History of Isale Eko


The history of Isale Eko is inextricably tied to the history of what is today known as Lagos State. Described as “a bush full of swamps and lakes” pre-settlement, Eko (Lagos) was a visiting point for fishermen and traders.

[i] Losi, J.B. (1914) History of Lagos, Tika Tore Press, Lagos.

In the beginning…

Isale Eko, which translates to ‘bottom of Eko’, was so named because of its location south of the area called ‘Eko’ (later called Lagos). Isale Eko started as the home of Aromire, a pepper farmer who was one of the sons of Olofin, an Awori settler, who was the chief of Iddo Island and the first Idejo (landowner) of Lagos Island. Aromire’s farm settlement, which was the first home of the inhabitants of Isale Eko, is today known as ‘Iga Idunganran’ (The Pepper Palace), the palace of the Oba of Lagos. 

Due to a badly handled case between the chief’s men and a wealthy woman called Aina, the Oba of Benin came to be involved in the affairs of Iddo Island. The Oba sent emissaries in response to Aina’s request for him to investigate the dispute. The men who arrived by canoe mistook, from a distance, fishing paraphernalia on the banks for signs of war readiness. Returning to the Oba, they reported their conclusions and he, assuming a challenge, sent them back on the attack with reinforcements.


A new system

Aseru, a war chief sent as reinforcement by the Oba, stayed back in Iddo Island after the defeat and capture of Olofin. Going on to war with other neighbouring towns, he got as far as Iseri where he eventually died. A man named Asipa then took his body back home to Benin. For his good deed, the Oba rewarded him by appointing him to govern Iddo Island. He was also given the Royal Drum (Gbedu) beaten by the Obas of Lagos to this day. His son, Ado, would become the first king of Lagos, with his lineage beginning that of the Obas of Lagos to this very day.


Slave Trade, Power, and Influence 

In 1704, Oba Akinsemoyin invited Portuguese slave dealers to Eko. This established the slave trade in Eko, which flourished as a trading centre, increasing her influence and dealings with her neighbours, including Badagry. The palace walls of Iga-Idunganran had their foundation laid at this time, and the roofing was done with tiles that were gifts from the Portuguese slave dealers. With friendship ties and trade firmly established among all the parties involved, it was a peaceful time and the influence of Isale Eko as the power capital of the new trading centre grew. By the time of the next king’s reign, the Ijebu’s had begun to trade their produce in Eko. Beans, palm oil, and palm kernels were exchanged for spirits, tobacco, gunpowder, and cloth, among other things. The power and influence of Oba Ologunkutere effectively quelled rebellion over tributes from within and even averted an invasion by Dahomey in Badagry. He also established the hereditary titles of Eko chiefs. Through petty and grand intrigues, inter-tribal wars, and changes, Isale Eko grew and changed. Slave trade continued to flourish and, during the reign of Oba Adele, Islam was established in the area.


In mid-1800 Europe and the Americas, slavery was beginning to die out, with colonisation taking its place instead. Back in Isale Eko, a dispute about who was the rightful heir to the throne, gave rise to wars. One aggrieved party, Oba Akitoye, asked for help from the British. With their help, Kosoko, a contender, was ousted in the Civil War known as Ija Agidingbi (also called ‘Boiling Battle’ or ‘Ogun Ahoyaya’) of December 1853. Support for Kosoko came from Dahomey in the form of a thousand warriors, but it came too late to do any good, and he went into exile at Epe.

The end of Slave Trade

Because of this victory and with the backing of the British, Akitoye was restored to the throne in January 1953. Within a short period after his reinstatement, he signed a treaty with the British, which made the following statements among others: “Slave trade must no longer be practised; the Missionaries must not be disturbed in their ministry in the town; human sacrifices must be abolished.”

By this time, colonial rule had gained more ground in Yoruba land. Even though it was still a consular era more than a colonial one with official cession of land and power, the British had been asked several times to intervene in many of their internal disputes, lending their military strength to their civil wars. The treaty signed by Akitoye to end slave trade encouraged the return of freed or rescued slaves from Brazil, Cuba, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Some people from the Yoruba hinterlands also escaped the wars in their homes to settle in Eko, which was relatively more peaceful because of the influence of the British.


The Cession of Lagos

The British government under Queen Victoria, perhaps by virtue of their spreading rule and influence through trade, missionary, and military power, coerced the next Oba of Eko, Dosunmu, to sign a treaty ceding the land of Eko to them. This officially made Lagos a British colony, making the Oba of Lagos subject to the British monarchy instead of the Bini kingdom. The new development encouraged even more emancipated slaves to migrate back to Eko. Many of these returnees were referred to as ‘Agudas’, ‘Saros’, and ‘Akus’.

Subdued by the superior strength of the British military power which included soldiers comprised of other neighbouring natives such as Ibadan and the Hausas, civil disputes in Eko and neighbouring colonies was often resolved with the intervention and military backing of the British government. The British were involved in the banishment of a number of influential figures in Isale Eko at different points in time. Chief Apena and his followers were deported to the Gold Coast (Now Ghana) by Governor Barrow in 1884, following his falling out with his friend and sovereign, Oba Dosunmu. Almost two decades prior to this, four years after the formal annexation of Lagos as a British colony, the legendary slave trader, Madam Tinubu, who had been at loggerheads with Dosunmu had been expelled from Lagos in 1865, with the help and authority of Consul Campbell. The power of the Oba of Eko became more traditional than administrative, with the absolute administrative powers in the hands of the British government through the colonial Governor of Lagos. The traditional rulers received their legitimacy and stipends from the administrative government, with the next Oba of Eko, Oyekan, receiving an increase in his stipend on account of his conduct and relations with the British colonial government.


Amalgamation of Nigeria

The rest of the Benin Empire and neighbours of the Sokoto Caliphate further up North had also been captured by this time. With the amalgamation of 1914, a new colonial entity called the ‘Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria’ came into being. Now called Lagos by the British government—from ‘Lago de Curamo’, which means ‘calm water’, as given to it in 1472 by Portuguese explorer Rue de Sequeira— Eko became the capital.

The presence of the Europeans and the returnees greatly affected the evolving culture in Isale Eko. The returnees had a culture that was a mix of their Yoruba heritage and their exposure to education and skills from the lands of their previous bondage. They, in addition to the Europeans, changed the architectural landscape of Eko in their respective settlements, and a few privileged returnees lived side by side with the Europeans.

The returnees valued Western education, and were at the forefront of sending their children to Europe and the Americas for further education. This, in addition to the political status of Lagos and the traditional status of Isale Eko, gave rise to a generation of elites who later branched out to places like Yaba, Ikoyi, and Victoria Island. These new social elites would also become some of the political elites of the first half of the 20th century. Their influence would greatly contribute to the political process that led to the 1960 Declaration of Independence.


Oba Adele II was the Oba of Lagos when Nigeria gained independence in 1960. While he had been influential in the political struggle that led to independence, his political affiliation was to Awolowo’s ‘Egbe Omo Oduduwa’ which was in opposition to Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NCNC/NNDP. While Isale Eko still enjoyed some traditional prestige, they had no real political power in the scheme of things. However, Adele’s prominent position in the Senate as deputy to Azikiwe was a testament to the role of Isale Eko in the rise of the political elite. After his passing, Oba Oyekan II acceded the throne and reigned for almost four decades.

The lesser kings of Lagos, the Idejos, who lost power to the colonial rulers, contested the rights to their land for decades in the 20th century. After the Biafran civil war, they continued the fight for their heritage until they began to gain victory in the 70s and 80s. By the 90s, they had regained ownership of their lands and full recognition of their titles. This restoration took place within the four decades of Oyekan II’s rule, and they still acknowledge Isale Eko as the traditional seat of power, and the Oba of Lagos as their head today.

New Millennium 

Oyekan II passed on in 2003, and the throne passed to the current Oba of Lagos, Oba Rilwan Akiolu. In the time since his accession to the throne, he has repeatedly clarified issues about the ownership of Lagos, its original language and inhabitants, and the place of Isale Eko in the history of Lagos.

Isale Eko is a bubbling, crowded city in Lagos Island today. With monuments and historical landmarks  such as the ‘Iga Idunganran’, Enu Owa Mosque, the first public tap in Nigeria, it is a veritable treasure chest of history, arts and culture, and recreation. It remains, in the timeless ways that truly matter, the heart of Lagos.