Skip to main content Accessibility help



The etymology of ‘Lucumí’ and ‘Terranova’, ethnonyms used to describe Yoruba-speaking people during the Atlantic slave trade, helps to reconceptualize the origins of a Yoruba nation. While there is general agreement that ‘Lucumí’ refers to the Yoruba in diaspora, the origin of the term remains unclear. We argue ‘Lucumí’ was first used in the Benin kingdom as early as the fifteenth century, as revealed through the presence of Olukumi communities involved in chalk production. The Benin and Portuguese slave trade extended the use of ‘Lucumí’ to the Americas. As this trade deteriorated by 1550, ‘Terranova’ referred to slaves captured west of Benin's area of influence, hence ‘new land’. By the eighteenth century, ‘Nagô’ had replaced ‘Lucumí’, while the ‘Slave Coast’ had substituted ‘Terranova’ as terms of reference. This etymology confirms the collective identification of ‘Yoruba’ and helps trace the evolution of a transnational identity.

Hide All

Special thanks to Nielson Bezerra, Rina Cacéres, María Camila Díaz Casas, David Eltis, Manolo Florentino, Alejandro de la Fuente, Walter Hawthorne, Linda Heywood, Robin Law, Francis Martinez Otero, Ramón Alejandro Montoya, Pablo Sierra, John Thornton, Uyilawa Usuanlele, David Wheat, and this journal's anonymous readers for helping locate references and/or providing insightful comments on earlier drafts. Lovejoy's research funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Post Doctoral Fellowship (Award 756-2012-0715-B99). Authors' email: and

Hide All

1 F. vaz Dourado, ‘Costa da África e da Guiné até à ilha de São Tomé, 1571’, in A. Cortesão and A. Teixeira da Mota (eds.), Portugaliae Monumenta Cartographica, Volume III (Lisboa, 1960), plate 266; and N. W. Thomas, Anthropological Report on Ibo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria: Law and Custom of the Asaba District, S. Nigeria, Volume IV (London, 1914), 2.

2 For some uses of ‘Yoruba nation’ see Adediran, B., ‘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; and J. D. Y. Peel, Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yorùbá (Bloomington, IN, 2000).

3 For an early reference to يرب see Ahmad Baba, Mi‘raj̄ al-Ṣu‘ud̄: Ajwibat Aḥmad Bab̄a ̄ḥawla al-istirqaq̄ (Rabat, 2000 [orig. pub. 1615]); and email with Yacine Daddi Addoun, 27 Aug. 2012.

4 Law, R., ‘Ethnicity and the slave trade: “Lucumí” and “Nagô” as ethnonyms in West Africa’, History in Africa, 24 (1997), 212.

5 Jones, A., ‘Recaptive nations: evidence concerning the demographic impact of the Atlantic slave trade in the early 19th century’, Slavery and Abolition, 11:1 (1990), 4257.

6 Thomas, Anthropological IV, 2.

7 F. Ortiz, Hampa Afro-Cubana: Los Negros Esclavos (Habana, 1916), 26–33.

8 National Archives of Nigeria, Ibadan (NAI) CSO 26/3/31350, 136, J. E. Jull, ‘Intelligence report on the Ogwashi-Uku, Asaba Division’, 1936; and NAI Asaba Div. 8/1, J. E. Jull, ‘Intelligence report on Akwukwu-Atuma village group, Asaba District’, 1936.

9 Bascom, W., ‘The focus of Cuban Santería’, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 6:1 (1950), 64; Bascom, W., ‘The Yoruba in Cuba’, Nigeria, 37 (1951), 19; W. Bascom, ‘Yoruba acculturation in Cuba’, Les Afro-Américains (Dakar, 1952), 166.

10 Beier, H. U., ‘Yoruba enclave’, Nigeria, 58 (1953), 238–40.

11 C. G. Okojie, Ishan Native Laws and Customs (Yaba, 1960), 308.

12 R. Law, The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550–1750: The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on an African Society (Oxford, 1991), 19; Morton-Williams, P., ‘The Oyo Yoruba and the Atlantic trade, 1670–1830’, Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 3:1 (1964), 26–7.

13 W. Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria (New York, 1969), 5–6.

14 Law, ‘Ethnicity’, 211 and 217n17; Valdés, R. López, ‘Notas para el estudio ethnohistórico de los esclavos Lucumí de Cuba’, Anales del Caribe, 6 (1986), 5574; S. Palmié, The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion (Chicago, 2013), 272n14.

15 Law, ‘Ethnicity’, 209–11.

16 Sidbury, J. and Cañizares-Esguerra, J., ‘Mapping ethnogenesis in the early modern Atlantic’, The William and Mary Quarterly, 68:2 (2011), 181208.

17 P. D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison, 1969), 97–8.

18 L. Guitar, ‘Boiling it down: slavery on the first commercial sugarcane ingenios in the Americas (Hispaniola, 1530–45)’, in J. Landers and B. Robinson (eds.), Slaves, Subjects, and Subversives: Blacks in Colonial Latin America (Albuquerque, NM, 2006), 37 and 59.

19 Sierra, P. M., ‘María de Terranova: a West African woman and the quest for freedom in colonial Mexico’, The Journal of Pan African Studies, 6:1 (2013), 45.

20 G. W. Hall, ‘African ethnicities and the meaning of “Mina”’, in P. E. Lovejoy and D. V. Trotman (eds.), Trans-Atlantic Dimensions of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora (New York, 2003), 65–81; Law, R., ‘Ethnicities of enslaved Africans in the diaspora: on the meanings of ‘mina’ (again)’, History in Africa, 32 (2005), 247–67; P. Verger, Flux et reflux de la traite des nègres entre le Golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (Paris, 1968), 67.

21 Law, Slave Coast, 14–15.

22 NAI CSO 26/3/31350, 136, J. E. Jull, ‘Intelligence Report on the Ogwashi-Uku’, Asaba Division, 1936; B. Aluko, ‘A Yoruba enclave in the heart of Igboland: story of Ugbodu, others in Delta State’, Nigerian Tribune (Ibadan), 24 Oct. 2010; Beier, ‘Yoruba’, 238; U. Osawaru, ‘Olukumi: an interface of Yoruba and Edo kingdoms’, Nigerian Observer (Benin City), 14 Jan. 2014; and Thomas, Anthropological IV, 2.

23 Okojie, Ishan, 308.

24 J. Egharevba, A Short History of Benin (Ibadan, 1968 [orig. pub. 1934]); A. B. Ellis, The Yoruba-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa: Their Religion, Manners, Customs, Laws, Language, etc. (London, 1894); L. Frobenius, The Voice of Africa: Being an Account of the Travels of the German Inner African Exploration Expedition in the Years 1910–1912, trans. R. Blind (London, 1913); interview with Rita Idahosa, St Catharines, 23 June 2014; S. Johnson, The History of the Yorùbás from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate (London, 1921), 149.

25 No mention of chalk in L. Sundström, The Exchange Economy of pre-Colonial Tropical Africa (New York, 1974).

26 Beier, ‘Yoruba’, 243.

27 Thomas, Anthropological IV, 157.

28 Egharevba, Short History, 82.

29 H. J. Melzian, A Concise Dictionary of the Bini Language of Southern Nigeria (London, 1937), 147.

30 Beier, ‘Yoruba’, 241–3; Thomas, Anthropological IV, 2.

31 Akinola, G. A., ‘The origins of the Eweka dynasty: a study in the use and abuse of oral traditions’, Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 8:3 (1976), 2136; Bondarenko, D. M. and Roese, P. M., ‘Ancient Benin: where did the first monarchs come from?’, Asian and African Studies (Bratislava), 10:2 (2001), 185–98; J. S. Boston, The Igala Kingdom (Oxford, 1968), 7–8; Boston, J. S., ‘Notes of the origin of the Igala’, Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 2:3 (1962), 380; Egharevba, Short History, 7; Law, R., ‘The heritage of Oduduwa: traditional history and political propaganda among the Yoruba’, The Journal of African History, 14:2 (1973), 207–22; Johnson, The History, 149.

32 Egharevba, Short History, 84; Ohadike, D. C., ‘The rise of Benin kingdom and the settlement of Edo-speaking peoples in the Igbo culture area’, Ivie, 1:3 (1986), 1935; Thomas, Anthropological IV, 2.

33 E. A. Oroge, ‘The institution of slavery in Yorubaland with special reference to the nineteenth century’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 1971), ch. 1.

34 On ‘transculturation’ see F. Ortiz, Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (Habana, 1940), 98.

35 Egharevba, Short History, 15–16; Oduwobi, T., ‘Oral historical traditions and political integration in Ijebu’, History in Africa, 27 (2000), 249–59; A. O. Oguntuyi, The History of Ado-Ekiti (Ado-Ekiti, 1978 [orig. pub. 1953]), 5–6, 13–15, and 22–3; and Sheba, E., ‘The Ìkálé (Yorùbá, Nigeria) migration, theories and insignia’, History in Africa, 34 (2007), 461–8.

36 Beir, ‘Yoruba’, 245.

37 NAI CSO 26/29799, N. A. C. Weir, ‘Intelligence Report on Ikere District, Ekiti Division’, 1933; NAI CSO 26/30014, N. A. C. Weir, ‘Intelligence Report on Akure district, Ekiti Division’, 1934.

38 Okojie, Ishan, 308.

39 Beier, ‘Yoruba’, 245; Osawaru, ‘Olukumi’.

40 NAI CSO 26/3/29956, J. H. Beeley, ‘Intelligence Report on Owo/Ifon Districts’, 1934; Egharevba, Short History, 32; M. B. Ashara, The History of Owo (Owo, 1981 [orig. pub. 1951]), 10; J. O. Olugbadehan, ‘Owo: a frontier Yoruba kingdom’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, OH, 2006), 129.

41 Egharevba, Short History, 25–9; R. E. Bradbury and P. C. Lloyd, The Benin Kingdom and the Edo-Speaking Peoples of South-Western Nigeria (London, 1957), 63–4.

42 Beier, ‘Yoruba’, 245.

43 K. Mann, Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760–1900 (Bloomington, IN, 2007), 27.

44 R. Law, The Oyo Empire, c. 1600-c.1836: A West African Imperialism in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Brookfield, 1991 [orig. pub. 1977]), 93n52.

45 Egharevba, Short History, 32.

46 Beier, ‘Yoruba’, 243.

47 Egharevba, Short History, 32.

48 Beier, ‘Yoruba’, 241–3; C. Hess, ‘Quadrangular bells’, in P. Ben-Amos and A. Rubin (eds.), The Art of Benin, the Power of Art: Studies in Benin Iconography (Los Angeles, 1983), 103–10; Thomas, Anthropological IV, 2.

49 Interview with Uyilanwa Usuanlele, St Catharines, 26 May and 17 June 2014; and telephone interview with Emmanuel Adesida, 75 years-old, Ibadan, 29 June 2014.

50 Law, , ‘Trade and politics: the lagoon traffic and the rise of Lagos, 1500–1800’, The Journal of African History, 24:3 (1983), 330.

51 Mendes, A. Almeida, ‘Portugal e o tráfico de escravos na primeira metade do século XVI’, Africana Studia, 7 (2004), 1330; Elbl, I., ‘The volume of the early Atlantic slave trade, 1450–1521’, The Journal of African History, 38 (1997), 54; R. Garfield, A History of São Tomé Island, 1470–1655: The Key to Guinea (San Francisco, CA, 1992); Graham, R., ‘The slave trade, human sacrifice and depopulation in Benin history’, Cahiers d'Études Africaines, 6 (1965), 317–34; Vogt, J., ‘The early São Tomé-Principe slave trade with Mina, 1500–1540’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 6:3 (1973), 453–67.

52 D. Pacheco Pereira, Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis (Lisboa, 1892 [orig. pub. c. 1504]), 71–2; A. F. C. Ryder, Benin and the Europeans, 1485–1897 (London, 1969), 26, 28–9; Ryder, A., ‘An early Portuguese trading voyage to the Forcados River’, Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 1 (1959), 306.

53 Law, R., ‘Early European sources relating to the kingdom of Ijebu (1500–1700): a critical survey’, History in Africa, 13 (1986), 245–60.

54 Beier, ‘Yoruba’, 243.

55 Pacheco Pereira, Esmeraldo, 72–3. Other interpretations for ‘licósaguou’ were the Alafin of Oyo, or a sacerdotal kingship at Igbo-Ukwu; for ‘hooguanee’ were the Oni of Ife, ‘whom the Edo call Oghene’. See Bradbury, R. E., ‘Chronological problems in the study of Benin history’, Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 1:4 (1959), 272; Fage, J. D., ‘Commentary on Duarte Pacheco Pereira's account of the lower Guinea coastlands in his “Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis”, and on some other early accounts’, History in Africa, 7 (1980), 65–6; Hair, P. E. H., ‘An ethnolinguistic inventory of the lower Guinea coast before 1700’, African Language Review, 7:1 (1969), 248n64; Northrup, D., ‘The growth of trade among the Igbo before 1800’, The Journal of African History, 13 (1972), 223; Ryder, Benin, 30–1; P. A. Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria: A Sketch of their History, Ethnology and Languages withe an Abstract of the 1921 Census, I (London, 1969 [orig. pub. 1926]), 281–2.

56 Law, Slave Coast, 116–18.

57 D. Eltis, S. Behrendt, D. Richardson, and M. Florentino (eds.), Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (2014), available at: (

58 Eltis, et al., Voyages; Wheat, D., ‘The first great waves: African provenance zones for the transatlantic slave trade to Cartagena de Indias, 1570–1640’, The Journal of African History, 52:1 (2011), 122.

59 R. Law, The Kingdom of Allada (Leiden, 1987), 87.

60 Law, Slave Coast, 117–19.

61 F. de Nolasco, Existencia y vicisitudes del colegio Gorjón (Trujillo, 1947), 7 and 25.

62 G. Scelle, La traite négrière aux Indes de Castille… (Paris, 1906), 755; W. H. Worger, N. L. Clark, and E. A. Alpers (eds. and trans.), Africa and the West: A Documentary History, Volume I (Oxford, 2010), 25.

63 Guitar, ‘Boiling’, 56.

64 J. A. Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud de la Raza Africana en el Nuevo Mundo y en Especial en los Paises Américo-Hispanos (Barcelona, 1879), 180.

65 Archivo General de las Indias, Sevilla (AGI) Patronato Real 173/1/8, 6r, 7r, and 7v, Fundación de colegio general y hospital: Santo Domingo, 1540–1547. For transcriptions see J. M. Incháustegui Cabral (ed.), Reales cédulas y correspondecias de governadores de Santo Domingo: De la Regencia del Cardenal Cisneros en adelante, Volume I (Madrid, 1958), 237–9; and M. Carrera de la Red, ‘Léxico rural en la isla Española: el inventario de bienes de Hernando Gorjón (1547)’, in A. A. González, et al. (eds.), Actas del III Congreso Internacional de Historia de la Lengua Española: Salamaca, 22–27 de Noviembre de 1993 (Madrid, 1996), 1203–17.

66 Spelling variations of Lucumí include: ‘Lucamee’, ‘Alkomij’, ‘Alkomijsh’, ‘Ulkuma’, ‘Ulkami’, ‘Licomin’, ‘Loucomi’, ‘Locomin’, ‘Loucoumy’, ‘Loucomy’, ‘Laconie’, ‘Lacomie’, ‘Concomi’, ‘Alguemy’, ‘Laucommis’, ‘Ahcomi’, and ‘Alcomi’. See Law, ‘Ethnicity’.

67 In attempts to locate references of ‘Lucumí’ and ‘Terranova’ in Brazil, none were identified clearly, although there were examples for ‘Ardra’ and ‘Mina’. Emails with Nielson Bezerra, Manolo Florentino, Walter Hawthorne, Linda Heywood, James Sweet, and John Thornton, 31 Oct.–10 Nov. 2014. According to Heywood, Thornton, and Sierra, there was an obscure reference from Bahia in 1611 to ‘nocumí’, while ‘nucumí’ appears in records in Puebla de Los Angeles in the 1630s. Whether or not this term is an obscure reference to ‘Lucumí’ is tentative.

68 A. Sandoval, Naturaleza, Policia Sagrada i Profana, Costumbres i Ritos, Disciplina i Catechismo Evangelico de todos Etiopes (Sevilla, 1627), 5v and 59.

69 In nineteenth-century Cuba, there were 175 different Lucumí subgroups (although many were variations of the same term). See J. Guanche, Africanía y Etnicidad en Cuba (Habana, 2009), 217–21.

70 Hair, ‘Ethnolinguistic’, 248n65; Law, ‘Ethnicity’, 207 and 216; and Thornton, J. K., ‘Traditions, documents, and the Ife-Benin relationship’, History in Africa, 15 (1988), 358.

71 Our underline for emphasis. See Sandoval, Naturaleza, 59. For other interpretations of these terms see Hair, ‘Ethnolinguistic’, 248n65; Law, ‘Early’, 251; and Law, Slave Coast, 118–23. Among these designations, Sandoval probably borrowed the terms ‘Mosiacos’, ‘Agares’, and ‘Iabus’ from Manuel de Figueiredo and possibly Dierik Ruÿters, who likely obtained their data from Pacheco Pereira. See M. Figueiredo, Roteiro e navegação das Indias Occidentais Ilhas, Antilhas do mar oceano occidental… (Lisboa, 1609); Pacheco Pereira, Esmeraldo, 72–3; and Dierik Ruÿters, Toortse der zee-vaert… (Vlissinghen, 1623).

72 Sandoval, Naturaleza, 65v.

73 Ibid.

74 M. H. Stewart, Borgu and Its Kingdoms: A Reconstruction of a Western Sudanese Polity (Queenston, 1993), 246.

75 Sandoval, Naturaleza, 65v–6.

76 J. Adams, Remarks on the Country Extending from Cape Palmas to the River Congo (London, 1823), 38.

77 Johnson, The History, 104–9.

78 I. A. Akinjogbin, Dahomey and its Neighbours (Cambridge, 1967); Law, Allada; Law, Oyo; Ryder, Benin.

* Special thanks to Nielson Bezerra, Rina Cacéres, María Camila Díaz Casas, David Eltis, Manolo Florentino, Alejandro de la Fuente, Walter Hawthorne, Linda Heywood, Robin Law, Francis Martinez Otero, Ramón Alejandro Montoya, Pablo Sierra, John Thornton, Uyilawa Usuanlele, David Wheat, and this journal's anonymous readers for helping locate references and/or providing insightful comments on earlier drafts. Lovejoy's research funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Post Doctoral Fellowship (Award 756-2012-0715-B99). Authors' email: and

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of African History
  • ISSN: 0021-8537
  • EISSN: 1469-5138
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-african-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed