After Making A Fortune In The Slave Trade, This African Woman Ended It

Efunroye Tinubu/Unknown /Wikimedia/Public Domain

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In Central Lagos stands a statue of Madame Efunroye Tinubu (c. 1810-1887), the wealthiest woman in Yorubaland in the 19th century. Born in Abeokuta, Ogun State in Western Nigeria, she would learn the skill of trade through the women in her family: her mother and grandmother.

Tinubu eventually transcended to political power and maintained community prominence in both pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria. The teachings of her foremothers laid the foundation of her economic empire. But, she rose to true power by utilizing her husband’s connections and began her empire in trading tobacco, salt, and slaves.

Tinubu was born into a society where slavery was common. However, the slavery model of West Africa was drastically different than the system introduced by the Europeans during the Transatlantic slave trade.

Europeans created the system of chattel slavery, in which an enslaved person became complete property of their owner. The enslaved had no rights and were treated as animals for their entire life. Any children they produced (or were forced to produce) became property of the “master.”

In 19th century West African societies, enslaved people were acquired and treated differently than in European societies. In Africa, the victors of warfare enslaved members of the opposing group for a defined period of time. Someone could become a slave in order to pay off debt, or to repay society for a crime they committed.

Unlike the European chattel slavery system, in African slavery a person did not remain a slave for their entire life, and slavery was not based on race. They often worked alongside their “masters” and earned the same living. Enslaved people would even enjoy meals and recreation with the family.

In stark contrast to American slavery, people enslaved in Africa could form close bonds and marry a member of the family to whom they belonged. With such close ties, enslaved Africans would usually become part of their owner’s family and eventually gain freedom.

Within this complex system, a person enslaved in Africa could also take others as slaves. The work of enslaved people ranged from domestic labor all the way up to positions as government officials with wide-ranging powers.

According to world-renowned scholar and historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Efunroye Tinubu was unaware of the differences in European and African slavery when she partnered with the British to trade Africans. However, once she learned of the horrific nature of European slavery, she made it her life’s mission to stop Africans from selling other Africans to Europeans. She was successful in getting many African kings to outlaw the practice.

In the midst of political turmoil - as power transferred from ruler to ruler (and eventually to colonial rule under the British), Tinubu remained a fierce defender of African interests and autonomy. However, her staunch opposition of British colonial rule would support her eventual exile.

While exiled, though, Tinubu influenced local politics. She’d also establish secret trades for guns, and subverted treaties in order to sustain her empire. Eventually, her political influence dominated British colonial interests and she’d be exiled, again, to her home state of Abeokuta.

Back in Abeokuta, Tinubu continued to build an army and was prominent in the trade of gunpowder and bullets. She’d expel invaders and would eventually receive the title of Iyadole (First Lady) in 1864. Her political endorsements held tremendous weight and her influence on commerce, independence and economic growth can be witnessed today in Tinubu Square.

For more information on the differences between African and European slavery, pick up a copy of Slavery In Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives.

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