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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.

Candido Da Rocha House
Candido Da Rocha House in Lagos Island still stands (Orisha Image).

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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This article was first published on 27th September 2018 and updated on October 2nd, 2018 at 2:34 pm


Ikenna Nwachukwu holds a bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves to look at the world through multiple lenses- economic, political, religious and philosophical- and to write about what he observes in a witty, yet reflective style.

Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “Did You Know? Candido Da Rocha, Lagos’ First Millionaire”

  • Great to read and learn about my sons’ great great grand father.
    I always argued that they were Lagosians but now I know Esan was actually from Ilesha where coindencially their grandfather’s family migrated to from Ibadan. Candida Adenike da Rocha-
    Afodu, his granddaughter and my husband’s maternal grandmother and her 6 children lived with him after loosing her husband who fought in the 1 ( or 2nd) world war in her 20s. Of the six children, only 3 are still alive with the last: the twins are 82- my husband is the 1st son of the female twin- Kehinde, who was reportedly to be his favourite grandchild.
    Waterhouse in Kakawa street still stands and has been made a National monument. The well and Elizabethan fixtures are still intact. I was actually given grapes ? grown there on my wedding day 25 years ago. The chairs my husband and I sat on at the reception were Louis VI chairs which I believe were owned by him. Every family event is still held in that compound.
    A picture of him is prominently displayed in my dinning room.
    Reading about his business ventures, is quite amazing as his great grandsons from Candida Adenike are all in these industries! His great great grandson, though fair, has an uncanny resemblance to him : genes never lie… amazingly, his legacy still lives on and my children’s children are destined to still partake of what he left behind, by His grace which is rare in today’s world for they have added to what he left behind… He surely was and is an inspiration to my husband (whose 1st company is named after Waterhouse) and his brother and our children are showing signs of following in his footsteps business wise?. I definitely would send this write up to my sons. Thank you.

  • Hello Imade

    Thanks for sharing these details about the da Rocha family. We’re glad you found the article delightful.


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