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Madam Tinubu: Meet The Most Powerful Female Slave Trader in Yorubaland in the 19th Century

Born in the Egba Land of the Yoruba people of West Africa at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Madam Efunroye Tinubu was a politically significant figure in Nigerian history because of her role as a powerful female aristocrat and slave trader in pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria.

Madam Tinubu: The Most Powerful Female Slave Trader in Yorubaland in the 19th Century

Efunroye was born in the Ojokodo forest area of Egbaland. Her father’s name was Olumosa. She was allegedly of Owu ancestry, either through her maternal or paternal side.

Efunroye had several marriages and few children, and a few of her husbands are known to have mysteriously died.

According to traditional stories, Madam Efunroye used her charms to seduce men of power to climb up the social ladder because she was not physically attractive. After her first husband died leaving her with two sons (who also later died of malaria), Madam Efunroye remarried the exiled Oba Adele Ajosun in 1833 who, while visiting Abeokuta, was allegedly charmed by Tinubu.

Efunroye moved with the exiled Oba to Badagry, which was traditionally the place of refuge for Lagos monarchs.

Madam Tinubu arrived in Badagry at a time when the then illegal Atlantic slave trade was peaking on the eastern Slave Coast. She used two slaves, allegedly a gift from her father, to trade between Abeokuta and the coast in slaves and other commodities. Never again blessed with children, she invested her growing income from trade in slaves and other retainers, beginning the process of amassing personal followers and expanding her commercial operations.

In 1835, her husband the exiled Oba Adele Ajosun was invited by the chief kingmaker to become Oba (king) again after Oba Idewu, died and Tinubu accompanied him as a royal wife.

Madam Efunroye continued in local slave trading and extended her prowess into tobacco and salt. Following her husband’s death two years later, she reportedly used her influence to install her stepson Oluwole as the Oba of Lagos over that of Kosoko’s ensuring her continued access to the commercial and other advantages associated with royal patronage.

Shortly after, she married her dead husband’s military advisor, Yesefu Bada.

Madam Efunroye continued to extend her trade and ventured into the palm wine business. Through her marriage to the military advisor, she established contact and trading partnership with the Brazilian, Portuguese and other European traders.

Madam Tinubu created a monopoly in the palm oil business and in slave trade as-well.

The ammunition she got from selling slaves were used in the Yoruba wars of 1840s and 1850s.

It didn’t take long for Madam Efunroye to partner with the British to trade African slaves. She became even more powerful after helping her brother-in-law, Akintoye become the new Oba after the sudden death of her stepson, Oba Oluwole.

The enthronement of her brother-in-law Akintoye led to a bitter succession dispute between Akitoye and the Kosoko’s, Akitoye, who was initially crowned king was defeated in 1845 and was forced with his followers into exile at Badagry.

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Throughout these years of political turmoil, Tinubu seized opportunities to expand her trade and build a large and powerful household of slaves and other retainers.

In 1851 the British, encouraged by Akitoye, bombarded Lagos, deposed Kosoko, and reinstated Akitoye as king. In appreciation, Oba Akitoye signed the Treaty Between Great Britain and Lagos in 1 January 1852 ending the Atlantic slave trade and developing new kinds of commerce.

Article I of the Lagos Treaty of 1852 reads

The export of slaves to foreign countries is for ever abolished in the territories of the King and Chiefs of Lagos; and the King and the Chiefs of Lagos; and the King and Chiefs of Lagos engage to make and to proclaim a law prohibiting any of their subjects, or any person within their jurisdiction, from selling or assisting in the sale of any slave for transportation to a foreign country; and the King and Chiefs of Lagos promise to inflict a severe punishment on any person who shall break the law.

Hearing about the reinstatement of her brother-in-law, Madam Tinubu returned to the town and though Akitoye signed a treaty with Britain outlawing the slave trade, Tinubu subverted the 1852 treaty and secretly traded slaves for guns with Brazilians and Portuguese traders.

Madam Efunroye Tinubu
©Asiri Magazine

Akitoye later died on September 2, 1853 and was succeeded by his son, Oba Dosunmu. Dosunmu believed Akitoye was poisoned by Kosoko’s loyal chiefs: however, Jean Herskovits, a research professor of history at the State University of New York who specializes in African (particularly Nigerian) history and politics, raises the possibility that Akitoye may have committed ritual suicide, fitting the traditional pattern of rulers taking their own lives after failing to meet expectations; Akitoye may have realized that his bargain with the British significantly reduced his influence in Lagos. she said.

Madam Tinubu had a negative attitude to the presence of the British in Lagos and resented the British Consul Benjamin Campbell whom She believed was interfering in the sovereignty of Lagos and the royal authority.

In 1855, Madam Tinubu took a stance against the British in their efforts to further flex their colonial muscles into Yorubaland.

The British consul too also disliked her for her reservations towards British presence in Lagos as well as her dominant influence of the trade routes from the ports to the coastal cities and interiors by extension.

Consul Campbell’s goal was to have Lagos ceded to the British and he knew it was impossible if Tinubu was around. She had enough wealth to mobilize an army and had great influence with European merchants enough to request mercenary fighters and warships.

He plotted to turn her against Oba Dosumu as well as break her monopoly rights to commodity brokerage.

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His first move was to restrict the ‘iwofa’ system where a lender could use his son/daughter as collateral for a loan.
Failure to pay, she becomes a property of the creditor. Madam Tinubu had many iwofas at the time and as such, the law was to her disadvantage financially.

Her monopoly and control of power was finally broken in May of 1856 when she challenged British Consul Benjamin Campbell who railed against her economic dominance and secret slave trading with Europeans and Brazilians. Tinubu organized a plot to remove Consul Campbell but before it could be implemented, Campbell confronted her with British gunboats and demanded that she be exiled from Lagos. In the face of superior British military power, Tinubu was forced back to Abeokuta.

At her exit from Lagos, traders rejoiced to see her go, quite elated by the deregulation of the commodity market bound to take effect after her exit. Five (5) years after her exile to Abeokuta, Oba Dosumu signed a treaty that ceded Lagos to the British.

In Abeokuta, Tinubu re-established a large household and used her slaves and retainers to produce and trade palm produce, a new export, and other commodities. Madam Tinubu also traded in arms and supplied Abeokuta with munitions in the war against Dahomey. Her activities in the war earned her the chieftaincy title of the Iyalode of all of Egbaland. While in Abeokuta, she allegedly developed and adopted a staunchly anti-British stance.

She eventually stopped selling slaves to the Europeans, it seems.

Many publications have asserted that Madam Tinubu became a changed person after learning about the evils of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

However, an often cited hagiography about Madam Tinubu by Oladipo Yemitan paints a different picture of an unapologetic and profit minded stance.

On one occasion, during her final sojourn in Abeokuta, she was alleged to have sold a young boy into slavery and was accused of it. When arraigned before Ogundipe Alatise over the matter, she reportedly explained: ‘I have a large house-hold and I must feed them well. I need money to do that, that’s why’.
— Oladipo. Yemitan, ‘Madame Tinubu: Merchant and King-maker’

Another section of Yemitan’s Tinubu biography, referred to as the Amadie-Ojo Affair, captures a slave trading deal gone sour in 1853 (notably after the 1852 Treaty abolishing slavery in Lagos) where Madam Tinubu tells another slave trader (Domingo Martinez) that “she would rather drown the slaves (20 in number) than sell them at a discount”.

Madam Tinubu: The Wealthiest Woman in Yorubaland in the 19th Century   Who
Statue of Madam Tinubu in Lagos

Madam Tinubu died in Abeokuta in 1887. Today in Abeokuta, a monument stands in the town square named after her, Ita Iyalode (Iyalode Square). Her Statue in Lagos can be found at the Tinubu’s square on the Lagos Island.


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