1914 - 2014

Colonial Footprints: Lagos, Then and Now

The Centenary Project

A cursory look at the colonial roots of Lagos, Nigeria
March, 2014

Lagos was bombarded by the British in 1851, annexed on 6 August 1861 and declared a colony on 5 March 1862. By 1872 Lagos was a cosmopolitan trading center with a population over 60,000. 

The colony and protectorate was incorporated into Southern Nigeria in February 1906, and Lagos became the capital of the protectorate of Nigeria in January 1914. Since then, it has grown to become the largest city in West Africa, with an estimated metropolitan population of over 9,000,000 as of 2011.

“Once upon a time, when men were still in romance with nature, the lagoon nourished the social, commercial and even political being of the city and people of Lagos.”

Jahman Anikulapo, 2005
Lagos Island

The topography of Lagos is dominated by its system of islands, sandbars, and lagoons. The city itself sprawls over three main islands: Lagos Island, Lagos Mainland, and Victoria Island, connected to each other by a system of bridges.

Lagos Island with Victoria Island in the foreground and the Mainland in the background

Lagos emerged during the colonial period as a heterogeneous town populated by groups of people of various origins. This gave the town its eclectic character, with increasing social stratification and contrasting lifestyles.

Lagos town meeting

The city confronts one with the great psychological socio-cultural divide between “the Island” and “the Mainland”, two deep “social topography” concepts which dominate even routine discussions of the place, like East Side and West Side in New York or North London and South London.

Bird's eye view of Lagos Island (1910-20s)
Lagos Island in the 1920s
View of Oil Mill Street, Lagos Island

The historical core of the town, Lagos Island, developed from the main sub-communities who lived in relatively distinct districts. The European community represented a small group (300 people by 1901). This community established the physical foundations of the city, which consisted of warehouses and government buildings built along the Marina and around the racecourse.

Store buildings on Marina

Lagos became the obvious place to develop as the capital of the new Colony and Southern Protectorate inaugurated in 1906, and after 1914 naturally became the main location of the first capital of United Nigeria. The period after 1906 was an important period of further development on Lagos Island, of buildings still in existence such as the Supreme Court ...

Panoramic view of Lagos in 1923. A close view at the image will reveal pointers to various major landmarks of the area

... the Old Secretariat and the Government Printer on Broad Street. There was also the first Government Secondary School, Kings College, both of which were located by the racecourse in which polo was played in the central area of the course, and which from the time it was laid out in 1859 was a central feature of British colonial Lagos.

Panoramic view of Lagos showing part of the race course and the Government House overlooking the creek.
The Supreme Court, Tinubu Square, Lagos. It was built in 1906 and demolished in 1960
The Secretariat
The Colonial Hospital

Unlike most other port cities of the Atlantic coast, in which segregation schemes were introduced between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for decades there was no official segregation scheme in Lagos.

Recreational activity by the Europeans
Group photo taken by Europeans (mostly British) in Lagos

After Lagos was made the capital in 1914, a classification of Nigerian cities was proposed in 1921. Lagos was the only city belonging to the ‘Class A township’, which combined a residential area reserved for Europeans (Ikoyi) and a commercial area in which Europeans lived, worked, traded and interacted with Africans (Lagos Island).

Anglo Colonial Trading, Broad Street
G.B. Ollivant, Marina
Bank of British West Africa, Marina

It was impossible to relocate either the Western companies or the African traders and inhabitants beyond the historical core of the city. But in the ‘next-door’ island of Ikoyi, a European Reservation Area was laid out in 1928 exclusively to accommodate the increasing number of Europeans (which grew from 301 in 1901 to 4 000 in 1931).

The building that became the Government House, and then State House after independence, went through a number of transformations; the version most recognized was built in time for Lugard to occupy as Governor-General in 1914. It housed figures such as Clifford, Cameron, Bourdillon and the last Governors-General, Robertson and – after independence – Azikiwe.

Government (State) House, Marina Lagos, with Marina street and the lagoon in the foreground. Built in 1896, it was the official residence of the colonial governors.
St. George's Hall
Tennis courts at Government House

Governor Carter (1891-97) had the vision to push through the railway, the great project of the 1890s, which opened its first stretch to Ibadan as the century turned. The year 1900 saw the opening of the Iddo rail terminus, but also the first version of Carter Bridge (carrying pedestrians and, afterwards, the steam tram), which gave the development of Lagos Island, as the hub of the capital, a tremendous boost.

The old Carter Bridge
One of the first trains

As development continued in Lagos, British architecture prevailed and new types of buildings were introduced. These were usually either imported 18th century houses of the English countryside or prefabricated constructions with deep verandas and overhanging eaves.

Colonial architectural styles (in this photo as well as those on the left)

After the bubonic plague of the late 1920s, the Lagos Executive Development Board was set up in 1931 and was responsible for some of the earliest planned developments on the Mainland such as Yaba. These were also added to and partly reconstructed in the later colonial period, as was the new model suburb of Surulere.

Streets of Yaba on the Mainland

Much of the history of Lagos is that of its economy, in the context of political, social and cultural change. Economic transformation is thus one of the most important forces to have had an impact on the city, its society, its landscape as well as its “look”, which forms an essential par of the quest for the city's soul. 

The expansion of the city's political economy has led to growing wealth, which in turn has brought a range of new aspirations for modernity that has followed in the wake of colonization.

Lagos in the 1970s
View of Lagos in the 1980s
Carter Bridge and Eko Bridge in the 1980s
Victoria Island with Five Cowries Creek in the foreground
Falomo Bridge linking Lagos Island with Victoria Island
Tin Can Island
Credits: Story

Project Lead — Patrick Enaholo
Exhibition Content —
National Archives UK
Camilla Westin
Life Pictures Collection
Lagos (by Kaye Whiteman)
Lagos (by Laurent Fourchard) 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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