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Ethnicity and the Slave Trade: “Lucumi” and “Nago” as Ethnonyms in West Africa1

  • Robin Law (a1)

Ethnicity was evidently critical for the operation of the Atlantic slave trade, on both the African and the European sides of the trade. For Africans, given the general convention against enslaving fellow citizens, ethnic identities served to define a category of “others” who were legitimately enslavable. For African Muslims this function was performed by religion, though here too, it is noteworthy that the classic discussion of this issue, by the Timbuktu scholar Ahmad Baba in 1615, approaches it mainly in terms of ethnicity, through classification of West African peoples as Muslim or pagan. Europeans, for their part, regularly distinguished different ethnicities among the slaves they purchased, and American markets developed preferences for slaves of particular ethnic origins. This raises interesting (but as yet little researched) questions about the ways in which African and European definitions of African ethnicity may have interacted. Both Africans and Europeans, for example, commonly employed, as a means of distinguishing among African ethnicities, the facial and bodily scarifications (“tribal marks”) characteristic of different communities—a topic on which there is detailed information in European sources back at least into the seventeenth century, which might well form the basis for a historical study of ethnic identities.

In this context as in others, of course, ethnicity should be seen, not as a constant, but as fluid and subject to constant redefinition. The lately fashionable debate on “the invention of tribes” in Africa concentrated on the impact of European colonialism in the twentieth century, rather than on that of the Atlantic slave trade earlier—no doubt because it was addressed primarily to Southern, Central and Eastern rather than Western Africa.

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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Conference of the African Studies Association, San Francisco, November 1996. My thanks to Christine Ayorinde for her assistance in identifying material on “Lucumi” in Cuba.

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2. For early documentation of which, see the incident in 1682, when Abora and Kormantin, both members of the Fante confederacy, were at war, but it was noted that captives taken in the fighting were not available for export, because “they dare not sell them for they are all of one country.” Bodleian Library, Oxford: Rawlinson C746, Richard Thelwall, Anomabu, 9 August 1682.

3. Barbour, Bernard and Jacobs, Michelle, “The Mi”raj: a Legal Treatise on Slavery by Ahmad Baba” in Willis, John Ralph, ed., Slaves and Muslim Society in Africa (2 vols.: London, 1985), 1:125–59.

4. Again, for an early example, see the complaint from Barbados to the Royal African Company in West Africa that a cargo of slaves “by you styled Gold Coast Negroes, we here found not to be so, but of several nations and languages, as Alampo [Adangme], the worst of Negroes, Papas [Popo] and some of unknown parts, and few right Gold Coast Negroes among them, which are here presently now discerned by every planter or inhabitant of this island from any other sort of Negroes.” Rawlinson C746, Edwyn Steed and Stephen Gascoigne, Barbados, 12 May 1686.

5. E.g. Ranger, Terence, The Invention of Tribalism in Zimbabwe (Gwelo, 1985); Vail, Leroy, ed., The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (London, 1989).

6. Lovejoy, Paul E., “The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion Under Slavery,” The World History of Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation, 2 (1997).

7. Matory, J. Lorand, “Return, ‘Race,’ and Religion in a Transatlantic Yoruba Nation,” paper presented at the Annual Conference of the African Studies Association, San Francisco, November 1996.

8. Law, Robin, “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Yoruba Historiography” in Falola, Toyin, ed., Yoruba Historiography (Madison, 1991), 123–34; Lovejoy, Paul E. and Richardson, David, “The Yoruba Factor in the Atlantic Slave Trade,” paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of African Studies, Montreal, May 1996.

9. Jones, Adam, “Recaptive Nations: Evidence Concerning the Demographic Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the Early 19th Century,” Slavery and Abolition, 11 (1990), 4257.

10. See further Law, Robin, “Local Amateur Scholarship in the Construction of Yoruba Ethnicity, 1880-1914,” in Gorgondiere, Louise de la, King, Kenneth, and Vaughan, Sarah, eds., Ethnicity in Africa: Roots, Meanings and Interpretations (Edinburgh, 1996), 5590. Use of the term “Yoruba” as a general ethnonym also spread to Trinidad in the West Indies, through the recruitment of indentured laborers from Sierra Leone in 1841-67: Warner-Lewis, Maureen, Trinidad Yoruba: From Mother Tongue to Memory (Tuscaloosa, 1996).

11. The earliest unambiguous instance being Bowdich, T. Edward, A Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London, 1819), 208–09, based on information collected from Muslim residents in Kumase in 1817. A possible earlier instance is a reference to “Giorback,” perhaps a misreading of “Giorbah,” as a place on the Atlantic coast, in information collected in Tunis in 1789: Report of Robert Traill,” in Hallett, Robin, ed., Records of the African Association, 1788-1831 (London, 1964), 83.

12. Higman, B.W., Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834 (Baltimore, 1984), 442–58.

13. But for some suggestion that the term may have been used in a wider sense in local West African usage earlier, cf. Law, Robin, “‘Central and Eastern Wangara:’ an Indigenous West African Perception of the Political and Economic Geography of the Slave Coast, as Recorded by Joseph Dupuis at Kumasi, 1820,” HA, 22 (1995), 281305.

14. Adediran, Biodun, “Yoruba Ethnic Groups or a Yoruba Ethnic Group? A Review of the Problem of Ethnic Identification,” Africa: Revista do Centro do Estudos Africanos de USP, 7 (1984), 5770.

15. For a recent study see Valdés, Rafael L. López, “Notas para el estudio etnohistórico de los esclavos Lucumí de Cuba” in Menéndez, Làzara, ed., Estudios Afro-Cubanos: Selección de Lecturas (4 vols.: Havana, 1990), 2:312–47.

16. For recent studies see Barnet, Miguel, Cultos afrocubanos: La regla de ocha, La regla de palo monte (Havana, 1995); Brandon, George, Santeria from Africa to the New World (Bloomington, 1993).

17. Bascom, William, “Yoruba Acculturation in Cuba,” in Verger, Pierre, Les afro-américains (Dakar, 1952).

18. “Lucumi” are not represented in a sample of Cuban slaves in 1511-1640, but constituted 5% of a sample in 1693-1714: Valdés, López, “Notas,” 317, 319.

19. Thornton, John, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World 1400-1680 (Cambridge, 1992), 112, 198.

20. Pavy, David, “The Provenience of Colombia Negroes,” Journal of Negro History, 52 (1967), 3558; Bowser, Frederick P., The African Slave in Colonial Peru 1524-1650 (Stanford, 1974), 4043.

21. Beltràn, G. Aguirre, “Tribal Origins of Slaves in Mexico,” Journal of Negro History, 31 (1946), 322–24.Valdés, López, “Notas,” 344n1, also cites instances from Puerto Rico and Venezuela; in the latter in the form “Lucumino,” which evidently incorporates the Aja-Ewe suffix -nu, “people of.”

22. de Sandoval, Alonso, Naturaleza, policia sagrada i profana, costumbres i ritos, disciplina i catecismo evangelico de todos Etiopes (Seville, 1627); republished, under the title De instaurando Aethiopum salute (1647); cited here from the modern edition, ed. Vilar, Enriqueta Vila, Un tratado sobre la esclavitud (Madrid, 1987). References to “Lucumies” can be found at 65, 69, 123, 125, 139-41, 413, 441.

23. Ortiz, Fernando, Los negros esclavos (Havana, 1987), 4156. Other Lucumi subgroups named by Ortiz, which are not readily identifiable, are “Engüei” and “Epa.”

24. Lachateñeré, Rómulo, “Tipos étnicos que concurrieron en la amalgama cubana,” in El sistema religioso de los Afrocubanos(Havana, 1992), 166–67.

25. Valdés, López, “Notas,” 339–43.

26. Sandoval, , Tratado, 141 (“Lucumies Barbas”). The only other Lucumi sub-group named are the “Lucumies Chabas,” perhaps the Sabe, a western Yoruba group. It may be noted here that some writers, including myself, have earlier interpreted Sandoval as saying that the Lucumi included people speaking mutually unintelligible languages. The passage cited (ibid., 140) actually says that through the use of pidgin Portuguese (“the language of São Tomé”) “…often the Ardas [Allada] and Caravalies [Calabar] can understand one another, and sometimes the Lucumies, although the latter [estos] tend to differ from one another, and are not understood [by each other], as they are from countries very far apart”. I now think that “the latter” here refers to the Ardas, Caravalies, and Lucumies together, rather than the Lucumies alone; and the reference is therefore to linguistic differences between the Lucumi and other groups, rather than within the Lucumi.

27. Bascom. “Yoruba Acculturation;” Morton-Williams, Peter, “The Oyo Yoruba and the Atlantic trade, 1670-1830,” JHSN 3/1 (1964), 27.

28. A similar case is “Offoons,” given by Sandoval, , Tratado, 139, apparently as a generic term for Aja-Ewe speakers (“Popos,” “Fulaos,” “Ardas,” etc.): evidently from the common greeting a fan [dagbe], “Have you woken [well]?”

29. Reis, João José, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia (Baltimore, 1993), esp. 146-48.

30. See esp. Verger, Pierre, Notes sur le culte des Orisha et Vodoun à Bahia, la Baie de Tous les Saintes au Brésil, et à l'ancienne Côte des Esclaves (Dakar, 1957).

31. Geggus, David, “Sex Ratio, Age and Ethnicity in the Atlantic Slave Trade: Data from French Shipping and Plantation Records,” JAH, 30 (1989), 2344.

32. Métraux, Alfred, Voodoo in Haiti (New York, 1972), 28, 8687.

33. Edwards, Bryan, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British West Indies (5th ed., 5 vols.: London, 1819), 2:60, 88; cf. examples in Higman, , Slave Populations, 442–58.

34. Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo, African Slaves in Colonial Louisiana (Baton Rouge, 1992), 291–92.

35. Rodrigues, Nina, Os africanos no Brasil (3rd ed., São Paulo, 1945), 178.

36. Pavy, , “Provenience,” 41; Valdés, Lôpez, “Notas,” 340. The variant forms “Anagonou,” “Anaganu” in Cuba here again (cf. note 21 above) incororate the Aja-Ewe suffix -nu.

37. The occurrence of “Lucumi” as an ethnonym in West Africa was already noted by Ortiz, , Negros esclavos, 51.

38. Beier, H.U., “Yoruba Enclave,” Nigeria Magazine, 58 (1958), 238–51.

39. Dapper, Olfert, Naukeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche Gewesten (Amsterdam, 1668), 491, 492, 494.

40. Public Record Office, London (hereafter, PRO); T70/7, Baldwin, Mabyn, and Barlow, Whydah, 9 August 1723.

41. Sandoval, , Tratado, 126 (referring to “lucumies estrangeros”).

42. Bràsio, António, Monumenta Missionaria Africana (1st series, 14 vols.: Lisbon, 19521985), 8: no.135: Colombin de Nantes, São Tomé, 26 December 1640; Dapper, , Naukeurige Beschrijvinge, 491.

43. Ibid., 491-92.

44. des Marchais, Chevalier, “Journal du voiage de Guinée et Cayenne” (Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds français 24223), 129v; Snelgrave, William, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea (London, 1734), 89.

45. du Casse, Jean-Baptiste, “Relation du voyage de Guynée fait en 1687,” in Roussier, Paul, ed., L'établissement d'Issigny, 1687-1702 (Paris, 1935), 15.

46. PRO: T70/7, Baldwin, Mabyn, and Barlow, Whydah, 9 August 1723.

47. Theodosio Rodriguez da Costa, Whydah, 27 May 1753, cited in Verger, Pierre, Trade Relations Between the Bight of Benin and Bahia (Ibadan, 1976), 164.

48. Algemeen Rijksarchief, The Hague: TWIC.1024, J. Bruyningh, Offra, 14 March 1680; Archives Nationales, Paris (hereafter, AN): Dayrie, Jakin, 12 August 1728.

49. van Dantzig, Albert, The Dutch and the Guinea Coast, 1674-1742: A Collection of Documents from the General State Archive at The Hague (Accra, 1978), no. 234: Diary of Ph. Eytzen, Whydah, 3 May 1718.

50. de Zamora, Basilio, “Cosmographia e Description del Mundo” [1675] (Bibliotheca Pública del Estado, Toledo: Collectión de MSS Bornon-Lorenzo, 244), 27; Suite du journal du Sieur Delbée,” in de Clodoré, J., ed., Relation de ce qui s”est passé dans les Isles et Terre-ferme de l'Amérique, pendant la dernière guerre avec l'Angleterre, et depuis en exécution du Traitté de Breda (Paris, 1671), 524.

51. “Relation du royaume de Judas en Guinée” (Archives d'Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence: Dépôt des Fortifications des Colonies, Côtes d'Afrique, 104), 58. For the Fa cult in the Dahomey area, see Maupoil, Bernard, La géomancie à l'ancienne Côte des Esclaves (Paris, 1943).

52. “Relation du royaume de Judas,” 28.

53. Snelgrave, , New Account, 89.

54. Barbot, John, Description of the Coast of North and South Guinea (London, 1732), 352. Barbot's references to “Lucumi” are copied from Dapper.

55. Francisco Pereyra Mendes, Whydah, 5 April 1728, quoted in Verger, , Trade Relations, 122.

56. Marchais, Des, “Journal,” 129v.

57. Dapper, , Naukeurige Beschrijvinge, 491–92.

58. Van Dantzig, Dutch, no. 234: Diary of Ph. Eytzen, Whydah, 3 May 1718; AN: C6/25, Dayrie, Jakin, 12 August 1728.

59. de Naxara, Joseph, Espejo mistico en que el hombre interior se mira pràcticamente illustrado (Madrid, 1672), 278.

60. Law, Robin, “Early European Sources Relating to the Kingdom of Ijebu (1500-1800): a Critical Survey,” HA, 13 (1986), 237–67.

61. Dapper also notes explicitly that “Lucumi” “does not extend to the coast” Naukeurige Beschrijvinge, 494.

62. Parrinder, E.G., “Yoruba-Speaking Peoples in Dahomey,” Africa, 17 (1947), 122–29.

63. Asiwaju, A.I., Western Yorubaland under European Rule, 1889-1945 (London, 1976), 1819.

64. Reis, , Slave Rebellion, 154.

65. Robertson, G.A., Notes on Africa (London, 1819), 287, 296, both passages referring to trade at Lagos; but elsewhere the same source uses the form “Anagoo.”

66. Marchais, Des, “Journal,” 34v; AN: C6/25, Pruneau and Guestard, “Mémoire pour servir à l'intelligence du commerce de Juda,” 18 March 1750.

67. AN: C6/27, Ollivier de Montaguère, Whydah, 30 December 1780; Labarthe, Pierre, Voyage à la Côte de Guinée (Paris, 1803), 163; Governor of Bahia, 7 October 1807, quoted in Verger, , Trade Relations, 235.

68. Dalzel, Archibald, The History of Dahomy (London, 1793), 214.

69. Robertson, , Notes on Africa, 209; cf. ibid., 287, for traders from “Inago” at Lagos.

70. de Pommegorge, Pruneau, Description de la Nigritie (Amsterdam, 1789), 236.

71. AN: C6/27, Gourg, Whydah, 16 July & 17 Nov. 1788, 28 Feb. 1789.

72. Dalzel, , History, 182.

73. Robertson, , Notes on Africa, 268; The Times, 18 May 1816.

74. Dalzel, , History, 183.

75. Ibid., 199, 201-02. For the location of “Croo-too-hoon-too,” cf. The map of “Dahomy and its environs” by Robert Norris: ibid, frontispiece.

76. Duncan, John, Travels in Western Africa (2 vols, London, 1847), volume 2.

77. Bergé, J.A.M.A.R., “Étude sur le pays Mahi,” Bulletin du Comité d'Études Historiques et Scientifiques de l'A.O.F., 11 (1928), 708–55.

78. Duncan, , Travels, 2:41–12: for the identification with Sabe, cf. Law, Robin, “The Oyo-Dahomey wars, 1726-1823: a Military Analysis,” in Falola, Toyin and Law, Robin, eds, Warfare and Diplomacy in Precolonial Nigeria (Madison, 1992), 925.

79. Forbes, Frederick E., Dahomey and the Dahomans (2 vols.: London, 1851), 1:20. But some of Forbes' terminology suggests confusion, notably his listing (as victims/enemies of Dahomey) of “Eyeo [Oyo], Attahpahm [Atakpame, a western Yoruba group], Yorihbah [Yoruba, meaning presumably again Oyo], Anagoo”: ibid., i, 21. Note that Forbes implies that the name Yoruba (“Yorubah,” “Yoribah”) was in use in Dahomey (ibid., 2: 23,166-67), which would be surprising at this date; but he may have owed the term to one of his interpreters, influenced by Sierra Leone usage.

80. d'Avezac-Maçaya, M., Notice sur le pays et le peuple des Yébous en Afrique (Paris, 1845), translated in Lloyd, P.C., “Osifekunde of Ijebu” in Curtin, Philip D., ed., Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the era of the Slave Trade (Madison, 1967), 245-46, 248.

81. Auguste Bouet, Report of 11 October 1851, in Nardin, Jean-Claude, “La reprise des relations franco-dahoméennes au XIXe siècle: La mission d'Auguste Bouet à la cour d'Abomey (1851),” Cahiers d'Études Africaines, 25 (1967), 9798.

82. For which, see esp. Turner, Jerry Michael, “Les Brésiliens: The impact of Former Brazilian Slaves upon Dahomey” (PhD, Boston University, 1975).

83. Cf. the argument of Matory, “Return,” on the use of the term “Gege” for speakers of Aja-Ewe languages.

84. Cf. Law, Robin, The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550-1750 (Oxford, 1991), 306.

1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Conference of the African Studies Association, San Francisco, November 1996. My thanks to Christine Ayorinde for her assistance in identifying material on “Lucumi” in Cuba.

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