The Domingos José Martins Family

An illegitimate child of an important politician and revolutionary leader, after whom he was named, Domingos José Martins,1 founder of the family in Africa, reached the continent in 1833 on the crew of a ship in the service of Francisco Félix de Souza, Chacha I. The ship was captured by the Royal Navy, and Domingos spent some time in Ouidah before moving to Lagos, where he set up the “Friends’ Society,” an organization through which he supplied the market in Bahia, Brazil, with slaves. In a very short space of time, this enterprise earned him a fortune estimated at between one and two million dollars (cf. Ross, 1965:79). He returned to Bahia in 1844, but went back to Africa just two years later, where lived until his death, in 1864.

In fact, Domingos José Martins was the trade representative of an influential Bahia-based banker, Joaquim Pereira Marinho, one of the most prominent financiers of the slave trade in Brazil, a founding member of the Bank of Bahia and the Juazeiro Railroad Company, and the recipient of the successive titles of baron, viscount, and count from the Portuguese crown. It would appear that the banker and his representative in Africa maintained very close ties: Pereira Marinho was not only the guardian of Domingos Martins’s children, but also the executor of his will (Verger, 1968:452).

Francisco Félix de Souza lived out the rest of his life in Africa, and when he died Martins took over as the leading slave trader on the Slave Coast, also making money from the palm oil business. He was hugely successful in both enterprises, and also imported goods from Brazil (Bahia) and Britain, making him the most important supplier to the King of Abomey. Appointed as the king’s “Cabeceira,”2 or “Head Man,” he became his principal advisor on the slave trade and other trade-related matters, which gave him a key role in formulating Dahomey’s policy in its dealings with the Europeans as of the late 1840s.

Even though the De Souza family still maintained its honorific functions and the key office of Chacha, Domingos José Martins was by this time the absolute, undisputed leader of the “Brazilian” community, as demonstrated by the fact that he was openly consulted by the King of Dahomey on the choice of Chachas II and III (cf. Ross, 1974:83; Souza, 1992:253; Verger, 1953 a:40).

The prayers offered to Domingos José Martins in a mixture of Yoruba and Fon refer to the Cabeceira in these terms:3

“The Aguda man known as ‘Signor’ / The man who by himself turns the city like an elephant / The rich man who causes a furor / The white man who wears clothes, owner of immense goods and fabrics / The man who crushes his foes even as they retreat / The man of power who defeated Oyo / The man who tamed the ocean that encircles the world / The man who makes his opponents quake / The king who awakens hatred and jealousy / The man protected by fearless God / The man whose spirit bewitches his companions proud of his fortune / The lord whose influence drives his foes to take their lives / The king against whom all evil falters.”

Ghezo’s successor, King Glele, did not make Domingos José Martins a key political figure in his court. Indeed, in 1864, despite his views, the king gave France authorization to make the town one of its commercial outposts. According to contemporary witnesses, Martins was so overcome by wrath that he died a sudden death of apoplexy (cf. Ross, 1965:89; Souza, 1992:254; Verger:1968:472).

Two family associations claim to be the rightful descendants of Domingos José Martins: the Domingos José Martins Family Association of Benin, chaired in the 1990s by Bernard Martins, and the Domingos José Martins Family Community of Benin, chaired at the same time by Lucien Avyt Domingos.4 In other words, one association is of those whose family name is Martins and the other is for those with Domingo as their surname – recently transformed into Domingos. There is a third family, of the surname José, who also claim to be descended from the same person and who seem to have sided with the Domingos family in the row over the right to claim descendancy from the Cabeceira.

The Martins family claim that the Domingos are actually descended from their forefathers’ slaves. They say that the Domingo residence in Ouidah is built on land where the slaves of D. J. Martins were lodged, and that the wording of their prayer defines them as belonging to the Djeto clan, while the Martins are from the Aweoumènou clan,5 which encompasses all whites and Agudas in general. Lucien Avyt Domingos, for his part, insists that they actually all belong to the Aweoumènou clan, and that his family prayer is wrong in classifying them as Djeto. To give force to his argument, he displays a portrait of Domingos José Martins in the living room of his house, a veritable artwork of handicraft representing his “Brazilian” identity.

Representation is one of the proofs most widely drawn on by the Agudas to set them apart from the other ethnic groups in Benin. Their way of dressing and conducting themselves are important identity markers. As if to underline this, Mr. Domingos had a fictitious portrait of the Cabeceira painted, based on a portrait of the father of Domingos José Martins,6 after whom he was named. He presents it as an authentic portrait of the family’s founder, apparently oblivious of certain incongruences, such as the fact that jackets and ties such as the ones seen in the picture were not worn in the early nineteenth century.

It is a delicate matter involving not only material interests, but a whole host of affective concerns, such as the self-worth and even the social standing of the people involved. In their day-to-day dealings, however, the members of the Martins and Domingos families are all accepted as “Brazilian” and normally express themselves as such and get along perfectly well. They join forces in the organization of the Nossa Senhora de Bonfim celebration in Porto-Novo and other Burrinha performances in different parts of the country.


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  • Reprodução de um retrato a óleo de Domingos José Martins, que se encontra no salão da residência de Lucien A. Domingos, em Cotonu. Na legenda, pode-se ler “Fundador da família Domingos Martins da África” - s/d

    Reprodução de um retrato a óleo de Domingos José Martins, que se encontra no salão da residência de Lucien A. Domingos, em Cotonu. Na legenda, pode-se ler “Fundador da família Domingos Martins da África” - s/d

  • Conselho da família Domingos. O sr. Lucien Avyt Domingos, segundo à esquerda - fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

    Conselho da família Domingos. O sr. Lucien Avyt Domingos, segundo à esquerda - fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

  • Sra. Josephine Abotoné Martins - 1995 - Porto Novo, Benim

    Sra. Josephine Abotoné Martins - 1995 - Porto Novo, Benim

  • Sra. Josephine Abotoné Martins - 1995 - Porto Novo, Benim

    Sra. Josephine Abotoné Martins - 1995 - Porto Novo, Benim

  • Conselho da família Domingos. Segundo à esquerda, Milton Guran e, ao seu lado esquerdo, sr. Lucien Avyt Domingos - fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

    Conselho da família Domingos. Segundo à esquerda, Milton Guran e, ao seu lado esquerdo, sr. Lucien Avyt Domingos - fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

  • Domingos José Martins, fundador da família Martins, guardado pela família - s/d

    Domingos José Martins, fundador da família Martins, guardado pela família - s/d