A few weeks ago a famous building in Lagos, Nigeria, was demolished: the Ilọ́jọ̀ Bar, also known as ‘Casa do Fernandez’. It was a beautiful example of Afro-Brazilian architecture built by returned slaves from Salvador da Bahia. Constructed in 1855 it was ‘under protection’ by the Nigerian Government. When I visited Lagos a few months ago I saw a big banner hanging down from a window, it said something like ‘National Monument’. Protection can be interpreted very widely in Nigeria – the Casa do Fernandez was pulled down over night. Lagosian Journalist Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún published a series of investigative articles in his blog. I was curious and wanted to know more about the history of the repatriated slaves in Yorùbáland and it turned out to be an incredible story.
I was reading a lot on Yorùbá and Orisha culture, but I hardly ever heard about the Nagô, the Afro-Brazilians, and the Lukumí, the Afro-Cubans, who returned back to West Africa. Not to mention Sierra Leone. The idea that the Yorùbá people share one identity is strongly related to the transatlantic experience of the slave trade and the returnees’ influence in the homeland. This story contributes a lot to the classical discussions of what is ‘Original-Yorùbá’ and what a diaspora invention – as not even the word ‘Yorùbá’ is of ‘Yorùbá’ origin itself. I summed up basic facts and suggest reading the books and links quoted below.
Two waves of freed slaves reached Lagos and Yorùbáland in the 19th century. One group of them never had left the continent. The British navy intercepted slave ships along the West African coast and set their victims free in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where a Creole culture developed among the ‘Liberated Africans’. German linguist Sigismond Kölle documented more than 200 African languages in Freetown in 1854. After the fall of the Ọ̀yọ́ Empire many Yorùbá were sold into slavery. Those who ended up in Sierra Leone were raised and educated by Anglican Missionaries under the premises of Victorian culture. Many of them later went back to their places of origin, called ‘Saro’ by the Lagosians. Among them was an important figure, Ajayi Crowther, wo wrote the first vocabulary book of Yorùbá language and translated the bible into his native tongue. Many Saro had Western education, some became lawyers, medical doctors and administrative workers for the British colonizers, what caused conflicts among them and the local people. They developed schools and churches and spread the Yorùbá bible among the country. Crowther’s grandson Herbert Macaulay befriended babaláwo and fostered a new Yorùbá consciousness, opposing the colonial policies.
The Aguda – Nagô and Lukumí
Another group of freed African slaves took a longer and more exhausting journey of approximately ten to twelve weeks on a ship, with low quantities of food and water, facing death and disease. They returned from Brazil back to the motherland, especially between 1840 and 1860 after the so-called Malê-slave revolt (1835) in Bahia. The majority came from Brazil, but a few also made it back from Cuba. Most of them were of Yorùbá origin, deported as slaves into the New World. The coastal city of Lagos was one of the main spots of return, along cities in present-day Benin Republic and Togo. King Kosoko of Lagos (1845-1851) is known for plundering the wealth of Brazilian arrivers and executing some of them, though this story could have been made up by the British consul, who wanted to have him replaced. Kosoko sent in 1847 one of his senior chiefs to Brazil, to reassure potential emigrants their security. Solimar Otero in her book ‘Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World’ even quotes an elaborate and beautiful Ifá verse from Olusí, ‘ọmọba’ (prince) of the Popo Saro quarter in Lagos. The ‘ìtàn’ (story) talks about the historic relationship between the king and the diaspora, involving the forces of Orisha like Olókun.
The first British consul Benjamin Campbell counted 130 Afro-Brazilian families in Lagos in 1853. He founded the Committee of Liberated Africans (CLA) which had its members among the returned slaves from Sierra Leone and Brazil. The organization mediated commercial disputes with local Yorùbá people and held ‘night patrols’ in the city. The South American and Caribbean repatriates, called ‘Aguda’ or ‘Amaro’, made up around 10% of the total inhabitants of Lagos in 1880 (3.321 ex-slaves). They held an elite position in the city. They were highly skilled artisans, painters, masons, carpenters, tailors and some of them entertainers, trained in the Portuguese or Spanish colonies. Their competence in the building trades was not only demonstrated in the houses they built for themselves, but also in Lagos’ public structure like the Shitta Bey Mosque, the Central Mosque or the Holy Cross Cathedral. Exploited by the British colonial officials they shaped art and culture and played a key role in the development of the economy and the infrastructure, e.g. in joining the Power and Water division or running farms outside of town. Experienced in the cultivation of sugar, tobacco and coffee the Aguda contributed to the agricultural industry of Lagos. The British colonists, trying to spread their powers among the new protectorate, used them as their middlemen to the indigenous Yorùbá society.
Remarkable is the fact that the Aguda widely sticked to their Brazilian traditions and brought Latin American culture – including Candomblé – to Lagos. They commemorated the annual Bahian feast of ‘Nosso Senhor do Bonfim’, held carnivals (‘Brazilian masquerades’) and introduced creole food crops like cassava. The Aguda people were given land and a whole district developed, built in the style of a Portuguese or Spanish colonial town. Today it is still called Popo Aguda, the area around Campos Square, named after the Cuban migrant Hilario Campos. The first two-story houses were built, which later became a status symbol as they stood taller than the compounds of local kings, who were just about losing their authority to the British. New architectural concepts were introduced to the traditional Yorùbá building practice, like e.g. verandas or a central hallway in the middle of a building, flanked by rooms on either side. New residential patterns evolved, as polygynous marriage was not sanctioned by the Christian belief any longer. Neo-classical decorative flourishes or stucco facades were a clear sign for the Brazilian influence, where a kind of Greek revival embellishment was popular before the time of the repatriation movement. The value the Afro-Brazilian style had at that time on the native Yorùbá culture is also expressed in more traditional forms of art, like Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ mask carvings. Some examples show e.g. carved two-story buildings on top of a mask or curvilinear patterns inspired by the neo-classical and baroque facades. Online you can have a look at an Orò mask in a museum’s collection with Afro-Brazilian ornaments (I am not sure if women should click this link to the Orò mask…). The new forms were highly excepted and adored by the locals. The Brazilian house over the years became the model for the Yorùbá house. Public space was shaped by ideas brought from the transatlantic colonies as well. And the fundament for the art of cement screens and sculpture was led here. Some decades later this Brazilian cement work was brought to a new artistic level by Adebisi Akanji and Susanne Wenger in the Sacred Grove of Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo.
The two groups of returnees, the Aguda and the Saro, hardly mixed and there was a constant rivalry between them. The Saro from Sierra Leone, who never left the continent, were predominantly Anglican and adhered to the Church Missionary Society and Methodist churches. The Aguda from Brazil or Cuba were mostly Catholic, although many of them, according to documents, practiced a ‘pagan’ syncretic mixture of religions that shocked the arriving French missionaries in the 1860s. They found ‘a monstrous amalgam of paganism, Christianity, and fetishist superstitions’ – sounds like Candomblé and Santeria to me. The Aguda Philippe Meffre e.g. is known for having practiced as an Ifá diviner, before he was converted to Christianity.
There is still a house in Lagos on Campos Square, the famous Bamgboshe Martins House, that hosts a Creole Egúngún brought over from Brazil. Olorisha have been among the repatriates. The Bamgboshe family dynasty has bonds to Brazil and family members on both sides of the Atlantic. As the slave revolt in Brazil in 1835 was organized by Muslim slaves, it can be expected that Muslims must have been under the returnees, many of them even converted to Islam in the colonies. The books listed below introduce the reader to some incredible personal stories: Polygamous Yorùbá men had families in Salvador and Lagos and travelled back and forth between the continents. Children of Yorùbá slaves who were born as Creoles came to live in the land of their forefathers. A group of Brazilian slaves who had bought their freedom returned to the wrong African port and got resold into slavery. Free Afrocubans on the way to Lagos, intercepted by the British patrols, were forced to settle down in Freetown. The heartbreaking stories are incredible.
Many Aguda focused on trade and were exporting kola nuts, palm oil, cowries, textiles and cultural goods for Orisha worship to South America. Some of the ex-slaves became seriously involved into slave trade themselves, working as agents for Portuguese slave traders, assistants for Yorùbá kings or were running their own businesses in the main ports. They developed the hinterland markets, often reconnecting to their original Yorùbá subgroups and keeping the monopole on trade with Brazil. Associations were founded, like the Lagos Ekiti Parapo Society, a branch of the Ijesha Association, by returnees who were of Ijesha and Ekiti descent. The Aguda tried to mantain their elite status. Some of them married locals and founded new families, but kept their identity as ‘Afro-Brazilians’. Today Portuguese family names are still common in Lagos: da Silva, Costa, da Rocha, Campos, Cardozo, Soares, Moreira etc.
The Cuban Lodge, a building that still exists in Lagos, was built by the son of a Yorùbá slave, a Lukumí born in 1878 in Havana, named Hilario Campos. He arrived with his sister Serafina Akitoyi in Lagos and got married with an Aguda woman who returned from Brazil. The Campos Square in Lagos is named after him, he died in 1941 in Lagos. He shares a grave with Cecilia Muniz, who was born in Matanzas, Cuba, and got married to Juan Veliz from Lagos. Until a few years ago their families remained in contact across the Atlantic.
The birth of the Yorùbá nation
The term ‘Yorùbá’ – and the idea of a united Yorùbá people – came into use in this period of time. Slaves usually were registered with their ‘nation’ at the arriving ports. In Brazil the Yorùbá became known as ‘Nagô’, named after a region in current day Benin Republic known to the Portuguese traders. In Cuba they were called ‘Lukumí’, as there was a region in Yorubaland no European ever visited, but was marked on old maps, known as the kingdom of ‘Ulkami, Ulcumi or Lucamee’. In Sierra Leone they were called the ‘Aku’ people, a name they got from the other creoles because of the frequent greeting ‘Ẹ kú (‘ṣẹ́)’.
Yorùbá refer to themselves in their mother tongue as ‘ọmọ Odùduwà’, children of Oduduwa. Their identity is more based on the local geographic and historic origin, the kingdoms. A Yorùbá person would first think of him-/herself as ‘I am Ọ̀yọ́, Ẹ̀gbá, Èkìtì or Ìbàdàn’ rather than ‘I am Yorùbá/ọmọ Odùduwà’. The Yorùbá slaves in the diaspora came from different kingdoms and entered a multi-ethnic society. Other African, European and indigenous cultures and communities were around, which forced the different Yorùbá people to unite, like other minorities under the severe oppression of the colonial racist society had to do to simply survive. It is known that in Havana slave societies (‘cabildos de nación’) existed with names like Eyó, Egguado, Ibada, Iyechá, Ketú or Ife. There were so many Yorùbá people around, that they managed to stick to their local identities. For many sociological reasons they – more or less (this is left for several PhDs) – merged into one group, or formed an interethnic group which had a first pan-Yorùbá identity, called Lukumí or Nagô in the colonies.
The name Yorùbá was adopted by the British colonizers from the Hausa people, who called their neighbours in the south, the inhabitants of Ọ̀yọ́, ‘Yariba’. Today’s Hausa dictionaries list ‘Yoruba’ as ‘Bayarabe’. The freed slave Samuel Ajayi Crowther used the name ‘Yoruba language’ in his first vocabulary book he wrote in the diaspora of Sierra Leone. Lagos was already a melting pot and multi-ethnic city since centuries, as it was originally founded as an Ẹ̀dó camp in the 16th century. The freed slaves from Sierra Leone, Cuba and Brazil met the locals and developed a new form of pan-Yorùbá culture in the ‘Lagosian Renaissance’ around 1880 to 1890 – while the British had long established their authority in the colony. The Yorùbá acquired a highly publicized reputation for superiority to other African people at that time. The black bourgeoisie in this international African city, though faced with racism and discrimination by the colonial rulers, promoted a ‘cultural nationalism’ (a term used by Nigerian historian Ade Ajayi) as their form of resistance.
In the Brazilian diaspora the reports of Yorùbá nationalism at home created a favorable climate for the Nagô identity. Stories of several individuals are reported, who contributed to the rise of Yorùba culture in Brazil, e.g. Martiano Eliseu do Bonfim, a Nagô babalaô, spent a few years in Nigeria for Ifá initiation and returned to Salvador da Bahia, where he became one of the persons involved into the ‘Africanization’ or ‘Nagôization’ of Brazilian Candomblé, what on the long run led to the decrease of the Vodun elements from the Ewe/Fon people. Travelers brought books from Lagos to the diaspora, cultural objects were imported and Yorùbá culture gained a recognition that was not available to other, formerly also strong African cultures in the diaspora of slavery, like the Angola or Congos (Bantu), Jeje or Arara (Ewe/Fon), Abakwa or Carabalí (Efik), Minâ, Mandinga (Mandé, Bambara) etc.
This was an important process for understanding Yorùbá culture today. Intellectual debates followed, ethnographic, historic, linguistic, religious research. Thousands of publications are available today for people reading English, Spanish, Portuguese and Yorùbá. They include weird theories from Yorùbá being the sunken Atlantis to a lost tribe of the Egyptians. Yorùbá is the best researched African language and the culture is part of the American history, became a topic in the négritude movement and discussed among intellectual circles. The more spiritually driven discourse on the Orisha religion in the diaspora is another big issue for today’s Yorùbá identity worldwide. It spread across the world, countries, languages and skin colors and last but not least, millions of people are following the path of the Orisha! The 19th century Lagos Renaissance shaped history.
Now I could understand something I experienced years ago. I visited Cuba the first time to study popular Latin percussion and quickly became interested into folklore. One night I was witnessing a ‘bembé’ ceremony for Cuban Orisha in a small town. I managed to meet the solo-drummer the next day to talk about drumming lessons. When he introduced himself to me I was surprised, he called himself literally a ‘Yorùbá drummer’. I was in the Caribbean, speaking Spanish to a guy who had the Catholic image of Santa Barbara tattooed all over his back (an image of Orisha Shango). The Cuban Orisha worshippers usually call themselves ‘Lukumí’, because when they came to Cuba, there was no ‘Yorùbá’ culture at all. ‘Yorùbá’ is used by those involved into academic discussions or groups which are into the re-Africanization movement of diaspora Orisha culture, often not knowing about the term’s Hausa origin. But even in small towns in the diaspora, which might not have had any direct encounter with Yorùbá culture since more than a century, the term is in use today and shapes the identity of the people! Yorùbá in the diaspora of course is always connected to Orisha worship, unlike in Nigeria.
A short summary: Yorùbá is a word the British colonizers borrowed from the Hausa to describe a group of West African people who share similarities in their language and culture. They handed the word over to the freed slaves in Sierra Leone, who returned with this idea in their heads to their homeland city Èkó. There they met influential repatriated slaves from Brazil and together with the local indigenous inhabitants, in a new sociopolitical structure shaped by the interests of the British colonizers, they made ‘Yorùbá’ to their instrument to overcome colonial oppression and formed a united, transatlantic, collective identity, a community based on plurality and tolerating the synchrony of sometimes opposing forces. Yorùbá as a self-conscious ethnic group is a rather recent phenomenon in history.
This adds a lot to the discussions in the diaspora, where Yorùbá is experienced as a religious phenomenon connected to Orisha worship and not as an ethnic or linguistic one. The Orisha themselves are often linked to certain regions, like Ṣàngó to Ọ̀yọ́, united in the idea of a spiritual ‘pantheon’, but this pantheon also differs from town to town in Yorùbáland. The quest for authenticity is a reason for conflicts among different associations, but there never was one single ‘Yorùbá’ identity. The ‘Yorùbá’ always were many. Like an onion with its different layers. Peel some layers off, or let it grow some more, it remains an onion, without losing its form, its ‘identity’. In this fluid concept the core just does not matter at all. In my opinion this plurality, directly linked to polytheism, is the big advantage of Yorùbá culture. Yorùbá welcomes newly acquired concepts and is more accepting than other cultures, I think. This is also an explanation why a foreign Austrian artist was allowed to refurbish holy and ancient Orisha shrines in a very distinct and new style, which, only a few decades later, became known as a UNESCO world heritage of the Yorùbá people. The world needs more of this attitude! And hopefully the surviving Afro-Brazilian buildings in Nigeria are better protected in the future. Some of them could need a renovation… Àṣe!