A book by a reputable legal luminary offers introspective glimpses of the once Crown Colony of Lagos from 1861 and 1906. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke interviews him
Possessed? Were it not for the accompanying telltale subtitle— A History of Law & Justice of the Crown Colony of Lagos— the title itself reeks of a suspenseful fiction. Well, that exactly is what it is not. It is a deliberately chosen title for the book of a narrative based on undiluted facts about Lagos, Olasupo Shasore informs his interlocutors — a duo from a PR consulting firm, FK Management and a journalist. No, there is not even a hint of faction it.
This, indeed, is one of those rare treasured moments. Fancy spending an hour this rainy late showery early Tuesday afternoon in the company of one of the nation’s most cerebral figures. The setting seems specially made for this kind of intellectual tête-à-tête.
It is so quiet in this unpretentiously stately white building that burrows itself into an intersection between Thompson Avenue and Glover Streets in the upscale Ikoyi neighbourhood of Lagos. Not even the slightest sound — be it the rustling sounds of paper or, perhaps, the click-clack of camera shutters — has so far obtruded into this colloquy.
“Provocative as the title of this book may appear I found I could not get away from it the moment suggested itself to me,” Shasore had already explained in the book’s preface. “First, I realised that the central objective of British policy on West Coast of Africa in the mid 1800s was directed at its handling of its settlements.”
Yes, he’s said it: the idea was to capture the readers’ attention with the title. Lagos, as a littoral city, seemed tailor-made to be possessed. It has been a commercial hub for over 200 years. “That brought about the richness of Lagos. It has affected what it is. When we say that Lagos is unique or special, we’re not begging. It’s already unique. We’re stating the obvious.”
All that, of course, reinforces the clamour for the formulation of a policy according the city a special status. Indeed, it is the only other capital city Nigeria has ever had. Its creation predated the creation of the geographical entity called “Nigeria”, which was a consequence of the economically-convenient Amalgamation on 1914. Hence Bishop Samuel Ajayi-Crowther was no Nigerian but a Lagos-African. Ditto his other illustrious contemporaries.
Why at all does the author have to write Possessed? It is, simply put, one of those life’s must-dos. This is especially since the colonials left behind a legacy of warped narrative of the city. Then, there is the fact that there may never have been a Nigeria without the possession of Lagos.
“History gives us a context as to who we are,” he explains. “It’s important to decide where we are going.” In Nigeria, Lagos plays both a historical and future role. The author shares a glorious past in its history and at the same time shares the prospect of a glorious future in its future. Indeed, there is a connection between the past and the future. “I used law and justice to access the history [of the city]. I concerned myself with all aspects of the history.”
The said possession was the result of an approval, which according to Shasore was “delicately given by Lord John Russell at London to the Consul Foote at Lagos on the 22nd of June 1861”. Of course, a plethora of activities presaged the eventual possession of the city.
Back to the party huddled around a tastefully-furnished lounge. This is also one of those sessions when the questions are literally plunked out from the speaker’s lips. Shasore, a legal luminary with lustrous antecedents, has meanwhile elevated this chitchat, swirling around his book, to a history lesson on the former British Crown Colony called Lagos. Sporting a black tie, thin blue-striped shirtsleeves and thick-rimmed glasses, he looks every inch a cerebral titan.
Questions whizz his way in staccato succession. Someone rightly points out the book has a reader-friendly format. The style too eggs the reader on to flip through the pages. “Many historians are academics and write from their academic background,” he points out. “I choose to stick to the facts.”
A narrative style, he calls it. Maybe that explains how come a history of its kind book eschews turgidity matter-of-factly. Possessed focuses on the period in the Crown Colony spanning from 1861 to 1906. “Lagos was formally taken on 6th of August, 1861, a regrettable ‘Possession Day’; even if the real seeds of colonial occupation were sown ten years earlier, on Christmas Eve, 1851 with the commencement of the bombardment of Lagos — ‘the five day war’,” the book’s preface continues. “Many Lagosians and Europeans died over the period of five days that it took to subdue the kingdom. It was a strong and decisive measure indeed; as much of an assault on legality and justice as it was against Lagos Africans.”
Shasore wrote the book on the premise that the narrative controlled and peddled by the colonials sought to justify the afore-cited bombardment and the events that railed it. A slave haven had to be dismantled. To do this, a “usurper king” had to be taken out. “That narrative is not without some self-serving interest. In any event we do however see an alternative narrative — a dynamic struggle and legitimate claim to the throne; an imperial quest for an important developing economic harbour and the determined, resistant people of Lagos.”
The Christmas Eve of 1851 attack on Lagos had, according to the eyewitness account of Italian visitor Jean-Batista Scala on February 1852, reduced the city’s population from about 30000 to just 5000.
Of course, the man who recently served as the Lagos State’s Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice also hopes through the book to debunk the assertion that Lagos was built on the proceeds from crude oil. He regales his guests of glorious past that includes such engineering feats as Carter Bridge, which was completed in 1901 and would swing sideways to allow a passage for water-borne vessels. Then, water supply would temporarily be cut off in the Lagos mainland neighbourhood, Ebute-Metta. The city’s residents also enjoyed electric power supply as far back as in 1892. Then, there was a tram service— called the Lagos tram service— which operated from 1901 to early 1940s.
Piecing together the picture of this Lagos took months of painstaking research that took the author to places both within and outside Nigeria like the House of Lords in London and the British National Archives, among others. Even so, the research process itself proved “most daunting”. “You read for eight hours to find just a snippet.”
On the kind of audience he writes for, Shasore says: “I was looking for the curious mind. We have them in abundance in Nigeria. People who don’t usually read history books will find [the book, Possessed] interesting because of the style.”
Penning down the book’s content alone took him 18 months. But, in all, the entire project of research and writing took him four years. Now that this book is in the public domain, the author expresses two fears. The first is if it fails to start a conversation and another is if it is deemed a xenophobic documentation.
Of course, readers should expect the book’s sequels, especially, the story of Lagos after 1906. No, the title, Possessed would not reincarnate in these future efforts. It had suggested itself and it captured the essence of the book.
Even as an already accomplished author of law books and articles in various journals and publications, this historical book should write Shasore’s name in gold. It has added an additional laurel to his already respectable standing as a litigation partner in a leading commercial law operating firm, Ajumogobia & Okeke as well as the current Chairman, Arbitration and Dispute Resolution Committee of Section on Business Law of the Nigerian Bar Association and Editor-in-chief of Commercial Law Reports Nigeria.