Inside Badagry’s slavery museum

August 23, 2021
Festivals & Culture

This piece is re-published here in commemoration of International Day for the Remembrance of Slave Trade and its abolition

By Pelu Awofeso

Frozen in time

Going to Badagry is like going back in time. The tour guides speak to you about monuments “built in the 15th century”; of slavery chains fashioned (and used) in the 16th century; of wells “dug in the 17th century” and stuff like that. The town and a good number of its pre-Independence architecture have stayed preserved largely due to the efforts of the locals, who by sheer instinct know the worth of their heritage, tangible and intangible.

A sculptural piece inside the premises of the Badagry Heritage Museum. Image by Adedeji Olalekan

And the single most important heritage of Badagry is slavery and the different physical traces it has left behind. “The Oyinbo (Westerners) people have tried times without number to buy off some of these objects,” says curator Bode Hungbo of the family-owned Mobee Slave Relics museum, just a few metres from the slave port. “They offer to pay millions. But we have always declined.”

A visitor to Badagry will do well to visit the Heritage Museum, housed in a pre-fabricated building which served as a District Officer’s office way back in the colonial times. From top to bottom, the storey building showcases lots of photographs, diagrams and artistic recreations telling the story of the brutish slavery years. But the surrounding atmosphere is typically Badagrian—calming; and against the late afternoon skyline, it bristles with architectural elegance.

Open to the public in 2005, the building has recently been repainted in a colour I find difficult to pin down (something of a cross between orange and brown). And except for a few young men sipping pepper soup and beer and watching a football match on the 21’ television, there isn’t much going on in the compound. The makeshift stalls, done up in wilting bamboo and raffia palms, stand empty, very much unlike three months earlier when there were a host of  traders on the ground bandying everything from beaded necklaces to books and paintings.

Model of a slave ship inside the Badagry Heritage Museum. Image By Adedeji Olalekan

“We don’t have many people visit this place as we would have loved to happen, that’s why it looks like it is deserted,” a senior staff of the museum told me. “The place is not being promoted as it ought to be, really.”

Whether visitors to Badagry come to this museum or not, the staff must report for duty; while at it they must find creative ways to relieve the boredom that I am sure they experience all week long. Santos, just through with Lunch, is the one who takes me through the exhibition, my third experience in five years.

The introduction section (there are nine sections in all) tells of the Europeans’ first visit to Africa in 1472 on a missionary journey. When the tour of duty ended they took some of the locals along to show their superiors as proof that they reached their destination. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Africans adapted perfectly to their new environments, working tirelessly on plantations in some cases.

“That was when the idea to fetch more able-bodied Africans began to germinate,” says Santos, one of the museum’s in-house guides. “And so in 1473, the Europeans came back, this time armed with guns, gun-powder, mirrors and other gifts to exchange for the men and women they intended to take away with them. That was how slavery began.”

The Slave Coast

Santos is a smallish man, not quite 30 and wearing a loosely fitting wax fabric, but his voice is remarkably loud for someone of his stature and it fills the galleries.  After the Europeans had experienced a vast portion of West Africa, he says, they started to name different parts of the sub-continent after the resources they considered each possessed the most; and so was the Gold Coast (Ghana), Ivory Coast (Ivory Coast/ Burkina Faso), Grain Coast (Sierra Leone/Gambia/Guinea) and Slave Coast (Nigeria/ Benin Republic) birthed.

A monument/ observatory at the Point of No Return/ Atlantic Ocean on the Badagry Beach. By Adedeji Olalekan

“Although slaves were taken from other coasts, Nigeria and Benin were so named because almost 80 percent of the slaves shipped out of Africa came from both countries,” Santos says. “And the slaves were transported mainly to Bahia in Brazil, because it was the nearest to Africa.”

To date, the culture in parts of Brazil is similar to the Yoruba culture of south-west Nigeria.

One of Slavery’s ignoble effects on Africans was the way it tore families apart. Men, women and children were captured wherever they could be found; in many cases, fathers were shipped to a different country in Europe from the ones the wives and kids landed on.

Santos takes us through the “Capture” and “Facilitators” sections, explaining some of the processes of slave capture and the some of the brains behind the trade.  Individuals like John Hawkins and Humphrey Morice. And in the “Equipment” section, we come face to face with some of the crude and weighty chains strapped on the slaves.

“They came in different sizes, and they were clasped on men, women and even the children, who were then considered as bonus to the captured adults,” says Santos, who kindly lets me feel and lift one of the chains. We walk on, stopping to look at other types of chains in the collection: rings used to gag the very outspoken and stubborn slaves; anotherusually strappedto the feet of two different slaves to discouragethem thinking of escaping from the plantations, where they “worked for 18 hours in a day and had just 15 minutes to rest and eat.”

Africa’s largest slave market

We breeze through the “Resistance/Punishment”, “Industry”, “Integration” and “Abolitionist” sections with Santos telling us the sombre stories relating to each. “The Vlekete slave market in the Posukoh Quarters became the largest in West Africa, trading as many as 300 slaves in a day,” he says at one point. “The slave market in Calabar is believed to be next in size and volume. It sold roughly a hundred slaves per day.”

The Author (Pelu Awofeso) guiding international tourists through the Point of No Return/ Gberefu Island in Badagry. Image by Pelu Awofeso

Before the captives were shipped out on the Atlantic Ocean, the European buyers had devised a cruel method of branding their ‘goods’. They would use red-hot iron to write their names and countries of origin on the back on the would-be slaves, some of who bled to death en route and had to be tossed in the sea.

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