Badagry, a small coastal community with big history, occupies the extreme western corner of Lagos, towards the Republic of Benin. If you are heading that way, and you have plenty of time, you should tarry to savour the town. It has enough attractions to make your day. For many, a mention of Badagry conjures the vignettes of slavery past; for others, all they see is a mental image of a beach and its accustomed joie de vivre. Yet others remember the town for its cardinal role in the propagation of Christianity in the country. All are parts of the whole.
There is the town’s intriguing slave past. For latter-day generations, for whom slavery is but academic history, Badagry has bits and pieces of relics that give good insights into the brutal life of the precarious era of the slave trade.
Slavery, evangelization and education – that was the order in which life evolved back then, culminating in colonialism. Badagry as the major foothold for the early missionaries was the cradle of western education in Nigeria. Vestiges of this checkered past abound in the coastal town for interested tourists to explore.
Geographically, Badagry, hedged by the Atlantic Ocean and the lagoon, is encircled by a fascinating ecosystem of beaches and waterfront.
With effective time management, you can have a total experience, rather than a narrowed exploration of Badagry. However, what that means is an emotional rollercoaster––from the euphoria that comes from hearing the lore of the birth of evangelism and missionary education in Nigeria, to the stormy sentiment that comes with the ugly narratives of the slave trade inside the various slave museums which is likely to leave the most sensitive person with emotional dissonance to the exhilarating feelings that comes from luxuriating on a long stretch of pristine beach with beautiful coconut trees backdrop.
On September 4, I joined students of Eko College of Management and Technology on a field trip to this corner of Lagos.
Our first port of call was the first storey building in Nigeria, a white, one-story building with a corrugated roof that stands inside an expansive land adjacent to the Badagry Marina. Its foundation was laid in 1842, but the house was completed in 1845. After 176 years, it still stands a sturdy structure.
From the outside, the building may appear old and frail and whitewashed, but its wooden staircases looked as strong as ever. Inside, the building is divided into six big rooms, four stores, two big sitting rooms and a safe for keeping valuables.
The building is the most popular mission house in Badagry. There, the first set of missionaries in Nigeria settled, including returnee slaves from Sierra Leone, such as the Rev Samuel Ajayi Crowther.
Though old on the outside, the building has many attractions on the inside. This includes an inventory of samples of original materials used for the building such as bricks, nails, hinges and corrugated sheets, all imported from Britain.
A first-time tourist would find the storey building a museum of sorts for information about the history of Christianity and western education in Nigeria.
You get to meet the first set of missionaries, not physically anyway–– their framed pictures, the rooms they occupied and record and relics of their activities. The ground floor is where you have the room of Mr Claudius Philips, the first Western teacher in Nigeria. Philips in his portrait on the wall wore a black shirt, suit and a white trouser. He lived in the room from 1845 to 1868, some 23 odd years. Others are Rev C.A. Gollmer, (who was in charge of the construction of the building), Rev Thomas Birch Freeman, the man who sowed the seed of Christianity in Nigeria, and Rev. Henry Townsend who arrived in Badagry in 1842. Freeman and Townsend both observed the first Christmas service in Nigeria under the famous Agia tree in Badagry in 1945.
Upstairs, you get an eyeful of the first scriptures in Nigeria encased in glass. The first English Bible brought by the CMS missionary, Townsend in 1842 and the first Yoruba Bible translated by Rev Samuel Ajayi Crowther in 1845, printed in Great Britain by Lowe and Brydone Printer Limited of London.
In the Interpreters Room, a picture of Crowther hung on the wall. There is Bible Room for early versions of the Bible.
Look out of the window and you have a long view the missionary had of the Marina some 176 years ago.
In another room, the picture of Herbert Macaulay, Ajayi Crowther’s grandson hung on the wall.
There in that enclosure, they lived and worked, the early who’s who of Christianity in Nigeria.
Henry Townsend famously wrote: “This house is strong and convenient, and will prove very comfortable. During the erection, many persons have come to see it, especially of the single roof, it being the first I have ever seen.”
Today, it is still a fascinating structure.
There is the story of the Agia tree, where the gospel was first preached in Nigeria on September 24, 1842, by Rev Freeman. Under the Agia tree, early Christians celebrated the first Christmas. A portrait depicting the scenery hung on the wall. The real Agia tree had aged and fallen on June 1959 and a monument built on its ground. You may visit the site of the monument.
There is also a well in the compound of this historic building. Dug in 1842, the well served as a source of drinking water for the early white community. Today, the well still serves the community and people travel from afar to fetch its water which is reputed to have healing power.
From here, you can unravel the story of Western education in Nigeria, as it evolved in the British colony that started from Badagry.
The first primary school, established by the Wesleyan mission (Methodist Church) in 1843 was named Nursery of Infant Church, but later became St. Thomas’ Anglican Nursery and Primary School, founded by Rev. Gollmer of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1845, inside the first storey building in Badagry. The school took off with 20 men who spent 12 years completing their primary education. In 1869, the missionaries founded Ereko Methodist School.
In 1943, the Wesleyans went to central Lagos and founded Olowogbowo Methodist School, located behind Wesley Cathedral, and still waxing strong today. The Ereko Methodist School was later relocated to Berkely Street where it stands today a reputable institution of learning.
Of the dark side of the town, there are a handful of slave relics museums in Badagry, but the Mobee Slave Relic Museum, located a stone throw away at Boekoh quarters, sufficed for the occasion. At the height of the slave trade in Badagry, the white cap Chief Sunbu Mobee was the leading slave merchant on whom Portuguese slave traders depended for their supply.
The museum stood on the square where centuries ago he traded humans for Portuguese commodities. So we entered into the surreal world of Kunta Kinte, the protagonist of Roots, the seminal slave movie. The guide’s voice, like a metronome, spoke of cruelty, torture and other vicious treatments inflicted on slaves; he sustained the narration in measured cadence as he pointed out iron instruments––neck chains, leg manacles, children shackles, ankle clasp, mouth clip, wrist fetters and water bowl––and their sinister purposes.
The narrator gave further insight into the exchange rate between the white slave merchants and their local traders.
Two rusty cannons outside, we were told, were procured each with 100 slaves; an umbrella was bought with 40 slaves, while mirror, an enchanting commodity to Africans of that age, was procured with as many slaves as possible depending on the buyer’s bargaining power; a bottle of gin was worth the lives of 10 slaves; a Dane gun cost 40 slaves and a ceramic pot 10 slaves. I left the museum sober.
We completed the tour with a visit to “Point of No Return,” the point on the marina where hundreds of years ago, slaves began the definite journey across the Atlantic.
Whatever dark emotion the tour must have brewed in your mind can easily be dissipated by going to the beach. That was what we did; to Suntan beach we headed, to tropical breeze, to a place where elements of nature were wild and free.
On weekdays, the beach is crowd-free. Here and there, you’d find a few white garment churchgoers, members of Celestial and Seraphim churches; otherwise, the beach was peaceful. Its Caribbean ambience has been enhanced with a few bars plugged into the sandy beachfront, selling an assortment of drinks. The waves, what a sight! A body of rolling blue water wiped into ferocious surf. The students, pumped full of juvenile adrenaline, made the most of the moment–beach soccer, dancing, games, horse riding and a dip in the water. The beach was the right denouement to the trip, after the encounter with a torrid past at the museum.