Royal Navy destroys Lagos – ‘an immense number of natives being killed’
26 December 1851
On 26 December 1851, British naval vessels began a two day bombardment of the coastal town of Lagos on the west coast of Africa. An account of the assault from Her Majesty’s frigate Sampson, cited in The Times and several other newspapers, boasted of the ‘almost total destruction of the town,’ resulting in ‘an immense number of the natives being killed.’1 Another in the Illustrated London News, described how the ‘the town burnt famously all night,’ and ‘the poor inhabitants made haste to quit in the greatest possible confusion,’ adding that ‘one of the chiefs told me he knew of 500 killed by our fires besides a great number wounded.’2 The pretext of the massacre was the suppression of the slave trade, but the real motive appears to have been an impatient eagerness to open up new markets for British commerce.
Commodore H. W. Bruce, commanding the British flotilla, gloated in a dispatch to the admiralty over the ‘utter destruction of (the) town, and the establishment of the friendly chief Akitoye, with his followers, in the seat of power at Lagos.’ He made no comment on the number of people killed in the town itself, but as to the death of fifteen of his own men (soon revised upwards to eighty), he described it as a ‘very severe loss which has attended this achievement, but in which I trust their lordships will feel that the dignity of England has been asserted, and the honour of the flag gloriously sustained.’3
The Times noted the fortunate coincidence that the port was not just beneficial for the prestige of the flag but also a vital strategic foothold for British commerce, observing that ‘Lagos is the key of the country, healthy, and well situated for trade; the bar may be passed in good sailing vessels four days out of seven; and has ten feet on it at high water.’4 The Morning Post concurred, explaining excitedly to its readers how ‘the destruction of that port, as we formerly took occasion to mention, opens up an immediate and direct channel of communication with the interior of the country’ and noting that ‘the town being situated on high ground, and removed from the pestilential swamps of the coast, is much more healthy than Sierra Leone, and nothing appears wanting to the development of this thriving free settlement but the advantage of direct intercourse with European traders.’5
- ”The Coast of Africa: Destruction of Lagos,’ The Times, 16 February 1852, p. 8, ‘The Coast of Africa: Destruction of Lagos,’ The Reformer’s Gazette, 21 February, 1852, p. 4, ‘Destruction of Lagos by the British Squadron,’ The Norfolk Chronicle, 21 February 1852, p.2 and ‘The Coast of Afrcia: Destruction of Lagos,’ The Northampton Mercury, 21 February 1852, p. 1.
- ‘The Destruction of Lagos,’ The Illustrated London News, 13 March 1852, p. 16.
- Commodore Bruce cited in ‘The Capture of Lagos,’ The Times, 17 February 1852, p. 8 and ‘The Capture of Lagos,’ The Morning Post, 17 February 1852, p. 6. The total number of British fatalities was soon revised upwards to eighty – The Times, 19 February 1852, p. 5.
- ‘The Coast of Africa,’ The Times, 23 February 1852, p. 5. See also ‘The Affair of Lagos,’ The Dublin Evening Mail, 25 February 1852, p. 4.
- The Morning Post, 24 February 1852, p. 4.
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