“I know you may have come here with a mindset; a somewhat hatred for the Whitemen who dealt on slave trade. But they were not the ones that went to the inter lands to capture the slaves, our people did.”
These were the startling words from Anago, one of the curators at the Seriki Faremi William Abass Slave Museum in Badagry, Lagos State in Nigeria at the commencement of the tour of the popular Badagry Slave Route that existed some hundreds of years ago.
I had left that morning to the tourist site to have an experience, an imaginary journey that happened on the same soil I was standing with the other tourists. Having read a lot about the slave trade and watched movies like Alex Haley’s Roots and Stephen Spielberg’s Amistad starring Morgan Freeman and Djimon Honsou, I did not know what to expect.
Anago was our guide and his introductory remarks about Seriki Wlliam Abbass, the renowned slave merchant whose Brazilian Baracoon slave port was among the only ones still standing, tilted towards making the man appear somehow vanquished.
“This tour may change your perception about the infamous era in the history of slave trade,” he continued, I was eager to get into the ancient facility which was a great tourist attraction in Nigeria.
The Brazilian Baracoon was derived from a Portuguese word which meant a slave prison and we were about to get into it. The wall cast of a female and male slave hung at different torture positions was the first image that captures one’s attention; the chains around the legs and arms of the twisted artwork looked eerie and pathetic.
At the entrance of the prison was an inscription, Seriki Faremi William Abass Baracoon of 40 Slave Cells. Some young people were making foot wears; flip flops that looked attractive. They greeted us cheerfully while continuing with their craft. An elderly man dressed on white Danshiki was introduced as a descendant of Seriki Abbass whose business flourished in selling slaves in those days. I wondered if they would be concerned about how the thousands of tourists that flocked there each year saw them, but they were welcoming.
Inside the building, Anago took us to where he called the waiting and inspection room.
“This room serves as the checking room for the white men when they came to buy slaves,” he explained, “ they checked them out to know if they were healthy or not just like you inspect any commodity you want to buy.” The room measured nine feet by nine with an adjoining room of the same dimension but with a small window that could slightly have the dimension of a computer monitor and served as the only source of ventilation. The ceiling was made of long raffia palms.
“The Baracoon consists of 40 rooms and each room was used as a cell to hold 40 slaves,” Anago went on, “at times when there were plenty slaves, some are kept in this room,” he added.
“Forty people?” One of the foreign tourists, a lady, exclaimed; she was visibly shaken and trying to imagine how the small cubicle could hold 40 men or women with their children at times. I tried to imagine it but gave up on the ordeal.
There were close to 10 pictures hanging on the glass shelf showcasing different moments in that era; there was one of of Seriki Abass turbaned as a chief hanging on the glass display stand; another illustrated portrait showed him with some Brazilian slave buyers. Another, hanging below the illustrated version, was a still picture which was weather beaten but visible enough to show the Seriki with his council of chiefs obviously posing for a group photograph. The Seriki was distinct as he had an umbrella above him making him appear outstanding among the lot.
“This picture shows when Chief Abbass was made the paramount ruler or Seriki of Badagry in 1895 and he was handed a staff of office by Lord Lugard in 1902,” the curator continued, “this umbrella he is being sheltered with was exchanged for 40 slaves,” he announced as he got the umbrella from a corner.
“Unbelievable!” Another Caucasian tourist exclaimed. I reached for the umbrella and touched it; the item was heavy and must have been made from brocade material of top quality. The thought of 40 human beings being exchanged for the commodity was heavier a burden on my mind.
Anago went to the other items on display, wrought iron chains of various sizes and shapes, hardened by time no doubt but used to shackle the slaves in those days. He got out one of the samples and told us it was used to chain the children of the slaves to prevent them from disturbing their parents when they worked on the plantation.
“These chains has the sweat and blood of slaves on it and are over a century old,” he explained. At this point, I thought I saw a tear drop from the eyes of one of us; I swallowed hard to hold mine.
Among the rusted iron artifacts an iron drilling bit used to brand the slaves for recognition and ownership.
“How is this used?” I managed to ask. Anago smiled as if expecting the question.
“It is put into the fire and allowed to get red hot and then used on the bodies of the slaves belonging to whoever owned them,” he responded. There were more cries in the room and I did not want to continue.
Other items on the display were Chinese wares, cups and gramophone records, each of the items cost 10 slaves.
The next room beside the waiting room was another cell used for female slaves and also held 40 slaves and at times with their children. They were chained inside here to prevent them from escaping we were informed. I wondered how they fit into the small room; did they sit, squat or lie on themselves? It was unfathomable.
After being shown the robes worn by the Seriki, his documents of transactions and the staff of office presented to him by the colonial masters, we were ushered outside the rooms and shown the grave and mausoleum of Seriki Abass constructed for him by his Brazilian business partners.
Our next port of call was Chief Mobee’s Royal Family Slave Relics Museum a yelling distance from the Brazilian Baracoon. There we were shown more chains used on the slaves; bits used to lock their mouths to prevent them from eating the sugar canes on the plantation on which they were made to work on as well as a big oval iron water pot from which the slaves drank water.
They drank from the pot by kneeling down and lapping the water while still on chains our guide informed us. I asked the curator to put one of the chains on my neck and he obliged; it felt heavy and made it more difficult to imagine.
On the walls hung artistic expressions of slaves been tortured for attempting to escape and the painting that attracted more emotion was that of two slaves, a man and a woman being attacked by wild dogs.
“The slaves fell in love and the consequence attracted having wild dogs unleashed on the errant couple,” Anago explained. The romantic depiction drew tears to my eyes.
A miniature cannon gun was on display but outside the Relic lay two real ones; we were told they were worth 100 slaves exchanged by barter. It was painfully interesting to know that the horrible slave trade lasted a while in Badagry even when it was abolished in all the countries that were involved in it; the British West Indies stopped slave trading in 1863; Brazil followed suit in 1888 while in Africa, the trend got to an end in 1870. But slave trading activities continued in Badagry till 1886.
As we were taken out to see the jetty where the slaves began their journey to unknown lands; the only sound audible was the breeze and the sounds footsteps on the sand that was once walked upon by slaves.
Our guide explained that the Lagos State government was upgrading the site as there were visible construction work but he explained that due to the coming elections, work had been suspended.
We stood on the very jetty the slaves were taken away every day by 4 a.m to cross the river to the island to either work on the plantation or be shipped on their final journeys abroad.
I looked further and saw rows of coconut trees adoring the shore which were planted by the slaves and are still standing to show the pain and anguish some of the ancestors went through.
To cross over to the Point Of No Return, we hired a boat. Anago negotiated for us but not many of the tourists were so adventurous.
“It’s alright,” our guide said, “it’s difficult for some people.”
Our boat had the inscription God’s Light Marine and our captain was a young boy in his late teens. We strapped on our life jackets and the engine roared to power as we began sail. I looked at the departing horizon and wondered what it was like for the slaves; did they cry, whimper or just stare at their disappearing origin? Again, I could not go on with the thought.
The boat ride lasted a few minutes and we got out beginning the journey. At the sides of the road were white stones which our guide explained marked the exact route the slaves walked on.
“The road is wider now but it was a foot path then and the slaves, chained by the shackles together, walked on a single file.”
Not all the slaves made it alive we were told; some died and were buried by the way side.
“We may be walking on the graves of hundreds of our ancestors that died and might have turned to humus now,” Anago said. The information had a chilling effect.
Along the way were signposts that read, “Badagry Slave Route. This is the route of the journey to unknown destination.” Even our guide was silent as we walked on; only the wind and the whispering palms of the many coconut trees around were audible.
I noticed a thatched hut a distance away, the sign post beside it read, “Original Spot, Slaves Spiritual Attenuation Well.”
We all looked at our guide, asking the obvious question with our eyes.
“This is the well where slaves were made to drink water and forget themselves,” he explained. I was not the only person scared.
“Come in,” he invited when got close and he noticed our reluctance to enter the hut that looked more like a shrine.
The well was about three feet high and was covered with a crafted raffia cover with two broken pieces of calabashes on top; it looked weird. Hanging on the wall of the raffia constructed shrine was a poem or so I thought at first but when I quickly read the verses, I struggled to hold back the tears; the lines were inscribed on wood and had English and Yoruba versions. It read thus;
“Recitation By The Sold Slaves.
I am leaving this land,
My Spirit leave with me.
I shall not come back now,
My shackles do not break.
It is the shackles that hold the ship down.
My ancestors bear me witness,
I shall not return.
This land shall depart,
My soul do not revolt,
My spirit go along with me.
I depart to that land unknown
I shall not return.”
Finally, the tears rolled down my eyes; I was not alone in the emotional feeling; I saw a man consoling his sobbing partner. How could the slaves forget themselves?
“All the chiefs in Badagry dealing on slave business came together and cast a spell in this well, a kind of black magic which brings forgetfulness,” Anago explained, “the slaves were forced to drink the water and recite that incantation.”
We took turns looking at the charmed water inside the well; the water was covered with a visible rainbow-like film and I wondered if was still potent.
“Nobody has drank from this well in over 600 years,” Anago informed us, “maybe one of you can help us find out,” he joked with a mischievous smile. Nobody dared.
We walked on, looking at the hundreds of coconut trees all over the island, planted by our ancestors through forced labour on shackles and chains. I wondered if it could be possible to find out how many souls perished on this land.
Another twenty minutes walk brought us to the Point Of No Return; the signpost explained it better and read, “Point of No Return, Journey to the unknown destination.” Two slanting pillars with iron casts on top were visible from afar; they represented the final path through which thousands of slaves were taken against their will to unknown destinations.
As I mounted the concrete monument, the ocean became visible; the route that annihilated slaves from their origins. Anago left us to our different moods.
I walked towards the beach shore and looked ahead; the tide was high and I could taste the salty wind. The sight of the coconuts that whispered as their branches touched was not appealing to me. I tried to imagine the slaves entering the small boats that took them to the merchant ships which took them to destinations of bondage but could only see the high sea.
I grabbed some sand and clasped it tightly, imagination had eluded me. Some of us picked sea shells as memorabilia.
As we started going back from the beach, I sat on the signpost to meditate and say a prayer. Anago asked me what perception I now have of Seriki William Abbass, I shook my head; I didn’t have an answer. Somebody asked why the island was not used for agriculture and also why there was no fishing activity going on. Anago explained that the people of Badagry were mainly traders and believed in buying and selling. I wondered if the souls beneath the earth were responsible for the lack of activity. I did not get an answer.
Our guide urges us to visit the other tourist places in Badagry; the first storey building in Nigeria where Bishop Ajayi Crowther once lived and also, where Lord Lugard’s writing table and pen are still on display but somehow, I could not go on. I made a note to visit those another time, my heart was heavy.
“Owo da?” The voice of the conductor asking for the fare jolted me out of my soulful mood while riding a bus back to the city; he was wearing a Yes We Can campaign Tee shirt of Barrack Obama. As I handed the money to him, I juxtaposed that reality with my experience at Badagry; if after all these inhumanity, an African son made it that far, the sweats of the slaves were not in vain. I smiled for the first time since leaving the slave port, one tourist attraction that leaves you loving the liberty the world now enjoys.
Ahaoma Kanu: wrote from Lagos.