The De Medeiros family is one of the most aristocratic of the Aguda families in Benin, since their lineage can be traced back to a Portuguese nobleman, Francisco José de Medeiros, son of the governor of Madeira island, and his wife, Francisca Sikè Kpève, the youngest daughter of the powerful Francisco Félix de Souza, holder of the titles of Chacha and Viceroy of Dahomey in Ouidah.1
A shipowner and captain, Francisco José settled in Ghana in the mid-1800s, later moving to Aneho and then Ague to work in the slave trade and palm oil business. There, he married a local princess,2 with whom he had a daughter, Charlotte, who later married into the Costa Soares family – another prominent Aguda family. According to Turner’s sources,3 he had a vast palm tree plantation in Ague that was run on the labor of slaves, who he allowed to use his surname. These are the origins of the Ague branch of the De Medeiros family, which is fully integrated into the rest of the family, something that is not the case of all the Aguda families.
At this time, trafficking slaves to Cuba and the United States was still possible,4 and Francisco José, who spoke English well, became the main supplier of palm oil and slaves to the American market,5 thanks to which he was able to settle in Ouidah and run his business in close collaboration with the De Souza family. He married the youngest daughter of Francisco Félix de Souza, Francisca “Sikè Kpèvi”, with whom he had three children: Leopoldo (1863), Cândida (1865), and Cesário (1867).6
The pictures of Francisca and her daughters are telling of their wealth and reflect in every detail the codes of representation observed by the Brazilian elites and French bourgeoisie at the time. As there is no record of Francisca travelling to Europe with her children, it is most likely that the photograph of her with Cesário was taken in Africa. In 1875, the year when the photo seems to have been taken, when Cesário was around five years of age, the Aguda community was prosperous enough to cover the travel costs of a photographer. This picture was reproduced in 1995 from a relatively recent enlargement of the original, touched up by the author using the techniques of the day. The mere fact that a photograph was taken in nineteenth century Africa of a woman seated on a chair with her child on her lap is already indicative of a high standard of living and an absolutely European conception of social life and its portrayal. Francisca is depicted in a way that is completely at odds with how African women tended to be represented: she is wearing a dress, not a pagne; her hair has been straightened and it is not plaited or wrapped in cloths, as was the custom in Africa; and she is bare-headed because she is at home. In other words, she is represented “as a white woman.” Cesário, with his very light skin, is dressed like a rich boy from western society. Indeed, the setting for the photograph, which was painted by the photographer himself, was designed precisely to give the impression of bourgeois wealth and sobriety.
The photographs of Leopold and Cesário and the one of Cândida with her husband and daughter were certainly taken in France, probably in the early twentieth century. They are completely consistent with the way the cultivated bourgeoisie portrayed themselves at the time. It is clear from their clothing and posture that these are sophisticated, well-off personages at home with European culture, not the African culture of their day.
Unlike other “Brazilians,” who had trouble keeping up with the competition and all the transformations introduced under French colonial rule, the De Medeiros were quick to learn how to conduct their affairs in this period of upheaval. Cândida – the daughter of Francisco José and Francisca de Souza – married a mestiço from Porto-Novo called Achile Beraud, the son of a Frenchman. This merchant enjoyed considerable prestige in the city and was charged by Colonel Dodds, commander of the French invading troops, to personally organize and command the forces of the king of Porto-Novo in the war against Behanzan, king of Dahomey.
However, a different branch of the family took Behanzan’s side. Júlio de Medeiros was also a son of the family’s founder and a commercial representative of the German company Goeldt, through which he made contact with one Barth, a Swiss-German agent based at Lagos. Through this contact (according to Turner),7 he supplied King Behanzan with 800 rifles and over 15,000 rounds of ammunition. In 1891, at a turning point in the war between the Fon kingdom and France, he apparently managed to get over 5,000 rifles plus ammunition and two canon delivered directly from Berlin to the African forces in Abomey.
After the war, the French were in control and the De Souza family’s influence waned because of its association with the king of Abomey. It was down to Jean de Medeiros, who, alongside Messrs. Lima and D’Almeida, represented the largest African trading company in Ouidah, to mediate with the French. He organized a big reception for the colony’s governor on his visit to Ouidah in 1895 and encouraged the “Brazilian” community to express their support for the French administration publicly. Officially regarded as one of the advisors of Mr. Coly, the French resident commissioner at the time, he became a kind of spokesman, representing the interests of the Africans to the colonial authorities and vice-versa.8
However, the De Medeiros, like most of the “Brazilians,” lost much of their trading advantages as the French in Porto-Novo gradually organized what soon became the colony of Dahomey. Even so, they still retained some social standing. The first African from a French colony to graduate in medicine in France was Virgílio de Medeiros, great-grandson of the Chacha, son of Leopoldo de Medeiros and Délia Olympio, of the powerful Aguda family of Ague. After Dahomey gained its independence in 1960, he was the first African to run the country’s health services. His popularity inspired him to run for president in 1965, but he won only a small percentage of the votes. He put this poor performance down to the color of his skin and his foreign surname.9
It was the descendants of Cesário de Medeiros, Francisca Sikè Kpève’s youngest child, who formed the most prominent branch of the family in the twentieth century. Brought up by her aunt Cândida Béraud, who had a daughter, Clotilde, of the same age as her, the first offspring of Cesário’s last marriage, Francisca Berthe Djidpe de Medeiros, was the family member who made the strongest mark on society in the second half of the twentieth century. She inherited from her aunt Cândida the largest bakery of Porto-Novo and one of the city’s finest buildings, with the living quarters on the upper floor and the bakery on the ground floor, which continued to operate until the end of the twentieth century.
Cândida and Achille’s daughter, Clotilde, married Victor Patterson, of Nigerian stock, but died without leaving any heirs. Victor then married Francisca, heir of the De Medeiros estate and traditions, and the couple had three children: Clotilde Chantal Béatrice and Estelle Carmen Candida, who live in Paris, and Achille, who lives in Porto-Novo with his mother, who has been widowed for many years. Mme. Patterson, as she has come to be known, was for many years the country’s representative with the International Red Cross, a position that took her to many parts of Europe and Africa and which involved considerable political activity, even though she never held a post directly in the state administration.
Mme. Patterson is rightly regarded one of the bastions of Aguda culture, and it is as such that she appears in photograph where she is depicted in the reception room of her house in Porto-Novo in February 1996. She is wearing a dress, not a pagne, albeit made of African cloth, and she is wearing her hair in European style, without the typical braids or head-wrap. Her skin is noticeably fairer than that of the African population in general, which is often the case amongst the Agudas.
The room she is in has two distinct areas: the reception area, visible in the photo, and the dining area, hidden from view behind a divider at the back of the picture on the left-hand side. In the reception area, the entrance to which is on the right, with the windows to the left, both outside the frame, there is a rug covering the floor where the seating is arranged around a coffee table. The table is covered with an embroidered cloth and decorated with a vase of flowers picked from the garden. There are side tables arranged alongside armchairs similar to the one that can be seen in the foreground. On the right-hand wall opposite the chairs is a portrait of Cândida de Medeiros with her husband and daughter, all dressed elegantly in European attire and in the pose typical of early twentieth-century bourgeois families, as was commented earlier. This black-and-white enlargement, measuring 40cm x 50cm, was taken in Paris in the 1920s, yet it is in a perfect state of conservation, which is indicative of its high quality. Behind Mme. Patterson in the photo, her late husband, wearing a suit and tie, appears in a photograph set on a small piece of furniture alongside a vase of flowers. The strict organization of this domestic space reveals how the “white man’s ways” were adopted in African society.
Sra. Francisca de Medeiros, filha caçula de Francisco F. De Souza, o Chacá I, com seu filho Cesário no colo. Reprodução de foto original 30x40cm, com retoque de época (álbum da família Sra. Francisca Patterson) - c.1873
Leopoldo e Cesário Medeiros (álbum de família da Sra. Francisca Patterson) - s/d
Cândida de Medeiros com seu esposo Achilles Beraud e a filha Clotilde (álbum de família da sra. Francisca Patterson) - s/d
Achille Berraud e Cândida (álbum de família da sra. Francisca Patterson) - s/d
Conselho paroquial da Catedral de Porto Novo constituído exclusivamente de “brasileiros". Casimir d’Almeida, presidente da Irmandade Brasileira Bom Jesus do Bonfim de Porto Novo, é o ultimo à esquerda (álbum de família da Sra. Francisca Patterson) - c. 1930
Sra. Bennoît d’Assumption, née Amorim (álbum de família da Sra. Francisca Patterson) - c. 1920