An Obscure Afro-Brazilian “Colony” in Ghana: Accra’s Tabon Community

By Hermann W. von Hesse

In the summer of 2017, I returned from Madison, Wisconsin to Accra – my hometown and Ghana’s capital since 1877 – to do my pre-dissertation research. Besides my main dissertation interests, I had since childhood been interested in the music and religion of Accra’s Afro-Brazilian descended community. Though not of Afro-Brazilian descent, my late paternal grandmother, Veronica Malm-Hesse (1929-2014), had first mentioned the Tabon to me as a child and the story stuck with me. Later in that summer of 2017, a musicologist friend of mine from the University of Ghana and an expert on Tabon music, Dr. Ben Amakye-Boateng, suggested that we visit Ààwɔŋ Lekia. Lekia is a priestess of the Yorùbá-derived Afro-Brazilian Şángò shrine and resided in a historic stone house in Ussher Town where the deity is kept. Lekia’s complicated heritage as a Muslim, an ààwɔŋ (Gã for priestess) of a Yorùbá deity and as a Christian defies any kind of binary understanding of cultural or religious expressions.

More so, Lekia’s apparent eclecticism reflects Accra’s historic diversity as a melting pot of Afro-Brazilian, British, Dutch, Danish, Akan, Yorùbá and Hausa cultural influences and yet the city remained staunchly Gã. The Şángò priestess is a direct descendant of Azuma Nelson, a Muslim Afro-Brazilian ex-slave of Yorùbá and Hausa origins. According to family traditions, Nelson arrived in Accra in 1829. However, Dutch archival sources confirm 1836 as the year in which some of the earliest Afro-Brazilian families settled in what was then “Dutch Accra.”[1] Though not confirmed the 1829 date is likely accurate since Afro-Brazilian immigration to the Gold Coast and West Africa predates and postdates 1836.

From the seventeenth century onwards, modern Accra began to evolve as settlements adjoining the Dutch Fort Crèvecœur, the British James Fort, and the Danish Christiansborg Castle. Consequently, these settlements became variously known as Kinkã (or “Dutch Accra,” renamed Ussher Town in 1868), Ŋleshi (British Accra or James Town) and Osu (or Christiansborg). Kinkã and Ŋleshi together constituted Accra proper, now affectionately called “Old Accra.” These Gã trade and political alliances facilitated the Atlantic trade in captives, European and Indian textiles, gold, metals, and luxury wares. Thus, when in 1836 Gã trade broker (or in Dutch makelaar) Nii Kwaku Ankra welcomed Afro-Brazilian immigrants to Accra, the town was already cosmopolitan.

The newly arrived “strangers,” and their descendants and others who “returned” from overseas exile, found space to preserve their unique “Brazilian” identity while adopting the Gã language. The Gã people labelled the Brazilians “Tabon.” This nickname or ethnonym was apparently a local rendering of the Portuguese greeting, “ésta bom” and “ta bom.” Both terms mean “how are you” and “all’s well” respectively. It appears that that the Gã applied this ethnonym almost immediately after the Brazilian immigrants arrived. In his Gã-English dictionary, German-born Rev. Johannes Zimmermann ,who had visited the community in 1851, noted that the term “tabõn” was a “word” of the “Portuguese black emigrants” of Accra which meant “well.” The term, Zimmermann further explained, referred to the “quarter” of these “emigrants or the place in whiche (sic) they live.”[2] From Zimmermann’s observations, it is safe to assume that despite their incorporation into the Otublohum quarter of Kinkã, the Tabon community had a distinct identity based on their Brazilian servile antecedents and syncretized forms of Islam and Yorùbá spirituality.

1
Chief João Antonio Nelson (in suit) and Gã Mãntse Taki Tawia I (in white beard), c. 1890. Credit: Brazil House Brochure.

The Tabon community’s connections to Islam could be traced to the Islamic revivalism across nineteenth century West Africa and the jihads of Usman dan Fodio in particular. Following the jihads many refugees – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – ended up being sold into Atlantic slavery. It was therefore not surprising that many of the ringleaders of Mâle slave revolt in Bahia, Brazil were Hausa-born Islamic scholars and clerics. These included Hausa ex-slaves like Shaykh Dandará and a certain Sanim, both of whom confessed to “teaching Islamic doctrines in their homeland.”[3] There is no evidence that any of the Tabon were involved in these rebellions. Nonetheless, those Tabon who arrived in Accra were “generally Mahomedan,” as Zimmermann observed. Another Tabon notable, Mama Sokoto, was listed in a Dutch source as “Mahama Jacotôt” who led an “Arabian Church,” which was probably Accra’s first mosque.[4]

Despite my strong interest in Tabon culture and particularly the community’s Islamic and Yorùbá religious heritage, I had never met Lekia or visited the Şángò shrine. So I was quite excited when Ben asked if I could join him to interview the priestess at her home, which also housed the Şángò shrine. Our interview coincided with a feast Lekia held in honor of Sango in her home near Bukom Square in Ussher Town. As Ben and I meandered our way through the intricate alleyways of Ussher Town we finally got to the main portal leading to Lekia’s family courtyard. We arrived at the priestess’s home exhausted but almost immediately we were greeted with the lively polyrhythmic cadences of the Àgbé music of the Tabon. At the same time our senses were pleasantly overwhelmed with the aroma of a variety of Tabon and Ghanaian dishes.

Lekia’s courtyard was packed with Tabon women and a host of relatives, friends, and well-wishers who were either cooking or cleaning in preparation for the feast. A few hours later, the women displayed several Tabon dishes – massa (rice flour/dough), pinkaso (savory deep-fried dumpling), akara (known in Brazil as acarajé, fried bean cake), rice cooked with black eye peas, and fula. Others cooked more mainstream Ghanaian dishes such as jollof rice (rice cooked in savory tomato stew), boiled plain rice, palaver sauce (spinach/cocoyam leaf stew cooked in palm oil), and peanut butter soup. There were also a variety of tomato-based stews and sauces and an assortment of smoked and fried fish and meat. For the Tabon, the feast was meant to celebrate the deity who ensured their safe voyage onboard the British-government sponsored SS Salisbury that arrived in Accra in 1836.

 

The rituals of the Şángò feast I attended with Ben were identical to a video of Aawɔŋ Lekia’s “ordination” as a priestess in August 2014. In this “ordination” video as in the feast day, Lekia went into trance several times – speaking what sounded like a pidgin Portuguese version of the Hail Mary. In all her public feasts and religious celebrations, Lekia wore a yellow and green dress which was reminiscent of the Brazilian flag and of the country that enslaved her ancestors. In the particular feast in the summer of 2017, Lekia changed from her Brazilian colors into a vintage or what seemed like a Victorian-style short-sleeved white straight dress with a V-neck. Her white dress matched a white-beaded necklace, white hat, white stockings, and silver-plated flat shoes. All of these accoutrements served to fulfill the community’s desire to re-enact what they thought was their Afro-Brazilian ancestors’ dress culture. By wearing a flamboyant vintage-style dress, Lekia sealed her devotion to Şángò and the Tabon people. As a wife or consort of Şángò, Lekia functions as a channel through which the Afro-Brazilian ancestors of the Tabon communicate with the contemporary community. These rituals and commemorations are very important in sustaining Tabon social memory.

In all of these attempts at preserving tradition, I must emphasize that the community has been very dynamic. For example, Şángò seems to have evolved into a multi-purpose divinity for the community. The deity, it is believed, ensured the safe voyage of the Tabon from Bahia to Accra. Şángò is also charged with the protection of the community and is regarded as a link or bridge between the Tabon and their Brazilian origins. But in Yorùbá religion as practiced in Nigeria and Brazil, Şángò, was the deity of thunder and not responsible for transporting people across oceans. Evidently, the Tabon creatively adapted the Şángò deity and spirituality to suit new cultural and political context over the several generations that they have resided in Ghana. Today, Lekia’s “Brazilian” shrine is an addition to the Gã religious pantheon and is opened to all Ghanaians regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation.

5.jpg
Afro-Brazilian style terréo, Adabraka, Accra.

In the nostalgic celebration of their Brazilian heritage in music, ritual, architecture, and religious observance, the Tabon closely associate these with their Atlantic slavery predecessors. The Tabon community’s unabashed commemoration of their servile heritage contradicts the shame and the taboo of silence that many Ghanaian societies associate with slavery. For the Tabon, however, cultural idioms and motifs such as architectural styles, top hats, and suits are still considered proud markers of their Brazilian heritage which was rooted in their New World servile experience. These external markers of Tabon heritage are proudly expressed artistically in Tabon rituals, funerals, and festivities.

3
Map of Old Accra. Credit: Brazil House Brochure.

While an undergraduate at the University of Ghana, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on “A Brief History of the Afro-Brazilian Community of Accra.” For my M.Phil. thesis, I wrote on “Euro-Africans, Afro-Brazilians and the Evolution of Social Space in Nineteenth Century Accra.” I explored Afro-Brazilians and Euro-Africans as cultural and mercantile agents who traversed the Atlantic world and transformed Accra’s architecture and religious and commercial practices. Beyond Accra, Ghana’s coastline is dotted with several eighteenth and nineteenth century stone-built Palladian-style houses adapted to the Gã and Fante courtyard house type. These extant houses include the Richter Fort and the Wulff House in Osu; the Hansen fort in Old Accra; the Brew Fort in Anomabo and the Bartels House in Elmina.

Besides these Euro-African architectural innovations, many Afro-Brazilians who arrived in the West African coastal cities of Lagos, Cotonou, and Accra popularized the “Brazilian style” terréo (single story) and sobrado (double story) townhouses.[5] Many of these Brazilian “returnees” were urban slaves who had been trained as artificers, carpenters and stone masons. Many put their skills to good use in the construction of elegant houses, known for their stuccoed façades and elegant staircases and balustrades – features reminiscent of Brazilian baroque architecture. Brazilian-style buildings in the southern parts of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria usually comprised a single hallway flanked by rooms on either side, with a living room. From the late nineteenth century and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Brazilian style became the architecture of choice for the burgeoning Gold Coast and southern Nigerian middle class lawyers, school teachers, businesspeople, and doctors. In the Gold Coast many of these professionals resided in Adabraka – colonial Accra’s first African suburb. In Lagos, the Brazilian quarter showcased the baroque-style Shitta Bey Mosque built by “returnee” black Brazilians and other elegant homes in that vicinity.

Until the early 2000s, the Tabon were all but an obscure community. The Ghana government’s popularization of heritage tourism since the 1990s primarily focused on African American tourists visiting Cape Coast and Elmina Castles in the Central Region – notorious for holding captives destined for the New World.[6] By 2007, an estimated 10,000 African American tourists visited Ghana every year.[7] The renovation of Brazil House – residence of Brazilian returnee Mama Nassu – renewed hopes of enhancing Accra’s own slave routes tourism potential. However, such ambitions seem to have died down. In just a decade after its renovation, Brazil House is now in bad repair, with the tiling falling apart and with cracked walls and balustrades. Sadly, a photographic museum showcasing generations of Tabon immigrants as well as modern Afro-Brazilians has been closed down due to the bad state of the museum hall. In 2007, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Ghana’s Chief Justice, Georgina Theodora Wood (née Lutterodt), opened the museum to much fanfare and media attention. Interestingly, former Chief Justice Wood, who spent part of her childhood in Brazil House, is a fourth generation descendant of Mama Nassu, who originally built the property.

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Brazil House, Brazil Lane, Ussher Town, Accra. Photo by author, 2019.

As a “Cradle of the Tabom people,” Brazil House has not attracted Brazilian blacks in the same way that African Americans have historically been drawn to Ghana’s former slaveholding forts and castles. The current Ghanaian government has not even included the Tabon in its commemoration of 2019 as the “Year of Return.” Admittedly, the government specifically created the “Year of Return” to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in British North America in 1619. But it is quite odd that the Tabon descendants of the Brazilian Middle passage have been completely left out in this commemoration. The Ministry of Tourism could have invited Nii Azuma V, chief of the Tabon community, to dialogue with African American visitors about the challenges and opportunities of integrating black diaspora “returnee” communities in Ghana. Coupled with the Tabon community’s marginalization in black diaspora and slave routes/roots tourism, the fast deterioration of Brazil House is very much in tune with the Old Accra neighborhood in which the residence is located. Accra’s oldest nucleus is but a congested and overpopulated pale shadow of its maritime and mercantile past. The relocation of the port of Old Accra to Ghana’s postcolonial industrial city of Tema in 1962 ensured the further economic marginalization of Ussher Town/James Town.

6.jpg
Tabon Loop, North Ridge, Accra.

Despite these urban problems, Old Accra’s dilapidated stone buildings and the close-knit alleyways preserve Gã and Tabon architectural heritage and the city’s rich festive and outdoor culture. What this means is that there is still great potential for tourism. Since 2011, Ussher Town/James Town has been hosting the annual pan-African Chale Wote Street Art Festival in August. The festival is the biggest outdoor event in Ghana, and attracted almost 50,000 people in 2019. Though not a Tabon-owned company, AccradotAlt, the organizers of Chale Wote, have their office on the second floor of Brazil House. So next time you find yourself in the labyrinthine and ‘confusing’ alleyways of Old Accra, visit Brazil House and Brazil Lane. You’ll experience the wonderful historic landmarks and spaces that were created by formerly enslaved Africans in Brazil and their progeny who “returned” to the Gold Coast and transformed Accra’s urban and cultural landscape despite their small numbers.

 

Hermann W. von Hesse is a Ghanaian PhD candidate in African history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He specializes in the urban, architectural, art and cultural history of Africa and its transatlantic diaspora. Hermann’s numerous scholarly articles and book chapters include his co-authored piece (with Larry W. Yarak): “A Tale of Two “Returnee” Communities in the Gold Coast and Ghana: Accra’s Tabon and Elmina’s Ex-Soldiers, 1830s to the Present” International Journal of African Historical Studies Volume 51, No. 2 (2018). Currently, his unfinished PhD dissertation is tentatively titled, “Materiality and Real Estate: Evolving Cultural Practices of Security on the Urban Gold Coast in the Nineteenth Century.

Featured image (at top): Mural at Brazil House, Ussher Town, Accra.

[1] Hermann W. von Hesse and Larry W. Yarak, “A Tale of Two “Returnee” Communities in the Gold Coast and Ghana: Accra’s Tabon and Elmina’s Ex-Soldiers, 1830s to the Present,” International Journal of African Historical Studies Volume 51, No. 2 (2018): 199.

[2] See J. Zimmermann, A Grammatical Sketch and Vocabulary of the Akra- or Gã-Language with an Appendix on the Adãnme-Dialect (1858, reprint Farnborough, UK: Gregg International Publishers, 1972), 8, 9, 283; von Hesse and Yarak, “A Tale of Two Returnee Communities.”

[3] In Bahia, West African Muslim slaves were known as Malê, meaning a Malian, hence a Muslim. See J.J. Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, trans. A. Brakel (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 93–99; von Hesse and Yarak, “A Tale of Two Returnee Communities,” 200.

[4] von Hesse and Yarak, 201.

[5] See John Vlach, “The Brazilian House in Nigeria,” The Journal of American Folklore 97, no. 383 (Jan. – Mar., 1984).

[6] Brempong Osei-Tutu, “African American reactions to the restoration of Ghana’s ‘slave castles’,” Journal of Public Archaeology Issue 4 (2004).

[7] George M. Bob-Milliar, “Chieftaincy, Diaspora, and Development: The Institution of Nkosuohene in Ghana,” African Affairs 108, No. 433 (Oct., 2009): 541-558.

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