Return of the Native by Nicholas Shakespeare
My sister and I grew up in Brazil during the 1960s. Thirty years later, my sister went back to work with street children in the Pelhourinho district of Bahia, where she fell in love with a former street boy, a carefree rastafarian called Rasbutta da Silva.
In 1994, research for a book took me to Bahia and I stayed with them. While my sister occupied herself feeding and teaching the children, Rasbutta showed me around the cobbled streets of the Pelhourinho, where, I could tell, he enjoyed a status. He strummed the mandolin and guitar, composed ballads and sang in a band, the Lions of Jehovah. (His drummer, he told me with a hint of pride, had played with the Lemonheads).
Rasbutta had been born into an impoverished black family who lived in a favela overlooking the bay. Built on layers of moist garbage, this was no second Troy: what the imagination reconstructed from the stinking mounds were generations of malnourishment and poverty. The shit dripped down stilts that were held together by rags. Water leaked from a single spout and the children who rinsed their hair in the dribble risked hepatitis or cholera.
Pinched between ocean and highway, Rasbutta’s community survived on fishing for vermelho and enguia. Unable to afford outboard engines, the fishermen paddled huge distances to find the shoals. In the dawn, they crouched exhausted on the dirty sand, slicing eels that they had stunned with dynamite.
Shoeless, in overlarge shorts, the children of the favela were forced like Rasbutta in the opposite direction, onto a maniacal highway called the Contorno. They stood in small, excited groups, reaching out their hands to the traffic whirling past. But it was a perilous business, begging on the Contorno, and sometimes a car knocked one of them down.
Rasbutta had made it across the Contorno to become a musician. His songs divided into two: laments for the children of the favella who grew up to be drug addicts and child prostitutes (that is to say, those whom my sister attempted to care for). And homesick, repetitive melodies about “Mama Africa” and “Africa Diaspora”. Rasbutta had little idea what these phrases meant. The way he talked, the words had been leeched of their original sad power, like a national anthem which is sung but not felt.
“I don’t know where my family comes from, what my origins are. Why does Bahia have so many blacks?”
Nor could Rasbutta’s community enlighten him. His family lacked an oral tradition. One of very few scraps his mother had passed on was how white Portuguese from Brazil went with guns to Africa and carried off the blacks. But nothing more. Africa, for Rasbutta, was simply the source of his blackness, part of a hazy nostalgia. It was not something he questioned or discussed. It was something he sang about.
He didn’t even believe in voodoo. Once, I stood with Rasbutta inside the shrine belonging to his austere elder brother, a priest of candomblé.
The shrine – a stifling shed in a garden – contained a red plastic doll with a lascivious smile, a bar of black soap and an empty champagne bottle.
Outside, a tortoise clambered over the roots of a loko tree. The roots, suggested Rasbutta’s brother, stretched under the Pacific to the land of Rasbutta’s ancestors: to Itu-Auyé, to Africa, home of the gods.
Hocus pocus, said Rasbutta out of earshot. “If voodoo’s so powerful, why were we slaves for 400 years?”
At dusk we walked along the waterfront. Close to the favela was a white-limed building planted about with banana palms – a chic restaurant, the Solar do Unhao, which tormented the warm air with the tantalising odour of fish stew. Two centuries ago this restaurant was the warehouse where they unloaded slaves from the Gulf of Benin.
In the Pelhourinho, my sister indicated a smooth flagstone the size of a grey handkerchief. “That was where the pillory stood. That’s where they sold the slaves.”
The most sought-after slaves, I had read, came from a West African port called Ouidah, in the kingdom of Dahomey. “Do Ouidah!” the slavers yelled, as if selling horses, and prised lips apart to show the fine teeth. The words slurred into the single word “Ajuda”, meaning “God help me”. Many of the slaves died of “banzo”, a longing for Africa which cracked the brain. They ate earth, drank copious quantities of brandy and masturbated excessively.
Rasbutta had never heard of “banzo”. I invited my sister and Rasbutta to travel with me, later that year, to Africa. I had a reason. I was researching a biography of Bruce Chatwin whose second book, The Viceroy of Ouidah, dramatized the slave trade between Bahia and Dahomey. The book’s protagonist was based on a white Portuguese slaver from Bahia who, around about 1800, settled in Ouidah, where he helped his friend King Ghézo on to the throne. Ghézo rewarded him with the title of Viceroy and the monopoly on the sale of slaves. The Viceroy accumulated innumerable wives, 80 documented children and grew rich on his pickings. And there is this coincidence. In the book, Chatwin gave his hero the same surname as Rasbutta: da Silva.
The coincidence was satisfying, if not astonishing: Bahia’s telephone directory listed 24 pages of da Silvas. But it left this tantalising question, no less tormenting than the aromas surrounding the Solar do Unhao. Was Rasbutta da Silva descended from one of the millions of Africans shipped from Ouidah to Bahia and traditionally given the name of their owner? Or was his forebear the prodigiously wealthy Bahian slaver José-Rodriques da Silva? Aside from not possessing any oral tradition, Rasbutta had no documentary evidence: in 1891 the Brazilian government burnt all records of “this vile trade”.
On our second day in Africa, a taxi drives us along the coast road to Porto Novo, the capital of Benin (as Dahomey is now called). The windscreen is obscured by stickers of Christ hammered to the cross, and between the stickers the thin palms of the Slave Coast flash by.
At last, in a backstreet, we find the address. The place is guarded by a tall grey metal gate. Rasbutta bangs it open, squeezes through and emerges into a courtyard of red earth.
Squatting by a flame in one corner is an old black lady. She glances from her pan where something dark boils away. Rasbutta goes over and explains himself in Portuguese.
She stares at him, mouth open. Her eyes are strangely blue around the pupils and there is a hole visible in her tongue. She struggles to her feet, scattering two plucked-looking chickens.
“A da Silva!” Then, louder: “A da Silva from Brazil!”
Her cry pierces the open doors and windows of the Maison Familiale da Silva.
Here, in a jumble of decrepit rooms, live sixteen families all called da Silva. The clan descend from the Portuguese merchant who shipped Africans to Brazil in the middle of the eighteenth century. His fortune sprang from a simple barter: Bahia, where he lived on the north-east coast of Brazil, had tobacco but required slaves to work the plantations. Dahomey had the slaves and wanted tobacco. José-Rodrigues da Silva kept his holds full.
The da Silvas of Porto Novo continue to take pride in their descent from the white slaver who built this house. Few visitors come from the land that they associate with his wealth. Not in living memory has anyone from Brazil walked through that gate – further, someone who bears their name.
Faces appear at the grilles, drawn by the old woman’s cry. Children hurtle naked into the heat. They converge on Rasbutta, fascinated by his dreadlocks. Hands dart out to touch his hair. A whisper passes among them. Somebody says something in French. The refrain is taken up.
Not knowing French, Rasbutta wonders what they are saying.
My sister tells him: “‘When are you going to take us to your big house in Brazil?’”
Confused, Rasbutta responds in the best way he knows: unstraps his mandolin and strikes up a tune from Bahia. The effect is instantaneous: 70 people clapping hands, bumping hips, singing. But here’s the odd thing: they are not singing in French (Benin’s official language), nor in Yoruba. They are singing in Rasbutta’s language, Portuguese.
More extraordinary, they are singing the words of his song. They seem to know it by heart.
The song over, the old woman stumbles up and speaks animatedly to Rasbutta. Her skin is blacker than whatever boils in her pan. In the high-pitched roll of her dialogue, like one of her teeth, a Portuguese word here and there pokes out. Her name, she says, is Amoudatou and she was born 12 years after the last consignment of slaves left Dahomey. When she has finished addressing Rasbutta, she snatches hold of his shoulders and kisses him.
Overcome, Rasbutta starts another song. The dancers mince barefoot on the earth, dancing to the words “Bravo! Bouryan Brasileira.” Their movements mimic carnival and horses. Rasbutta, dressed in a white jellaba lent him by one of the da Silvas, will sing for two hours in the heat.
It’s late afternoon when we return to Cotonou. Rasbutta remains silent in the back of the taxi.
That night we dine under an African tulip tree facing the port. Rasbutta sits at the end of the table, holding down his head. Tears stream from his eyes and his shoulders beneath his dreadlocks heave with silent sobs. He gets up, wanders off.
“C’est normale,” says a woman at the table. “He must cry.” She has seen it before. “They leave as slaves, then come back three generations later to retrieve their past. They come back knowing no one, not speaking the language, unable to communicate. Ça c’est terrible.” She glances over to where Rasbutta leans on his upstretched arms against a tree. “He wants to speak and he can’t. But he has his eyes. All he can do is cry. It’s very good. And,” she says, “it’s not finished.”
Rasbutta sobs through that night and into the next. “I didn’t know I had so many tears.” When the old woman, Amoudatou, kissed him it was, he says, the most powerful experience of his life. He hadn’t realised there was a da Silva house, a beginning to everything. “I went to that house as a visitor, not as a member of the family, but she treated me as my mother would treat me if I came home. And then I had this sensation, like a dream, that I’d already been there. It reminded me of something I’d already experienced.”
For the very first time, he says, he felt linked, personally, to what he was singing about.
Our evening peters out at the So What! nightclub where a band from Zaire performs to an empty room.
Rasbutta plucks at my arm. He wants me to repeat what the old woman Amoudatou had said, what everyone in the courtyard was saying.
“They were saying: ‘Take me to Brazil. Take me to your big house in Brazil. When are you taking us?’”
Rasbutta shakes his head. “As if they think I live in a big house. As if where I live is better. Why do they think this?”
More unravels when we meet the head of the da Silva clan.
Karim Elisio-Urbain da Silva Kamar-Deen II is a secretive man who lives in one of the largest houses in Port Novo. He styles himself an author/editor and hotel-owner, but his deeper ambitions are political. In 1968, he ran for president. Foiled in the attempt, he exudes the impatience of his guard-dog, a Great Dane. Something about Karim suggests that, one day soon, he might run again for office. Meanwhile, he represents the interests of a farflung country. Among his incarnations, Karim is Brazil’s honorary consul to Benin.
Karim sits fidgeting in a throne-like chair in the centre of his courtyard, dressed in a long new pink shirt, a new straw hat, and pale babouches stitched with the insignia of a python. Lizards perform press-ups on the soil by his feet and every few minutes a boy runs up with a message written on a yellow square of paper that Karim inspects and crumples.
“Our relations with Brazil are very dear to us,” he says to Rasbutta.
Solicitous, he taps him on his arm. How might he assist?
My sister translates for Rasbutta – since Karim, despite the dignity of his office, does not speak Portuguese.
“Rasbutta wants to know, if possible, who he’s descended from.”
Karim raises his straw hat to scratch a pitch-dark bald head.
“Impossible.” The story is the same as in Brazil. In 1924, to the “great regret” of the family historian, all da Silva papers were destroyed by fire.
“Then who are you descended from?” I ask.
“Our ancestor was a white, José-Rodrigues da Silva. He came here in 1736,
from Portugal. Il est de l’aristocracie Portuguaise.”
“What did he do?”
“He was involved in commercial activities in Ouidah.”
“You mean slaves?”
“He was a slaver, yes. But if you were white, you couldn’t easily avoid that.”
“Then isn’t it likely that Rasbutta’s family were slaves who took his name?”
Karim’s head-shake is vigorous. “Those who are da Silva – and you’re a da Silva, right? – are descended originally from the aristocracy. You could not take the name of your master. It was too sacred! You took his first name. If you were called simply ‘Silva’, no ‘da”, you might have been a slave, but when it’s ‘da Silva’… c’est la noblesse.” He taps Rasbutta’s arm and looks pleased. “Let’s have a drink.”
We go inside. Karim’s house, topped with a huge satellite dish, is organised about a room in which everything is larger than life: the billiard table, the elephant tusks, the six-foot video screen. Larger in proportion to anything else are the outsized portraits of our host dressed in a fez. Karim, it turns out, also heads Porto Novo’s Muslim community.
Karim claps his hands and a girl appears. From a cabinet he brings out champagne glasses and a Lanvin ice bucket. He fills a glass with melted water from the bucket and hands it to Rasbutta.
We realise, talking to Karim, how mistaken it is to suppose that the abolition of the trade in 1838 led to the end of slavery. The last shipments of slaves left Ouidah in 1901. And yet as recently as 2001 there were reports of children being sold in Porto Novo. “When I was young,” Karim reminisces, “there was a slave market in this town. Children who didn’t have parents, they were offered to people who would feed them.”
Before we leave, Karim casts his eyes about the room for something to commemorate this unscheduled visit by a Brazilian da Silva. He hovers over a scrap of printed cotton before settling on a yellow rosette, a leftover from a three year-old voodoo festival. He pins the rosette to the chest of his putative distant cousin and Rasbutta is thanking him when his eyes lock on something across the room. On the crimson carpet, beside an exercise platform, is a man’s skeleton.
Karim chuckles. He bought the skeleton in Paris where he has another house.
We drive north to the former capital, Abomey, where skulls once covered the mud walls of the Palace.
“We are in black Africa. With us the dead are not dead,” intones a guide before a metal-framed bed of the sort you find in English boarding schools. The sheet is patterned with teddy bears and ducks, and where the pillow ought to be is a blue cooking pot. The guide removes the lid for us to make a donation. “The dead are with us and their souls are venerated by the sacrifice of animals.”
The bed is the chief feature of a tomb to one of the Kings of Dahomey, who pledged to leave their people richer with each reign. This ambitious promise led Dahomey’s rulers to sacrifice humans as well as animals, hunting their victims in season like pheasants. “The warlike spirit,” an English traveller, A.B. Ellis reported in 1883, “was kept alive by a yearly war which commenced in April.” The crack troops were women who fought with a ferocity “that most resembled the blind rage of beasts.” Foreigners were forbidden to set eyes on these “soldieresses”, but Ellis, risking a snatched look through his fingers, survived to describe them as physically plain: “all of them looked wiry and muscular and were covered with the cicatrices of old wounds.”
The royal Amazons beheaded their prisoners out of sight in the palace compound. Ellis was told that they poured the blood into pools three feet square and set miniature canoes afloat on it. Afterwards, apparently, they mixed the blood with gold dust, sea-foam and rags, and patted the mixture, along with the skulls, into the temple walls.
“How many sacrifices a year?” I ask the guide
“It’s been exaggerated,” he shrugs. “About eighty.”
There’s not much to see in Abomey’s Royal Palace save for a collection of Dutch clay pipes and a pair of wooden thrones. The larger, four feet high, is carved from a fromagier tree and belonged to the Viceroy’s patron, King Ghézo. The backless stool rests, beneath an open civil servant’s umbrella, on four cracked human skulls lacquered to a nicotine hue.
“He must have looked a bit stupid sitting there,” reflects Rasbutta.
“I don’t suppose many people told him that,” my sister responds.
The second stool, embellished by two skulls, is the throne once squatted on by Ghézo’s mother, Princess Agontimé.
“She was sold by her step-son to Bahia,” says the guide.
The majority of prisoners were not beheaded, but exchanged like Princess Agontimé for pipe tobacco. Rasbutta finds the concept a slippery one to grasp. Between us, my sister and I try to explain:
The Portuguese in his native Brazil refused to smoke tobacco picked from the lowest leaves of the plant. Rather than waste the leaves, merchants in Bahia experimented by lacing them with cane molasses which, reasonably pleasant tasting, had the advantage of adding weight. This sweetened pipe tobacco, known as soca, found an unanticipated market in West Africa. One after another the Kings of Dahomey became addicted, preferring soca to all superior brands. To finance their craving, they offered in exchange an erratic supply of slaves. By 1750, Bahia was sending 15 ships a year to Ouidah. Each cargo contained up to 2,000 rolls of the syrupy smelling tobacco and carried back to Brazil up to 700 Africans, from all ranks of society, who were put to work on the plantations.
Rasbutta buys a drum in Abomey’s voodoo market. He beats on it for the rest of the day. His song is morose, unvarying.
Nao sei de onde eu sou
Nem de onde eu vim…
I don’t know who I am, I don’t know where I came from…
A thought torments him. Could it be, as Karim da Silva suggested,
that he descends from the slaver’s family?
Already several have remarked on Rasbutta’s resemblance to Amoudatou. And there is a curious incident. In a poorly lit house beside a church, we interrupt three brothers seated around a Baccardi bottle. One of them, noticing Rasbutta, flings out a hand. “Hey! Are you a da Silva? You look like a da Silva. Ooh la la, il ne parle pas Français.”
The man can have no idea who Rasbutta is: we have walked in out of the blue. But he has guessed right. “C’est incroyable,” he cackles when we tell him. “Et c’est vrai.”
Rasbutta’s thoughts grow wilder. If you have no documented proof of ancestry, all ancestors becomes possible. Why should he not be descended from a Portuguese slaver? Or someone more aristocratic? His day-dream helps me to understand, among American blacks, the widespread affection for names like Earl, Count, Duke, Prince, King and Caesar.
The grandfather of Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture was, before his sale into slavery, a Prince of Dahomey. And what about Princess Agontimé who was sent to Brazil, right up the coast from Rasbutta’s village.
Rasbutta, his mind dwelling on her ghoulish stool, is obsessed. “What do you think? Maybe I’m descended from a King?”
We drive to Ouidah, a coastal town of small mud houses and large boards advertising “London cigarettes” and “Black King” schnapps.
José-Rodrigues da Silva disposed of his slaves from a fort that today houses the ramshackle museum. Set in a concrete plinth is the charred steering wheel
of the last governor’s Citroen. Also on exhibit are a rusty ankle shackle, a photocopied print of an Amazon and Dahomey’s first flag. Embroidered in 1811 and framed by three cutlasses, the centrepiece is a figure holding aloft a basket of fresh-severed heads.
The museum contains no portrait of da Silva, but on one wall there hangs a painting of his more famous successor, known locally as Chacha.
Ouidah’s most prominent slaver, and the model for Chatwin’s Viceroy, was a curly-haired Brazilian called Francisco Felix da Souza. His wealth, Chatwin wrote, was a curse: “Prince de Joinville, a son of Louis Philippe, came to call and described fantastic displays of opulence – silver services, gaming saloons, billiard saloons – and the Chacha himself wandering about distractedly in a dirty caftan.”
Exactly as da Silva’s birth is celebrated in the Maison Familiale in Porto Novo so, on 4 October every year, the da Souza clan gather in Ouidah to honour their ancestor with dances and songs in Portuguese, and dishes of feijoada and pirao. “We fete his birth, but not his death because he lives always,” the head of the clan tells me.
Honoré de Souza, a lawyer who owns the aluminium concession for Togo, is the new Viceroy of Ouidah, an honorific title with no political power attached but lashings of sentiment. Two weeks before our arrival, in the spacious pink da Souza courtyard, Honoré was crowned before several hundred members of the da Souza family. They assembled beside Francisco Felix’s ebony Brazilian bed. Prayers were muttered, a bottle of Royal Stork gin passed round, and afterwards Honoré, wearing a replica of the tasselled cap of his ancestor, was lifted three times on and off a wooden elephant throne. After a 21-gun salute, his uncle Norberto handed him the cane of command.
I speak to Norberto. “Let me get this straight. You, a black, are celebrating the life and continued existence of a white Brazilian who was responsible for sending your people into slavery?”
Norberto nods. “He had to earn his living. Then, slavery was the fashion. Now it’s rice.”
The auctions took place outside the da Souza house, beneath a large ancient tree. The tree is still growing, still casting a specked shade. Its roots protrude from the earth like the bones on the back of one’s hand, plunging underground just a few feet shy of a metal sign printed with the words “Route des esclaves”. As had da Silva’s slaves half a century before, da Souza’s slaves filed from under these same branches clustered with yellow berries, through the Quartier de Brézil, past crumbling merchants’ houses of luminous apricot, along a red dirt track.
Martine da Souza is Chacha’s great-great granddaughter and works as a guide at the museum. She leads us onto the Slave Road. It cuts for three miles through cane plantations and rice fields. We walk in the footsteps of the estimated twenty million Africans who filed this way between 1530 and 1901, with gags in their mouths and their feet in metal hoops.
After a mile we come to a statue commemorating the Place de l’Oublie, where each and every slave circulated a tree four times to say goodbye to their country. The ceremony was intended to obliterate a person’s origins and cultural identity – which makes it all the more noteworthy that Rasbutta should abruptly remember, a few yards after leaving this place, a detail which has slipped his memory; and which suggests that Rasbutta da Silva is descended not from a slaver, nor a King.
Rasbutta recalls in his fishing village how his grandmother described the marks on her grandfather’s ankles. Marks left by a chain.
Another mile on, we reach the Casa de Zomai, “the house of darkness”.
The slaves were locked for three months in this room, into which no light penetrated, to subdue them for the trip in the hold – an inferno described by one historian as “week after week of shitting, starving, shrieking hell”.
“After three months in darkness,” says Martine, “they were no more Dahomeans, no more human beings.”
Back in the sun, Rasbutta speaks to my sister in a low urgent voice. “I feel I’ve been on this road before. I feel this is my road. We’re going to come to a river and a bridge.”
“How do you know?” she says. There is nothing in sight, only the dirt road.
“I just feel it.”
Right at that moment, we observe a three-headed statue on the verge. “Tohosu,” explains Martine: the water divinity. And points. “There’s a bridge over there, crossing the river.”
We walk over in silence.
The beach is furrowed by black pigs with sandy noses foraging for shrimps.
No one swims from this shore. There are so many sharks that, in 1879, the canoeists went on strike: too many had been eaten. As well, there’s a dangerous undertow. “Don’t go into the sea – ever,” our honorary consul has warned. ” We’re sending back one person a month in a box.”
Close to the water’s edge, five men prepare to launch their pirogue. They run down the sand and paddle like mad. The waves engulf the grey dugout, overturning it. Nothing is whiter than the foam that hisses in a broad, bubbling band towards us.
We watch the men flounder back through the crashing surf, cursing.
There’s no shade and we are sweating. A local poet imagined this stretch of coastline as the doorway to hell. “It opens onto a blue sea. There is a woman with bare breasts who walks towards the prison of the waves. It’s my mother.”
Today, the men who right the canoe and retrieve the glass floats are
fishermen. In the past they ferried a human cargo to the ships. How much, I wonder, were Rasbutta’s ancestors bartered for? Sixteen Dutch clay pipes? Twelve Pondichéry handkerchiefs? Sixty pounds of soca?
It has taken time to absorb this shocking thing. The people whom Rasbutta has met in Mama Africa are not, ancestrally speaking, his family, but his enemies. The Africans who stayed behind, the da Silvas, the da Souzas, the Kings of Abomey, were those who had connived in flogging his forebears for sweetened pipe tobacco.
“Rasbutta, what do you feel?” I ask.
He goes on staring out to sea, towards Brazil, towards the young Rasbutta, the fisherman’s son who had no clue what he was singing about.
“I don’t feel anything,” he says after a long time. “They should be feeling something.”