It “Looks Well on Paper”: Mapmaking, Lagos and the Colonial Archive

by Ademide Adelusi-Adeluyi


How did British administrators project their territorial ambitions upon cities on the West African coast? By the 1880s, Lagos had been under British rule for just over two decades. Yet, there was lingering anxiety over its representation and perception as both a modern and urban space. In Lagos, local urbanism had a more persuasive political than visual quality. Indigenous ideas of spatial organization were mostly concerned with reflecting political authority, and the markets, open spaces and residential quarters had elements of socio-spatial concerns seen frequently in cities along the coast. On the contrary, European residents and visitors alike often saw the narrow, sandy, winding roads in the densely populated space as challenging to their sanitary, spatial norms, and ideals.

This exhibit examines the ways administrators used maps to maintain and project their control over cities like Lagos. It considers two specific maps — John Glover’s 1859 “Sketch of the Lagos River” and William T.G. Lawson’s 1885 “Plan of the Town of Lagos” — as examples of intentional misrepresentations of indigenous cityscapes. Glover’s map lied by omission, projecting an emptied space, ripe for annexation by the British, while Lawson’s map invented filled spaces beneath a mostly modern grid of streets.


Sketch of Lagos River

Sketch of Lagos River. Lt. J. H. Glover. Lagos: 1859. Image courtesy of The National Archives, Kew.

After being shipwrecked during an expedition, John Glover found himself recuperating in Lagos. While waiting to be rescued, he produced one of the first surviving maps of the area. Although it is framed as a survey of the river, he recorded information about the city as well. Oral traditions record four residential quarters in the old city, and this map is the first to visually document the boundaries of these spaces. However, the map shares many characteristics with colonial maps that follow it, and is striking for not only what it shows, but also what it casually and constantly omits. While Glover’s map is the earliest representation of the indigenous quarters in the city of Lagos, his version of the city is one emptied of people except for a handful of Europeans who had settled on the edge of the city. Glover’s soundings of the lagoons surrounding Lagos are accurate to the nearest foot, and he plotted large trees by longitude and latitude, yet he was unable to gesture toward the details of the approximately twenty-two thousand men, women and children living on the island.


Plan of the Town of Lagos, West Coast of Africa

Plan of the Town of Lagos, West Coast of Africa. W.T.G. Lawson, C.E., &c. Lagos: 1886. Image courtesy of The National Archives, Kew.

Lawson’s map was commissioned for display at the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. Among the objects selected to represent the West Africa Settlements, it offered a detailed survey of the twenty-five-year-old colony, highlighting the growing influence of British planning on the city. The Times reported, “Lagos looked well on paper,” hinting that in reality, the actual city might have more in common with the “native” objects surrounding it. However, Lawson’s map of Lagos is particularly persuasive, in that at first it convinces the viewer that there are few questions to ask about its composition. This map is the image of nineteenth century Lagos most often reproduced, yet few realize the level of distortion it represents in orientation, population, and composition. With its straight lines, sharp edges, and neatly outlined rectangular plots, this map suggested a reading and rendering of the city that belies the tensions in the original patterns of settlement and expansion of the city. Further examination proves that it is more showpiece than accurate rendering, as even the most basic of markers—the compass, scale, and orientation of the island—were compromised in order to display the colonial project in its most convenient light. In Lawson’s map, geographical accuracy is sacrificed for the convenience of legibility and visual harmony; the island is erased of any context or connection to the rest of West Africa. At what points are there junctions between the old city and new infrastructure? In Lawson’s representation, these edges are nearly seamless.