- In-Depth Review:The Formation of Candomblé: Vodun History and Ritual in Brazil, by Luis Nicolau Parés
The Atlantic slave trade extracted kidnapped populations from the entirety of the western African coast between what are now Senegal and Angola, as well as parts of the east African coast in what is now Mozambique. Western slave traders and buyers regularly classified their human merchandise in terms of the African region, coastal town, or commercial fortress from which they had embarked, or in terms of an ethnic group that presumably derived from that place. With such presumptions, ethnic groupings such as Congo, Angola, Carabalí, Ibo, Nagô, Lucumí, Mina, Arará, Koromantee, and so forth were called “nations.”
However, these nations typically aggregated populations that spoke diverse languages, had never lived together in a single political unit, and had never thought of themselves as a single people. Hence, Gerhard Kubik (1979), reflecting on this fact, called these “nation”-based denominations “trademarks.” As such, they remained useful in the projects of many American slaveholders, who sought in these terms information about the skills and the character of their potential workers; of Roman Catholic missionaries, who organized the newly baptized captives in groups based on these terms; and of some colonial governors, who believed that Africans organized around such ethno-national differences among themselves would remain divided, rather than unite against their European and Euro-American oppressors.
On the other hand, the Africans belonging to each such nation, or trademark, were highly conscious of their antecedent and enduring diversity. For example, African-born Nagôs also understood themselves to belong to sub-nations, such as Ọyọ, Égba, and Ijẹbu. Similarly, the members of the Jeje nation also considered themselves Marrins, Dagomés, Savalús, and so forth. Nonetheless, they were encouraged to worship, work and celebrate together in nations. Moreover, in contrast to whites and locally born black people, both Nagôs and Jejes often understood themselves to be “African.” Author Luis Nicolau Parés begins his encyclopedic account of the history and distinctive religious practices of the Jeje nation with just such an explanation of their dynamic identities, as well as a review of the African origins and the demographics of the Jeje population in Brazil.
A further background detail is instructive. Captives from the same port were often named differently by traders from different European nations or regions of the Americas. For example, the people called “Nagô” by Portuguese and Brazilian traders were called “Lucumí” by the Spanish traders. Therefore, the internally heterogeneous population of Nagôs gathered in Brazil had a counterpart in the Lucumís of Cuba. [End Page 609] Similarly, the Arará nation of Cuba had a counterpart in Minas Gerais and southern Brazil called the Mina nation, and another in Bahia called the Jeje nation. The Jeje populations had typically embarked from the port of Ouidah and its surrounds, and they spoke a range of related languages, including Ewe, Gen, Aja and Fon, which linguists call collectively the E.G.A.F dialect cluster (or the Gbè languages, because –gbè is the term for language in many of the associated language varieties).
Most of the names of these nations and sub-nations have a fairly obvious origin in West Africa. For example, ‘Nàgó’ is a western-borderlands term for the people who are now called Yoruba. Dahomean armies from the west kidnapped many people from these borderlands and sold them to European merchants on the coast. The Portuguese and the Brazilian traders therefore called them Nagôs. The term Lucumí is short for oluku mi, meaning “my friend” in several of the language varieties that would come to be called “Yoruba.” In contrast, the origin of the term ‘Jeje’ is still hotly debated. It first appears in Brazilian archival records in 1711, but it did not appear in any of the many subsequent writings by visitors to the West African coast until 1864—153 years later. Thus, the first publication of the term in West Africa occurred after the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, in the writings of Western missionaries and merchants hosted by Afro-Brazilian “returnees” from Brazil to...