The Afro-Brazilians

Tà bom

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 13

Contact between Brazil and the west coast of Africa during the late nineteenth century was facilitated by the establishment of regular cargo and passenger ships.

The British African Company and the African Steamship Company, to mention but two, regularly travelled between the ports of Baía de Todos os Santos and Lagos.

According to the Weekly Times published on 11 October 1890, the steamer ‘Biaffra’ returned to Lagos after its maiden voyage with 110 passengers and 400 tons of merchandise on board.

At that time, the volume of trade between the two coasts was quite considerable - exports from Brazil generally consisted of cigars, tobacco and rum, and imports took the form of local fabrics, kola nuts and palm oil.

Contact between the two seaboards facilitated the emergence of a population on the West African coast made up of formerly enslaved Africans from Brazil and Cuba.

These bands of emigrants settled particularly in the coastal cities of Nigeria and Dahomey (modern-day Benin) and, to a lesser extent, in Togo and the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana). A few smaller communities were formed further inland in towns such as Abeokuta in Nigeria.

These communities created residential districts in Porto Novo and Whydah (in Benin), and in particular Lagos, Nigeria, where the Brazilian Quarter was built. By the 1880s, Afro-Brazilians made up approximately 9% of the population of Lagos. In what is now Tinubu Square and in Campos Square, storeyed houses reminiscent of those of Baía could be found.

Afro-Brazilians came to be known as Àgùdà in Nigeria, thought to be a distortion of the Portuguese word for cotton - algodão.

These groups gradually lost their specifically Afro-Brazilian characteristics; little by little, the language of instruction came to be exclusively that of the colonial powers. Furthermore, many descendants of the Yoruba, to become more integrated into local society, went back to using Yoruba names.

With time, however, this group lost one of its most distinguishing features, the Portuguese language. Once considered a commercial language, it was supplanted by English in Nigeria and French in Dahomey.

Despite the culling of their language, a few forms of Afro-Brazilian resistance have been recorded, for example, the appearance of the 1920 newspaper Le Guide du Dahomey in Porto Novo, which until 1922 published criticisms of the French colonial administration.

On the Gold Coast, Afro-Brazilians were quicker to forgo their Brazilian traditions. The arriving Afro-Brazilians, who only spoke Portuguese at the time, came to be known as Tabom, from the commonly heard Portuguese phrase ‘Tà bom’, meaning okay.

When the Tabom settled in the country, they had to sign a pact of vassalage with a Gã chief of Accra. They abandoned the use of the Portuguese language very early on, although a mixture of Gã, English and Portuguese can be found in their songs.

The rapid integration of the Tabom in the Gold Coast contrasts with the rather slow one of the Afro-Brazilians of Lagos, Abeokuta, Porto Novo, Whydah and other smaller coastal towns in Nigeria, Dahomey and Togo.

In Lagos, alongside the Brazilian community, an Afro-Cuban community came into being, composed of the smaller number of individuals who had returned from Cuba.