited the city’s elite, dressed to impress, at the Civic Center, a concrete-and-steel edifice fronting Lagos Lagoon,” journalist Siddhartha Mitter noted. “Women exuding Vogue beauty and power paused on the patio to give television interviews.”
Do not underestimate the importance of such developments. “Literature, music, visual arts, theater, film. The most convincing signs of life I see in Nigeria are connected to the practices of the arts,” Cole’s aforementioned protagonist remarks. “And it is like this. Each time I am sure that, in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope.”
Keep in mind, on the one hand, 21st century Lagos is replete with chaotic traffic, electricity blackouts, violent crime, and overcrowded housing. On the other hand, it boasts glittering skyscrapers, a burgeoning art scene and an ascendant film industry. Today’s Lagos did not emerge from a vacuum but rather took its shape from a postcolonial order over the course of six decades.
In 1950, fewer than 300,000 people resided in Lagos, but by 1963, 1.14 million residents lived there; thirteen years later, the population had climbed to 2.55 million. By 1982, the city counted just over 4 million residents, and today estimates often exceed 21 million. Industry took root in Lagos even before independence, such that by 1965 roughly a third of the nation’s manufacturing could be found in the metropolitan area. The rise of Lagosian industry in turn set off migration from the countryside to the city. Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, the city’s overall growth rate averaged 6%. Due in part to this industrialization, particularly after 1960, the annual growth rate of Lagos State averaged just below 10% from 1970 to 1980, three times the national standard. Many of the newcomers hacked it out as squatters or found spaces in illegal housing. For example, in 1952, 22% of families lived in unplanned areas; just over two decades later, this figure had more than doubled to 50%.
Though massive slum clearance legislation passed in 1955 and persisted into the post-colonial era, colonial rulers made few if any concessions for this migration. The only sections of Lagos that appeared to have been actually planned were those inhabited by Europeans. The rest of the metropolis would be shaped by economic forces rather than direct government intervention.
Lagosian urban renewal focused on projecting a newly independent Lagos as a symbol of national standing. Much as in American cities of the time, the Lagos business district along Marina Road, Broad Street, and Nnamdi Azikiwe Street received special attention. Nigerian architects adapted the international style of Europe to the African climate, inventing tropical modernism. “Slim, streamlined slabs of reinforced concrete with unadorned faces – the signs of modernism in Europe – were also the markers of tropical modernism,” writes historian Daniel Immerwahr. The excitement of independence allowed for adaptations such that Nigerian architects “let fly with all the clichés, gambits and stylistic treatments” that European tastes and regulations forbade.
Yet tropical modernism represented only one side of the coin in the nation and city’s bifurcated housing policy. The new architectural style would be reserved for government offices and downtown buildings, but government housing estates would follow European models. While tropical modernism represented an exciting break from the colonial past replete with Nigeria’s personal stamp, housing estates signaled the newly independent nation’s stability and power as it drew upon the modern, though not necessarily modernist, styles of Europe. The yolk of colonialism persisted even after independence: the “respectability politics” of architecture.
For example, one of the earliest housing estates built, Surlure, was constructed on the British Garden City model and looked much like the contemporaneous “automobile suburbs of the U.S.” As one of the state’s first such efforts, it established a pattern for public housing regimes. Erected during an oil boom on the northern section of Lagos’ mainland, much like public housing in the United States, Surlure was isolated; its location made work commutes difficult and attempts by the government to transform “slum dwellers” into “polite suburbanites” proved misguided and unsuccessful. 
Government housing provisions established in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s placed regulations on housing that made its cost prohibitive for many city residents. Unplanned communities sprouted. To the extent one can assign a noticeable design influence, the Brazilian bungalow model brought to Nigeria by formerly enslaved Muslims and Catholics who settled in Nigeria in the latter half of the nineteenth century would be the best example. The inability or unwillingness to follow regulations did not hamper the growth of such communities since the government failed to enforce their provisions, until crime, depression, and political decline assaulted Lagos during the 1980s.
By then, the government imposed its draconian will with overly zealous policing and intervention into daily affairs. The latter was exemplified by the government’s “War Against Indiscipline,” begun in 1984, which attempted to raze the city’s informal sector by eradicating slums, disrupting local markets, and getting Nigerians to “queue patiently at bus stops, shops, and government offices.” Between 1985 and 1986, the government demolished nearly 5,000 illegal structures. The “War Against Filth” followed, which required Lagosians to clean their homes and yards during the last Saturday of every month from 7am to 10 am. While it sounds like a noble goal, in reality, it functioned as a carrot for the well off and a stick for the working classes and poor.
Those driven out by land speculation settled in what the United Nations describes as “peri-urban” areas, almost like slum satellite cities. In Lagos, “new shantytowns grow all the time like shifting sands” in the ever expanding mega-city, journalist Kaye Whiteman points out, notably along Badagry Road, Agege Motor Road, and the Ibadan Expressway. Others end up moving to mainland slums like Mushin, living in “rectangular concrete-block houses” with seven to eight people to a “single, mosquito infested room – in bunks or on the floor – along a narrow corridor of opposing chambers,” as the New Yorker’s George Packer observed in 2006. Both famously and troublingly, only .4% of the Lagos population resides in a home with a toilet connected to a sewer system; two of three residents lack direct access to clean drinking water, electricity, waste disposal or roads.
Despite a problematic housing policy and authoritarian regimes, democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999. From the quick, but especially over the last twenty years, Lagosians discovered new ways to navigate the city—notably by building on its long-existing informal economy. In 1963, 70% of women in the city depended on petty trading and related activities to buoy their finances. Hawking one’s wares and services from the home or a nearby sidewalk beat paying rent for a storefront. By the mid 1970s over half the city claimed a foothold in the informal economy. Such hustle, as it is widely known, still accounts for much of the Lagosian economy. As of 2006, informal transaction accounted for over 60% of economic activity. “Everywhere is a market,” one resident told Packer. “The market – as the essence of the city – is always alive with possibility and danger,” Cole’s narrator tells us.
Few things exemplify the complicated existence of Lagos more than its traffic jams and the informal economy that inexplicitly buzzes around them. Markets pop up spontaneously around them; cottage industries such as okadas, motorbikes that traverse traffic congestion far more quickly and cheaply (if at greater risk) than cars and which ferry low-income workers to their place of employment, have gained traction in the informal economy. The “hustle” is literal and metaphorical.
Of course, one should not lionize such developments too much. After all, okadas represent a survival tactic by workers facing structural readjustments in the economy, a nod to the fact that pay in the “regular economy” declined significantly over the course of the 21st century. Traffic jams at once embody the resourcefulness of Lagosians but also the ways in which they remain subject to neoliberal forces of the megacity. “To mention traffic jams is like twiddling a raw nerve in many cities: In Lagos, it is the rawest nerve,” Nigerian poet Ofeimun reminds us.
Middle class Lagosians do not have it easy either. Take, for example, the fictional case of Ifemelu, the protagonist and returning Lagos ex-pat from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. Despite returning to Lagos after many years abroad as a fairly successful professional writer, she must temper her expectations for housing. “The other flats she liked were too expensive. Even though pipes poked out under the kitchen sink and the toilet was lopsided and the bathroom tiles shoddily laid, this was the best she could afford.” Her rent payment helps to explain why illegal housing proves so attractive to many residents. “She wrote the check for two years’ rent. This was why people took bribes and asked for bribes; how else could anyone honestly pay two years’ rent in advance?”
As Whiteman admits, though troubled, Lagos remains a buzzing hive of human ingenuity; in the face of deprivation and with neoliberalism run amok, it contains a “deep and complex cultural richness,” the source of “a multitude of creativities.” The power of Lagos lies in its people, relentlessly hustling and endlessly defiant. “Lagos is more than just a city or megacity; it is in its essential form a ‘spirit of defiance.’ Everything that works can be subverted to some other use,” writes Obono.
Nor can the city or its residents rest on its historical laurels. There can be no dependence on past glories but rather an emphasis on future progress. “Nigerians don’t buy houses because they’re old. A renovated two-hundred-year-old mill granary, you know, the kind of thing Europeans like. It doesn’t work here at all,” Obinze, Ifemelu’s main love interest in Americanah, tells her upon her return to Lagos. “But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of the past.”
Lagosians have always specialized in making something out of very little. Enduring very similar urban policies and navigating far more corrupt systems of graft and governance, Lagos’ citizens have carved out their place in Africa and the world – a booming film industry, an expanding art scene, and an unabated hustle. Lagos, despite all its contradictions, remains an entrepot of promise and opportunity. Peril undoubtedly lingers, but on the streets of Lagos everyone is the star of their own movie.
As always, we’ve provided a bibliography of the city below. Great thanks to Titilola Halimat Somotan and Susan Rosenfeld for their help in compiling the bibliography. The Metropole realizes that we might have left some essential works off of the list, so please fell free to add those titles we missed in the comments!
Adebanwi, Wale. “The City, Hegemony and Ethno-spatial Politics: The Press and the Struggle for Lagos in Colonial Nigeria.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 9, no. 4 (2004): 25-51.
Adefuye, Ade, Babatunde Agiri, Akinjide Osuntokun, eds. History of the Peoples of Lagos State. Lagos, Nigeria: Lantern Books, 1987.
Adelusi-Adeluyi, Ademide. “Historical Tours of ‘New’ Lagos: Performance, Place Making, and Cartography in the 1880s.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 3 (December 1, 2018): 443–54. https://doi.org/10.1215/1089201x-7208790.
Aderibigbe, A.B., ed. Lagos: The Development of an African City. Nigeria: Longmans, 1975.
Aderinto, Saheed. When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism and Politics in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1958. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015
Agbola, Tunde. The Architecture of Fear: Urban Design and Construction Response to Urban Violence in Lagos, Nigeria. Ibadan: Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique, 1997.
Akinsemoyin, Kunle and Alan Vaughan Richards. Building Lagos. Jersey: Pengrail, 1976.
Akinyele, Rufus T. “Contesting for Space in an Urban Centre: The Omo Onile Syndrome in Lagos.” In African Cities, eds. Francesca Locatelli and Paul Nugent. Brill, 2009, 109–134.
Apter, Andrew A. The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Baker, Pauline. Urbanization and Political Change: The Politics of Lagos: 1917-1967. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Barnes, Sandra T. Patrons and Power: Creating a Political Community in Metropolitan Lagos. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.
Echeruo, M.J. Victorian Lagos: Aspects of Nineteenth Century Lagos Life. London: Macmillan, 1977.
Falola, Toyin and Matthew Heaton. A History of Nigeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Fapohunda, Olanreqaju J. The Informal Sector of Lagos: An Inquiry into Urban Poverty and Employment. Lagos: University Press Limited, 1985.
Fourchard, Laurent. “Lagos and the Invention of Juvenile Delinquency in Nigeria, 1920–60.” The Journal of African History 47, no. 1 (2006): 115-137.
Gandy, Matthew. “Planning, anti-planning and the infrastructure crisis facing metropolitan Lagos.” Urban Studies 43 (2006): 371–96.
George, Abosede. Making Modern Girls: A History of Girlhood, Labor, and Social Development in Colonial Lagos. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.
George, Abosede. “Introduction: The Imaginative Capital of Lagos.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 3 (2018): 439–42.
Giles, Omezi. “Nigerian Modernity and the City: Lagos 1960-1980.” In The Arts of Citizenship in African Cities: infrastructures and spaces of belonging, edited by Mamadou Diouf and Rosalinds Fredericks. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 277-298.
Godlewski, Joseph. “Alien and Distant: Rem Koolhaas on Film in Lagos, Nigeria.” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 21, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 7-19.
Hargreaves, John. Prelude to the Partition of West Africa. London: Macmillan, 1963.
Haynes, Jonathan. “Nollywood is Lagos, Lagos in Nollywood Films.” Africa Today 54, no. 2 (Winter, 2007): 131-150.
Immerwahr, Daniel. “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2007): 165-186.
“Lights, Camera, Africa,” The Economist, December 16, 2010.
Lindsay, Lisa A. “‘To return to the bosom of their fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century Lagos.” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (1994): 22–50.
——–. “Domesticity and Difference: Male Breadwinners, Working Women, and Colonial Citizenship in the 1945 Nigerian General Strike.” American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (1999): 783-812.
——–. Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa. UNC Press Books, 2016.
Mabogunje, Akin. Urbanization in Nigeria. New York: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1968.
Mann, Kristin. Marrying Well : Marriage, Status, and Social Change among the Educated Elite in Colonial Lagos. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
——–. Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.
Marris, Peter. Family and Social Change in an African City: A Study of Rehousing in Lagos. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1962.
Matory, J. Lorand. “The English Professors of Brazil: On the Diasporic Roots of the Yorùbá Nation.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41, no. 1 (1999): 72–103.
Muritala, Monsuru Olalekan. “Urban Livelihood in Lagos, 1861-1960.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 20 (2011): 193-200.
Nzegwu, Nkiru. “Bypassing New York in Re-Presenting Eko: Production of Space in a Nigerian City.” In Re-Presenting the City: Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the 21st-Century Metropolis, ed. Anthony D. King. New York: New York University Press, 1996, 111–36.
Obono, Oka. “A Lagos Thing: Rules and Realities in the Nigerian Megacity.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 31-37.
Ofeimun, Odia. “Imagination & the City.” African Quarterly on the Arts l3, no. 2 (2001): 12-15, 137-141.
Olukoju, Ayodeji. The “Liverpool” of West Africa: The Dynamics and Impact of Maritime Trade in Lagos, 1900-1950. Africa World Press, 2004.
Olorunyomi, Sola. Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent. Ibadan: IFRA, revised edition, 2005.
Oluwasegun, Jimoh Mufutau. “The British Mosquito Eradication Campaign in Colonial Lagos, 1902-1950.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 51, no. 2 (May 4, 2017): 217–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/00083968.2017.1302808.
 Oka Obono, “A Lagos Thing: Rules and Realities in the Nigerian Megacity,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 8, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 32.
 Daniel Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 19, no.2 (December 2007): 166, 176; George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos,” New Yorker, November 13, 2006, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/11/13/the-megacity.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 170-171.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 168-169.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 171-175.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 178.
 Immerwahr, “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986,” 179.