Many people initiated into the Cuban system of Òrìṣà worship call themselves, their religion, or vocabulary ‘Lukumí’. This is the contemporary expression for what is also known under the Spanish term Santería (the way of the saints), often inadequately described as a ‘Caribbean system of beliefs merging Catholic and West-African practices’. In Cuba, Òrìṣà worship is known as ‘la regla de ocha’, literally ‘the rule of the Òòṣà’ (Yor. Òòṣà, short for Òrìṣà). Òrìṣà are known as ‘santos’ (saints), olórìṣà (the ones who own Òrìṣà) are called ‘santeros’ (saint-worshippers). All the Spanish terms are based on a Catholic terminology, what is one reason why Lukumí became a popular word to identify the Cuban tradition of Òrìṣà worship, outside of Cuba.

I use the widespread Lukumí spelling with a ‘k’. It is a Yorùbá-nized orthography (there is no ‘c’ in Yorùbá) and it works better in a multi-lingual context. The Lucumí version with a ‘c’ is used in Spanish literature, especially in older books.

Dance show for tourists, Havana, Cuba, 2017, probably accompanied by Lukumí songs and batá drumming, with the Oricha Yemayá, Oggun, Eleggua, Ochún and Changó in their typical diaspora dresses. Photo by  Brian Godfrey  CC  BY 2.0

Dance show for tourists, Havana, Cuba, 2017, probably accompanied by Lukumí songs and batá drumming, with the Oricha Yemayá, Oggun, Eleggua, Ochún and Changó in their typical diaspora dresses. Photo by Brian Godfrey CC BY 2.0

It is common knowledge that the term ‘Lukumí’ in Cuba was used as a category for a so-called ‘nación’ (nation). It was a colonial idea that Africans lived in nation states and in Cuba were organized in slave societies called ‘cabildos de nación’. The term ‘Lukumí’ was given to Yorùbá-speaking slaves – or ‘emancipados’ from intercepted slave ships after the abolition – by the authorities. At their legal point of arrival, Africans were registered and checked for diseases, later baptized. It was characteristic at that time to modify a Christian name with a term that indicates the African provenance. Historic colonial documents provide statistics about these ‘nations’ – compare our article ‘Dasalu, the Christian Yorùbá in Cuba’ about the life of one of these slaves, who received the name ‘Nicolas Lucumí’ during his registration. It is the rare story of a man who returned to his homeland, after having been shipped to Cuba. Nicolas Lucumí was baptized in Abẹ́òkúta before being sold into slavery. In Cuba at that time, the term Lukumí described his point of origin and his ethnic group-identity, but not a religious belief system. Lukumí by birth, not by initiation.

‘Lukumí’ – rarely ‘Anagó’ – is also used for the remains of the Yorùbá language in Cuba, sometimes called a ‘sacred language’, because it is used liturgically in songs and prayers dedicated to the Òrìṣà. Over the generations, it changed from the tonal language into a fixed vocabulary. Phrases are memorized by people who speak Spanish as their everyday language. Compare our article: ‘The Incomplete Yorùbá Guide to Lukumí’ (note: Ànàgó is the Fọn term for who we now call Yorùbá speakers, today also used for a small Yorùbá subgroup in Ipókìyà, Ilaròó and coastal areas of Ògùn and Lagos states of Nigeria).

Various ‘Lukumí-nations’ have been documented in Cuba, today known as Yorùbá subgroups, kingdoms or dialects. Some ‘cabildos’ (slave-societies) in Havana were known under the names of ‘Oyó/Eyó, Iyebú, Ibada, Eguado, Egbá, Kétu, Iyesá/Yesa’, what is Hispaniziced orthography for Ọ̀yọ́, Ìjẹ̀bu, Ìbàdàn, Ẹ̀gbádò, Ẹ̀gbá, Kétu, Ìjẹ̀ṣà. Other ethnic groups from around the area of Yorùbáland were sometimes subsumed under ‘lucumí’, like ‘lucumí-arará’ (Gbè-speakers) or ‘lucumí-tacua’ (Nupe) or ‘lucumí-mina’ (Mina). Some of them might have spoken Yorùbá as lingua franca and so fell into this category. The classification into ethnic categories defined the market value and changed over the centuries, it never was (or ever could be) accurate. As an example, the first Arará (from ‘Ardra’ or ‘Ardres’, old European name for Allada, see the maps) shipped to Cuba were mostly Aja people. Later different Gbè-speaking ethnic groups (Ewe, Fon, Aja, Mina, etc.) were typically registered under the term Arará, while e.g. in Haiti the slaves from Ardra became known as Rada. (And in Cuban diaspora terminology: The Arará called the Yorùbá people Ànàgó).

An illustration from the  Church Missionary Intelligencer  published in 1856. A visit of the missionaries and their translator, probably a Saro (Sierra-Leonean returned Yorùbá speaker) at the palace of a Yorùbá King - in this case the King of the Ìjẹ̀bú. Image Public Domain.

An illustration from the Church Missionary Intelligencer published in 1856. A visit of the missionaries and their translator, probably a Saro (Sierra-Leonean returned Yorùbá speaker) at the palace of a Yorùbá King - in this case the King of the Ìjẹ̀bú. Image Public Domain.

Some readers might ask: ‘Why weren’t the Lukumí just called Yorùbá?’ The word ‘Yorùbá’ (on old maps written ‘Yarriba’) is an exonym (an ethnic label applied by outsiders) and was used by the Hausa people to refer to their Southern neighbors from the Ọ̀yọ́ kingdom. The ‘Yorùbá-nization’ started around 1850, with the return of the freed Yorùbá slaves from Sierra Leone and Brazil and Cuba, the establishment of the Anglican missions and the ‘Lagosian Renaissance’ period and its literate elite. The idea of the modern political Yorùbá identity developed. It became a term used in the literature, written by the Christianized freedmen who returned from Sierra-Leone (like Àjàyí Crowther) to refer to themselves as the large language cluster of Yorùbá-speaking people, uniting all the kingdoms and their local identities into a large ethnic single group. It is a complicated topic, we should not forget the role the Ọ̀yọ́ kingdom played in shaping a pan-Yorùbá identity, its influence on neighboring ethnic groups, the diaspora experience of the returnees, or languages like Iṣẹkiri… There’s a lot of political discussion about it in Nigeria, and by scholars who write about Òrìṣà religion in the diaspora. See Stephan Palmie’s book ‘The Cooking of history. How not to study Afro-Cuban Religion’. He compares writer Reverend Samuel Johnson (The History of the Yorubas), who projected the ‘Yorùbá-ness’ into the past to construct a nation, to babaláwo Remigio Adechina Herrera in Cuba, who at the same time expanded the Lukumí identity to a ritual relationship connected to Òrìṣà. While Adéṣínà (‘the crown opened the way’) might have never heard the term Yorùbá and in documents calls himself being from the ‘nation of the Lucumí’, he serves today as a common example for the ‘Yorùbá’ tradition in Cuba. In short: The term Yorùbá became a standard expression only towards the end of the times of slavery, when the African born ‘Yorùbá’ and their creole descendants were already known under their diasporic identity Lukumí in Cuba.

Left a Lukumí batá drum set from Havana, right a Yorùbá bàtá set from Ìbàdàn (the omele is not colored, I had to renew the skin, the omele meta as a set of three would not be played in an Òrìṣà context). There are other types of bàtá drums in Yorùbáland and Cuba, too. Both sets are original bàtá and I do not think of one being the offspring of the other! Watch out for the upcoming story! © Orisha Image

Left a Lukumí batá drum set from Havana, right a Yorùbá bàtá set from Ìbàdàn (the omele is not colored, I had to renew the skin, the omele meta as a set of three would not be played in an Òrìṣà context). There are other types of bàtá drums in Yorùbáland and Cuba, too. Both sets are original bàtá and I do not think of one being the offspring of the other! Watch out for the upcoming story! © Orisha Image

Many expressions to identify ethnic groups (or locations) have their roots in a language foreign to this ethnic group (so-called exonyms). Think of ‘America’ and its word roots in the Italian name ‘Amerigo’, that has its roots in the German name ‘Emmerich’, from medieval Germanic ‘brave’ and ‘rich’. No native was asked for the place’ name. It is not the etymology of a word that counts for us, but its actual usage and meaning. We quickly forget about the roots. In this sense, the following history about the term Lukumí is insignificant for its meaning today. But: there is so much history that is hardly been told, so I think it is worth taking a closer look! Where’s the origin of the word ‘Lukumí’? What did it mean? Many people want to know. Here’s the summary of theories. There are several myths around it, all of them are connected. This information is from academic papers quoted below, I recommend reading them all to get the full picture. Let’s just focus on the etymology. This article is not about Lukumí identity or how it was formed in the African Diaspora, it is not about the complex process of self-identification or group-affiliation, neither a definition of ‘Yorùbá-ness’ – that would be another story (compare Lovejoy’s online article ‘Ethnic Designations of the Slave Trade’.)

A detail of a historic map of the West African coast that I bought on Ebay for 30 Euros. Here you have various categories for slaves: Arará/Rada from Ardra (Allada), Carabalí from Calbari (Calabar), Lukumí from Ulcumi, etc… even the Àgùdà, Brazilian and Cuban returnees in Yorùbá language, have their name from a port: here written Juda, Ajuda, (Whydah). © Orisha Image

A detail of a historic map of the West African coast that I bought on Ebay for 30 Euros. Here you have various categories for slaves: Arará/Rada from Ardra (Allada), Carabalí from Calbari (Calabar), Lukumí from Ulcumi, etc… even the Àgùdà, Brazilian and Cuban returnees in Yorùbá language, have their name from a port: here written Juda, Ajuda, (Whydah). © Orisha Image

Chapter 1: Lukumí – The African Kingdom

The ‘language Lukumí’ – written as ‘Licomin’ – appeared in a letter from a Portuguese missionary who was stationed at the island of São Tomé in 1640. Many slave ships at that time made a stop on this small island before going on their journey across the Atlantic. The Jesuit Frei Colombina de Nantes had access to the African men and women there and wrote: “…lingua eorum est facilis, vocatur lingua Licomin et est universalis in istis partibus, sicut latinum in partibus Europa.” According to the author, ‘Licomin’ was lingua franca and spoken by many people as a second language, like Latin in Europe. Read it here online in the scan of the book by António Brásio, who published it in his ‘Monumenta missionaria Africana. Africa occidental’ (1952).

Alonso de Sandoval, also a Jesuit missionary who evangelized African slaves in South America, published in Madrid in 1647 his book ‘De Instauranda Aethiopum Salute. Historia De Aethiopia, naturaleça, Policia Sagrada y Profana, Costumbres, ritos, y Cathecismo Evangelico, de todos les Aethiopes’ (here’s the link). Ethiopia was a general term for sub-Saharan Africa. It was a re-edition of his book from 1627, which had another title. In the book from 1647 the ‘Lucumies’ were mentioned as a kingdom close to Ardra (Allada), Vini (’Bìní’, most often spelled ‘Benin’ and denoting the Ẹ̀dọ́ Kingdom in present Nigeria) and Yabu (Ìjẹ̀bu). Sandoval described the Lucumies as very loyal and working as mercenaries, what is an interesting point, as we will see later. Ìjẹ̀bu, today known as Yorùbá subgroup, was just another kingdom, not connected at all to the Lukumí.

I had the chance to browse through the original book from 1670, isn’t this incredible? I had to use gloves. National Library in Vienna. © Orisha Image

I had the chance to browse through the original book from 1670, isn’t this incredible? I had to use gloves. National Library in Vienna. © Orisha Image

‘Lukumí’ then regularly starts to appear in different spellings in European descriptions of West Africa and can easily be spotted on dozens of nautical charts and maps of this hardly known territory. Many of these charts are digitalized and available for free online in libraries, I found around ten maps with Lukumí kingdoms very quickly. Below this article there’s a list of external links to some examples in high resolution. The kingdom’s location remained fixed somewhere in the hinterland of the lagoons of Lagos. I went to the National Austrian Library and browsed through the original translation of Olfert Dapper’s ‘Description of Africa’ from 1670 with a chapter about the ‘Ulkami Kingdom’ and a complete map of West Africa. The Kingdom of Ulkami was also located between the kingdom of ‘Arder’ (Allada) and ‘Benyn’ (Benin, the Ẹ̀dọ́ Kingdom in present day Nigeria). While long and detailed chapters exist about kingdoms along the coastline, the one about the Lukumí kingdom is very short – and disgusting, as you can read in the photo below. The German version of the book, which I compared to the English one on the photos, is even more disgusting. Either the German translator added more details about the stick put into the vagina of young girls, or the English translator left out details.

The description of the Lukumí kingdom is very short, and very strange. Pismires, an antiquated term for ants. © Orisha Image

The description of the Lukumí kingdom is very short, and very strange. Pismires, an antiquated term for ants. © Orisha Image

So, a part of West Africa, on old maps more or less situated in Yorùbáland, became known in Europe as the language cluster Licomin, the kingdom of the Lucumies or the kingdom of Ulkuma, Ulcuma, Ulkumi, Ulcumi, Oulcoumi, Ulkami, Alkomij, Lacomie or Laucommis (Robin Law found 17 variants). While this kingdom had long been associated by scholars like Fernando Ortiz with Old Ọ̀yọ́ or sometimes even with Ilé-Ifẹ̀ (what is very unlikely, as it had already lost its power then), new findings by Lovejoy and Ojo make it possible that the term points to the Olukumi villages near Benin City and the Portuguese history of trade with this kingdom. More about that in chapter three.

A detail from the folded map, the Bight of Benin, attached to the book published by Olfert Dapper in 1670. © Orisha Image

A detail from the folded map, the Bight of Benin, attached to the book published by Olfert Dapper in 1670. © Orisha Image

The term Lukumí can be found very early in colonial papers across the Atlantic in the Spanish colonies. There’s a record of two ‘Lucume’ slaves on an estate in Hispaniola from 1547, ‘Lucumis’ have also been registered in Colombia and Peru at the beginning of the 17th century, and ‘Locumi’ are mentioned in Mexico. Yorùbá slaves only made a small percentage of the earlier slave trade, compared to other ethnic groups. With the collapse of the Ọ̀yọ́ kingdom around 1800 and the following decades of war, thousands of Yorùbá people were shipped especially to Cuba and Brazil in the 19th century, when other countries already had banned the trade. For a reason not known, the Spanish authorities continued to use the term Lukumí to identify Yorùbá speaking people, while the Portuguese in Brazil used the term Nagô.

A horrifying image: boarding a slave ship at the coast of Africa. Illustration from the  Church Missionary Intelligencer  published in 1856. Image Public Domain.

A horrifying image: boarding a slave ship at the coast of Africa. Illustration from the Church Missionary Intelligencer published in 1856. Image Public Domain.

There is an unusual story about a free African-born woman of color in 18th century Peru, Ana de la Calle, who called herself a Lukumí. Rachel Sarah O’Toole’s article ‘To Be Free and Lucumí’ gives an example of this identity in another context than the Cuban one. In Colombia ‘Lucumí’ is a common surname among Afro-Colombian people living in the area of the Pacific coast. A Colombian comedian uses the name and its stereotype black Colombian image (?) as an artist name for a Lucumí show, well-known athletes’ names are Luis Lucumí or Jeison Lucumí Mina. Here’s even a link to a newspaper article about a man called José Lucumí Carabalí - seems like many ‘ethnic’ categories from the times of slavery survived as legal surnames in Colombia (this is just my own conclusion, I did not find a Colombian yet to discuss this in detail).

William Bascom’s ‘Shango in the New World’ from 1972. I was lucky to find it on the second hand book market.

William Bascom’s ‘Shango in the New World’ from 1972. I was lucky to find it on the second hand book market.

Chapter 2: The (Re-)Yorùbánized term Lukumí

Explanation number two for the roots of the word Lukumí became popular when William Bascom published his booklet “Shango in the New World” at the African and Afro-American Research Institute, University of Texas at Austin, 1972. I managed to get an expensive copy on the second hand book market. On page 13 he mentions: “In Cuba the descendants of the Yoruba slaves are known as Lucumi, a name probably derived from a Yoruba greeting, oluku mi, meaning ‘my friend.’” No further explanation is given. Ten years before, in an article about the ‘Yoruba in Cuba’ in the ‘Nigeria Magazine’ from 1951, Bascom had still connected the Lukumí to Yoruba and Nupe (Takua) and ‘early European maps’ from West Africa.

Migene González-Wippler made in in her book ‘Santería. African magic in Latin America’ from 1973 a connection between Lukumí and ‘akumí’, a term for a ‘native of Aku, a region of Nigeria where many Yoruba come from’. Very likely, I think, she meant the ‘Aku’, a name that is/was used for the Yorùbá people and Krio language in Sierra Leone, where the British unloaded intercepted slave ships and a large Yorùbá diasporic community grew. The term ‘Aku’ makes a good comparison to the Lukumí greeting theory: its roots lie in the greeting formula ‘Ẹ kú (iṣẹ́/ kàlẹ̀/ ilé etc.)’. Today they are known as a Creole group in Sierra Leone, the Aku or Oku. Also, in British Guyana this name was used for people with Yorùbá background.

A map from 1743 by Homann Heirs: Guinea propria. I got a small (bad quality) reprint online. Lukumí is here written as Oulcoumi. Oudobo could be the town of Òṣogbo, Jabou is Ìjẹ̀bu, Ardra becomes Arará in Cuba, etc. A good high-res scan is online here at  Wikipedia .

A map from 1743 by Homann Heirs: Guinea propria. I got a small (bad quality) reprint online. Lukumí is here written as Oulcoumi. Oudobo could be the town of Òṣogbo, Jabou is Ìjẹ̀bu, Ardra becomes Arará in Cuba, etc. A good high-res scan is online here at Wikipedia.

Whenever I asked my Yorùbá informants, no one understood the word ‘olùkù’ as ‘friend’, especially not ‘olùkù mi’ as a greeting phrase (‘ọ̀rẹ́’ would be the contemporary term for ‘friend’). Most of them tried to pronounce the Cuban expression ‘Lukumí’ more like ‘(O)lúkúnmi’, what is a common name meaning ‘the Lord fills me’. So I involved writer and collaborator Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún from www.yorubaname.com. He knew a song from Ilé-Ifẹ̀ in which these lines are present: A ìí bá'ra jà, olùkù ara là ń ṣe (We don't fight with each other, we are each other's friends). It is a word from Ifẹ̀ dialect, as Kọ́lá interprets it. He has heard people use ‘olùkù mi’ to mean ‘my friend’, but in a throwback or anachronistic way. It's not used in everyday life. Finally, I found out that Linguist Awoyale has it in his Global Yoruba Lexical Database as ‘olùkù, companion’ and quotes lyrics by Ogundáre Fọ́yánmu: “Ojú-oró níí ṣe olùkù omi; àlúgùèṣe níí ṣe olùkù ilẹ̀.” (Ojú-Oró is the one that acts as the companion of water; Àlúgùèṣe it the one that acts as the companion of mother earth; proverbial incantation). So this is the popular interpretation today: Lukumí as ‘olùkù mi’ (mid-low-low-mid tone).

Lydia Cabrera’s book ‘Anagó. Vocabulario Lucumi. El Yoruba que se habla en Cuba’ from 1970 lists ’oluku’ as a verb (often Yorùbá nouns or nouns and prepositions are listed as ‘verbs’ in Cuban Lukumí vocabulary), meaning ’acariciar’ (to caress, stroke, nurture). Sounds a bit like the ‘friend’ or ‘companion’ from above to me. In her book ‘oluku’ is not connected at all to the term ‘Lukumí’.

Many of my Yorùbá friends, who share the passion of teaching me the ‘secrets’ of their tonal language, enjoy treating all kind of (foreign) words following the Yorùbá rules of vowel elision and word combination. And they are laughing a lot with me, whenever I try to break down composite words by myself, according to my (small) vocabulary. Yes, Yorùbá is a funny language. I have a paper written by the linguist Bám̄gbóṣé about around 20 well researched interpretations of the word Olódùmarè alone. I was always very skeptical about such findings of similarities of words, especially in the Lukumí case: one word that was used since centuries by European slave traders is connected to a simple noun-pronoun combination in the language spoken by the enslaved. Fanatic Evangelicals can even break down Hebrew names from the bible into Yorùbá meanings.

Along the docks of the harbor in La Habana, stereo photo from 1901. Cuban Photograph Collection by the  University of Miami Libraries . Image Public Domain.

Along the docks of the harbor in La Habana, stereo photo from 1901. Cuban Photograph Collection by the University of Miami Libraries. Image Public Domain.

The ‘olùkù’ as ‘friend’ discovery brought at least a very positive connotation and inspired writers. When I was young, I read an explanation on a Cuban style batá-drumming LP cover: new arriving slaves were welcomed at the harbor of Havana as ‘olùkù mi’. But as we know now from written sources, the term was used centuries before already by Portuguese merchants to describe a ‘kingdom’ in West Africa and to deal a specific category of slaves.

There is hardly any popular publication today that does not quote the ‘olùkù mi’ greeting theory. What is a rare Yorùbá word today, becomes a common greeting. I just went through some books from my library:

# ‘[…] derived from the common Yoruba greeting ‘oluku mí’ (my friend), and that slaves used this phrase to communicate to the new Yoruba-speaking captives arriving in Cuba to indicate that they were not alone in a foreign land.’, Michele Reid: The Yoruba in Cuba. Origins, Identities and Transformations, in: Toyin Falola, Matt D.Childs (ed.): The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World, Indiana University Press 2004, p.115)

# ‘[…] a derivation of the Ifẹ-Yorùbá greeting olùkù mi, or ‘my friend’, which refers not only to the religion but to the practitioners of the religion as well.’, Toyin Falola, Akintunde Akinyemi (ed.): Encyclopedia of the Yorùbá, Indiana University Press, 2016, p.9

# ‘[…] a term from the Yoruba people of Africa that means friendship […] derived from the Yoruba greeting ‘oluki (sic) mi’, which literally means ‘my friend’.’, Miguel A. De La Torre: Hispanic American Religious Cultures, Volume 1:A-M, ABC-CLIO, 2009, p.17

# ‘Lucumi, ‘My friend’, a Yoruba greeting in Cuba.’, Joseph M.Murphy, Santería. African Spirits in America, Beacon Pres, 1988, p.179

An illustration from the book ‘ 17 years in the Yoruba country ’ by Anna Hinderer, wife of a CMS missionary, published around 1860. Image Public Domain.

An illustration from the book ‘17 years in the Yoruba country’ by Anna Hinderer, wife of a CMS missionary, published around 1860. Image Public Domain.

Re-translation of Lukumí vocabulary into Yorùbá is on the agenda of the re-Africanization movement. Victor Betancourt Omolófaoró Estrada published an interesting linguistic book: ‘La Lengua ritual Lúkúmí’, Inversiones Orunmila, Venezuela. The book is dedicated completely to a re-Translation of the Lukumí ritual language (songs, paraphernalia, prayers, Ifá-verses) into Yorùbá. For the term ‘Lukumí’ he quotes Lamberto Samá who spoke with Latuán Timotea Albear, one of the highly esteemed and respected santeras of the 19th century, believed to have been an Ọ̀yọ́ native. Here we have an interpretation transmitted from a Lukumí elder! She said, when they were captured in their village and sold into slavery they were heavily beaten and cried ‘gún mí, gún mí, lú kú mí, lú kú mí’, interpreted by him in Spanish as ‘me golpean, el golpe me mata’ (they hit me, they are beating me to death). At night they whispered a prayer ‘Ejó eléran (bis) omo lú kú mí ejo eléran kó síìkà’, translated as ‘Si la sentencia fue tratarnos como ganado (bis) somos descendiente del que el golpe me mata, si la sentencia fue tratarnos como ganado, pero que no halla perversidad.’ Betancourt also explains that the word Yorùbá comes from ‘Ọ̀yọ́ rú ọba’, meaning ‘people of Oyo betrayed the king’, with a long story behind it. His ‘Lúkúmí’ version is written with three high tones, what makes a difference to the other versions (though the verb ‘lùkú’ should be written with low-high tone, I think). I have heard another interpretation in Cuba with one nasal sound included and with the high tone of ‘kú’, ‘to kill’, as nasal low tone: ‘ó lukùn mi’, Yorùbá for ‘he/she/it hit my stomach (ikùn)‘. There are more examples of possible re-translations, the list is longer, see the next chapter. With Yorùbá tones and nasals one can get creative. And if it is an exonym, a name given to a group of people by another group, it could even have its roots in another (tonal) language…

Already in 1670, ‘African women were addicted to dancing’. Illustration from Olfert Dapper. © Orisha Image

Already in 1670, ‘African women were addicted to dancing’. Illustration from Olfert Dapper. © Orisha Image

Chapter 3: Olukumi: The Yorùbá Enclave

The third theory is the latest one in the academic discussion, though it has been published so many years ago, before (!) Bascom came up with the ‘my friend’ theory in his papers. Thanks to the private archive of Yorùbá linguist Victor Manfredi I had the chance to read the original publication: The Nigeria Magazine from 1958, page 239-251! Hard to get a copy today! Ulli Beier, commonly known as Susanne Wenger’s ex-husband, published extensively about Yorùbá culture and art throughout his lifetime. In this article from 1958 he reports from a visit to the Western Ìgbò country in Nigeria where he ‘suddenly’ comes upon three Yorùbá communities, the communities of Ukunzu, Ugbodu and Uburubu. Although they have adopted customs from the surrounding Ìgbò culture, they stick to their language Yorùbá. They call themselves and their language: Olukumi – which means ‘my friend’! Remember, this was published in 1958 by Ulli Beier. He immediately refers to the old maps of West Africa and speculates about possible links of the present Olukumi people to the kingdom of Ulcumi/Ulcami/Lucumi known to European travelers. Beier is furthermore excited that this word ‘survived in Cuba’ and quotes Bascom: ‘the origin of the word Lucumí is still open to speculation.’ Beier made the first connection from the Olukumi to the Lukumí. He continues his analysis of the Olukumi villages and interviews local chiefs about their history and their close relationship to the Oba of Benin. He collects different stories how the Yorùbá came to settle there. Maybe as slaves or prisoners of war, when Benin fought numerous wars with the Èkìtì, Ọ̀wọ̀ and Àkúrẹ́, or as military allies to the Oba of Benin, as the name of one of their towns means ‘war camp’ (like ’Èkó’, Lagos, also started as Ẹ̀dọ́ camp, as its name says in Ẹ̀dọ́ language). Do you remember the book above from 1627, where the Lukumí were described as ‘mercenaries’? It could have been the Olukumi, Yorùbá people living (unfree) in the Benin kingdom or working for the Bìní army. Different quarters in the three Olukumi towns have different origins, some with the Ọ̀wọ̀ Yorùbá, others with the Àkúrẹ́ Yorùbá. The Ọ̀wọ̀ branch told Beier that they came to live there when the Oba of Benin married a wife from their town and their ancestors accompanied her to live in the new residence. Ulli Beier describes the Olukumi worship rites, including Ifá divination known as Awo, and a lively mixture of Yorùbá, Ẹ̀dọ́ and Ìgbò customs.

What you needed from Europe to trade slaves at the West African coast. White European horsetails possibly became irukere for the chiefs. A text from Olfert Dapper, 1670. © Orisha Image

What you needed from Europe to trade slaves at the West African coast. White European horsetails possibly became irukere for the chiefs. A text from Olfert Dapper, 1670. © Orisha Image

This leads to the article ‘Lucumí, Terranova, and the Origins of the Yoruba Nation‘ by Henry B.Lovejoy and Olatunji Ojo from 2015 and their re-examination of Beier’s report. The Benin-Portuguese slave trade started in the 15th century, long before Ọ̀yọ́ became the huge empire that finally collapsed. The Olukumi enclaves east of Yorùbáland were possibly already under the rule of Benin and involved in ‘chalk’ production (kaolinite is colloquially called chalk), an important trade good for rituals and medicines, still plentiful in this area.

Lovejoy and Ojo found a map published by Fernão Vaz Dourado in 1571 that mentions the ‘rio de iacomi’ (interpreted as ‘Lukumí river’). You can see the map here on Wikipedia, the ‘r. de iacomi’ is written vertically in red ink directly along the left flagpole in the Calabar region. This map was published fifty years before the term ‘Licomin’ appears in the letter of Jesuit Frei Colombina de Nantes from São Tomé and more or less at the same time when the term appeared the first time in the Caribbean documents. This shows, that the term was probably linked to Portuguese trade with the Ẹ̀dọ́ Kingdom of Benin. The authors speculate that the term was in use in the Benin kingdom before the Europeans arrived, and as it is still used by a Yorùbá group to refer to themselves, it can/could/should be connected to the Olukumi enclaves. Lovejoy and Ojo furthermore think it could have been a typical exonym and a word from Ẹ̀dọ́ language given to the eastern Yorùbá groups. They mention ‘oluku mi’ as ‘these young ones’ (meaning young animals) or ‘foreigner’ in Ẹ̀dọ́, but also quote ‘oluku mi’ as ‘concubine’ in Ọ̀wọ̀ Yorùbá dialect and the classical Yorùbá ‘my friend’ version (note: they do not give a linguistic analysis, Yorùbá and other languages are written without diacritics, sources are phone calls and interviews.)

The town of Benin. Illustration from Olfert Dapper, 1670. © Orisha Image

The town of Benin. Illustration from Olfert Dapper, 1670. © Orisha Image

The Ẹ̀dọ́ Kingdom of Benin had reached its greatest territorial extent around 1600, Lovejoy designed a map that can be seen in a small version at africandiasporamaps.com. However, slave trade with the Bight of Benin was minor compared to central West Africa at that time. By 1550 the Portuguese had even imposed an embargo on Benin and slave trade began to shift west, where the kingdom of Allada was on the rise. Et voilà: with this movement, the name coined for the Eastern Yorùbá trafficked by the Bìní and shipped via São Tomé became the name given also to the other Yorùbá groups shipped from the well-known western ports, when they arrived in the Spanish colonies. Centuries later, after the fall of Ọ̀yọ́ in the beginning 19th century, many slaves from Yorùbáland led to an exponential growth in the Lukumí population in the Spanish diaspora. The Portuguese adopted other trade names from small Western Yorùbá subgroups: the Ànàgó and the Kétu, to refer to all Yorùbá slaves in general, known as ‘Nagô’ or ‘Quetô’ today in Brazil. Ànàgó is the Fọn term for who we now call Yorùbá speakers, the Brazilian usage could reflect the dominance of Gùn-Gbè in Candomblé Jeje, as it is a relevant term in the Gùn-Gbè area.

This is a short summary of the academic papers quoted below. Detailed political descriptions and usages of the term in various contexts, languages and time periods you will find there! The Lukumí story is interesting, not so much for the etymology, we still don’t know exactly where the term comes from. We do not know the source, just its usage. No linguist (I think) has looked at it, one who knows how to deal with tonal languages, or one who also knows Ẹ̀dọ́, Ìgbò, etc., but I became fascinated by the connected African and African diaspora history. While I was reading and trying to find more information, I learned a lot about politics of West African states and their trade with Europe. This is hardly taught anywhere! What makes me wonder is that academic writers prefer quoting articles from illustrated magazines and texts published decades ago, rather than investigating on-site or involving a linguist who could analyze a language on a level a native speaker can’t. Has no one ever been in the Olukumi villages recently? No one knows more about their dialect? No one knows even the correct tones of the contemporary word Olukumi? I am waiting for the story of the first Lukumí visitor to an Olukumi town on Social Media, or a young Nigerian language student dedicating his Ph.D. to this topic. Meanwhile, watch the short video below and see how the ‘olùkù mi’ greeting theory became known in Cuba.

Via my blog, I once talked to a man who grew up in one of the Olukumi villages, but later moved to Lagos in his childhood. He said ‘olùkù mi’ with the meaning ‘my friend’ was still a common greeting formula you could hear in the streets when he grew up there in the 1960’s. I wish someone could go there and investigate or provide us with more information about this small Yorùbá community! If any readers out there have a connection to Olukumi people, please get in contact!

Linguist Victor Manfredi mentions in the footnotes of ‘Philological Perspectives on the Southeastern Nigerian Diaspora’ that copies of 700 distinct wax cylinders of 2.5 minutes’ duration, including recordings of Ólùkwumí, are being digitized in the British Library and could help to check for similarities between the southern Nigerian variety and Cuban Lukumí, that would be expected to show more similarities to the language presently called Iṣẹkiri. The Iṣẹkiri (also spelled Itsekiri) are more numerous than the Ólùkwumí and their language belongs to the south eastern Yorùbá dialects. The Ólùkwumí, as Manfredi spells their name with diacritics written in Ìgbò language (Ìgbò has only two tones, unmarked vowels in this orthography have the same tone as the vowel before them), are the same group as the Olukumi (Olùkùmi?) mentioned by Ulli Beier and Lovejoy and Ojo - but the latter do not give tonemarks! Manfredi chose tonemarks in Igbo, because the isolate Ólùkwumí is the second or auxiliary language of these people and their first language is western Igbo. If the ‘my friend’ greeting theory is true, the name of the small group could be spelled Olùkùmi in Yorùbá tonal language, but I have not found it yet in any dictionary or reliable linguistic source. But maybe it is just the way how the Olùkùmi understand this word, and its original roots lie in another language, who knows. If you google for ‘Olukwumi’ you will find some Nigerian links, it is a common variant of the name in Nigeria. In theory, Iṣẹkiri would be a dialect close to the Olùkùmi isolate.

Not about Lukumí, but the so-called Abakuá, is the video below, the spiritual traditions of an ‘ethnic’ group known as Carabalí in Cuba, who could re-establish important elements from their African society during the times of slavery. Their culture survived until today in special cult groups. This new video shows how Cuban Abakuá members meet members of the Èkpé society from Calabar region in Nigeria and how their masks dance together, re-united, after having been separated for centuries! It is incredible to see.

So… that’s the short summary of the discussion about the term ‘Lukumí’. I think the roots of the words are not so important, but the people who were called or later called themselves proudly Lukumí. To remember their history and struggles, preserving their identity and culture, shaping it new, after being taken away from their homes and beloved ones and sold into slavery. As olorisha I like to think of them all as ‘olùkù wa’, our friends and companions. Maybe this article helps to avoid some confusion, as some Nigerian bloggers think that the Olùkùmi Yorùbá dialect is spoken in Cuba today ‘in the Santería region’. There is so much speculation and confusion about this term!


A book I read about the Itsekiri, an Eastern Yorùbá language group in Nigeria. I thought I could find some information about the Olukumi.

A book I read about the Itsekiri, an Eastern Yorùbá language group in Nigeria. I thought I could find some information about the Olukumi.

As always, don’t forget, this is a blog, not a source that should be quoted, it is meant to inspire. I do not know what is right or wrong. This is a summary of what I read in academic articles and historic books, a base for lively discussions. I went to libraries to get some photos of historic books and included many links to articles and maps. Get the articles and find out more and work through their bibliographies! If you have a story to add to this article, let me know! Maybe one day we will have some new findings and interpretations.

Check our blog section for more stories about Yorùbá history and Òrìṣà in Yorùbáland and the Cuban and Brazilian diaspora! Ire òòò!


Resources

Henry B.Lovejoy, Olatunji Ojo: ‘Lucumí, ‘Terranova’, and the Origins of the Yoruba Nation*. In: Journal of African History, No 56, 2015, pp.353-372. Online.

Robin Law: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade: “Lucumi” and “Nago” as Ethnonyms in West Africa, History in Africa, Vol.24, 1997, pp.205-219. Online.

Robin Law: Trade and Politics behind the Slave Coast: The Lagoon Traffic and the Rise of Lagos, 1500-1800. The Journal of African History, Vol.24, No.3 (1983), pp.321-348.

Ulli Beier: Yoruba Enclave. In: Nigeria Magazine, No.58, 1958, pp.238-251.

Stefan Palmié: Das Exil der Götter. Geschichte und Vorstellungswelt einer afrokubanischen Religion. Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Bern, New York, Paris, 1991.

Stephan Palmié: The Cooking of History. How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Victor Manfredi: Philological Perspectives on the Southeastern Nigerian Diaspora. In: Contours A Journal of the African diaspora 2 2, p. 239-287. Online.

J. Lorand Matory: The English Professors of Brazil: On the Diasporic Roots of the Yorùbá Nation. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Volume 41, Number 1, January 1999, Cambridge University Press.

Victor Betancourt Omolófaoró Estrada: La Lengua Ritual Lúkúmí. Inversiones Orunmila C.A., Caracas, Venezuela.

Rachel Sarah O’Toole: To Be Free and Lucumí. Ana de la Calle and Making Africa Diaspora Identities in Colonial Peru. In: Africans to Spanish America: Expanding the Diaspora, University of Illinois Press, 2012 (on Google Books).

Paul E. Lovejoy, David V. Trotman (ed.): Trans-Atlantic Dimensions of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora, Bloomsbury, 2004.

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall: African Ethnicities and the Meanings of ‘Mina’. Online.

John Ogilby, Olfert Dapper: Africa: Being An Accurate Description Of The Regions Of Egypt, Barbary, Lybia, and Billedulgerid: The Land of Negroes, Guinee, Ethiopia, and the Abyssines, With all the Adjacent Islands, either in the Mediterranean, Atlantick, Southern, or Oriental Sea, belonging therunto ; With the several Denominations of their Coasts, Harbors, Creeks, Rivers, Lakes, Cities, Towns, Castles, and Villages. Their Customs, Modes, and Manners, Languages, Religions, and Inexhaustible Treasure ; With their Governments and Policy, variety of Trade and Barter, And also of their Wonderful Plants, Beasts, Beards, ans Serpents ; Collected and Translated from most Authentick Authors, And Augmented with later Observations ; Illustrated with Notes, and Adorn'd with peculiar Maps, and proper Sculptures. Printed by Thomas Johnson, London, 1670. (I found the German version digitalized here.)

Lydia Cabrera: Anagó. Vocabulario Lucumi (El Yoruba que se habla en Cuba), Ediciones Universal, Miami, Florida, 2007.

Yiwola Awoyale: Global Yoruba Lexical Database v.1.0 (includes Lukumí terms), Online.

The Olukumi people. Online at Wikipedia (including Lovejoy’s map).

www.yorubaname.com - great database to find out the meaning of names

Thanks to Nathan Lugo for sending the following links to Nigerian articles about the Olukumi:

A Yoruba enclave in the heart of Aniocha in Delta State, Online

Olukumi: An Interface of Yoruba and Edo kingdoms, Online

Indigenous Yoruba and Igala of Delta North, Online

Maps of Africa with the term Lukumí (or a variant of it)

Guillaume de L’Isle: Carte de la Barbarie le la Nigritie et de la Guinée, 1707

Fernão Vaz Dourado: Costa da Guiné até à ilha de São Tomé, 1571

Map of the west coast of Africa, Nigritarum Regio, 1662

Gerard Valck: Nigritarum Regnum, 1651

J. Heirs Janssonius: Nigritarum Regnum, Amsterdam, 1680

Africa: with all its states, kingdoms, republics, regions, islands, improved and inlarged from D'Anville's […] 1787

A new map of that part of Africa called the coast of Guinea […]

Homann Heirs: Guinea propria, Map of West Africa, 1743