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.