Business Tycoon, Slave trader and Socialite Efunporoye Osuntinubu Olumosa often shortened to Europe Tinubu after whom a prominent Lagos landmark, “Tinubu Square,” is named was born in the Ojokodo forest area of Egbaland to her father – named Olumosa and mother, Nijeede. Her mother named her Osuntinubu; a name that came from the belief that it was a child from the goddess Osun and was gotten from the depths of the river. She followed her mother and brother to Abeokuta from Egbaland when a lot of the villages around fell following the Yoruba wars of 1821. She was of Owu ancestry but the history books are unsure if it was either through her maternal or paternal side. Tinubu learned commerce from her mother and grandmother who was also a successful trader. She grew up to become a politically significant figure in Nigerian history because of her roles as a powerful female aristocrat and slave trader in pre colonial and colonial Nigeria while also being was a major figure in Lagos during the reigns of Obas Adele, Oluwole, Akitoye and Dosunmu.
Tinubu was married four times in her lifetime. In the first marriage, she married a local man and had two sons before her husband died following the family’s migration to the town of Abeokuta in 1830. In 1833, Prince Adele of the royal family in Lagos had just lost out in the fight over the Obaship of Lagos. So, he toured Abeokuta on a goodwill visit to thank the people for their support. It was there he met and got attracted to Tinubu, proposing to make her his wife. The young widow accepted and moved to Agbadarigi in Lagos with her new husband, where she lost her two sons to malaria. After her move to Badagry and despite her lack of formal education, Tinubu expanded her business activities to include arms and ammunition and slaves, establishing a flourishing trade in tobacco and salt. Tinubu arrived in Badagry at a time when the then illegal Atlantic slave trade was peaking on the eastern Slave Coast. Although her sons soon died, she used two slaves, allegedly a gift from her father, to trade between Abeokuta and the coast in slaves and other commodities.That same year, Prince Adele won the right to the throne and ruled Lagos with his new queen, Efunroye Tinubu. As queen, she invested her growing income from trade in slaves and other retainers, beginning the process of amassing personal followers and expanding her commercial operations. The enterprising Tinubu was later to expand her trade, which brought her into contact with the European slave traders, with whom she dealt as a middle person. She strengthened her position as an intermediary in the trade between the expatriate community and the indigenous population of Lagos on the one hand and the interior which include her birthplace, Abeokuta, on the other. Her marriage to the Prince did not bear any children.
Adele died in 1837 and was succeeded as Oba by his son, Oluwole who Tinubu had supported over Kosoko. Oba Oluwole had regular clashes with Kosoko because he felt he was the true heir to the throne of Lagos. To curb his excesses, Kosoko was banished from Lagos by Oluwole. During Oluwole’s reign, Madam Tinubu married Obadina. Obadina was Oluwole’s war captain and with the support of Oluwole, Tinubu and Obadina grew their empire by increasing trade with the Egbas. When Oluwole died in 1841, Tinubu supported Akitoye’s bid to ascend the Lagos throne over Kosoko. In return for her efforts to gain him the Obaship, Akitoye granted Tinubu very favourable commercial concessions. She was often accused of bending the thrones power to her personal and business advantage. This was evident by her influence in Akintoye’s palace. Following her extensive support for the Oba Oduwole, and Akintoye, she was accused of being the power behind the throne. She was unable to control him as much as was seen and against the wish of his chiefs and Madam Tinubu, Akitoye invited Kosoko back to Lagos and tried to enter his good side. Instead, the invited Kosoko dislodged Akitoye from the throne. Considering Tinubu’s alliance with Akitoye, she and other Akitoye supporters fled to Badagry when Kosoko’s coup became successful and he became Oba in 1845. While on exile, she used her status as a wealthy woman, to influence economic and political decisions. During her exile in Badagry, she tried to rally Akitoye’s supporters to start uprisings against the Oba Kosoko. In December 1851, the British bombarded Lagos under the guise of end to the slave trade in Lagos and dislodged Kosoko from the throne. They reinstalled Akitoye as Oba of Lagos as the British found him more easy to work with and control. Despite, Akitoye signed a treaty with Britain to outlaw the slave trade, Madam Tinubu continued trading in slaves as it was her most lucrative source of business subverting the 1852 treaty. She also established secret trades of slaves for guns with Brazilians and Portuguese traders building herself an army. Furthermore, she was awarded a tract of land from Akitoye which now makes as part of present-day Tinubu Square and Kakawa Street. In what was termed reckless, she broke more treaties and used the power of the throne for herself. A conflict developed between Tinubu and some slave traders including Possu, a Kosoko loyalist and in 1853, there was a rebellion directed towards her but aimed at the throne by Akintoyes chiefs. In the interest of peace, Benjamin Campbell, the British Consul in Lagos, asked Akitoye to send Tinubu on exile. After Akitoye’s death, Tinubu returned to Lagos and gave her support his successor, Dosunmu.
By 1853, when Akintoye was succeeded by Prince Dosunmu, Tinubu was seen as the real owner of the throne and her influence grew even more. Under Dosunmu’s reign, Tinubu had an army she armed with the guns from the Brazilians and Portuguese composed of slaves. Due to the sheer volume of her army, she sometimes executed orders that could only be disbursed by a King. Her power moves made Dosunmu scared of her influence in Lagos. Especially when weighed over his influence as the Oba didn’t fare very well. The colonial government in Lagos developed a support for the return of repatriated captives (mostly of Yoruba heritage) to settle in Lagos from England and the Americas. In 1855 when Campbell traveled to England Tinubu tried to influence Dosunmu to limit the influence of returnees but he refused to give in to her request consequently she started and led a rebellion against the Brazillian and Sierra Leonean slaves turned immigrants in Lagos for using their wealth and power against the office of the King and for breaking all the ancient customs of the Land. In this time, Lagos existed only as Lagos Island. Her outrage displayed a type of nationalism that worried the British masters.This was because many of the returnees were favoured by the British in commerce due to their ability to trade and build as against most of the indigenes of Lagos. The reluctance of the British to enter trade with the original Lagosians lead to the returnees dominating legitimate trade in Lagos. When Campbell returned in 1856, he asked Dosunmu to banish Tinubu. In May 1856, Tinubu was banished to Abeokuta.
In Abeokuta, Tinubu expanded her business activities to include a wide range of wares such as gunpowder and bullets. In time her influence began to be felt also in Egba politics in which she played two important roles; her contribution to the successful defence of Egbaland during the Dahomean invasion of 1863 following which she was awarded the title of Iyalode (First Lady) in 1864. In the Alake succession crisis of 1877, her chosen candidate was installed. While in Abeokuta, she allegedly opposed colonial policies in Lagos. In 1865, a fire engulfed the shops of some traders including some of her properties in Abeokuta, however, this doesn’t appear to have weakened her financially. Tinubu became involved in Abeokuta king-making activities as well, supporting Prince Oyekan over Ademola for the Alake of Egba title in 1879.The conferment of the title of Iyalode placed her in a position of power, which she was denied in Lagos, for, by virtue of it, she not only acquired the constitutional right to participate in Egba affairs but was also accorded honour and esteem in the community.
She died in 1887 when she was at the height of her popularity. Today in Abeokuta, a monument stands in the town square named after her, Ita Iyalode (Iyalode Square).
Oluwatosin Adeshokan is a freelance journalist and writer reporting stories about West Africa. He was previously the Culture Editor for YNaija. He tweets at @TheOluwatosin