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Badagry is not Nigeria’s ‘Door of Civilisation’

It is not uncommon to hear or read the Ogu or Awori native of Badagry describe his hometown as “the door of civilisation in Nigeria”. Sometimes, in expressing this idea, he would opt for “cradle” in place of the metaphoric “door”. The question that promptly comes to mind is: What is the origin of this idea, and what really is meant by it? In answering this two-fold question, it is important to point out that the Badagrian is wont to make the statement, putting on some airs as he does, while lamenting some marginalisation of Badagry and/or her peoples. At other times, he throws in this line in an attempt to (re-)claim for Badagry its (deserved) pride of place in Nigeria’s history and in the national scheme of things. That supposed pride of place ties into the town’s long history as a prime foothold for three critical conjunctures in Nigeria’s evolution: the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, the Christian mission, and the colonization of the area that became Nigeria. All three episodes, which lasted several centuries, marked some watersheds in the trajectory of what is today the Nigerian state. For being a beachhead for those epochal phases, Badagry is today a popular tourist destination not just for visitors from every part of Nigeria, but also internationally. It should however be noted that as much as those episodes had much to do with the territories and populations that became Nigeria and Nigerians, they had a lot to do with external forces, that is European interlopers.


On the question of origin, the portrayal of Badagry as the door—or cradle—of Nigeria’s civilisation is arguably a quite recent idea. Tenably, its source is traceable to the first stanza of the school anthem of the town’s first secondary school, Badagry (Senior) Grammar School (BGS). It goes thus:
Badagry town door of civilisation
First Christianity and Merchants the next
Then followed order and regulation
Where Yorubas with Eguns are at rest
.

It stands to reason that it is from this verse, which was composed in 1960 by one Right Rev. M.T.E. Euler-Ajayi, a pioneer teacher of Christian Religious Knowledge and Yoruba in the school, that the conception of Badagry as the country’s cradle of civilisation emerged and became popular with time. Since the establishment of BGS in 1955, a development which came some 110 long years after the country’s first Western-style primary school was established in the town, generations of its students—natives and non-natives alike—have for over six decades been indoctrinated with that ideology, and they have in turn contributed to popularising it.


My main argument in this piece is that this idea is ethnocentric, Eurocentric, and should be discarded forthwith. The logic behind the idea essentially glorifies Western cultures over and above indigenous ways of life. This, indeed, comes as no surprise given that the pioneering principals of the secondary school were Irish Catholic missionaries of the Society of African Missions (SMA), just as the composer of the anthem was an evangelical Christian. This explains the pro-European perspective that sees Badagry as Nigeria’s door of civilization chiefly because the town hosted the first waves of European expatriates, and their culture, and landmarks such as the first Western-style primary school, the first Western-style storey building, and so forth. This is what is essentially meant by the popular expression.
It is impossible to divest this idea from the vainglorious missionary and imperialist mindset which rationalised and moralised the Christian mission as a ‘civilizing mission’ to bring peoples who were thought to be primitive, backward and heathen out of their barbarism, savagery, paganism and damnation.

Thus, African people, it is claimed, utter wrongly of course, knew nothing of civilisation and modernity, until the European ventured to bequeath them with these great goods out of his (the European’s) unsolicited, purported ‘benevolence’ and ‘altruism’. In essence, the claim is that it is only through Westernization that African and other non-Western societies could attain to civilisation. But this is far from correct or factual. One may ask: what really is civilisational about the mass enslavement, commodification and trafficking of African peoples by Europeans? Also, in the light of the anthem’s third line, does it mean that there were no ‘order and regulation’ in Badagry prior to the advent of European evangelicals and slave merchants?


Moreover, Badagry was not the first part of present-day Nigeria to be reached by European peoples. Recorded history points to the fact that Portuguese explorers, merchants and Catholic evangelicals were the first Europeans to step into any parts of the area that became Nigeria. Benin Kingdom hosted these European immigrants circa 1485, which is several decades or even centuries before the first European landing in Badagry. Even so, it would be absolutely erroneous to take the first contacts between Lisbon and Edo to be the beginning of civilisation in Nigeria.

This is because even the Portuguese who first entered Benin were marvelled by the level of sophistication with which town planning, architecture, iron-smelting and the arts among others have been developed in the Kingdom.
What is more, the idea of a Badagry ‘cradle’ of an indigenous Nigerian civilisation deserves consideration. If the known early history of the Nigerian area is anything to go by, many are conversant with the data regarding archaeological findings around Iwo-Eleru cave (in Ondo State), Ugwuelle-Uturu (in Okigwe, Abia State), and the Kainji Dam (in Niger State). Importantly, Nok civilisation (in Kaduna state) predated European incursion by several millennia. Again, the civilisations that came with different precolonial kingdoms and empires in the Nigerian area such as those of the ancient Kanem-Borno Empire, Oyo Empire, Benin Kingdom, and the Hausa City-States all predated the coming of European peoples. Even Badagry has been identified as the site of some precolonial civilisation. Archaeological excavations and experiments at Agonrin and Ganyingbo Sea Beaches conducted by archaeologists Philip Allsworth-Jones and Kit W. Wesler in 1986 furnish evidence that pottery and salt-making have been excellently developed in the area for a couple of centuries before European advent on the coasts of Badagry. Their published article is available for preview here. It is actually possible that more and more impressive precolonial local crafts, technologies and traditional ways of life could be discovered if more anthropological and archaeological studies are conducted in different parts of the town. I am of the mind that these are the kinds of facts and ideas that we should be projecting and promoting, not those that gives pre-eminence to non-natives and their cultures over indigenous ones. Thus, the irrefutable fact is that civilisation in Badagry in particular, and in Nigeria in general, predates the coming of Europeans, and it would be utterly misleading to take the introduction of aspects of European culture to mark the advent of civilisation in these climes as civilisation is not a preserve of Europeans.


In all, the important case I am making here is that the cliché portraying Badagry as the ‘cradle’ or ‘door’ of Nigeria’s civilisation should be done away with forthwith because it goes against the long history of indigenous development and civilisation in Badagry and Nigeria. Meanwhile, I am confident that this does not deny Badagry of its heritage and strategic place in Nigeria’s history as a first port of call for European imperial figures and the landmarks that they introduced in concert with their local agents. It also does not diminish the epochal nature of the externalist episodes for which Badagry was a beachhead in the evolution of Nigeria.


In short, enough of parroting ‘Badagry is the cradle—or door—of civilisation in Nigeria’ already!

Ṣeun Williams is a student of history, and a fiercely pro-Badagry Badagrian. He writes in from, on and about Badagry.