The De Souza Family

The De Souza family of Benin and Togo, which has spread to several parts of Africa and France, can be traced back to the legendary figure of Francisco Félix de Souza, a Brazilian who came to exert immense power over the whole Slave Coast in the first half of the nineteenth century.1 Born in 1754 in Bahia, Brazil, to a Portuguese man and indigenous woman, he probably arrived in Africa around 1788, spending time in Ouidah, Badagri, and Aneho. All three of these cities today have districts that he founded, all of them called Adjido – a bastardization of the expression “Deus me ajudou” (God helped me). In a fourth town where he also did business, Ague, the district called Adjido is the oldest part of the town and is believed to be where it first developed.2

Starting out as a scribe and later taking charge of São João Baptista fort in Ouidah, Francisco Félix de Souza went on to become a major slave trader, based in Aneho. He was arrested by King Adandozan of Dahomey over a trade dispute, and while in prison he took a blood oath with Adandozan’s youngest brother, Prince Gakpe, who helped him escape in exchange for his support in overthrowing the king.3 The ensuing coup was successful, and the prince took the throne and was crowned King Ghezo. He made his blood brother the Viceroy of Ouidah, granted him the title of Chacha, and gave him a monopoly over the slave trade throughout Dahomey. It was thus that in over half a century in Africa, Francisco Félix de Souza became the “biggest slave trader of all time,” to quote the words of Verger (op. cit.). 

While there is a lot written about Dom Francisco, there appears to be only one extant portrait of him. A half-length oil painting, it shows him in his latter years wearing a loose shift, a scarf around his neck, and a kind of embroidered cap on his head with a pendant hanging down the right-hand side. He has an imposing presence and a steady, penetrating gaze, but also something of the adventurer, bringing to mind the Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), leader of the “ragged” uprising and later the hero of Italian unification, who was often represented in similar attire. Verger postulates that the portrait may have been painted by the same artist who portrayed Dom Francisco’s son, “Chicou,” who served as Chacha III between 1858 and 1880. In this case, both paintings would have been painted after Dom Francisco’s death, since “Chicou” was already serving as Chacha when he commissioned his.

This portrait of Dom Francisco must surely represent more faithfully the lasting impression he left behind than his actual features, even if a degree of similitude is likely. However, for the purposes of this study, what matters more than his physical appearance is surely the impact of the person, since this image is so closely associated with his character and has been reproduced this way in the collective imagination ever since, serving as the basis for how his descendants see themselves today, as will become evident.

Actually, there are now a number of versions of this portrait, showing just how important self-representation is as an identity marker for the Agudas and how the De Souza family has rewritten its history, even in visual terms. The reproduction published by Verger in 1968 was on display in the portrait gallery in the De Souza family house in Singbomey, the family’s estate in Ouidah, in the 1950s. However, this picture differs from the one exhibited in the very same gallery in the 1990s. The somber overtones of the original painting are softened and the new portrait gives the subject a halo rather like the ones painted on representations of catholic saints. A third portrait, exhibited in the same gallery in 2010, shows a far younger figure with an air of nobility about him.

The blood oath between the future king and the Brazilian slave trader was first and foremost of a political and commercial nature, with all the social consequences that this entailed. Essentially, it meant that the whites ceased to be regarded as foreigners and were formally incorporated into the social and political compact that formed the basis of King Ghezo’s kingdom, taking a prominent role in his power stratagems.

It was thanks to this understanding that King Ghezo assigned Dom Francisco the rights to lands in Ouidah and other provinces of the kingdom, even though officially such rights were not permitted to foreigners. This proved fundamentally important for the permanent settlement of whites and the formation of a Brazilian community along the Slave Coast. Most importantly, it also meant that freed Africans returning from Brazil could obtain land for themselves, provided they were regarded as Agudas, paving the way for their decisive contributions to the development of agriculture in the country (cf. Turner, 1975:137). The role of the “Brazilians” in the radical transformation of this part of Africa was remarked on by Gilberto Freyre, who noted “the economic aspect of the cultural revolution brought about in Africa by the presence of ‘Brazilian’ Africans, which should certainly not be forgotten. It marks the vague but significant beginning of a capitalist African bourgeoisie in a part of the world until then untouched by the bourgeoisie and home-grown capitalism.”4

Everything would indicate that Dom Francisco had an extraordinarily numerous progeny, fathering something in the region of 80 sons and an unknown number of daughters, born to an unknown number of women, only some of whose names are known. The first wives he is known to have taken are telling of his strategy for gaining the acceptance of the local chieftains. When he first settled in Aneho, he acquired prestige and power by successively marrying two princesses from the kingdom of Guin: Djidjiabu, mother of Isidoro Félix, and Ahossi, mother of Ignácio Félix, Antônio Kuaku Adekpeti, Ayavavi Félix, and Ambavi Félix de Souza. Still in the same town, Dom Francisco is believed to have had many other children by other women, all of whom he recognized, and who constituted a small “Brazilian” community even after he left for Ouidah in around 1820 (Turner, op. cit.).

Another indication of just how prestigious and important a politician Francisco Félix de Souza was to the kingdom of Dahomey was the tribute he was paid by the king on his death, at 94 years of age. Upon learning of the death of his friend, believed to have occurred on Tuesday, May 8th, 1849, King Ghezo is said to have dispatched two of his sons to Ouidah at the head of a detachment of 80 Amazon warriors to hold traditional ceremonies. For this purpose, he also gave the family 51 pagnes,5 one for each of the Chacha’s living children, as well as seven people to be sacrificed in honor of the viceroy, as his position demanded. Isidoro, the oldest of Dom Francisco’s offspring and future Chacha II, is said to have turned down the sacrifices with the justification that his father was white (Verger, 1968:467). However, according to other versions of the events, a boy and a girl were indeed decapitated and buried together with the almighty lord of Ouidah, and three men were sacrificed in his honor on the beach.6 The funeral rites lasted several months and were arranged by Domingos José Martins, another influential Brazilian slave trader who had set up his business in Ouidah under the Chacha’s protection, and who went on to become the most important slave trader in the region (Ross, 1965:83).7

Francisco Félix de Souza’s succession, disputed by three of his sons, Isidoro, Ignácio, and Antônio, was resolved by the King of Dahomey in March 1850. The king’s choice fell on Isidoro, Francisco’s oldest son, who had been educated in Brazil. Isidoro went on to have 24 children, 13 of whom have descendants who even now meet up every January 3rd to celebrate the “Festa of Isidoro.” The family has a prayer that keeps alive the legend that upon learning of his father’s death, Isidoro set off so many rockets and fired so many shots as an expression of his grief that he ended up setting fire to the house and losing all his possessions, including the paperwork concerning the fortune invested in Bahia (cf. Verger, 1953:41).

There is an extant portrait of Isidoro produced in oil paint on canvas, which was extremely rare on the Coast of Africa. At the Singbomey estate there are two portraits, both reproductions based on the original painted in Bahia, Brazil (Verger, 1968:606). One of these hung in the portrait gallery at the family home where Francisco’s grave is until 2000, when it was replaced by a new interpretation of the portrait. The other is displayed at the entrance of Isidoro’s former residence, on the other side of their estate in Ouidah.

Isidoro died in 1858, the same year as King Ghezo, and the monarch’s successor, Glele, first appointed a different prince of the Glidji kingdom, Antonio Félix Kokou Adekpeti de Souza, son of Princess Ahossi, to serve as Chacha III. The king’s choice quickly proved unsustainable and he stripped Adekpeti of his powers and had Ignatio Félix de Souza, also a son of Princess Ahossi, take over the task. Shortly afterwards, Ignatio disappeared in mysterious circumstances and King Glele was forced to choose a third successor to Isidoro. This time, he selected Francisco Félix de Souza, known as “Chicou” (1824-1880), who effectively became the true Chacha III, serving from 1864 until his death.

Chacha III also commissioned an oil painting of himself, which now hangs in the family gallery in the Singbomey estate. The portrait gives the impression that he wished to convey his own personal strategy as Chacha onto the canvas by representing a symbiosis of his oldest brother’s bourgeois sobriety and his father’s legendary adventurous spirit, which was so greatly appreciated by the Africans. He is depicted on foot, adopting much the same pose as Isidoro and wearing similar attire. Rather than resting his hand on a writing desk, however, Chacha III preferred a sturdy walking stick with a gold knob to symbolize his power. The finishing touch to the image is the same kufi that Chacha Adjinakou wore.8

Chicou’s successor, appointed by King Glele in 1880, was Julião Félix de Souza (1832-1887). A photograph of him is displayed at his tomb in Ouidah, showing a fair-skinned man with fine features who appears much at ease in his fine dinner jacket, not unlike the one worn by Isidoro, but with a more modern cut. A palm oil exporter, Julião visited Bahia, Brazil, several times, from which he imported tobacco and sugar. Wealthy and well established in Ouidah, he had a comfortable redbrick house with glazed windows and roomy balconies held up by tropical wood pillars that he had built for himself in the Brazilian quarter. Known as Lisséssa (“the house under the lissé tree”), the residence was a source of pride to his 45 children (Souza, 1992:55-57).

Julião held true to the family’s tradition of making money as a commercial middle-man between the king of Dahomey and Europeans in the slave trade, in this case forming the link with the Portuguese province of São Tomé and Príncipe under the guise of a putative colonization program. However, times had changed, the political stakes were far higher, and his loyalty to these two traditions ended up costing him his life.

In around April 1887, Julião was summoned to Abomey and he and his entire entourage were imprisoned. The charge against him was based on the terms of a treaty signed with Portugal for the management of the accounts concerning the sale of prisoners to São Tomé and Príncipe. However, to this day the Julião branch of the De Souza family claims that some of his brothers actually plotted against him, siding with the French in exchange for material gain. When the veracity of his claims was tested by voodoo, Chacha IV was found guilty and duly executed, along with all his associates, except for his brother Antônio Félix (“Agbakoun”) and his nephew Leopoldo de Medeiros. Antonio was first found not guilty and freed, but was poisoned by an envoy from Abomey just two days after his return to Ouidah. Leopoldo was saved at the last minute by his mother, Francisca Sikè Kpèvi de Souza de Medeiros, the youngest daughter of the first Chacha, who sent a delegation of 41 people9 close to the court to Abomey with the recade10 of her mother, Iya Agbalê, and many gifts, as custom required.11

All Julião’s children were likewise found guilty and duly executed. All his assets were seized and the roof of his house, Lisséssa, was torn down as a public expression of punishment. As his brothers refused to have his grave in the family cemetery in the Singbomey estate, he was buried under the rubble of Lisséssa (Souza and Turner, op. cit.).

One of Julião’s wives, Agboéssi Hounkovo, nonetheless managed to flee with her baby boy, Feliciano, and sought refuge in a voodoo convent in Ague. The daughter of King Toyi of Agoue-Adjigo, she had married Julião when she was still very young and was called Ahlon Coba. Feliciano – also known as “Tossou” (“he who is the son of a voodoo priestess and is raised in a convent”) – survived but never returned to Ouidah. He became a tailor, which earned him the nickname “Tela.” Feliciano Tossou Tela de Souza finally settled in Grand-Popo and had 23 children, who themselves had numerous broods, such that the Julião branch is now the most numerous of the whole De Souza family.12

Despite the execution of Julião, King Glele continued to grant the title of Chacha, making Lino Félix de Souza the fifth to hold the office. Lino Félix was the last of Dom Francisco’s children to succeed him and the last Chacha chosen directly by the King of Dahomey. He died less than a year after taking office, which by that time had been stripped of any political power.

With Lino’s death, the business interests of the Dahomey kingdom were managed by Prince Kondo, the heir apparent and future King Behanzin. Although he counted many “Brazilians” amongst his closest associates, he was publically hostile to the Agudas.13 After the reign of Behanzin, it was the French who laid down the law in Dahomey, and no new Chachas were appointed until 1917, when the family took the unilateral step of electing a successor to Lino Félix de Souza.

When a Chacha dies, his functions are taken on by a vigan (“one who is responsible for children”) until a new Chacha is enthroned. Traditionally, the vigan is chosen from the José branch of the family, who are not allowed to become Chachas. According to family tradition, José Félix de Souza, overseer of the original Dom Francisco’s trade interests in Zomaí, turned down the offer of being the new Chacha, and so his descendants were thenceforth ruled out of the line of succession.14

As such, a vigan regency was maintained between 1888 and 1917 by Estève Kpévi (1873-1934), son of José Félix de Souza. In 1917, Roberto Norberto de Souza (1879-1956), son of the third Chacha, Francisco “Chicou” Félix de Souza, was elected and enthroned by the family as Chacha VI. When he died, in 1956, a new regency ensued under Grégoire (1899-1978), son of Estève Kpévi, until 1961, when Chacha VII was elected: Jérôme Anastácio de Souza (1884-1961), great-grandson of Antonio Kokou Adékpeti, Isidoro’s successor, who was deposed by Ghezo.

The succession after Jérôme Anastácio proved so convoluted that it took 26 years to resolve – a period marked by accusations of witchcraft and poisoning of potential pretenders to the title and corruption in the administration of the family’s assets. Grégoire again took on the role of regent, or vigan, while the decision about the next Chacha was taken. When Grégoire died, in 1978, the family resolved to set up a regency council under the chairmanship of Julien Komlanvi Feliciano de Souza (1907-1991), son of Feliciano Tossou Tela, a representative of the Julião branch, which had by this time become the most numerous branch of the family. In 1989, the family set up the Supra-National Benin-Togo Council in order better to manage all their interests; the chairman continued to be Julien Komlanvi. The regent was on the eve of being enthroned Chacha when he died in his own home in Grand-Popo, killed in a burglary. Chairmanship of the council then passed to his younger brother, Honoré Feliciano de Souza, who was already head of the family in Togo.

March 1995 saw the founding of Union de la Famille de Souza, an “apolitical family association” for the “descendants of Dom Francisco Félix de Souza who follow the bylaws.” Honoré Feliciano de Souza was elected its chairman.

As chair of the supra-national council and the De Souza family association, head of the most numerous branch of the De Souza family, and head of the family in Togo, Honoré Feliciano was the natural successor to Jérôme Anastácio.

Honoré Feliciano Julião de Souza was born in 1930, married, and had 22 children.15 A successful businessman, he owned Alures Afrique and Alures Bénin, two of the biggest furniture and aluminum factories in the region at the time. He died in 2014.

“He who always puts things off to the next day will run into ruin,” or so the De Souzas say. The supporters of the new Chacha thus decided to have him enthroned as quickly as possible for fear that the curse that had struck so many candidates to the title over the previous 26 years should also strike this grandson of Julião Félix de Souza, now finally returned to Ouidah.

Chacha VIII died in December 2014. His time at the head of the De Souza family – one of the longest in the dynasty – was marked by a complete resumption of family traditions and interaction with the different branches of the family around subjects of mutual interest, as is aptly expressed by the creation of the Francisco Felix de Souza Foundation, devoted to strengthening family ties and relations between the family and civil society in the republics of Benin and Togo.


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  • Reprodução de retrato a óleo de Isidoro de Souza, o Chachá II, exposto no salão principal de Singbomey, concessão da família De Souza em Uidá - s/d

    Reprodução de retrato a óleo de Isidoro de Souza, o Chachá II, exposto no salão principal de Singbomey, concessão da família De Souza em Uidá - s/d

  • Na cerimônia privada de entronização, descendente de Francisco “Chicou” de Souza, o Chachá III, reza diante do retrato de seu ancestral, em Singbomey - 7 de outubro de 1995 - Uidá, Benim

    Na cerimônia privada de entronização, descendente de Francisco “Chicou” de Souza, o Chachá III, reza diante do retrato de seu ancestral, em Singbomey - 7 de outubro de 1995 - Uidá, Benim

  • Reprodução do retrato fotográfico de Julião de Souza, o Chachá IV, exposto junto ao seu túmulo - s/d

    Reprodução do retrato fotográfico de Julião de Souza, o Chachá IV, exposto junto ao seu túmulo - s/d

  • Reprodução de retrato fotográfico de Germano Julião Francisco de Souza, exposto em residência da família De Souza em Lomé - 21 de agosto de 1908 - Lomé, Togo

    Reprodução de retrato fotográfico de Germano Julião Francisco de Souza, exposto em residência da família De Souza em Lomé - 21 de agosto de 1908 - Lomé, Togo

  • Túmulo de Julião de Souza - 1995 - Uidá, Benim

    Túmulo de Julião de Souza - 1995 - Uidá, Benim

  • Túmulo de Julião de Souza - 1995 - Uidá, Benim

    Túmulo de Julião de Souza - 1995 - Uidá, Benim