The 19th Century Yoruba repatriation
October 23, 2016 10:20 AM   Subscribe

I hardly ever heard about the Nagô, the Afro-Brazilians, and the Lukumí, the Afro-Cubans, who returned back to West Africa. The idea that the Yorùbá people share one identity is strongly related to the transatlantic experience of the slave trade and the returnees’ influence in the homeland. This story contributes a lot to the classical discussions of what is ‘Original-Yorùbá’ and what a diaspora invention - as not even the word ‘Yorùbá’ is of ‘Yorùbá’ origin itself. I summed up the basic facts.
posted by infini (17 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Truly fascinating.

For the curious who might be put off by the length of the piece, I'll take a crack at a summary.

The author presents anecdotes (with sourcing) that convey the evolution and existence of a transatlantic syncretic ethnic identity, Yoruba, which came into being in the 19th century as a result of, first, the transatlantic slave trade and European responses to it, and second, the elite economic position of what the author terms Afro-Cuban diasporans settling in Africa. The article is accompanied by excellent photographs of architecture in Lagos which are associated with specific individuals in this culture, and the recent demolition of one of these buildings appears to have prompted the essay.

Afro-Cuban appears to be used expansively, including Brazilian cultural elements and people as well, although perhaps I misread the author's usage.
posted by mwhybark at 11:10 AM on October 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Lots of interesting stuff in there (and, as whybark notes, gorgeous photos). Anyone interested in the history of the term Yoruba itself, beyond the bare statement of the article that "The name Yorùbá was adopted by the British colonizers from the Hausa people, who called their neighbours in the south, the inhabitants of Ọ̀yọ́, ‘Yariba,’" should check out the discussion in this 2006 LH thread, particularly the contributions by Teju Cole (writing as "St Antonym"):
Until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, the Yoruba were “those other people” over to the North or South of us, or those people beyond that river. We, on the other hand, were Ife or Oyo or Ijebu or Owo or inhabitants of whatever Yoruba-speaking city state we belonged to. Everybody paid homage to the king at Ife, sure, but no one was Yoruba exactly.

This seems to give credence to the notion that the name “Yoruba” was imposed from without. Our name for our kind i.e. those others in our language group, was “Aku” (a generic greeting, something close to the “good” in “good morning” or “good afternoon”) or “Omo kaaro a ji ire” (children of good morning you have risen well). The latter phrase is fossilized in the language as a term of endearment or praise.

My Yoruba dictionary infuriatingly lacks an entry for “Yoruba.” And it even lacks an entry for “Yarabi,” which occurs in a Soyinka play. His plays are all in English, but sometimes feature bits of Yoruba. “Yarabi” is translated in a footnote as “destiny or the Divinity.” This is all tangential, but bear with me. That word “Yarabi” has always been very interesting to me, as something similar to it occurs in the Manding languages of Mali [...]
And the amazingly learned zaelic (who I think is a MeFite):
After the Fulani Jihad and the fall of the empire of the city state of Oyo in 1818, there was a huge flight of refugees from the savannah regions of western Nigeria southward. Oyo, which had previously been the strongest Empire between Ghana and Cameroun, demanded tribute from neighboring vassal Kingdoms in items of western manufacture (guns, beads, cloth) which were mainly obtained by selling slaves to western traders. When Oyo fell, those vassals – particularly the Gbe speaking Fon of Dahomey – went to town selling Oyo refugees to the Portuguese. Those refugees were the key populations that founded the town of Abeokuta (which successfully turned back the Fulani/Hausa invasions) and swelled the small coastal town of Eko into the sprawling monster we now know as Lagos (which comes from the Yoruba “Ni Eko,” where elided ‘ni’ becomes ‘l’) Christianity was adopted by many Yoruba at this time, and led to the rapid and widespread adoption of Yoruba as a written language, spreading the use of the term “Yoruba” to generically refer to the language of Oyo as the central “literary” dialect.

It was around that time (1815-1860) that people began referring to themselves generically as “Yoruba” whereas previously they would have reffered to themselves by the name of their kingdoms, such as Oyo, Ijebu, Ondo, Ife, etc. Brazilian and Spanish slaveships were intercepted by the British Navy, and their cargo of slaves were set ashore in Sierra Leone. The Yoruba speakers there referred to themselves as “Aku” which comes from the basic Yoruba greeting “E ku se?” (How’s it going?)

Yorubas in the new world generally referred to themselves by their origin such as “Nagos” in Brazil and Haiti (Anago western Yoruba from Dahomey) and Ilesha (Ijesa) in Brazil, Ketu in Jamaica. In Cuba the term “Lucumi” derives from the Youruba for “my friend” “Oluko mi.” The British Navy – ever resourceful – did not offer the freed slaves in Sierra Leone passage back to Nigeria, but signed up thousands on twenty year indenturments to go to Trinidad, Guyana, and other Caribean colinies as labor, a practice that continued into the 1860s. Many of the communities which continued speaking Yoruba into the twentieth century descended from these indentured laborers, who already were referring to themsleves as “Yarriba” in Trinidad and Guyana.
posted by languagehat at 11:51 AM on October 23, 2016 [12 favorites]

> zaelic (who I think is a MeFite)

Well, of course he is—he joined a week after I did!
posted by languagehat at 11:55 AM on October 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

zaelic's reference is also in the article.

In Sierra Leone they were called the ‘Aku’ people, a name they got from the other creoles because of the frequent greeting ‘Ẹ kú (‘ṣe)’.
posted by infini at 12:00 PM on October 23, 2016

Neat post, infini. thanks.

Adding this article and cool detailed photographs into the mix: The Fernandez house is Located at No 6, Tinubu Square in the heart of Lagos Island, where Nigeria’s central business district is located

Some nifty Afro-Brazilian architecture in Benin too.
posted by nickyskye at 12:41 PM on October 23, 2016

More posts like this please! This is giving me background for everything from Fela Kuti to afrofuturism to words used and claims made in my LaRock Bey/Chuck Davis-tradition African dance classes.
posted by gusandrews at 2:44 PM on October 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

nickyskye, it was the demolition of the Fernandez house that led to the author writing this post.
posted by infini at 1:40 AM on October 24, 2016

gusandrews, the website where this article is hosted has more stuff under their "blog" and "gallery" sections
posted by infini at 1:41 AM on October 24, 2016

Ese gan, ore mi! Great post, indeed! Especially the link to this article "The English Professors of Brazil: On the Diaspora Roots of the Yorùbá Nation" which speaks at length about the Babalawo (ifa divining priest) and English teacher Martiniano Eliseu do Bonfim, who worked with ethnologists in the early 20th century. The back and forth between Bahian candomble and Nigerian Ifa seems to have continued without a break throughout the 20th century. Martiniano Eliseu do Bonfim also worked with Ruth Landes, whose book "City of Women" describes her ill fated fieldwork in Brazil in the late 1930s, and hints at her illicit romance with the amazing freelance ethnologist and Candomble initiate Edson Carneiro. Carniero, Landes, Martiniano all became mythologically reimagined in Jorge Amado's spectacular 1967 novel "Tent of Miracles."

Yoruba descendants in Trinidad and Tọbago refer to themselves as "Yarriba" and maintained some Yoruba language until quite recently. Many of them are descended from slaves who were freed after the British outlawed slave trading and actively boarded Spanish and Portuguese slave ships, dumping the captured slaves for storage on the coast in Sierra Leone. Samuel Ajayi Crowder - the missionary who translated the bible into Yoruba, thus establishing Oyo as the literary dialect and promoting the name "Yoruba" - was one such "Aku" person. Freed slaves were offered twenty five year indentured contracts to settle in the British Caribbean to replace labor once done by now freed slaves. Many of those freed slaves, on the other hand, were recruited to serve with the British West Indian Corps and were shipped back to Africa, where many of them remained and ... voila! The history of African calypso!
posted by zaelic at 3:44 AM on October 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

We are so lucky here on MetaFilter. Thank you languagehat and zaelic!!
posted by infini at 5:08 AM on October 24, 2016

Wait! There is more! "Orisha Journeys: The Role of Travel in the Birth of Yoruba-Atlantic Religions"
"Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim. Son of a freed Ègbá import-export trader who himself had made the trans-Atlantic roundtrip several times, Bomfim traveled to Lagos at the age of 14 and remained there 11 years. After receiving a mission education and studying Ifà, he returned to Bahia to become a major figure in Candomblé "
posted by zaelic at 6:11 AM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Pierre Verger was a photographer, self-taught ethnographer, and babalawo (Yoruba priest of Ifa) who devoted most of his life to the study of the African diaspora.
Not so much about him in the English language unfortunately, mainly french and portuguese.
posted by adamvasco at 8:39 AM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Man, I wish I had my main computer here with all my links and references, then I could join in the conversation. But I've not even got enough whatdoyoucallit, data, current, juice, to access the photographs at the minute :-(

Lovely post, thank you.

The diasporic cross fertilisation has been such that some scholars of Yoruba cultural traditions came to it through study of American folklore and others came to the diasporic stuff through study of Nigerian traditions. Without my notes I shouldn't really try to back this up but I think Bascombe represents the movement from The States to Nigeria. Then of course there's a great deal of scholarship in Spanish which is not accessible to us poor monoglots (eg Lydia Cabrerra, El Monte. I hope to be able to read it one day. I also hope I've spelled her name right.)

Personally I'm particularly interested in the art forms given rise to by creolisation (things 'suffer a sea change, into something rich and strange) which gives rise to another huge conversation around authenticity, a difficult word. And one about modernity too. The beautiful picture books by photographer Phyllis Galembo are a good presentation of this. Pierre Verger's D'ieux d'Afrique (is it still in print?) documents some aspects of Orisha ceremony and also has photos from the court at Oyo. To give you an idea of how contemporary/relevant this stuff is, the book, which seems like a record of (cont)
posted by glasseyes at 3:05 AM on October 27, 2016

*waits patiently for glasseyes to reconnect from Nigeria*
posted by infini at 3:21 AM on October 27, 2016

(cont) of a bygone era, like, lost in the mists of time bygone (pics are in sepia), one of the portraits is of the particular Oba whose death precipitated the events in Soyinka's Death and the Kings Horsemen. The photo dates from, I think, 1946. Apologies for inaccuracies, I can't really double check my sources here.
posted by glasseyes at 3:43 AM on October 27, 2016

Afro-Brazillian architecture. It's a particular, very wide-spread style which dates the building, and the site on which it stands, into a particular moment of new prosperity and expansion (cocoa farming and trading) coming under the influence of a diasporic sensibility. It expanded, it contracted. Some of the tiny hamlets along the Lagos-Ibadan expressway have a row, four of five single story AB dwellings along the side of the road in various stages of repair. Some half-collapsed, exposing the red mud brick under the stucco, corrugated iron roofs leaning rusting close to the ground. Prosperity has receded from these villages with their young people, leaving only kids and grandparents in a kind of shadow life.
posted by glasseyes at 4:07 AM on October 27, 2016

I mean, I imagine. What do I know.
posted by glasseyes at 4:10 AM on October 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

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