When Kwame Essien looks at a map of the Atlantic Ocean, his eyes are drawn to a point near the equator where the vast ocean begins to narrow like an hourglass and the continents of Africa and South America make their closest approach. Only 1,600 miles, Essien notes, separates the edge of West Africa from Brazil. On close inspection, the easternmost knob of Brazil appears like it might once have fit into the Gulf of Guinea, beneath modern-day Nigeria and Ghana.
From the 16th century through much of the 19th, countless ships crossed the Atlantic carrying people who had been captured in West Africa to the New World. During this time, 10 to 15 million Africans were enslaved in the Western Hemisphere, nearly 5 million of them in Brazil. In the 1800s, a relative handful of people, descendants of African slaves, embarked on a reverse migration of their own volition. Uprooting themselves from Brazil, the only home they knew, they journeyed back to Africa to seek the homes of their ancestors.
Essien, an assistant professor of history and Africana studies, tells the story of these pilgrims and their descendants in his latest book, Brazilian-African Diaspora in Ghana: The Tabom, Slavery, Dissonance of Memory, Identity and Locating Home, which was published last month by Michigan State University Press.
The book traces the lives of four Brazilian-Ghanaian family leaders. João Antonio Nelson, who arrived in Ghana around the 1830s with his parents when he was 3, became the second Brazilian Chief (leader of the Brazilian diaspora) in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Ferku, a freed Brazilian slave, settled in Lagos, Nigeria, moved to Accra, and then crisscrossed the Atlantic before dying in Lagos in the 1930s, leaving behind an estranged wife and an unsettled land dispute. Georgina T. Woode, the current Chief Justice of Ghana’s Supreme Court, made a pilgrimage to her ancestors’ home in Brazil in 2011. George Aruna Nelson, grandson of João Antonio Nelson, died in 2009 at the age of 93.
In Ghana, the Tabom met with fortune and oppression alike. They were welcomed by local chiefs who gave them free land for settlements. Arguments over land ownership became common. Meanwhile, some property owners lost their land to crooked British colonial officials but gained it back after going to court.
Even in Africa, the Tabom lived in fear of being recaptured and sold back into European slavery, says Essien. But some Tabom were enslaved by fellow Africans, while others even became slave owners themselves. “Many freed slaves left Brazil and the subjugation and oppression of slavery only to travel to Ghana and own slaves there,” he says. “One local chief told me that as a child in the 1950s he could remember slaves serving in his home in Accra. This is not the only story of its kind that I encountered.”
Despite their varied life experiences, says Essien, the Tabom shared a common dream—to find a home in a land they’d never seen, even if that home might no longer exist.
More information on Professor Essien's book can be found in the Fall 2016 Acumen or by clicking here.