I visited the Nigerian city Lagos about one year ago and I was surprised - ó ya mi l’ẹ́nu - walking through the “Brazilian quarter”, a district known locally as Pópó Àgùdà. Public signs with names like “Campos Square” point to an influential Spanish and Portuguese background, some remaining buildings still resemble the colonial architecture from Cuba and Brazil. I wanted to find out more about the people who returned to Lagos from the diaspora of slavery. With the help of photographer Aderemi Adegbite I published the blog story, “The 19th Century Yorùbá Repatriation”.
Looking for more information to broaden my small knowledge on this topic I found great articles and a Facebook site by scholar Lisa Earl Castillo, who lives in Brazil. In her research she traces the passages across the Atlantic. She published details about the Àgùdà, the slaves who returned, that cover touching stories of individuals: olorisha who moved back and forth between the coast of Benin and Bahia in the 19th century, in a trans-Atlantic Yorùbá Network. I had the honor to meet her for an interview.
Lisa Earl Castillo holds a Ph.D. from the Federal University of Bahia and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Centro de Pesquisa em Historia Social da Cultura of the State University of Campinas, São Paulo. She studies the Candomblé traditions and is running the Facebook site Famílias Agudás, dedicated to the heritage of the slaves who returned to West Africa in the 19th century. She is the author of "Entre a oralidade e a escrita: a etnografia nos candomblés da Bahia" (Edufba, 2008) and many academic articles on African culture in the Brazilian diaspora. Lisa Earl Castillo is affiliated with the Òrìṣà temple or terreiro Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká in Bahia as an ekedi of Xangô. Ekedis are assistants to the Orixá and to the initiates who receive them.
Moussa: The Àgùdà are usually thought of as “Brazilian slaves”, mainly Yorùbá, who returned to West Africa, especially Ouidah and Lagos. But within the country of Brazil it was a very distinct phenomenon, limited to the area of Bahia. What’s the reason for that?
Lisa: In understanding the returnee movement between the Bight of Benin region and Brazil, the first thing that you have to realize is that during the slave trade, Bahia formed a special relationship with that part of Africa. If you compare Bahia to other parts of Brazil, especially Rio de Janeiro which was the other main port of arrival from Africa, the proportion of captives from the Bight of Benin was much higher in Bahia. So freed people in Bahia who decided to go back to Africa had a reason for wanting to settle in the Bight of Benin: it was close to home. Also, the single greatest impetus to the returnee movement was the political repression after a Muslim slave rebellion in Bahia in 1835. The rebellion was organized mainly by Yoruba speakers, but the crackdown was directed at Muslims in general. Around two hundred people were deported to Ouidah by the authorities, through an agreement with Dahomey. Around a thousand others went back to Africa voluntarily over the next year or so. They were mainly Yoruba speakers, and to a lesser extent Hausas, Fulanis, Nupes, Fons and Mahis. Many were family or friends of the deportees. Many of them also settled in Ouidah. A lot of others went to Agoué, on the border between present-day Benin and Togo. To a lesser extent others settled in Porto Novo, Grand Popo, Accra and Lagos. On a smaller scale, the return movement continued until the end of the 1800s.
But actually, it’s only partly true to say that the return movement was limited to Bahia. First of all, you have the Cuban component. It is known that after the La Escalera uprising in 1844 the Cuban government also deported a number of suspects to Africa, supposedly to Lagos. As far as I know this has not been documented concretely but historians tend to talk about several hundred. Over the years, there were also voluntary returnees from Cuba, as in the case of Brazil. Once in Africa, they tended to be grouped together with returnees from Brazil.
Second of all, within the context of Brazil, although most of the returnees were coming from Bahia, there were also smaller numbers coming from other parts of the country. But most of the ships leaving for the Bight of Benin left from Bahia. So you would have freed people who had been slaves in places like Rio de Janeiro or Porto Alegre who would come to Bahia and from there book a passage on a ship leaving for Lagos or Ouidah.
In your article “Mapping the nineteenth-century Brazilian returnee movement: Demographics, life stories and the question of slavery” you mention three main stages of the Return-to-Africa movement: 1) the period just after the Malê-slave revolt, led by Muslim slaves (Yor.: Ìmàle, Muslim) in 1835; 2) in the 1840s, men who were laborers on ships; and 3) post-1850, following the end of the Atlantic slave trade to Brazil and the British seizure of Lagos a year later. Can you tell us about the people leaving? Who were they?
As I was going through the passport records for the period right after the uprising of 1835 and correlating them with information I was digging up from parish and notary records, it became apparent that people tended to travel in groups, not only with members of a given household going to the passport office together to make their requests, but also groups of households that had developed relationships with each other over the course of years in Bahia. In some cases, the oral traditions of their descendants today recall relationships that began in Africa, before their enslavement, and when they resettled, in places like Ouidah or Agoué, they built houses right next to each other. So one of the lessons to take away from analyzing these groups of travelers is the surprising cohesiveness of social relations, in the face of enslavement and dispersion.
In the 1840s, there is a strong demographic shift in the passport recipients. Whereas in the 1835-1837 period you find a lot of women and children returning to Africa, suddenly in the 1840s there are only men who don´t resettle permanently, they go back and forth. Finding information on the travelers of the 1840s is really hard, because it was the period of the illegal slave trade and the owners of ships traveling to the Bight of Benin did their best not to leave any trace of these voyages, so as to escape the authorities. Like drug traffickers today. But it is known that in Bahia alone, tens of thousands of captives from the Bight of Benin arrived in the 1840s, and most of the Africans who traveled back and forth during this period were employed on the slave ships that brought these captives. They worked as cooks, sailors, barbers, carpenters, caulkers, etc.
In the 1850s, the demographics change again, and suddenly women and children are receiving passports again. By the 1860s Lagos became the main destination. Certainly the British seizure of Lagos helped, by making the city a sort of safe haven where a person would not run the risk of being re-enslaved. At the same time, the British actively began encouraging returnees to settle there, offering them land and the possibility of being considered British subjects. The colonial enterprise created a demand for carpenters, stone masons, cobblers, cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, etc. The returnees from Brazil had these skills. Places like Ouidah, which were still controlled by African monarchs, did not have this kind of demand. Also, Ouidah particularly was subject to blockades by the British and went through a period of high inflation, which may have made it less attractive to new arrivals.
I was fascinated by the individual stories in this article, proven by passport records. At first glance the exodus from Brazil looks like a start into freedom – African slaves, leaving the diaspora behind, going back to the motherland! But at the end they changed from the institution of slavery in the diaspora into the institution of slavery in West Africa. Though, the Àgùdà hold a relatively high position in the society of Lagos. How did they achieve this position?
One of the things that came as a surprise to me as I dug deeper into the life histories of the people returning to Africa is that many of them were relatively well-to-do, compared to the majority of freed people in Bahia. Many of them owned not only real estate but also slaves, and before leaving for Africa they liquidated these assets. In addition to selling their houses, they sold freedom letters to their adult slaves. With the money, the masters financed their return voyages and defrayed the costs associated with resettlement. Children were usually freed at no cost, but often with a catch: they had to remain with their masters until the latter died, after which their freedom would go into effect. In Agoué, where the parish records go back to the 1840s, you see many returnees baptizing slaves they evidently acquired locally, after their return. Slavery was a fundamental part of the social fabric in West Africa, and local opposition to it developed considerably after the abolition movement in the Americas had gained force. That being said, the racialization of enslavement in the Americas was a huge difference, and slaves in Africa often had more upward mobility than in the Americas.
As to the Agudás social position, this was a result of the skills they had acquired in the Americas. I said above that the onset of colonial rule in Lagos created a demand for construction and domestic workers, skills which the returnees had acquired during their enslavement. The same thing happened in present-day Benin, after the French colonization in the 1890s.
You have published a detailed paper on Bamboxê Obitikô, also known as Rodolfo Manoel Martins de Andrade. He was taken as a Yorùbá slave to Brazil around 1849, later he returned to Yorùbáland and spent the rest of his life traveling back and forth between Brazil and Lagos. He was a very influential Ṣàngó priest, founding figure of two famous terreiros and a babaláwo. The system of cowry-shell divination is even associated with his name in Brazil. He is a prominent figure in Candomblé, but you discovered more Àgùdà stories like his. Where do you collect those stories?
My research on the founding figures of the oldest terreiros starts with the oral traditions. The names and events recalled in these traditions form my starting point in searching for historical documents. Occasionally complementary information comes from the structure or content of certain rituals. Oral traditions often vary quite a bit depending on who is telling the story, and comparing the differences between one version and another, as well as the points in common, can bring important insights. If the person has descendants, I try to locate family members. Their memories can be especially rich sources of information, and they often have photographs or written documents.
The archival work requires creativity. It´s not like you walk into the archive and they hand you a file on a particular person. It is real detective work. I usually start by checking to see if the person left a will or if there are probate records (the assessment of a deceased person’s estate and its division among heirs). These are especially useful because they usually contain information about the person’s family relationships and friends, who are often members of the religious community, too. In some cases, the terreiro itself is part of the person’s estate and there will be a description of the premises, with a focus on agricultural production, which often served to camouflage religious activities. But in these documents, there is almost never any information about the person’s involvement in Orixá worship, due to the history of persecution. Wills and probate records were public documents and to discuss Orixá worship could get a person into serious trouble with the police. So you have to read between the lines, being careful not to fall into the trap of just inventing things that simply aren’t there.
Parish records are another very important source. In nineteenth-century Brazil, Catholicism was the state religion, and everyone, including slaves, had to be baptized. For my research, baptism records are a real gold mine, because they allow you to identify relationships that may be absent from – or complement – oral traditions. Especially important is the godparent-godchild relationship, which, for people involved in Orixá worship, often served as a sort of decoy for the priest-initiate relationship. I don’t know a lot about the situation in Cuba but I have the impression something similar happened there, because in Spanish madrina and padrino are colloquial terms for ialorixá and babalorixá. In some cases I have found the baptism record of a person who was known to be a member of a certain terreiro, and there is the name of the ialorixá as godmother. Other sources that are fundamental in tracing Agudás are passport and passenger records. The port authorities in Brazil kept fairly good records on this stuff. For people who traveled a lot, sometimes this is the only kind of document they turn up in. But in all kinds of old documents, the intervening century or tropical heat and humidity have taken their toll and they are frequently in an advanced state of decay. Sometimes the paper has become so brittle that it literally breaks into pieces when you try to turn the page.
You combine the oral traditions of Candomblé with archival research. How does your working practice look like? How much time do you spend in libraries and what kind of material can you find there about the lives of the African Brazilians?
Libraries are a very secondary part of my research. Most of the information comes from archival sources, from baptism records, wills, probate records etc. as I mentioned. Reconstructing the life stories of Africans in Brazil is incredibly time consuming because what makes a good paper trail is having material possessions, and sometimes you are dealing with people who didn´t have much. So you are looking for a needle in a haystack, and as I said, it requires creativity to locate a document that has something on the person you are looking for. The documents in the archives are organized according to the logic of the bureaucracies that produced them. For example, passport requests were handled by the police. So when you go through a bundle of police records for a given period, you find everything from complaints about burned out street-lamps and runaway slaves, to descriptions of bar-room brawls, etc. When you do find passport requests, only a small fraction is from Africans, and Africa was not the only place that freed people traveled to. They also went to places within Brazil.
So doing this work requires a huge time investment. In the beginning I had a pretty narrow scope – was just following a few people – and I would go for days or even weeks without finding a single document. When I did find something, sometimes the page would be torn or the ink was so faded that it was practically illegible. Because of this kind of thing I decided to open my horizons. Instead of just looking for people I knew were founding figures in the terreiros, I started collecting data on all kinds of people who traveled back to Africa. This also helped me to see patterns in the big picture that I would not have noticed otherwise.
Digging up the information is so difficult that it can get frustrating. One thing that helps motivate me is the dialogue with descendants. In the case of Bamboxê Obitikô, for example, early on in my research, when I found his freedom letter, I photographed it and took a copy to his great-granddaughter, who was then around 90 years old, Dona Irene. She was thrilled. And because I was also sharing information, not just expecting her to answer my questions, she was more willing to talk to me about her family history. We developed a close relationship, and if I went too long without checking in to tell her my latest findings, she would call me up to see what was up. And when I did find something, I would pay her a visit and bring digital images of what I´d found. Her interest helped to make up for the tediousness of sifting through dusty, moldy old files.
Bamboxê’s house in Pópó Àgùdà, the Afro-Brazilian quarter in Lagos, Nigeria, still exists, it is known under the name Bámgbóṣé Martins house (see a photo in this older blog post). He had families on both sides of the Atlantic, which remained in contact for several generations. One photo on your Famílias Agudás Facebook site shows you with one of the Yorùbá descendants, Erelu Lola Ayonrinde. She was visiting Salvador da Bahia and met her cousin, babalorixá Air Jose Souza de Jesus, great-great grandson of Bámgbóṣé. How was this meeting?
Actually, the ties between the two sides of the family had been reactivated in the 1970s, when one of Bamboxê’s great-grandchildren in Lagos, late Paul Babalola Bamgbose-Martins, an engineer, was in Brazil on business. He mentioned to someone he met that his family was from Bahia, and gave his ancestor’s name. One thing led to another and soon he was in touch with his cousins there, and after that he would visit every year or so. He passed away in 2010, but during his lifetime he used to tell the family in Lagos that they didn´t know what they were missing, that they simply had to go to Brazil.
Before he passed, his niece, Erelu Lola Ayonrinde, promised him she would come to Brazil with him. Although it didn´t happen in his lifetime, after his death she made good on her promise. She came twice in 2015, for an exhibit in Rio de Janeiro, in honor of one of Bamboxê’s great-granddaughters, Regina Omilola, and for a birthday jubilee in Bahia for her cousin Air José Bisilola. I intermediated as translator, because the family in Bahia at this point speaks Portuguese but as far as Yoruba goes, only the vocabulary used in the ritual context. Erelu speaks Yoruba and English, but not Portuguese. From what Erelu commented to me, it was a constant experience of identification, especially in the religious context. Yet also so many things were different, transformed over time, with influences from European culture and also other African cultures.
The Yorùbánized term “Àgùdà” is today associated with Catholicism. Many returned African-Brazilians stuck to this religion, in opposition to the larger Protestant community. The Olọ́rìṣà who came back to Yorùbáland and the influence they had on the traditions back home has not been researched a lot, I think. You wrote that Bamboxê also played a leading role in Ṣàngó worship in Lagos, or that Francisca da Silva, a high priestess of the Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká temple, traveled to Ouidah in today’s Benin, where she established another temple.
In the context of resettlement in West Africa, the Catholic face of the Agudá came to symbolize their Brazilian experience. Despite the fact that enslavement was a fundamental part of that experience, “Brazilian” identity paradoxically came to be a source of pride, something that set them apart from local residents. In the colonial context, to be a Christian was also an important status symbol: even if in Lagos the British colonizers would have preferred then to convert to Protestantism, still, to be Catholic was far more socially acceptable than to be involved in Orixá worship. So Catholicism became the public face of the Agudá, for various reasons. Yet there were also returnees like Francisca da Silva/Iyá Nassô and Bamboxê Obitikô who were engaged in traditional religious practices. Many of the other families I have spoken to also have origins in Oyo and as a result Xangô is an important deity in their families. The Rufino family of Agoué, of Nupe descent, to this day have a xerê, a special rattle used in Xangô worship [Yor.: ṣẹ́ẹ́rẹ́], that is a family heirloom, brought from Brazil by their ancestor in the 1840s. Another family, the Paraisos of Porto Novo, have been Muslims since the nineteenth century, but maintain Xangô as their family Orixá. It’s an interesting subject and as you note there is little research on it. In some cases, though, families’ current involvement in Islam or Christianity generates a certain resistance to discussing traditional religious practices, and in many cases they have been abandoned for generations.
On another occasion you accompanied Yassin da Gloria, a young man from Benin, through the city of Salvador da Bahia. He is descendant from a Brazilian returned family. You found Maria da Gloria de São José on a passport list from May 16, 1836. Incredible stories! How do you get into contact with descendants who travel to Brazil? Does your Facebook site help you, or is it through your academic research that people contact you?
The story of how I got in touch with the Da Gloria family is a funny one. In 2012 when I went to Benin for the first time, hoping to locate the descendants of Africans who had left Brazil after the Malê uprising, the Da Glorias were at the top of my list. I had so much information about the founders’ lives in Bahia, and no one working on the Agudá had ever had contact with them. I was working with a group of local scholars in Benin but none of them knew this family. When I went to Agoué, I found the compound, but it was closed, with no one living there. A neighbor gave me a cell phone number for one of the family members, in Cotonou, and I called many times, but no one answered. Finally, I had to leave Benin, very disappointed not to have been able to find them. Back in Brazil, it occurred to me to check Facebook. I found a young man whose last name was Da Gloria and whose profile said he lived in Cotonou, aso I wrote to ask if by chance he came from Agoué. Sure enough, it was the same family! He gave me an email address and phone number for his uncle, which I sent to one of my colleagues in Benin. It turned out they were neighbors! Since then the Da Glorias have been active members in the collaborative project I am part of, involving local scholars and members of Agudá families in Benin. They have created a nonprofit, the Fondation du Patrimoine Afro-Brésilien du Bénin, which is working to promote the memory of Agudá heritage and, especially, to encourage the families to preserve the historic architecture, which in many cases has been abandoned for years and is in an advanced state of decay.
But back to the Da Glorias – it was after I was able to track them down via Facebook that I decided to create the Famílias Agudás page. We are fortunate to live in an era when the internet allows us to share information quickly and cheaply, and even provides us with easy access to translation, even if imperfect. So it seemed to me that the Facebook page could be helpful in facilitating the re-awakening of the transatlantic dialogue that is such an important part of Afro-Brazilian cultural heritage but which, apart from occasional exceptional cases, like the Bamgbose Martins family, the Da Rochas (also of Lagos and Bahia) and the Alakijas (of Bahia and Abeokuta), largely went extinct in the mid-20th century. The page has been an interesting forum, but most of the Agudás who participate in it live outside of Africa. Like Yassin da Gloria, who was in Brazil working on his master´s degree in Rio. He became one of the page’s first members. In the Agudás’ actual territory, apart from major cities like Lagos and Cotonou, internet access is still an obstacle, especially in reaching older people.
An interesting topic is the effect publications have on the living, oral traditions. In Nigeria Èṣù became Satan through the Yorùbá bible translation, in Cuba the research of Ortiz and the Communists influenced Afro-Cuban identity. Candomblé also has some common misconceptions, its sources are popular books. As a researcher you are actively shaping the modern Candomblé identity. What is your intention? Is your own research becoming an oral tradition in the future?
This is a fascinating and complex issue. In fact, it was the subject of my doctoral thesis, later published as a book, "Entre a Oralidade e a Escrita: A Etnografia nos Candomblés da Bahia". Not in terms of the effect of my own work – I was just a student at the time, so I didn´t have any yet, at that point (laughs) – but in the more general sense of how Candomblé communities perceive the huge body of ethnographic research that exists about them. Scholars have been writing about Candomblé since the 1890s and some terreiros, like the Gantois, have had anthropologists around since then. In the old days, when most Candomblé priests had little formal education, they did not necessarily read, in the literal sense, what was being published in scholarly journals. But they were still aware that things were being written and that this work had an audience, and that this affected what people thought of Candomblé. In Brazil, over the first decades of the 20th century, developing a dialogue with scholars was an important strategy in Candomblé’s fight for social acceptance. As Candomblé became more accepted in society, what scholars were writing started to circulate in the media, in magazines and newspapers and then later television. The novelist Jorge Amado also wrote a lot about Candomblé and a number of his books were later made into films and TV series. So indirectly, scholarly work has been reaching audiences in the terreiros for generations. This work often contained information about founding figures, based on oral traditions.
In terms of oral traditions, as I mentioned earlier, there is often more than one version, depending on who you talk to. What tends to happen is that the one that gets picked up by the media starts to take over, in the popular imagination. The other versions – the ones that researchers and the media didn’t pick up on – tend to fade away and even in the Candomblé temples younger generations often don´t know about them. But leaving aside the problem of interference from scholars and the media, there is a certain plasticity to oral traditions themselves. With time, over generations, changes appear. Sometimes the changes are metaphorical. Sometimes they gloss over or elide memories that may be painful or uncomfortable. And sometimes the person telling the story may simply make a mistake or forget to mention an important detail.
So in my work, I have to keep all of this in mind. In comparing oral traditions to the written record, I look for points in common, but also for discrepancies, bearing in mind that written accounts can also contain mistakes or distortions. When I read a police account of a raid on a Candomblé ceremony, I have to be on the watch for exaggerations and misrepresentations, at the same time paying attention to elements that are more credible. And I compare one oral tradition to another, on the lookout for where they coincide and where they diverge from each other.
So my process, as a researcher, in putting together a life history, is very complex. I have to extrapolate a bit at times, but at the same time be careful not to let my imagination take over. Often the documents I find confirm central aspects of oral traditions, adding texture and nuance. But sometimes it reveals relationships and events that were not present in the oral traditions. So then I am faced with making a critique of what has become the dominant version of certain events. I know that my research may end up changing today’s oral traditions. But at the same time, it is important to be aware that oral traditions have never been static. They have always been subject to change over time. And my work is just one more contribution to that process.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment I am dividing my time between writing two books. One is about Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oká in the nineteenth century, with a focus on its social network involving freed people in Bahia, other parts of Brazil and West Africa. Another is about another well-known terreiro, the Gantois, also founded in the 1800s and known to be related to Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô. The Gantois was founded by a married couple, an Egbá freedwoman and her husband, who was Mahi.
Muito obrigado, Lisa, for this interview! I hope many more West African people will contact you in the future via your Facebook page Famílas Agudás!
Thank you! Axé!
Bamboxê is the Brazilian Nagô spelling of Yorùbá Bámgbóṣé, which comes from “bá-mi-gbé-oṣé”, literally “help-me-carry-the-double-axe-of-Ṣàngó (oṣé)”. Obitikô comes from Yorùbá Ọ̀rọ́bìtìkó, “he-who-rolls-in-opulence”, a name given to a corpulent person, quoted from Ayọ̀ Bámgbóṣé, “From Grace to Grace: An Autobiography”. This information was retrieved from the project yorubaname.com
Many speculations exist on the origin of the word “Àgùdà”, widely used in Yorùbá language today for returnee-families or Catholic faith. Almost certainly it derives from Ajudá, the old Portuguese name for Ouidah, which in turn comes from Hueda, the term for the ethnic group that inhabited the area before the Fon invasion.
Links and Resources:
Follow Famílias Agudás on Facebook
Lisa Earl Castillo’s articles on Academiu.edu
The book "Entre a Oralidade e a Escrita: A Etnografia nos Candomblés da Bahia" on Google Play.