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The Cha-Cha of the Dahomey August 31, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

File:Francisco Félix de Souza.jpg

While reading up on the Amazons of the Dahomey kingdom (Benin) a long month ago, Beach came across a fascinating if little known figure, Francisco Felix De  Souza (obit 1849). De  Souza was a Brazilian merchant who came to the West Coast of Africa in the early nineteenth century and set up a huge slave selling concern just as slavery was becoming profoundly unpopular in Western Europe. It seems – accounts differ – that he had left Rio in disgrace as a criminal or an exile: though there is much about his time in his home country that is uncertain.

What is perhaps most interesting about De  Souza is that he was one of these immigrants who assimilated perfectly into his new culture. So he combined Catholicism and local African fetish cults: St Francisco of Asisi and taboos about snakes. He was a slaver but was renowned for his kindness to the locals – he tried to reduce human sacrifice – and, above all, to welcome European visitors: who, one senses, came to be disgusted – the dirty frisson of one of the last of the slavers – and went away charmed. A typical sentence: ‘Mr Freeman had an interview also with the great slave-dealer, De Souza, who, notwithstanding his well-known and degrading occupation, received him very courteously.’ Though this kindness need not be exaggerated – this was after all a dealer in human freight; and there is a reference to the son of a German merchant leaving De Souza’s house with a good deal of money and being killed by one of De  Souza’s many sons on his way home.

De  Souza was also a power in the land. Having been placed in prison by King Adandonzan of the Dahomey, he helped King Ghezo to the throne in a well engineered coup d’etat. He was ‘Cha-cha’ to the new king: a mysterious phrase that became an office and that is still, to this very day, awarded to members of the De Souza family. Beachcombing has been trying to get in touch with the latest Chacha but, regrettably, without success. If anyone has his email… drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

It is unusual for a colonial family on the west coast of Africa to survive for almost two hundred years. But here De  Souza had worked up a simple strategy: he reproduced his genes with great enthusiasm. He had adopted a thousand-strong harem – did he say hail marys before going in? – and is said to have had almost a hundred children. Imagine how much happier Conrad’s Mr Kurtz would have been with a seraglio to hand? Nothing like an erotic dream to keep the darkness at bay.

The Dahomey became extremely agitated at the death of their beloved Cha-cha: ‘…when Da Souza died, a boy and a girl were decapitated and buried with him, besides three men who were sacrificed on the beach at Whydah’. And some months later: ‘Although Da Souza died in May, the The customs to his memory are not yet closed and the town is still in a state of ferment. Three hundred of the amazons are daily in the square, firing and dancing; bands of fetish people parade the streets, headed by Guinea-fowls, fowls, ducks, goats, pigeons, and pigs, on poles, alive for sacrifice. Much rum is distributed, and all night there is shouting, firing, and dancing.’

Beach though treasures most from his reading a description of a ‘picnic’ on De Souza’s estate. This a lovely evocation of a colonial family gone native from a British visitor.

A splendid palm-oil plantation was before me, thickly set with palm trees, intermixed with corn, cotton, yams, and cassada, according to the soil; the ground being undulating, sometimes high and dry, at other places oozing and low. The proprietor was a liberated African from Bahia [Brazil], originally a Mahee; and the plantation in the highest order. Arrived on the ground, we smoked a cigar under the shade of a cluster of palm trees, while the lord of the soil brought specimens of the palm nuts for our inspection. In about an hour the Da Souzas were all fast asleep on mats; presently awaking, a canteen was produced, and I was asked to partake of some Brazilian rum (casash), which good breeding even would not allow me to accept. Understanding but slightly Portuguese, I began to think I must have mistaken the invitation, and felt satisfied there was some misunderstanding when the contents of another box were exhibited – some meat cooked in rancid oil, biscuit, and yams. I, with pretended gout, joined in the repast, and, after another cigar, gladly took a walk round the grounds, not in the best of humours, imagining; that I had rather grievously mistaken the meaning of the invitation, or been well paid for accepting one from a slave-dealer. By a circuitous path, we again came to the palm copse, now like the oasis of the desert, a welcome spot. The charm of Aladdin’s lamp could not have wrought a greater change : a milk-white cloth was spread on mats, and was now covered with every delicacy—wines of France, Spain, Portugal, and Germany; whilst every article, even to the coffee cups and saucers, was of solid silver.

De  Souza was apparently the inspiration for a Bruce Chatwin novel, The Viceroy of Ouidah and in a film remake of the same ‘De  Souza’ was played by Klaus Kinski!

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16 Sept 2011: Luis is a star: ‘I’ve just finished reading about Cha Cha of Dahomey. So you want their email address? I didn’t find it but I got much better, their facebook page‘ Wow!