Note: This essay is cross-posted with permission from Eccentric Yoruba.
Madam Efunroye Tinubu was among the most prominent and powerful Yoruba women in pre-colonial Nigeria (early to mid 19th century). Other renowned Yoruba women from that period were Iyalode Efunsetan Aniwura and Madam Omosa, both of whom deserve posts of their own.
Madam Tinubu was an Egba woman born to a trading family in Abeokuta (also known as Egbaland). After completing an apprenticeship, she headed to Badagry, Lagos where she started trading in tobacco and salt. She later expanded her trade to include slaves who she sold to European slave traders. As a shrewd businesswoman, Madam Tinubu became the most important middleman in trade between Europeans and the Yorubaland interior by creating large trading networks. Madam Tinubu’s wealth and connections led her to meddle in politics.
With her trade and wealth, she was able to lend support to military efforts, which in turn made her more powerful. Although she was not from Lagos, she began taking interest in Lagos politics. In 1846, King Akintoye of Lagos faced exile and sought refuge in Badagry with Madam Tinubu. Being the badass that she was, Madam Tinubu ignited and supported a movement to return King Akintoye to regain the throne he had lost, she was successful.
In 1851, after regaining his throne King Akintoye invited Madam Tinubu to Lagos where she further expanded her business and political activities. Due to her influence in Akintoye’s court, rumours abounded that Madam Tinubu was the real power behind the throne. Madam Tinubu’s influence was such that when Prince Dosunmu succeeded King Akintoye, she continued to hold a space in Lagos politics.
Today Madam Tinubu is called a patriot by some, I am not too comfortable with that term because technically there was no ‘Nigeria’ when she was alive. However, Madam Tinubu did take a stance against the British in their efforts to further flex their colonial muscles into Yorubaland. In 1855, she spearheaded a campaign against Brazilian and Sierra Leonean immigrants in Lagos who she felt were actively trying to oppose the King and did not respect local customs. Apparently, her actions against these immigrants worried the British (who had been keeping an eye on her since she helped King Akintoye regain this throne). By supporting the local king and insisting that foreign residents respect local customs, Madam Tinubu’s activities were getting in the way of British colonial and mission policies. In 1856, colonial authorities in Lagos deported her from Lagos to her home town, Abeokuta in 1856.
I believe it was in Abeokuta that Madam Tinubu developed and adopted a staunchly anti-British stance. She eventually stopped selling slaves to the Europeans, it seems, after she learnt of the ‘evils of transatlantic slavery’, that is, the differences between the treatment of domestic slaves and those sold to the Europeans. Apparently she fought European slave traders to liberate slaves in Lagos and thereabouts however there is no mention if Madam Tinubu liberated the slaves she owned when she became anti-imperialist.
In Abeokuta, she traded gunpowder, bullets and other firearms (she also traded in palm oil and food produced on her massive plantations). She concerned herself with the Abeokuta-Dahomey wars that were taking place at that time, and through doing so became involved in Egba politics. Madam Tinubu would make loans to the army and supply food and arms during wartime. She was also in charge of the market place in times of peace. She contributed to defending Egbaland during attempts at Dahomean invasion in 1863 after which she was bestowed the title of ‘Iyalode’ in 1864 officially placing her in a position of power. She was the second woman to receive this title.
She died in 1887, at the height of her popularity.
Today, Madam Tinubu has several monuments dedicated to her, in Abeokuta, one stands ‘in the town square named after her Ita Iyalode.
There seem to be conflicting dates on when exactly a colonial government was established in Nigeria (and dare I say other parts of Africa as well). I have noticed that a lot of people place colonial governments actually earlier than they were. This supports the idea that from the beginning African and Europeans economic and political relations were unequal. The academic essay I read places Madam Tinubu as a pre-colonial Yoruba heroine who has a lot of information on her because her alliances and political activities, including her anti-colonial stance worried the British.
At this point, I am about to discuss the main reason I’m writing this post. Recently there was a debate on Facebook with several Nigerians saying that we shouldn’t be celebrating Madam Tinubu because of her trade in slaves. Some people argued that Madam Tinubu could not be patriotic if she was selling slaves to Europeans. Someone went as far as comparing her to Hitler. From the start, the entire discussion unsettled me.
You see, a long time ago I came across Madam Tinubu while searching on Yoruba women in history, but I only learnt of her as a trader in slaves and firearms. At that time, I decided to ignore her due to her part in the transatlantic slave trade. The source I read only described Madam Tinubu as a powerful Yoruba woman who sold slaves and firearms, there was no mention of her ventures in politics and the fact that those British colonials were, truth be told, scared of her.
I am not a fan of selective information. With people arguing that we should ignore Madam Tinubu’s anti-colonial efforts, I feel that now or in the future people may only know her as a slave-trading woman. It has taken me months, literally to articulate my thoughts and opinions on Madam Tinubu and the rejection of her legacy by some Nigerians. I only hope I express my ideas clearly in this post.
Firstly, how many renowned women from Yoruba history exist in the minds of Yoruba and Nigerian people today? Apparently there are only THREE of them, as I mentioned above they are Iyalode Efunsetan Aniwura, Madam Omosa and Madam Tinubu. Is there readily available information on these women? Well no, not exactly I am yet to come across substantial information on Iyalode Efunsetan and Madam Omosa. It seems the only reason we know so much about Madam Tinubu is because the British colonialist kept dossiers on her. While searching for information on Iyalode Efunsetan, the only thing I kept coming across was how her name had been maligned by someone, she had been portrayed as a ‘bad’ woman in some way. Now, people are debating whether Madam Tinubu should be acknowledged. Is it bizarre that it looks to me like this kind of treatment is specially reserved for women in Nigerian history?
Would we be debating whether or not Madam Tinubu should be acknowledged as a powerful person in Nigerian history if she were male? For a while after following the debate, I was totally confused and feeling all sorts of emotions! I started looking at other personalities in ‘pop history’, that is the sanctioned popularised history, and compiling a list of all the now morally wrong things they did in their time. For example, why is it that no one is debating whether the Dahomey empire should be studied, admired, praised the empire’s rise and decline is directly linked to the transatlantic slave trade? Or should I cease appreciating the Dahomean Amazons because of this knowledge? Would that be the ‘right’ thing to do? Nzingha of Ndongo and Matamba reportedly killed her subjects at will and kept a harem of male concubines (slaves?) yet today we appreciate her efforts against the colonising efforts of the Portuguese. The interesting thing I found is that the a lot of those men and women who fought against European colonisation of Africa had at some point or the other sold slaves to Western buyers. This apparently includes my favourite history subject from secondary school, Samori Toure.
According to a friend of mine, I should ignore the entire debate around whether Madam Tinubu was a ‘patriot’ or not, an anti-imperialist or not, because every single important West African from that period of time had a part in the slave trade. Surprisingly, Wole Soyinka has an essay on ‘Africa’s role in the transatlantic slave trade’ in which he mentions this, that is the power some Africans in that period got from trading slaves. I do not entirely agree with his essay though, anyone who says Africans sold ‘our own people’ will automatically get a side eye from me.
What I am getting at is this, is it impossible for Madam Tinubu’s efforts against the British Colonial government to be celebrated despite her dealings in the transatlantic slave trade? I am not one for redemption stories to be honest but the fact that she became an abolitionist (it is not specified whether she was dedicated to liberating slaves headed towards Europe and America or the domestic slaves she owned…this opens another can of worms). I personally don’t think we should be having the debate at all.
What I read
Tinubu Square, Central Lagos. MADAM EFUNROYE TINUBU
Denzer LaRay (1994), ‘Yoruba Women: A Historiographical Study’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 1-39