June in Porto-Novo is usually a month of cloudy skies and heavy tropical downpours, often preceded by gale-force winds, deafening thunderclaps, and lightning. In some neighborhoods of this West African city near the Gulf of Guinea, fallen trees bring traffic to a standstill, and houses that can’t weather the storm are washed away.
But most stand tall after each torrential rain, year after year – and a few, for more than a century. Some of these are colonial, brick, and ornate, the Afro-Brazilian architecture of the Agudas: a local community descended from Portuguese slave traders, and enslaved Brazilian people who were freed and returned to West Africa.
Each building – many of their facades worn and crumbling from neglect – is a window into the complex history of Benin, a West African country on the Gulf of Guinea, home to about 12 million people. Like many parts of coastal West Africa, modern Benin was forged by the violent globalization of the slave trade, which left profound cultural influences on both sides of the Atlantic. And in recent years, as the government and private groups have pushed to renovate the city, it’s put a spotlight on the area’s heritage – including difficult, often controversial chapters related to slavery and colonialism, imprinted on each Afro-Brazilian building.
“This is complex and politicized history, and the architecture reflects that,” says Lorelle Semley, a historian of West Africa at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. Porto-Novo, she has written, is a city that has worn “its history on its landscape.”
A complicated legacy
The many layers of the city’s history begin with the name itself. Three centuries ago, it was a village known as Okoro. With time, people fleeing nearby raids and enslavement settled in, and began to give it new names in a bid to claim ownership, according to retired professor Jijoho Adéwalé Padonou, a former minister of education and impassioned researcher on the history of Benin. One community called it Hogbonu, another Ajatche. When the Portuguese splashed ashore, they gave it the name that persists today: Porto-Novo.
For centuries, the slave trade between local kings and Europeans forced more than a million people across the ocean, many of them bound for Brazil. But throughout the 19th century, boats of formerly enslaved people began to flow in the opposite direction – back to the Western African nations they and their ancestors had come from, including present-day Benin.
With them, they brought new skills and crafts, building multistory brick houses that recalled the baroque, colorful architecture of Brazil. The area’s new colonizers, the French, relied on returnees to erect elaborate religious and administrative buildings. The Governors’ Palace, for example – a cream-colored structure of verandas and colonnades – was built and decorated by Aguda craftsmen; today, refurbished, it hosts the legislature.
Relations between the natives of Porto-Novo and Afro-Brazilian returnees were not always smooth, however. The Agudas were a distinct community, with foreign-sounding names – the da Silvas, the da Costas – and some were multiracial. Returnees often wore bowler-like hats and long-sleeved shirts, and many recited Roman Catholic prayers before meals.
As with returned enslaved people elsewhere in West Africa, many Agudas were given chances to attend Western schools and occupy positions of influence, working hand-in-hand with new colonial elites and slave traders’ families.
After Benin’s independence in 1960, however, closeness to the French elite was no longer seen as a point of pride. The new country’s government wanted to affirm a new national identity, primarily based on Indigenous cultures, and in the 1970s, Marxist President Mathieu Kérékou began expropriating large tracts of private land, including from Aguda families. Many fled into exile, and the buildings they left behind fell into disrepair.
Polishing the past
Today, Porto-Novo is Benin’s second-largest city: a town of open food markets, of Voodoo shrines, which fills up with weddings and funerals on the weekends (though large gatherings have been prohibited in a bid to curb COVID-19). In almost every nook and cranny, men and women have something on display to sell – often smuggled from next-door Nigeria, the economic giant of Africa. A new mindset toward the Aguda community is in the works: So many mixed marriages have taken place that it doesn’t really matter whether the kids’ last name is da Trinidad or Bioku.
For years, critics have pressured governments to renovate all kinds of architecture, arguing Porto-Novo’s neglect did not befit a capital. But it was only in 2017, a year after the election of President Patrice Talon, that renovations began in earnest, prompting Afro-Brazilian descendants to undertake additional work on their own. Mr. Talon himself was reportedly born to a family once connected to the slave trade in nearby Ouidah. He has on many occasions insisted on the need to restore Benin’s historical legacy, and his government is spending roughly $5 million to restore a Portuguese fort in his hometown.
“What’s going on right now in Porto-Novo has never been seen before,” says Professor Padonou, who credits the president for spearheading the project.
The jewel of Aguda architecture has long been the Central Mosque, built in the early 20th century: a building that echoes the famed colonial architecture of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, with soaring square towers and multicolored facade. Churchgoers are said to have celebrated Sunday Mass there, till the building was handed to the Muslim community. Today, a larger cathedral sits nearby – it, too, echoing the baroque buildings of Brazil.
Thanks to financial contributions by Porto-Novo’s Muslim community, interior renovation was completed only a couple of years ago, with key details preserved: vast ceilings, ornate chambers, and exceptional art, such as engravings of Arabic prayers, friezes, and pilasters.
“I’ve always admired old Afro-Brazilian style homes since I was a teenager. The architecture is beyond compare, and nothing is left to chance,’’ says Gérard da Silva, a retired literature teacher in Porto-Novo; his parents were descendants of formerly enslaved people who put down roots here in the late 1800s.
For those urging preservation of Aguda architecture, it is about more than buildings. It’s about recalling the legacies of returning people who were freed from slavery, and the central role they played here and across the region.
“I must insist on the specificity of the Agudas. They constitute a unique case of returnees in African, perhaps in world history,” says Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yai, a former member of the United Nations’ World Heritage Committee and of UNESCO’s Slave Route Project. “They deliberately, very consciously chose to come back to Africa, but they did so on their free will and relying on their own resources, without the help of any white missionary, like in Liberia or Sierra Leone.”
“More importantly,” he adds, “they did not return to just any part of Africa. They made it back to the very land where they or their ancestors were enslaved and bought.’’
Staff writer Ryan Lenora Brown contributed reporting.
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