If you were out and about a paved street on the east end of Lagos Island in the early 1910s, there’s a chance you would spot an affluent-looking horse-drawn cart bumbling along. And if you looked closely enough, you might just be able to tell who its wealthy passenger was. He could, in fact, have been Candido Da Rocha, the city’s richest man.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been very easy to tell exactly who it was; Da Rocha’s heavy moustache and proud face was the standard look of the upper-class gentleman at that time. But only a few locales would have afforded a luxury carriage. That exclusive club included Da Rocha.
If you’ve never heard of him, Candido Da Rocha’s name immediately strikes you as rather unusual for a Nigerian living in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. But a brief brush up on the history of the time clears up this confusion. His family was part of a population of former African slaves of Yoruba extraction who returned from Brazil and Cuba in waves following the abolition of slavery in those regions. The early years of the Da Rochas were hardly covered in glory.
Candido’s father, Esan Joao Da Rocha, was born in Ilesha, at a time in which the European squabble over the wealth of Africa had already begun. He was still a child when he got perhaps the cruellest exposure to this global struggle: at age 10, he was captured and shipped, along with numerous others, to Brazil, and sold into slavery. There, he took the name of his master, Da Rocha. He later regained his freedom and started a family. In 1860, Candido Da Rocha was born.
The Da Rochas returned to Nigeria in 1871, as part of a sizable band of emigrants from the Americas. They settled in Lagos, which already had a so-called Brazilian Quarter on the eastern section of the island. In time, Esan became a successful businessman; by the time of his death, he was one of the richest inhabitants of the city.
Candido inherited his father’s estate at age 25, and began the process of expanding his wealth. He was already steeped in the art of business; a decade earlier, he had joined a German trading company in Lagos as an intern. With uncommon skill and decisiveness, he multiplied the gains made by his forebear and rose to become the most celebrated of Lagos’s businessmen.
His first big commercial achievement came in 1894. He took out a loan, bought gold bars worth £6,000 from a British prospector, and filed them into dust. Then he sold the gold dust to goldsmiths and earned a 200% as a result.
Da Rocha made forays into banking and finance as well. His first venture in this sphere was the Lagos Native Bank, but it went bad after it got defrauded by conmen. Undeterred by this, he set up the Lagos Finance Company, a lending firm which probably rivalled the bigger finance houses of the time.
Besides banking, Da Rocha also had his hands in agriculture, hospitality, real estate and trading. He acquired property at Tinubu Square in Lagos and converted it into a restaurant. Restaurant Da Rocha, as it was called, also doubled as a guesthouse, and was one of the island’s favoured spots for rest and the satisfaction of culinary cravings.
Although his affluence caused him to be well known in Nigeria, Da Rocha appears to have avoided direct involvement with politics. His granddaughter, Angelica Oyediran, recalls that he helped secure the release of his friend Herbert Macaulay from detention when he had been arrested by the British for his anti-colonial activities. But she also says he turned down invitations from acquaintances to join them in politics. Nevertheless, he felt strongly enough about the rights of local people to cofound a branch of the Anti-Slavery and Aboriginal Rights Society, in Lagos.
Candido Da Rocha left a mark on Lagos that lasted beyond his death in 1959. Although he didn’t live to see a fully independent Nigeria, he paved the way for other Nigerian businesspeople to achieve great success. His story, chequered as it is, reminds us that there’s more to be gained if we push beyond the comforts we’ve been handed, and seek to build an even greater legacy.
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