CANDIDO DA ROCHA, THE FIRST ACCLAIMED NIGERIAN BILLIONAIRE

 

On daily basis, Nigeria continues to produce millionaires and billionaires whose names one can’t just begin to mention even as we have so many silent ones. However, no matter how rich these nouveau riches may be, one millionaire still stood out and cannot be easily forgotten as his name has become a synonym for richness. “No matter how rich you may be, you can’t be as rich as Da Rocha.” That was the saying; it is still the saying.

The name Da Rocha, could be likened to a metaphor for enormous wealth in Lagos and much of southern Nigeria from the late 19th century. In Lagos of that time, the name Da Rocha symbolised the new economy that emerged in the late and post slave-trade era. For a man who himself had been commoditised, he knew very well how to turn commodities into wealth.

Candido Da Rocha was a wealthy and successful Brazilian returnee merchant who lived on Kakawa Street, Lagos behind the high-rise CSS Bookshop House. He was a merchant prince in the language of the time, generally acknowledged as the first Nigerian millionaire. His house was often called Water House while he was popularly called ‘Baba Olomi’ because he sold water to the residents in the area. Contrary to the thinking of a lot of people that Da Rocha might not be of a Yoruba or Nigerian origin, he and a host of others bearing such foreign names were freed slave returnees who were settled in an area called ‘Brazilian Quarters’ in Lagos Island.

In the days of slave trades, many Nigerians captured were sold into slavery. John Esan, Candido’s father, as recounted by history, was captured by slave raiders in Ijebu-Ijesa, in the present-day Osun State, in the 1850s at the tender age of 10 and brought along with others to the Lagos Port, where they were chained and bundled inside a ship to a destination they didn’t know. Esan could not, at that age, imagine what was supposed to happen to him and why. All he knew was that he had been separated from his environment, his peers and parents, who, to the best of his knowledge, were the ones who sold him.

Inside the ship, they were handled like goods that had to be stuffed into the narrow, airless space. They were regarded as cargo rather than passengers. They were taken away from the known to the unknown. Many, who could not survive the airless journey had died and thrown overboard. And after a few weeks, they reached their destination and were washed clean, shaved and rubbed with oil. They were taken through a large market located very close to the harbour to a large house filled with human beings for sale. He was sold to a man called Da Rocha, who changed his name since pronouncing ‘Esan’ was difficult for the whiteman and baptised him as Joao (John). And that was how he came to be known as John Da Rocha. But he never forgot his name, Esan.

Joao found favour with his master as he was treated as a trusted slave. He was taught how to speak Portuguese, read, write and most importantly, how to do business. As a matter of fact, Esan was treated differently from others. But in spite of these, he never for once forgot his identity because he saw himself as being different from his sugar cane master, the baron. He was bidding his time, hoping that one day, he must return to his origin, his source. He often had to go to the city for the baron and while there, he would visit the “Sociedade” next to the San Francisco Church to speak with the head of the brotherhood about buying his freedom. By the time he was 30, enough money had been collected at the “Sociedade” for another raffle draw which eventually secured his freedom. Esan had married and had a son whom he christened Candido. He was bought from his master at the age of 30 in 1870 and after he gained his freedom, he lived with his wife, Angelica, until he returned to Lagos in Africa, the following year with his family.

On his return, he joined other 1,000 returnees to lead a delegation to the representatives of the Queen of England who was the symbolic head of the colonial administration. In their request for a parcel of land to settle, they were assigned a quarter of the city centre and he moved into the area around Campos Square. He, together  with others, quickly gained an advantage with the skills gained from Brazil. The Brazilian community stood between the African and the British in a community known as Popo Aguda, a land that stretched from Central Bank to Moloney Street.

This Brazilian community comprised of Yoruba returnee ex-slaves from Brazil. The relevant portion of the city is made up of places like ‘Campos Square’ and ‘Brazilian Quarters’, which are spotted with historical buildings in Portuguese architectural style. This section of the city is also replete with families bearing South American names like Da Silva, Cardoso, Marinho, Faustinho and Vera Cruz. These various aspects of Lagos Island keep the Brazilian memories alive.

The Brazilian residents occupy a well laid out territory with the main streets being Tokunbo, Bamgbose, Igbosere, Campbell, Odunlami, Kakawa and Catholic Mission streets. Mainly of the Roman Catholic faith, there is also a substantial Muslim population, all of them being migrants from Salvador and other parts of the State of Bahia in Brazil. The original returnees were expert artisans: builders, masons, carpenters, iron welders and painters, who built the very unique architectural masterpieces that remain a part of the pride of Lagos today. Such buildings include the Holy Cross Cathedral and Mosalasi Shitta Bey.

Esan built a one-storey mansion on Kakawa Street (opposite Union Bank) on the two plots of land allocated to him. The house was built in the Brazillian style which later came to be known as ‘Waterhouse’ in Kakawa, which his son, Candido inherited and moved into. Though history had it that Candido paid off his other siblings to bequeath the house to him, it was christened ‘Casa d’Agua’ because of its unique feature of providing water for the people of the area.

However, it was not Joao (John) Esan Da Rocha who made so much name or fame. It was his son, Candido, who he made sure returned to Nigeria that brought the name of Da Rocha into the ladder of the ‘first Nigerian millionaire’. Candido Da Rocha, born in Bahia, Brazil, on October 3, 1867, was the second son Joao Esan Da Rocha and Louisa Angelica Da Rocha had. Moses Rock studied Medicine in Edinburgh and specialised in tropical diseases, while Candido attended CMS Grammar School, Lagos and became “Head Boy” in his final year at the school. Candido Da Rocha was a highly respected and very wealthy merchant and financier in Lagos.

His inherited imposing one-storey mansion was a visible sight on Kakawa/Broad Street junction. Inside was a fountain that gave the house its name. It was the first house with a fountain inside the Lagos city centre and people came from all over to buy its water,which was not just the ordinary stream water. It was water from a borehole which he sank using a pumping machine that he brought from Brazil. From every nook and cranny of Lagos, the Brazilians, Britons, kings, very important personalities and all the ‘who is who’ in the city, were coming to buy his pure, hygienic water.

Candido came to settle in Nigeria with a style proving to those who had been there that he was different. It was this unique borehole that changed the name of the house to Casa d’Agua by the Brazilians and Water House by the British. That was how he too became Baba Olomi. Candido’s Water House was the first place in Lagos to have potable water delivered mechanically by a pumping machine. Nobody had ever done it before him. He sold his water to some and to some others, he gave freely. Children, because of the whip he would carry and apply to them whenever they passed in front of the door of Water House used to fear Baba Da Rocha, though it was gathered that he too used to throw coins to them from the balcony of his house. Gradually, Da Rocha became a big and wealthy man by selling water from his borehole. Then he started thinking of other things he could do.

Candido went into trading in different types of textiles, all sorts of trinkets and groceries, gold brass, gold dust, imported shoes, brass fitting and jewellery. He was the first to export the ‘Adire’ fabric to Brazil and other parts of Europe and America. He was importing kolanut, alligator pepper and bitter kola as well to Brazil. He operated a small shop at 12, Kakawa Street for his trading. Because of his orientation and exposure, he knew the right things to trade in as well as the kind of goods that people would be interested in buying as he too was just about 40 years of age when he brought his water pumping machine business to Nigeria.

With his versatile business mind, Da Rocha again went into land and property business. He would buy acres of land and build office complexes. He acquired vast tracts of land in every nook and corner of Lagos, while he had houses on Martins Street, Tinubu area and Marina, among other areas. It was Da Rocha’s house on Campbell Street that first housed Cappa  and D’Alberto when the company first came to Nigeria. He later went into gold business which he was selling to Brazil and Britain as well. He had over 50 acres of land in Agege area and was said to have built a first of its kind ‘rest house’ in the area, where he used to hide and relax whenever he wanted to make himself evasive from the large number of people that visited him in his Kakawa house in Lagos.

Before long, his measured wealth became a matter of myth and many in Lagos and adjoining areas weaved stories around how Da Rocha’s money had become lame and was unable to walk away from him! In fact, until the emergence of M.K.O. Abiola in the late 1970s, no one had captured the imagination of the southern Nigerian society as a symbol of wealth as much as Da Rocha did.

He did not rest on this alone, Da Rocha also ventured into banking. Apart from being the most affluent depositor at the then Standard Bank of Nigeria (First Bank) and Barclays Bank (Union Bank), Da Rocha, in conjunction with some people, established two different banks known as Nigerian Merchant Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank. It was believed that his account formed the majority of the total of these banks’ deposit. His position with the banks was so powerful that in one story, it was recounted that Da Rocha used to stroll to the banking hall of Standard Bank in the evenings to take a rest before going back home.

Candido has a restaurant called ‘Bonanza’ on Customs Street. He used to have breakfast there every Saturday to make sure everything was in order. Next to the large window was a table always reserved for him. From here, he could have a clear view of the city while he smoked his El Arte cigar and sipped his favourite Dry Monopol Ayala. Later, he would go for horse race. He had a great passion for horses and founded the Lagos Racing Club in 1891. He owned a horse named “Tempest” and another one called “Vampa,” that won all racing competitions every week. Vampa was a male horse and his most memorable win was the Lagos Cup, presented by the Honorable Humelever, the son of Lord Leverhume, proprietor of UAC, on his visit to Lagos in 1921.

Da Rocha had a stint in politics though through persuasion. It was said that his very close friend, Herbert Macaulay, had persuaded him to join politics and was nominated as a candidate in an election. At the campaign after he had been introduced as the candidate to be voted for, Candido came forward to address the people thus: “My name is Candido Da Rocha. I’ve been called upon to come and represent you. If you like, vote for me, if you like, don’t vote for me.” That was his speech, no manifesto, no cajoling and no bragging like other politicians. He had said his own and as soon as he finished his less-than-one-minute speech, he disappeared from the stage. All the party leaders were disappointed, but there was nothing they could do. He was the candidate they registered and they had to cope with the situation. On election day, Lagosians were generous enough to let him have 20 votes. He did not win the election and did not complain, neither did that change his attitude from who he was before the election.

This capitalist and philanthropist was said to have owned and operated the Iju Water Works that served the entire Lagos water in the 1920s before it was taken over by the state government. According to reports, Da Rocha laid pipes from Iju to Lagos Island, Yaba, Ebute-Metta and other communities in the state, where there were high demands for pipe-borne water. Until it was taken over by the state government, the colonial administration was paying Da Rocha for the supply of water to the state.

Candido Da Rocha died in 1959 here in Nigeria at the age of 90 years. And that seemed to bring an end to his wealth as none of his children stayed back to establish in the country as did his father and himself. Water House, which however, has suffered from rehabilitation by later generations, still bears many touches of the Brazilian craftsmen: leafy plaster flourishes in the corners of the parlour ceiling and wrought-iron balustrades on the second-floor balcony.

One of his children, Alexander Joao Da Rocha, went to Ghana to settle down. He was the father of a straight forward legal luminary, Bernard Joao Kojo Da Rocha, who became very famous. The family is still revered in Ghana because it is the single family with a considerable number of lawyers in Accra. Kojo was the first Ghanaian lecturer at the Ghana School of Law and was for six years Secretary of the Ghana Bar Association. A Senior Advocate of Ghana (S.A.G.), he was awarded the “Star of the Order of the Volta” (SOV), by President J. A. Kuffour of Ghana in 2007.  He was also a Senior Fellow of the Institute Of Economic Affairs; lecturer in Land Law and Civil Procedure for over 30 years as well as chairperson of the Police Service Council, 2001-2004. He was the author of various legal authorities in Land and Constitutional Law. B. J. Kojo Da Rocha as he was popularly called ,was a founding member and Chairperson of the New Patriotic Party and of the National People’s Party of Ghana. He served as a member of the Council of Elders in the NPP government from 2001 to 2008. For being one the most outspoken critics of the Ghanaian government, he was arrested and detained many times.

It was learnt that after his death in the late 1950s, Candido Da Rocha was buried in Ikoyi Cemetery. Candido Da Rocha, in the language of the time, was generally acknowledged as the first Nigerian billionaire. It is ironical that in spite of his affluence, vast properties on almost every street of Lagos, there was no single street named after him. He came, made his landmark and went quietly. Candido was a legend, whose wealth and fortune was beyond the imagination of the common man of his time that till today, he is still regarded as financier and Yoruba’s first billionaire.

 

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