The "Brazilians" of Benin

On the Agudas from West Africa

The descendants of Brazilian and Portuguese slave traders who settled in the region that is now Benin, Togo, and Nigeria in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the Africans taken as slaves to Brazil who returned there throughout the nineteenth century are all known as Agudas or Brésiliens.1 This category also includes descendants of the slaves who worked for these slavers and returnees, who assimilated their masters’ culture and even took their surnames, just as they had done with their masters in Brazil. As such, they all have family names of Portuguese origin, making them easily identifiable, although the women lose their maiden names when they marry. In Togo the members of the Lebanese, Syrian, and Indian colonies are also known as Agudas,2 while in twentieth century Nigeria, this designation denoted catholics in general.3 There are also families of other nationalities, including French, who are known as Agudas because they lived in the region in the nineteenth century, when the Agudas’ influence was stronger.4

There is some controversy about the etymology of the word “aguda,” but it more than likely derives from the Portuguese word ajuda (“help”), because until the nineteenth century the town of Ouidah was known as Ajuda, such that the full name of the Portuguese fort there is São João Batista da Ajuda. Built at the turn of the nineteenth century and now the Museum of History, the fort was only Portuguese in name, since it was actually built by slave traders from Bahia, Brazil, who also manned it and paid for its maintenance and upkeep. It had administrative ties to the Viceroy of Brazil until 1822, when it became the responsibility of the governor of São Tomé and Príncipe. 5

The first Agudas were Brazilian and Portuguese slave traders based in Ouidah, the best known of whom was undoubtedly Francisco Felix de Souza, later Chacha I, who moved there to work at the fort and went on to deal exclusively in the slave trade. He was already a powerful trader when he joined forces with Prince Gapké to bring down the prince’s brother, Adandozan, king of Dahomey. Francisco F. de Souza became the blood brother of the prince, who took the throne and had himself crowned King Ghezo in 1818. He made Souza the viceroy of Dahomey, granted him the office of Chacha, and gave him a monopoly over foreign trade in the kingdom. Thanks to this, Francisco Félix de Souza became one of the biggest slave traders and one of the richest men in the world in his day, according to contemporary accounts.6 His bloodline has formed one of the most extensive families in Africa, which has spread to a great many countries in the continent. In 1996, the eighth Chacha, Honoré Feliciano Julião de Souza, was enthroned, holding the title until his death in 2014.7

Although Chacha VIII did not have any formal political power, he maintained a certain authority in Ouidah (it was he who enthroned the local family chiefs) and enjoyed prestige in Beninese society. Aside from the Chacha, there is always some member of the De Souza family close to the centers of power. As the bishop of Cotonou, Isidore de Souza was responsible for chairing the National Conference on Invigorating Forces and Renewal of the Nation, guiding the country from a Marxist regime to democracy. General Mathieu Kerekou, who was the country’s president for 29 years, had two different De Souza wives, and his successors also had Aguda wives: Nicephore Soglo married a woman from the Vieyra family and Thomas Yayi Boni married a De Souza – another indication of the enduring importance of Agudas in Beninese political and social life.

As we have seen, by the late 1700s there were already Agudas on the Slave Coast, who were already referred to as such. However, it was only in the mid-1800s that they really grew in numbers, with the return of many former slaves, particularly after the crackdown on the Malê Uprising in 1835 in Bahia, Brazil,8 as a result of which a great many Africans ended up being deported. Upon their arrival, they discovered that their labor was in great demand in that part of Africa, while the labor market in Bahia was not only tainted by the stigma of the uprising, but also swamped by a new wave of Portuguese migrants, increasingly restricting the opportunities for freed Africans.

Conditions were favorable for the returnees, since the kingdom of Dahomey – the region’s main powerhouse – was mired in crisis by the prohibition of the slave trade, its primary source of income. The British settled in Lagos, in neighboring Nigeria, were curbing the trade, seizing ever more slave ships, while the Brazilian empire, itself under pressure from the British, was gradually moving towards the complete prohibition of the transatlantic slave trade, which eventually came about in 1852 with the Euzébio de Queirós law.9

Fortunately, there was one product available in that part of Africa that was greatly prized in Europe: palm oil, a powerful plant-based lubricant. Dahomey was keen to meet the growing demand for this oil, but it needed a workforce for its production and commerce – i.e., people who were conversant with western business practices, or at least the language.10

These were the circumstances in which the Africans returning from Brazil carved out a new place for themselves, with their previous experiences making all the difference. Having undergone years of slavery, these Africans had managed to withstand all manner of adversity, acquire their freedom, and accumulate enough capital to pay for their return trip and set up some kind of business. They were mostly construction foremen, stonemasons, carpenters, joiners, tailors, and some had even worked as slave overseers or small business managers. They were mostly literate and were versed in western cultural norms. However, upon their return to the society in which they had been enslaved, they suffered severe discrimination, showing how hard it is for the stigma of slavery to be erased at the places where it is produced, as demonstrated by Meillassoux.11

The returnees took full advantage of their experiences under slavery to build themselves a new social identity that placed them on a par with the first Agudas. It is an established fact that social identity is developed permanently and even cumulatively in opposition to others12 and is mainly structured around shared roots, and a common language and world view. Upon returning to Africa, the former slaves claimed they were no longer the same as they had been before their experiences of slavery: they had been “born again” in Brazil, they spoke Portuguese and were catholics or muslims. Thanks to this, they were able to appropriate the Aguda identity, and because they were from Africa, the other Africans referred to them as “those who have the white man’s manners.”

These white man’s manners were actually just the more visible face of a European culture that gradually left its mark on Africa throughout the twentieth century. The returnees – who came to constitute the majority of the Agudas – had assimilated the codes of this culture in Brazil, and although they had lived amongst the common folk, as we will see later on, they certainly modeled their habits on the ruling classes from Bahia. This was translated not only in their dress code, but also in their housing, the way they behaved in public, their diet, their religion, and of course their way of perceiving and viewing the world. These Agudas were not only Africans, they were also “Brazilians,” insofar as they were products of western culture – a culture that went on to dominate Africa in the late 1800s.

One of the main identity markers that granted the Agudas their social cohesion was the use of Portuguese, whic one of the lingua francas of international trade at the time and throughout the coast until the French colonization in the late 1800s, as reported by Elisée Reclus in his Géographie Universale (1887), cited by Verger.13 From then on, Portuguese – which had even been taught by French religious orders – was outlawed. Even so, several Portuguese words ended up invading the local languages, especially ones that designated furniture and household utensils (e.g. the Portuguese garfo and saia [“fork” and “skirt”] are garfou and saia in Fon) and words connected with catholic worship (e.g. Natal [Christmas] and confissão [confession] are Natà and konfesáùn in Fon); essentially, expressions that directly referred to elements of European culture.14 When speaking amongst themselves, Agudas even today use certain Portuguese words and expressions as identity markers. The most common of these is “Bom dia, como passou” (Good day, how are you?), which is answered with “Bem, ’brigado” (Well, thanks).15

Portuguese is also sung during the Burrinha performances that are so popular in southern Benin, which are mostly put on as part of celebrations marking Our Lady of Bonfim in January, just the same as in Bahia, Brazil. This celebration, which is still held in Porto-Novo and Ouidah, is a highpoint of public expression of Aguda identity. In Porto-Novo, the Agudas go to a mass dedicated to Our Lady of Bonfim, after which they set off on a parade through the city carrying Brazilian flags and singing old songs in Portuguese that date back to the times of slavery in Brazil.16

Another way the Agudas mark their identity is through their food – a key element of any culture, but even more so amongst the peoples of this region of Africa. The Agudas’ most important culinary contribution was undoubtedly the introduction of manioc (cassava) and maize (corn), which are today staples not only in that region, but throughout sub-Saharan Africa.17

The most popular dishes are Brazilian bean stew, feijoada, which has been adapted somewhat, cozido (meat and vegetable stew), and moqueca (fish stew), both of which are exactly like the original dishes. A lot of Beninese cuisine is also based on tomato sauce and onion, which, incidentally, is known locally as moio (from molho, the Portuguese for “sauce”). There are also influences in desserts, such as a sweet made of green papaya, which is simply referred to as dossi (from doce, the Portuguese for “sweet” or “dessert”). Other foods that have invaded the local culture and are even sold in street stalls in Cotonou are concadá (from the Portuguese cocada), which in its original form is a coconut sweet, but is also sold in versions that are the same as two common Brazilian sweets: peanut brittle and tapioca (a sweet dish made from cassava flour).18

It would be fair to say that the Agudas were the first to introduce western culture to the Slave Coast. The first church there was built by a returnee, Joaquim de Almeida, known as Joki, who is also believed to have been responsible for introducing manioc to the region that is now Togo.19 And it was also thanks to the Agudas – especially the returnees – that the region gained its first masonry buildings. The first two-story house is believed to have been the home of Chacha I, which was named Singbomey after the word singbo, which means two-story house. The Chacha had another such house, called Singboji, built at the entrance to the palace of King Ghezo in Abomey, which is still standing. The cities along the south coast of Benin – Ouidah, Porto-Novo, Ague, and Grand-Popo – all sport fine commercial and residential buildings in the so-called Afro-Brazilian style, erected between the mid-1800s and the first decades of the twentieth century. In Ague, which was an Aguda stronghold in the nineteenth century, there is a graveyard where almost all the headstones bear names of Portuguese origin.

It is no surprise that the Agudas’ self-representation operates as one of their most explicit identity markers. This can be seen in their habit of hanging portraits of their families’ founders and several generations of relatives on the walls of the reception rooms in their homes. The message seems to be that they were already “evolved” – converted to European culture – before the French colonization imposed the white man’s rules on the whole population.

Today, being an Aguda in Benin means sharing a common memory about a set of achievements and a “Brazilian” way of being. In order better to understand this situation, we can divide the process of this social identity construction into three successive periods. The first began when the Brazilian slave traders’ presence on the Coast became more marked, in the early 1800s. After the trade was outlawed, the Bahians installed there did everything in their power to keep it going for a few more years. These Brazilian traders and traffickers were white men who lived according to their own rules and married native women. They maintained trading and political relations with the natives, with whom they mixed to a certain extent through marriage. They were not particularly numerous, despite their great economic and political influence; they made their fortunes and carried on living according to their own cultural norms. These were white men in a black society, their mestiço sons being as similar to their parents as any others, and they were generally referred to as Agudas.

The second wave of Agudas came with the influx of Africans returning from Bahia, Brazil, where they had been slaves. Around seven or eight thousand of these returnees set up in the region as of 1835. They were black but they had acquired the “white man’s manners.” They discriminated against the natives, whom they regarded as “savages,” but they themselves were ostracized for bearing the stigma of slavery.

All the “Brazilians” I spoke to for my research said they had been identified and referred to as slaves in different situations in their daily lives. They said it was practically the norm at school and at the marketplace. However, in their private lives, as the historian François de Medeiros explains, “there is a tacit agreement never to talk of their slave roots.”20

The returnee freedmen had a variety of different ethnic backgrounds and the only thing that united them was their shared past in Brazil. In other words, what brought them together was their shared memory of a social experience. This memory was translated into a way of life, a way of being, and especially their professional skills, which were aligned with the new European cultural and economic parameters that were increasingly being imposed on the country. They had European surnames and their model of culture was drawn from their experience of living alongside whites in Brazil. This culture was their biggest boon, allowing them to join forces with the Bahian traders in more modern economic activities. While they initially engaged in the slave trade itself, it was not long before they branched out, developing a range of local and international trade activities and producing and exploiting local resources, like palm oil.

To the rest of society, they had the manners of the white man, they passed as catholics, and they spoke Portuguese. As they grew in number, augmented by the native slaves they employed, they gradually acquired a greater weight in the region’s demographic mix. They formed a community of their own, in which the first whites and their mestiço descendants formed a kind of elite. In the second half of the nineteenth century, they constituted a society in their own right that was basically endogamous,21 and built a social identity similar to that of the first Brazilians. This identity was also reproduced in their religion (they were basically catholics, despite mixing it with voodoo worship) and their education. They set up schools where all the children – boys and girls alike – were taught to read and write in Portuguese, as witnessed by Father Borghero, from the Lyon African Mission, while the citizens of Abomey were banned from the classroom.

Certain aspects of this second period of Aguda culture set it apart from the culture of the first Brazilian Agudas, the main one being their social function. The Bahian slavers were white, and therefore stood out from the natives, such that they had their own place in the native society. This place was assured them by their economic ties with the king of Dahomey and expressed symbolically by the role of the Chacha and other Brazilian chiefs in the existing power structure.

When the freed slaves returned, they found they had to invent a place for themselves in a society where they were not welcome. They did in fact become Agudas, but not like the first Agudas. Aside from the construction practices they brought and their unique means of self-representation, their most visible “Brazilian” identity markers draw on practices more associated with the slaves in Brazil than their masters. Cases in point are the bean stew, feijoada, the festivity of Our Lady of Bonfim, and the Burrinha performances. With this, the initial, essentially European, Aguda culture was enriched with aspects of Brazilian culture – practices developed in Brazil and not taken there from elsewhere.

The presence of the French colonizers, who imposed the “white man’s habits” on the whole country, in a way supported the cultural leanings of this generic contingent of Africans who had returned from Brazil. It was at this time that the opposition between notions of “civility/modernity” and “primitivism/savagery” acquired new contours in the former slaves’ interactions with local society.

And this brings us to the third stage of the Aguda identity in Benin – the present day. Today, “memory of time spent in Brazil” has given way to “memory of achievements made in Benin.” Just as the first “memory” was designed to give the returnee freedmen a place in local society, the second also has a precise social function. It is by keeping alive the memory of their accomplishments that the “Brazilians” – no longer admitting any past slavery – now defend the legitimacy of their place in Beninese society.

The relationship between the Agudas and the French administration took different forms over the years. Initially, the “Brazilians” were allies of the French, for whom they served as intermediaries in their dealings with the natives. However, as the French took control of the country, the “Brazilians” were gradually squeezed out of the most profitable economic activities and some of the most established Aguda businessmen went bankrupt.

The “Brazilians’” social and political influence really started to wane in 1946, when the power structure in Benin changed radically under the new system of political representation in the Territorial Assembly and the French National Assembly. This trend continued when the country gained its independence: the Agudas, who were already seen as outsiders, were now lumped together with the French as colonizers. During the Marxist regime under General Kérekou, they were again the target of discrimination, this time for being bourgeois. Although some Agudas acquired positions in the regime’s power structure, the “Brazilians” tell that they were all but barred from public life at this time.22

With the introduction of democracy, in 1989, came a new appreciation of traditional chiefdoms, voodoo worship, and other forms of religious expression. The enthronement of Honoré de Souza as Chacha VIII, 26 years after the death of his predecessor, is in keeping with the overall trend to reinstate some of the traditional chiefs’ political powers.23

By analyzing the way the Agudas have built their ethnic identity in Benin, we can see how they have made a place for themselves amongst the key players in the stages of transition from traditional society towards a “modern” state. It is from this perspective that the scope of their cultural, economic, and social contributions should be understood.

Thematic Areas

A selection of photographs and documents organized into different themes.

  • Architecture

  • Celebration of N.S. Bonfim Bourian – the Burrinha of Benin

  • Celebration of N.S. of Bonfim – Parade

  • Celebration of N.S. of Bonfim – Mass

  • Chacha VIII – Introduction to the King of Dahomey

  • Ague Cemetery

  • Chacha VIII – Royal Audience in Abomey

  • The Epiphany of Porto-Novo

  • Chacha VIII – Enthronement Ceremony in Ouidah

  • Dagoun – the Chacha's voodoo deity

  • The De Souza Family

  • The De Medeiros Family

  • The Paraíso Family

  • The Domingos José Martins Family

  • The Olympio Family

  • The Vieyra Family