Sunday, September 19, 2021 1:00 pm
By Saburi Biobaku
King Dosunmu had good reasons for his reluctance to let Madame Tinubu depart from Lagos. She was then the leading middleman in the interior trade at Lagos and many of her trade creditors attempted to shelter her.
In the credit or trust trading system which obtained then as now, she was a ‘debtor’ to the tune of over £5,000 advanced to her for palm oil by various merchants. Her expulsion from Lagos, therefore, would mean certain financial loss to her creditors on the one hand, and loss of badly needed support for some influential citizens of Lagos, such as Turner, a Sierra Leone immigrant, on the other.
Tinubu’s hope of Consul Campbell’s relenting was, however, disappointed and, after loitering around Lagos for a while, she was escorted to Abeokuta at the Consul’s expense. Campbell congratulated himself for breaking a great middleman monopoly of trade at Lagos; but, in fact, he had only unwittingly planted at Abeokuta an influential Lagosian emigrée who could foment dissension between the Egba and the authorities at Lagos.
Arriving at Abeokuta, Tinubu settled in the Owu quarter. With her unfailing business acumen and enterprise, she quickly established a flourishing trade in gunpowder, bullets and other weapons of war. She built up her house into a salon where disgruntled Lagosians congregated and planned to avenge themselves on the interfering Consul at Lagos.
Before long, however, Madame Tinubu’s thoughts and energies were diverted into other channels. The warlike Dahomy were continually threatening Abeokuta, her native home and political refuge, with annihilation, especially since their unexpected and unaccustomed defeat in 1851. Another invasion was imminent in 1863 and Tinubu was foremost among those who were organizing the defence.
When the attack did come in 1864, her compound was converted into a veritable arsenal from which arms and ammunition were issued to the Egba forces on their way to the front. Then she took up a position at Aro Gate, nearer the front, at which the wounded were nursed by her and her female associates, where soldiers whose powder had been exhausted in battle replenished their store and from which any would-be deserters were sent back with a renewed determination to fight the Dahomyand save the Egba metropolis from destruction.
Needless to say that with such home-front action in bolstering up morale, the Egba drove back the Dahomy, with heavy losses to the enemy, and by their second victory they dealt a severe blow to the Dahomian prestige from which King Gelele and his followers never recovered.
For their part, the Egba recognized the immense contribution which Madame Tinubu had made towards their decisive victory and they rewarded her in 1864 with the title of Iyalode or First Lady. She acquired thereby a constitutional right to a voice in Egba affairs which strengthened her influence greatly. She thus had in Abeokuta a status which she never possessed in Lagos and one which afforded her every scope to indulge again in her past game of being the power behind the throne.
The opportunity came in 1869 when there arose contestants for the vacant title of the Alake. Ademola, one candidate, enjoyed the support of the traditional authorities while the other, Oyekan, had the backing of the emerging educated elements and the influential Madame Tinubu, the Iyalode. Tinubu and her associates eventually lost and Ademola I was recognized as the Alake but the Iyalode refused to be beaten and her faction withheld support from the acknowledged Alake.
Her opposition weakened the new regime and unfortunately contributed to the ineffectiveness of the Egba authorities just at the time when they needed a united front to withstand the inevitable consequences of the annexation of Lagos by the British. When, however, Ademola I died in 1877, Madame Tinubu again put forward her candidate for the throne, Oyekan, and this time she was successful and Oyekan was installed as the Alake in 1879. Tinubu assumed her accustomed role of the power behind the throne at Abeokuta. She was, therefore, at the height of her influence when she died in 1887.
Madame Tinubu’s claim to an honoured place in the annals of Nigeria was acknowledged by her contemporaries. Tinubu died childless and among the Yoruba the sting of childlessness is most keenly felt in contemplating death; for one’s children are most in evidence during funeral ceremonies. When Madame Tinubu died, the Egba rose and she was accordingly given a veritable state funeral. All the Egba mourned her death but also celebrated her fame as befitted a true heroine.
Nor has that fame tarnished much in retrospect. She was the forerunner of many distinguished women traders in Nigeria who, despite their illiteracy and lack of formal education, are responsible for an astonishing turnover of goods and have preserved a trading integrity which is the bedrock of the trust system. She may have traded in slaves, as Consul Campbell alleged, but so did many others in that era of transition towards legitimate commerce.
Her achievement in trade alone was impressive. But she added to it a taste for politics which in those days involved intrigues and the manipulation of rivals and puppet kings. Foiled in Lagos by a vigilant Consul, Madame Tinubu established herself at Abeokuta, and by demonstrating her patriotism in the defence of the Egba citadel against the Dahomy she won for herself a dominant place in Egba affairs.
When finally she placed her chosen candidate on the throne of the Alake, her success was complete. And in these, she vindicated the capabilities of Nigerian womanhood.
*Sabiru Biobaku, the late Professor of History was a Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos. Article published in the International Centre For Yoruba Arts and Culture