A Lagos Merchant and his Money: I. B. Williams, 1846-19251
A. G. Hopkins
The careers of the West Coast creoles were among the first topics to attract attention when the study of African history began its rapid expansion in the 1960s.2 In those days, there was considerable uncertainty about what kinds of African history could be written, how far back the past could be traced, and the extent to which the vast interior of the continent could be brought into the story. In these circumstances, the first generation of historians of Africa had good reason to hug the coastline, like the Old Coasters themselves, and to select topics that may seem obvious today, when the frontiers of research have moved far inland and subjects that were unheard of forty years ago have been colonized by highly-trained legions of talented new researchers.
Yet the enterprise of the past helped to produce the inspiration of today.3 Pioneering research on the history of trade and politics on the West Coast4 opened the way for more detailed studies of urban elites, notably in Freetown and Lagos.5 The questions asked then were not always those that would be asked now: ome contributions to the literature treated the creoles as agents transforming “traditional” societies in accordance with the precepts of modernization theory; others were concerned to emphasise the historical achievements of elites at a time when it was important to show that Africans could “run their own affairs.” Nevertheless, this research helped to shift the focus from Europeans in Africa to Africans in their own continent, asked fresh questions of colonial records, identified new sources, including private papers, and demonstrated the value of oral testimony.
By the 1970s, research had moved inland to colonize the hinterlands of the West Coast ports and had pushed down the social scale to encompass history “from below.” The very small number of scholars who continued to study creole elites produced penetrating, detailed work that was thought to be unattainable a decade or so earlier.6 Nevertheless, the subject lost visibility and, seemingly, importance as attention moved to other groups and new themes. Changing priorities left behind a subject that was both incompletely researched and open to new ideas. What we know about the West Coast creoles is a fraction of what we might still learn, and new evidence, if acquired, would now be placed in a context that reflected more recent interests, such as multiculturalism and the Atlantic diaspora, rather than the lost world of modernization theory.7 As for the continuing importance of the subject, it is hard to imagine any satisfactory account of the colonial era that does not assign a central role to indigenous elites, whether collaborative or not. As Marx and Engels famously observed: “the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part”8 —a thought that commentators on the right would also willingly endorse.
The chapter that follows seeks to place one man in the context of his times, which spanned the period before and after the partition of Africa. I. B. Williams is known only to a handful of specialists, and even then by name rather than in detail. One purpose of the present exercise is to assemble a biography or, more precisely, a business biography, thus adding to the still limited stock of available knowledge on the Saro of Lagos. A further, more demanding aim is to assess how far Williams’s business career represented the fortunes of African merchants in general at a time when foreign powers, and foreign companies, were advancing from the coast to the interior and radically changing the opportunities open to African societies.
Unfortunately for researchers, there are rather a lot of families in Freetown and Lagos
with the family name of Williams. Some are related; some are not. It is sufficient at this point to note that Isaac Benjamin Williams was unrelated to any of the other well known families in Lagos with the same surname. He was, or rather he became, the most prominent member of his own Williams family, though his younger brother, Jacob Sylvanus Williams (1849–1933), acquired greater public visibility, first as the Anglican pastor of St. Jude’s Church in Lagos, then as one of the founders of the African Church in 1901, and later as Superintendent of its Bethel Church.9
Isaac Benjamin Williams was born in Aberdeen, Sierra Leone, on 28 August 1846.10 His father (Robert), an Egba from Yorubaland, had followed a familiar route for those who landed in Freetown from other parts of the West Coast during the first half of the nineteenth century. He had been sold as a slave, exported from Lagos, intercepted by a British naval patrol, and delivered to Freetown, where he was freed, baptized, given an elementary education by Methodist missionaries and also an English surname, which in this (typical) case was that of his teacher. In 1851, the family moved to Wilberforce, Sierra Leone, but Isaac’s father died shortly afterwards, leaving his widow, Nancy, three sons and a daughter. In this difficult situation Isaac was placed temporarily in the care of an aunt, who looked after him while he attended King’s School in Freetown. A year or so later, Isaac’s mother married one John Scott, about whom almost nothing is now known. Evidently, however, this was a moment for reviewing the family’s future because in January 1857 part of the family—Isaac, his younger brother Jacob, his mother and his stepfather—landed in Lagos, joining others who had been tempted to return following the establishment of a British Consulate in 1851 and increasingly successful efforts to stamp out the slave trade.
Once in Lagos, the family settled in the Saro quarter in Olowogbowo, and Isaac resumed his education by attending Olowogbowo Day School until October 1859, when, aged thirteen, he was apprenticed to a local carpenter, J. L. Baptiste, who had premises on the Marina.11 The early years of Isaac’s career remain sketchy and are unlikely now to be amplified. However, it is clear that he started his own business as a carpenter in the late 1860s and did well enough to buy property in Martin’s Street, which he converted into a workshop. He also began part-time trading in 1875, buying small quantities of imported manufactures and selling them to visiting traders from the hinterland. He did well enough to purchase additional properties in the 1870s in Broad Street and Lower Martin’s Street. In retrospect, it is apparent that buying property in the area of Broad Street and the Marina was as close as anyone in Lagos could get to striking oil. At the time, however, the purchase of swampy land in a small port with an uncertain future may well have seemed both risky and costly—whatever the price. Purchases of this kind had been made possible by the creation of freehold tenure within the new colony of Lagos, which was converted from the consulate in 1861.12 These were crucial developments for those who had an eye to see them and the means of acting on the perception. Freehold tenure created negotiable security, which could be used to finance other activities, while the establishment of the colony provided a political guarantee that the new institutional arrangements would be underwritten by the British government.13 Merchant Prince
By 1880 Isaac’s trading venture had expanded to the point where he decided to give up carpentry and become a full-time businessman. In the 1880s he was said to have carried on “a very large business” and to have joined the ranks of the “merchant princes” of Lagos, as the commentators of the day termed them. In 1886 he moved a short distance from his Martin’s Street workshop to Broad Street, where he had an imposing house, named Raymond House, built on the corner with Martin’s Street. Raymond House, where Isaac stayed for the rest of his life, was constructed in the fashionable Brazilian style at a cost of about £1,600; the interior was equipped with the latest Victorian furniture, including a piano, and sets of crockery inscribed with his initials.14 From the mid-1880s he kept a horse and carriage and employed several servants, as well as a cook. In 1891 he ordered a small boat for use on the lagoon, stipulating that “it must be splendid.”15 Like other members of the Saro elite, he dressed in the style of an English gentleman and had suits made from “the very best cloth” shipped from England.16 A later survey of the Lagos elite classified him as being among the “dandies” of the 1900s.17 He took private lessons to improve his English, and subscribed to The Times Weekly, Illustrated London News, The Liverpool Courier, and the Review of Reviews, (with Sylvia’s Home Journal for his wife) to ensure that he was in touch with events in what was then the pace-setting metropolis.
Isaac Williams’s status as one of the big men of the day received public recognition in 1887, when he married Jane Beckley, following the death of his first wife, Mary, in 1885.18 Jane herself was well connected, being the daughter of another prominent Saro merchant, T. E. Beckley, and the granddaughter of Thomas Joe, who was also a sizeable trader in the 1860s and 70s. The marriage, at Tinubu Church in central Lagos, was attended by the Lagos elite headed by Governor Moloney, who proposed the toast to the bride and groom.19 Isaac’s high standing was confirmed in 1898, when he was chosen to be a member of the colony’s Legislative Council.20
By good fortune and careful husbandry, some of Isaac Williams’s records have survived. There are two letter-books containing copies of more than 1,000 outgoing letters: one deals with his business with the Manchester firm of John Walkden & Co. between 1882 and 1919; the other records some of his business transactions with other parties between 1889 and 1919. There is also an account book with John Walkden, covering the period 1881–1919, and a “memo book” containing copies of other business letters sent between 1914 and 1916.21 This is a considerable collection, and one of only a handful of Saro businesses whose records have survived from the nineteenth century. The papers have limitations: the outgoing letters are mostly routine, repetitive orders; there are almost no incoming letters; the surviving ledgers record purchases only; there is no sales ledger; balance sheets, assuming they were compiled, have disappeared. Nevertheless, the records add detail and precision to what would otherwise have to be a brief and highly generalized account; moreover, they are the only source to reveal what Isaac did after he ceased trading in 1889.
The merchant princes of Lagos made their money out of the “legitimate” commerce that replaced the slave trade in the second half of the nineteenth century.22 Legitimate commerce expanded, though irregularly, during this period, and it did so principally because regular steamship services, which began in the 1850s, created a market for bulk produce by cutting transport costs between Europe and West Africa (and in due course with the rest of the world too). The steamship created opportunities for new traders, including African traders, who could place orders for produce or goods with greater frequency and buy cargo space for a finite time, and so overcome the barrier to entry set previously by the need to own a sailing ship or at least a sizeable share in it. However, new entrants also had to be able to communicate with firms in Britain, establish their credit-worthiness and in general conduct themselves in a manner that created confidence in their business acumen and reliability. These requirements favored Saro merchants, who modeled themselves on Western ways, were for the most part Christians, could communicate in English, and held freehold property that could be used for security.
These circumstances enabled Saro merchants to achieve a prominent place in the overseas trade of Lagos in the second half of the nineteenth century. The most tempting opportunities were in the produce trade, principally the export of palm oil, and it was here that some of the greatest fortunes were made by men such as J. P. L. Davies, Z. A. Williams, and R. B. Blaize.23 The produce trade, however, was also the riskiest branch of the import-export business because prices could vary wildly and did so until the advent of the submarine cable, which communicated prices with greater speed. Fortunes made in this way were easily lost, and the consequences could be devastating, as both J. P. L. Davies and Z. A. Williams found out. Isaac Williams never touched the produce trade, and he never sold alcohol. He concentrated, instead, on a miscellany of imported goods, which included cotton balls, hardware, corrugated iron and zinc sheets, flatware, nails, rat traps, mirrors, earthenware, yarn, thread, clay pipes, needles, hooks, matches, soap, umbrellas, candles, paper, boots, buttons, cotton goods, and packaged foodstuffs such as biscuits, rice, tea, sardines and sugar. The scope pointed toward the department store; the scale was that of a sizeable corner shop.
Isaac Williams began ordering goods from John Walkden’s catalogue in 1877, when he was still a part-time trader. Walkden had begun a mail-order business—then a novel means of trade—in 1868. In 1887 the firm claimed to be agents for 100 firms of “native traders” and to have shipped goods the value of £100,000 to the west coast in that year.24 Williams’s correspondence with Walkden reveals a pattern of orders and an accompanying set of regular payments that were timed to fit with the steamship service, which left Liverpool for Lagos twice a month. It is evident that Williams had a keen business eye: his orders were precise, reflecting a mixture of quality considerations and consumer demand, and he was quick to point to superior products and lower prices when he found them among his competitors. In 1882, for example, he reported that he was “very much grieved at the cotton balls I mentioned last. You generally send the best quality to Mr. Z. A. Williams. But you have sent me inferior quality and not a few.”25 The nagging continued. In 1888 Williams began a three-and-a-half-page letter saying, “I have many complaints to make,” and concluded, after a host of details: “Really, Mr. Walkden, I can assure you that I can get this cheaper elsewhere.”26
Payment was also a perennial problem. Lagos was shifting from barter to cash in the 1880s, but there was no bank until 1894 and silver coin was often scarce. Williams made payment in bills of exchange drawn mainly on local expatriate firms, in bankers’ drafts, which were met from his account with the National Provincial Bank in Manchester, and sometimes in Spanish (and other) silver dollars.27 Occasionally, he had to ask Walkden to supply silver coin to maintain the liquidity of the Lagos market. Produce traders could still exchange palm oil for imported manufactures, but import merchants were obliged to convert to cash sales.
Williams ordered exclusively from Walkden, and in the early days took great care to establish his credentials: “I should like you to trust me,” he wrote in 1882, “as I trust you; rest assured that if I owe you 1d. you are sure to get it again.”28 In 1884, following an exchange about non-payment, he wrote: “it is high time for you to believe that I am determined not to swindle any man.”29 For his part, Williams tried to ensure that Walkden offered him the best terms possible by making them aware that he could take his business elsewhere. He reported an approach by the Lagos Warehouse Co. in 1885, concluding that “if you can let me have goods as cheap as possible I do not see why I should be roving here and there.”30 He came near to defecting in 1886 but reaffirmed his loyalty at the end of the year. In 1887 he offered a statement of allegiance capped by a poorly-disguised request: “But rest assured that I can never forget an old friend. You are my old friend, but some things are very dear.”31
The lack of sales’ ledgers and balance sheets makes it impossible to say exactly how profitable the business was in the 1880s, but estimates that improve on guesswork can be derived from the figures for the purchases Willams made from John Walkden & Co., his sole supplier. The accompanying table shows that Williams paid Walkden an average of £5,280 a year, which covered the cost of goods, freight and insurance. He then paid an ad valorumduty of 4 percent in Lagos, which amounted to an average of £211 per annum and raised the total annual average cost of his imports to £5,491. The difficulty from this point is to know what mark-up Williams added to arrive at the retail price because until now there has been very little precise information on this crucial matter either for Lagos or for comparable west coast ports. Given the life-style of the merchant princes and some knowledge of profit margins in Britain, it would be easy to assume that the mark-up was considerable, perhaps in the range of 20–50 percent. Fortunately, however, some convincing (and previously unpublished) evidence for Lagos is available: it can now be said with confidence that the mark-up on goods imported from Europe in the 1880s and 1890s was no more than 10 percent. This is the figure reported by one of the principal European traders and confirmed independently by two of the leading African merchants.32 If this percentage is applied to Williams’s annual gross profit, it yields an average of £550 before the deduction of overhead costs. Overheads were relatively limited because Williams had already bought his premises (in Martin’s Street) from earlier trading profits. The main residual expenditure was the salary of a clerk (Samuel Augustus Bright), who would have earned about £50 a year.33 If a further £50 is deducted as a notional allowance for other, unspecified costs, we can conclude that Williams’s net profit in the 1880s averaged about £450 a year.34
I. B. WILLIAMS: TRADING STATEMENT, 1882–1889 (£) YearPurchases Duty (4%)Total CostTurnoverGross Profit
(Total Cost + 10%)
1882 3,182 127 3,309 3,640 331
1883 5,193 208 5,401 5,941 540
1884 7,083 284 7,367 8,104 737
1885 5,664 227 5,891 6,480 589
1886 5,382 215 5,597 6,157 560
1887 4,856 194 5,050 5,555 505
1888 6,891 276 7,167 7,884 717
1889 3,986 159 4,145 4,560 415
Source: I. B. Williams: Account Book with John Walkden, 1881–1919. The duty paid has had to be calculated on the basis of purchases plus freight and so slightly overestimates the customs payments Williams made because duty was charged on the invoice value only.
This conclusion yields some important information. At first sight, the figure seems too low to support the affluent lifestyle of one of the merchant princes of Lagos, and was certainly a good deal less than the income of the high-risk, but also often short-lived, produce merchants who stood at the top of the earning league. Yet, all things being relative, Williams’s net profit was sufficient for him to take his place comfortably among the Lagos elite. The Oba’s stipend was only £200 a year between 1885 and 1894, skilled craftsmen earned between £36 and £60, and unskilled laborers only £10 to £12. So, it seems that Williams’s income was indeed sufficient for him to build Raymond House, buy a number of other properties, live well, employ sundry servants, and travel regularly to Europe. Nevertheless, the fact that the profit margin was so narrow also indicates how competitive the import-and-retail business had become after the steamship had opened it to low-cost entrants. As Williams wrote in 1887:
The state of trade now is not so much encouraging. Consequently, I am
compelled to mention something which I have noticed for a long time.
Indeed, for the past two years especially there are so many shops built here
that it is very hard for each to effect sales as it was some time ago.35
His comment in the following year that “business is not so encouraging now, it is very small profit”36 might be taken as a typical businessman’s grumble, except that Williams had no record of complaints on this subject, and his comment fits what we now know of the narrow profit margins on sales of imported goods. These circumstances help to explain his preoccupation with the details of quality and price, his permanent search for cheaper prices from his supplier, his vigilant observation of his rivals, and his anxiety when trade was disrupted by political disputes on the mainland. In these matters, his business was a microcosm of the wider economic issues that were drawing the European powers into West Africa in the late nineteenth century.37
In 1887, Williams notified Walkden that he would not be placing further orders with them. Walkden doubted his explanation that he was in poor health and needed a rest, and suspected that he intended to transfer his business to one of their competitors. In the event, the orders were resumed and good relations restored. But in April 1889 Williams again wrote to Walkden informing the firm that he was unwell and had decided to “keep away from business for a few weeks.”38 He followed this letter in June by saying:
Really Mr. Walkden I am in need of a long rest, for the last 16 years
I have not had a week’s rest to myself, always busy, had it been that
I have a trustworthy man that understood to manage my business I
would have taken a trip to England, but as I have none I must manage
the best way I can…. 39 Walkden wondered if the explanation might be a cover for negotiations with other prospective business partners. Yet, whatever the cause of Williams’s ill-health, his claims had substance: his letters became less frequent and in October he apologized for “not writing as often as I ought.”40 It was also true that Williams was thinking of disposing of his business, and in August he responded to Walkden’s queries by referring to an “arrangement” he was hoping to make.41 By December relations were again amicable. Williams thanked Mr. Walkden for his “kind and friendly letter” and promised to give him a full explanation of what he had decided to do with the business when he visited England in 1890.42 For the moment he said that he needed to free himself from business and expressed his regret that Walkden did not have “a man here of your own who would have taken up my business when I am in need of rest.” 43
As we now know, Williams had decided to sell his business to the Lagos Warehouse Co. Ltd., a Liverpool firm that had begun business in Lagos in 1881 and expanded rapidly thereafter.44 In 1891 Lagos Warehouse paid in customs duties the equivalent of 20 percent of the entire revenue of Lagos,45 and in 1896 was said to be “the first” trading firm in the port.46 The precise terms of the sale are not known, though it seems that Williams received a cash payment, joined the board, and held 1,300 £1 shares in the company. Early hopes were quickly followed by disappointing results. In 1895, Williams wrote expressing his sympathy for the directors, who “lacked the capital to make the business successful.”47 In 1898 he wrote to a nephew saying that the shares, which were fully paid and so had cost him £1,300,48 were now “lost”: “there has been no dividend for the past five years and the company is losing money every year.”49 The company, no longer the “first firm” in Lagos, went into liquidation and was bought by John Holt in 1899.50 In the event, Williams was able to rescue a good deal of his investment: he sold some shares in 1898 and converted the remainder after Holt took over the company.51
The sale of the business did not end Williams’s connections with Walkden, but after 1889 his purchases were almost entirely for his own use, though his wife imported some goods through the firm for her own small trading business.52 Walkden opened their own branch in Lagos in 1890, became a private limited company in 1900 and remained a family business until 1917, when they were bought by Lever Brothers.53 Williams’s long relationship with Walkden’s combined competitive business dealings with a degree of personal attachment. Christmas presents, wedding invitations (and wedding cake) were exchanged from an early date, and condolences were expressed on the occasion of the death of family members. There was some substance behind these formalities: representatives of the Walkden family stayed with Isaac Williams in Lagos; he, in turn, stayed with the Walkdens in Manchester during his frequent visits to England. The final exchange of letters took place in 1919, when Isaac Williams wrote to Walkden as follows:
All of us in Lagos both white and black were glad a few days ago when we
heard that peace has been signed. And I now seize this opportunity to write
this important letter to you so that you may know what I am doing. As my age
is advancing very rapidly, I have decided to close up all my affairs as
quickly as possible. Of course you and I have been dealing with each other
for the past forty-four years, and I feel very sorry indeed to put the above fact
to you, and I should like you to do all that lies within your power to close my
affairs with you finally by first opportunity. 54
“My reason for writing this letter to you,” he concluded, “is that it is good for every man to set his house in order before the appointed time comes.”55
Thomas Walkden’s reply, one of the few in existence, read as follows:
We quite understand your wish to get everything settled up. Still, we think
you are only a comparatively young man and we do hope you will live
for many years and we shall have the pleasure of seeing you once again
in England. As you say, it is many years since we commenced business
operations together and we think no small credit should be given to our
late senior for the way in which at the commencement he managed the
business on this side for you, and it has always been a rather sore point
competitors, and certainly we all thought that, when you contemplated
selling the business, you might have given us the opportunity of
purchasing same, as we considered that we had been the means of
building up the business for you. Since you retired from business we
have always given careful and special attention to your small personal
orders, although we have certainly not made anything out of same.
Still, we have done it for old friendship’s sake. We shall be pleased
to hear from you at all times and if you do come to England again
we shall be pleased to see you. 56
This was not the most gracious of farewells but it captures the symbiotic relationship between business partners who needed to secure the best deal from each other without destroying their joint interests. Walkden’s specific complaint about Williams’s action in disposing of his business in 1889 seems to be overstated. The correspondence indicates that Walkden was aware that Williams was contemplating alternative arrangements. If they were serious about wanting to buy his business, it seems strange that there is nothing in the correspondence to indicate their interest, still less any sign of them making an offer. Williams himself expressed regret at the time that Walkden did not have “a man” in Lagos and was not in a position to take over his business. It may be that by 1919 Walkden’s collective memory of what happened 30 years earlier had slipped a little and had settled at a point that favored their own interpretation. It is possible, of course, that the Lagos Warehouse Co. had made Williams an offer on condition that he refrained from discussing it with other parties. However, there is no evidence that this was the case and it seems unlikely that Williams would have allowed himself to be tied in this way without first seeing whether Walkden, his sole supplier, was interested in buying him out. His reasons for selling his business seem to be those given in his correspondence: he had been unwell, and trading conditions were becoming more difficult as a result of increased local competition and the disruption to the Lagos market caused by political disputes in the hinterland.57 When the right offer came along, he took it. At all events, Williams decided, wisely, not to add to the correspondence; the letter book, which began in 1882, ends at this point.