The story of Candido da Rocha, the Billionaire Merchant of Kakawa, begins a hundred and eighty eight years ago in Lagos, Nigeria.
Once upon a time, there was a little boy. His name was Esan. He was born in 1830, and grew up in a large southern town called Ilesha. In those days, children were sent 200 miles away from Ilesha to Lagos, for an education. But there was a great war, in which Esan’s ethnic group, the Ijesha, with the Ekiti, was pitted against the Ijebus and Ibadans. So one afternoon, when little Esan was returning home from school, he was kidnapped by Ijebu traders. Now, there were Portuguese sailors scavenging the West Coast of Africa in those days; thus sold as a prisoner of war, little Esan was shipped to Brazil, where he became a slave at the age of 10 years, and worked as an unpaid houseboy to a textile merchant. Faraway from home, Esan took his master’s Brazilian name, and became known as Joao Esan da Rocha. He also married a Brazilian-Indian wife, and they had a son.
And so, Candido da Rocha Jr., was born in Bahia, Northern Brazil on the 3rd of October, 1866. At that time, many unhappy slaves organized to demand their freedom from the governor of Brazil. Upon eventual success, they travelled 13 months from Brazil, and finally arrived in colonial Lagos. Joao Esan Da Rocha, with his family, approached Queen Victoria’s representative in Lagos, requesting a place for their resettlement. Being an educated man with useful economic skills, he was apportioned the area of Kakawa Street between the present Central Bank of Nigeria on Broad Street, and up to today’s Kam Salem House, at Obalende. He was also given a portion of land at 4, Tinubu Street.
So, along with other Brazilian slave returnees with family names like Agusto, Fernandez, Vaughan, Pereira, Pedro, da Silva, Pinheiro, Gomez, Cardoso and Silva, the resettlement area became a Brazilian Returnee Quarters, christened ‘Popo Àgùdà’ by Lagosians. Some of these returnees were skilled builders, and their architectural designs changed the face of Lagos. Till today, streets like Campos Square, Massey, and Igbosere on Lagos Island, all the way to parts of Yaba and Ebute Metta, are lined with Nigeria’s first two-storey buildings and bungalows with stucco facades, painted in bright colors and decorated with marble arches and ornate pillars.
And there, on the land apportioned to him, Joao Esan Da Rocha built a remarkable edifice, as a replica of the one he had lived in Brazil: it is today known as The Water House. In those days, about 150 years ago, there wasn’t potable water in Lagos. So, Papa Esan built a big sanitary well for himself, then he sold some of the water.
Now, Papa Joao Esan was about 30 years when he returned to Lagos in 1873. His little son, Candido, was only seven years when they arrived, and the boy spoke no English, only some Portuguese and the Ijesha dialect of his father. The boy Candido hadn’t attended any school in Brazil, so Papa Esan sent him to Saint Xavier Catholic Primary School, before it became known as Holy Cross Catholic Primary School, on Lagos Island. For his secondary school education, Candido was sent to CMS Grammar School in Bariga, Lagos. His classmates included Isaac Oluwole, who later became known as the Father of Public Health, and little Herbert Macaulay, who grew up to be a famous independence advocate; but it was Candido Da Rocha who became school Head Boy.
Early on, Candido began to show signs of not wanting to be like everyone else. In those days the highest aspiration for an educated Nigerian was to work as a clerk in the colonial administration. However, Candido had seen the futility of slavery first hand, between his father and the Brazilians, so by the age of 16, he decided he wanted to control the creation of his own wealth. So, Candido decided to take an internship at a trading company that was owned by Germans in Lagos Island. There, he apprenticed about how to deal with the importation and exportation of goods, and this sharpened his business acumen.
When he was only 19 years old, Candido lost his mother on May 7, 1885, while his father died on December 31, 1891, when Candido was aged 25. At his death, Papa Joao Esan Da Rocha left no will: so two years later, Candido filed for administration of his father’s estate, with the intention of expanding his father’s small trading businesses into a mammoth empire.
As luck meets the prepared, one early morning in 1894, a gold prospector who wanted to travel back home to England approached da Rocha with bars of gold that he needed to dispose off. The Englishman wanted 6,000 pounds: so, the savvy Candido da Rocha approached the Bank of West Africa (now known as First Bank), and the bank lent him the money. Having purchased the gold, Candido then filed the bars into gold dust, and began to sell on retail to local gold smiths.
As a result, he made a whopping 200 percent profit on his original investment: worth billions of naira, even in today’s money.
It was official: da Rocha had become the first billionaire in modern Africa.
‘Part Two’ 😳
The first investment Candido made with his wealth was on father’s estate: to add to the water well in Water House, he dug a mechanically operated borehole, and fitted it with an imported iron pump. Then, he had pipelines laid to transport water from Iju River in the mainland all the way to his house in Lagos Island. Sharply, water sales went up. The colonial administration took notice, and began to pay him directly, until government acquired the water project, and named it Lagos Water Corporation, or Iju Waterworks. From his water monopoly, and the commercialization of this essential commodity, Candido da Rocha created an unstoppable stream of wealth.
Then he opened a trading shop at 12 Kakawa Street, for general merchandise such as imported shoes, textiles, jewelry, gold brass, gold dust, and brass fittings for construction work. He then became an agricultural exporter, and traded kolanuts, alligator pepper, bitter kola and native adire tie & dye textiles to Brazil. He also set up Deep Sea Fishing Industries Ltd., for exports to Sierra Leone.
From his sizeable trading profits, Candido reinvested in capital projects. As early as 1900, at the age of 34 years, he had acquired a property at Tinubu Square in Lagos, which he turned into a restaurant-hotel, known as Restaurant da Rocha: with excellent cuisine, expensive cigars and wines, home-like rooms, private rooms for dinner parties, and rickshaws (the colonial equivalent of car hire), at 50 shillings per month. It included the exquisite Ilojo Bar, and his clients were the colonialists and Lagos elite.
He also acquired large tracts of land all over Lagos. He built a luxury country home on 55 acres of land in Agege. Then he acquired contiguous hectares on Broad Street, the Marina, and Customs Street. Nowadays, da Rocha’s tenants would include the headquarters of the Nigerian Police Force, Cappa and D’Alberto Construction Company, the headquarters of Union Bank, the headquarters of the Central bank of Nigeria and Shell House.
But he wasn’t done yet: in 1907, Da Rocha teamed up with J.H. Doherty and Sedu Williams, and established the Lagos Native Bank. He became the first African to own a bank, and competed with the British Bank of West-Africa and the old Barclays Bank. But he was swindled, or set up by the competition, who knows, so he turned to private financing, and established the Lagos Finance Company to lend out money to people.
Candido da Rocha was one of the founding members of Lagos Race Club. He participated in many tournaments at the Race Course, and kept stables for his horses at his Lagos Island Kakawa residence. His champion horse Vampa won a lot of tournaments. In those days there was no limousine or Rolls Royce, but Da Rocha moved around in his horse drawn carriage, and it was own gold-plated. Later on, he imported the first car to Lagos. He held the chieftaincy title of the Lodifi of Ilesa. He was also a founding member of Anti Slavery and Aborigines Right Society. When Candido Da Rocha died in 1959, he was buried at Ikoyi Cemetery. Among his children were Alexander Da Rocha, Adenike Afodu, Angelica Folashade Thomas and Louissa Turton.
By every standard, whether in naira, dollars or pounds, it is very likely that Da Rocha was a billionaire. He lived at a time when the Nigerian naira was not yet in existence, but after he died, and it was created, the Nigerian naira was at parity with the British pound. If you assessed Da Rocha’s investments in water works, gold, agriculture, fishing, banking, lands and property, da Rocha would easily outcompete the richest black man in the world: another Nigerian, Aliko Dangote, who by Forbes’ account, is worth 11 billion US dollars.
What can we learn from the first billionaire? Da Rocha’s tactical approach to wealth creation included identifying niche opportunities for trade, creating monopolies and land acquisition. All that is textbook economics, many years before it became popular. Da Rocha signified the importance of owning the factors of production necessary for creating wealth, which is a big lesson, when you consider that he was born a slave.
It’s almost 200 years, and the name Da Rocha has become a well known household proverb: it’s common for a mother to decline her children’s excessive shopping lists by retorting, “…when I’m not Da Rocha!”
He is commemorated in literature by a novel, The Water House, written by Antonio Olinto.