Return to the Motherland: Rich descendants and ex-slaves who returned to Africa from Brazil at the end of the 19th century


Note from BW of Brazil: The complicated history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and centuries of human bondage throughout the Americas is one in which, the deeper we dig, the more intriguing and often ugly facts come out. I don’t know that it is possible to truly understand everything that happened during this dreadful stain on the history of Africa, its people and the lands located on the other side of the Atlantic, but for those interested in this particular aspect of history, the search for the truth often provides little nuggets that keep us wanting to know more. 

Most African-Americans are familiar with at least a few aspects of the enslavement of Africans in the New World, but for most that understanding is pretty much limited to specifically the United States. Like me before December of 1999, most don’t know that the land that would later become known as Brazil was in fact the greatest recipient of forced African labor, bringing in more than 10 times more Africans than the region that would eventually come to be known as the United States. But as much as history teaches us about the conditions of the American slave, the Brazilian slave arguably had it worse. In Brazil, due to the fact that the country was geographically much closer to Africa than the United States, thus making the transport of the African much cheaper, the ideology was, literally work the slave to death and just bring in another one to replace him/her. 

But beyond the horrors of slave life, which is a study in itself, there are endless facts that make this period worth studying. For example, many are familiar with the fact that, starting in the early 19th century, groups of freed American slaves returned to Africa and settled in the nation of Liberia which would become the first independent African country in 1847. But how many of us knew that this also happened with ex-slaves in Brazil? Indeed, many former Brazilian slaves returned to nations in Africa such as Nigeria and Benin, and some of them prospered to the point of actually becoming rich elites. The stories are indeed fascinating. Check out a brief introduction to one of these buried treasures of African and Brazilian history below. 


Rich descendants and ex-slaves who returned to Africa 

Courtesy of História Crítica

Usually we think that the descendants of the slaves were poor. At the end of the 19th century, many freed slaves returned to Africa and, even today, are still called Brazilian communities. Many became enriched and became African elites, especially in the city of Lagos.

Below are pictures taken in Brazil, Nigeria and Benin, of this interesting story unknown to many – former slaves and descendants who have become wealthy merchants, doctors, lawyers, politicians, owners of many properties.


This painting is from Debret (1839). He portrays the barber shop worker in Brazil, who was almost always black or mulatto. The European shocked with such, but the inhabitant of Rio de Janeiro used several works carried out by slaves. The barber could be at the same time a hairdresser, a surgeon who uses a scalpel and a a right-handed leech applicator, a technique well used as an anesthesia. According to travelers Th. Lindley and Wetherell, in Bahia, the barbers ranged from musicians to tooth pullers.


At left, a domestic slave. Artur Gomes Leal with his ama-de-leite (wet nurse) Mônica, 1860. At right, a freed slave. Visiting card (Coleção Francisco Rodrigues, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife).


Escrava de ganho (paid work slave), selling fruits in Brazil, about 1860. (Museu Imperial, Petrópolis)


Crioula, 1885. The term Crioula (see note one), in this case, is mainly an African linguistic denomination, but also to denominate ethnic groups in several regions of Africa. At right, Iorubá (Yoruba) (West African ethnic group, being the second largest group in Nigeria) with characteristic abrasions, photographed in Salvador in 1885. (Coleção Tempostal, Salvador).


Plantation slaves on a farm around in the state of Rio de Janeiro around 1885 (Museu Imperial, Petrópolis).


Brazilian seamstresses in Abeokutá (capital of the state of Ogun, Nigeria), 19th century (Société des Missions Africaines, Rome). With certainty, they returned to Africa.


The richest men in the Brazilian community, that is, ex-slaves from Brazil who returned to Africa, sent their children to study in Europe or Bahia. Thus the first doctors and lawyers of Nigeria, like Plácido and Honório Assumpção, were trained. The careers of British colonial government officials and foreign firms attracted so many of the so-called “Brazilian descendants.” The above brothers adopted the Yoruba name Alakija. Part of the family returned to Bahia at the beginning of the 20th century. (Family photographed by Pierre Verger).


Above, bamboo chapel, the first Catholic Church of Lagos (Portuguese town in the district of Faro), 1872. Sitting between two French missionaries in a hat, is Father Antônio, a former slave of the parish priest of Carmo do Salvador. Below, the consecration of the Catholic of Lagos, Monsignor Lang, in 1902. (Société des Missions Africaines, Rome).


Decoration of the celebrations of abolition: under the portraits of Dom Pedro II and Queen Victoria, one can see the arms of the Empire of Brazil, flanked by the English and Brazilian flags. (Société des Missions Africaines, Rome).


Above, Brazilian committee of the celebrations of abolition, bringing together the most representative members of the Brazilian elite in Lagos. Below, actors in the play “The Mysterious Ring,” a five-act drama, presented on October 5, 1888, as part of the Lagosian festivities for the Abolition of Slavery. The Brazilians in Lagos were great fans of classical theater and lyrical music (Société des Missions Africaines, Rome).


Brazilian family in Lagos. (Société des Missions Africaines, Rome).


Women of the Brazilian community of Lagos. In Brazil, in the 19th century, Africans admired following European fashion.


Group of Yoruba women at the end of the XIX century, with traditional clothes, “adirés” and sashes. (Société des Missions Africaines, Rome)


At left, Hypolito dos Reis, born in Africa, son of the Brazilian Papai Muda Lugar (who owes his name to being a dance master in Lagos). Hypolito ended up going to Bahia. At the right, a member of the Martins family (family document).


To the left, Porfirio Maxwell Assumpção Alakija, son of Marcolino. Born in Africa, he settled in Bahia, where he taught English and where he collaborated with anthropologist Nina Rodrigues. Photo taken in Lagos. At right, Plácido Assumpção (Sir. Adeyemo Alakija). Born in Aneokuta in 1884, he was educated in a Catholic school in a Lagos, then went to England, where he graduated in Criminal Law. He was one of the few lawyers in the Brazilian community to hold an influential position in the colonial government. He had significant participation in the political life of Lagos. Converted to Anglicanism, he was leader of the secret society Reformed Ogboni, an ancient Yoruba society, cause of series divergences of the Anglican Church. Photo taken in Bahia, around 1911. (Family documents, photographed by Pierre Verger). Interesting how, a few years after the abolition, a black man obtains such expressive social ascension.


Above, the Suberu family, in Ondo (largest city in the State of Ondo, Nigeria). Below, Fragoso family. Both former slaves in Brazil. (Family Document)


Seated, Lucio Mendes da Costa. He was a slave in Bahia, returned to Lagos and then returned to Bahia, dying inthe city of Cachoeira, in Bahia. His son, Cypriano Lucio Mendes, standing, traded “carne do sertão” (charque, a type of beef jerky) imported from Brazil. Rich, it appears that he owned fifty houses and that he lost his fortune in a shipwreck (family documents).


Mendes Family, in Rio de Janeiro. Part of this family is in Lagos, part in Cachoeira, in Bahia, and part in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo courtesy of the family in Lagos. The same photo was found in Cachoeira)


Cosmos Anthonio, born in Lagos in 1889, of a Bahian mother, photographed at age 76, in Oshogbo (capital and largest city in Osun State, Nigeria). His maternal grandmother, Felicidade Maria de Sant’Anna, was an Ijexá princess, returned from captivity in Brazil and who traded with Bahia. Right, Dominga Ariike Anthonio, wife of Cosmos and a Brazilian from Lagos.


A left, João Esan da Rocha in a photo before 1870, taken in Brazil. Sold as a slave at age 10, he bought his manumission at the age of 30. He returned to Lagos with his wife and son and became a wealthy merchant (Rocha-Thomas Family Collection). A right, Louisa Angélica Nogueira da Rocha, in a photo around 1870, the wife of João Esan, with his son Cândido da Rocha. Cândido became a great gold merchant. He had racehorses and luxurious carriages. His brother, Moysés da Rocha, studied medicine in Edinburgh and specialized in tropical diseases. He was a fruitful journalist, closely linked to the Catholic Church (photo Pierre Verger, Rocha-Thomas family collection).


Family of João Angelo Campos, merchant and one of the biggest fortunes of Lagos in the XIX century. He had great participation in the political and cultural life of the city. (Société des Missions Africaines, Rome).


Above, João Angelo Campos, in a photo taken in Bahia, at the house of his goddaughter Ana Cardoso. Below are two houses owned by the family. The one on the left, built in 1897, belonged to Romão Campos, a trader who named Campos Square, the center of the Brazilian neighborhood in Lagos. (Société des Missions Africaines, Rome).


The photos and information above were taken from the book: Da senzala ao sobrado: arquitetura brasileira na Nigéria e na república popular do Benin/Mariano Carneiro da Cunha, published by USP.

SourceHistória Crítica


  1. In Brazil in the nineteenth century and before, crioulos, or creoles, were non-mestiço (persons of mixed race) slaves who had been born in Brazil, which distinguished them from those who had been born in Africa. In twentieth century Brazil, and still today, the term refers to dark skinned people of sub-Saharan African descent and includes blacks and mestiços of African descent, and for many, it is a racially offensive term in some ways comparable to the American term “nigger”.
About Marques Travae 3411 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. Good day, you refer to picture as one of the Martins family (family document). Are you in a position to share your source of this information.
    Thank you and I patiently await your response.
    Dianne Martins

  2. Good day, thank you for your swift response, I appreciate it. Many thanks once again.
    Dianne Martins

  3. Good day. Yes please that would be most welcomed. As you may have guessed I maybe a descendent of the Martins referred to, which is the reason for my heighten interest. Should you have now or in future have anymore information please do contact me.
    Kind regards
    Dianne Martins

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.