Madam Efunroye Tinubu, Iyalode of Egbaland (c.1805-1887).
Born in the Egba Land of the Yoruba people of West Africa at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Tinubu learned commerce from her grandmother, a successful trader. As a young woman Tinubu married a local man and bore him two sons, but she was widowed following the family’s migration to the town of Abeokuta in 1830. Shortly afterward she met Adele, a deposed king of Lagos, married him, and moved with her new husband and sons to the coastal town of Badagry, where Adele was temporarily recognized as ruler.
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. Never again blessed with children, she invested her growing income from trade in slaves and other retainers, beginning the process of amassing personal followers and expanding her commercial operations.
In 1835, Adele was invited back to Lagos to become king once again, and Tinubu accompanied him as a royal wife. Following her husband’s death two years later, she married Yesefu Bada (also known as Obadina), a successful Muslim warrior and favored retainer of the new king, Oluwole , ensuring Tinubu continued access to the commercial and other advantages associated with royal patronage.
In the bitter succession dispute between Akitoye and Kosoko that followed Oluwole’s death in 1841, Tinubu and Obadina actively supported Akitoye, who was initially crowned king but was defeated in 1845 and forced with his followers into exile at Badagry. Throughout these years of political turmoil, Tinubu seized opportunities to expand her trade and build a large and powerful household of slaves and other retainers. She also took a keen interest in Islam, which was spreading in Lagos.
When in 1851 the British, encouraged by Akitoye , bombarded Lagos, deposed Kosoko, and reinstated Akitoye as king in the name of ending the Atlantic slave trade and developing new kinds of commerce, Tinubu returned to the town. A fierce defender of African interests and autonomy, she soon ran afoul of the British, however, and was eventually driven by them out of Lagos and into exile at Abeokuta. There Tinubu reestablished a large household and used her slaves and retainers to produce and trade palm produce, a new export, and other commodities. She also began exercising considerable influence in politics in Abeokuta and was eventually recognized as the iyalode, or leading female chief, in the town.
Although the British represented Tinubu as an inveterate slave trader and fierce opponent of abolition, she was committed more to the success of her own political factions and to African autonomy than she was to a particular kind of foreign trade. Tinubu is significant historically both for her own activities and achievements and as an unusually well-documented example of a type of powerful precolonial West African woman, too often obscured from the historical record.