Untold story of Nigeria’s 170-year-old slave wells

KUNLE FALAYI recently visited Badagry in Lagos, one of West Africa’s most prominent slave ports between the 17th and 19th Century, and writes on three water wells that remain a reminder of the brutal epoch

In the centre of an expansive compound along the Badagry Marina, Lagos, a middle-aged woman with a baby strapped on her back, cast a small plastic bucket into an open well. Her baby cried. She needed to bathe and feed him. The water from that well was to serve those purposes.

Less than five seconds after she left the place, another woman, armed with a similar container, approached the spot. This is certainly a busy well.

But if anyone thought that this was an ordinary well, one would be committing a crime against history.

Dug in 1847, an inscription showed on the concrete ring, one that has been placed on it in recent years.

Just below the concrete, one could easily make out the 19th Century mud bricks which were used to construct the walls of the well.

Certainly, the courtyard in which this well stands till date is also no ordinary one.

A sign over the entrance announces the most popular African personalities in the transatlantic slave trade in the 19th Century in the West African coast.

This is the ‘Brazilian Baraccoon’, the slave courtyard of Seriki Williams Abass, a slave who gained his freedom and later became a slave merchant in Badagry from the early 19th Century.

Brazilian Baraccoon well: A living history

In parts of Lagos like Badagry and Lagos Island, which historically, were slave markets in the 17th and the 19th centuries, remnants of the dark age of the transatlantic trade rust away, fighting an invisible but brutal war against the elements.

In the slave compound of Seriki Williams Abass, many items of the era like chains used to secure the hapless slaves, metal muzzles used to lock their mouths and an umbrella that once exchanged for 40 slaves are gradually breaking down due to lack of funding to preserve them.

But in the midst of this degeneration of an important part of Nigeria’s history, the wells dug by slaves are monuments of that era that have remained untouched by decay and degeneration.

In the expansive Brazilian Baraccoon, which has officially been designated a national monument, the well in the court yard with the date inscribed on it, is one of the first elements that welcome a visitor.

The date, according to historian and curator of the museum, Osho Anago, was to give visitors an immediate sense of history.

He said such element of history should inspire awe, one that comes from knowing that the well was indeed dug 170 years ago by some of the numerous slaves who passed through the compound on their way to which- ever part of Europe or the Americas they were sold to.

In the Brazilian Baraccoon, each of the 40 4-foot by 4-foot cells were used to hold 40 slaves until they were shipped across Gberefun Island through ‘the point of no return’ across the Atlantic to wherever fate took them.

This means that at full capacity, Abass facility would have held 1,600 slaves.

Anago said as a result of Abass’ literacy, he kept records of what took place in his compound as he dominated the slave trade in the area.

“The compound was built in 1840 and the well was dug seven years later. When it became a security threat to allow the slaves to go to the water side to fetch water, the slaves were made to dig a well in the compound,” the historian said.

But what has kept the well going for so many years?

Anago said this might have to do with the way the well was constructed.

He said when preparation of the ground around the well was being made to place the concrete ring over it, it was discovered that the original mud brick wall was at least three feet thick.

Apart from it, the topography and shallow water table of the area ensures a continued supply of water, which encouraged occupants of the compound to continue to use it.

But this is certainly not the only well with such historical status in Badagry.

The Slaves’ Spirit Attenuation Well or ‘Well of Memory Loss’

While the well in the Brazilian Baraccoon would have served the purpose of quenching slaves’ thirst, the one on the Island of Gberefun, just across Badagry, served a more sinister purpose, according to subsisting tales of the slave era.

Ominously named the Slaves’ Spirit Attenuation Well’, popular legend suggests that in the era, as the slaves filed from their various merchants’ courtyards with chains around their wrists, necks and waists from across the marina, they were ferried on boats a short distance to Gberefun Island.

From the landing at Gberefun Island, Anago, who took our correspondent on a tour of the various iconic areas connected to the slave trade, explained that the slaves were then filed towards what would become the last time African land would ever be under their feet – The Point of No Return.

But about one kilometre from the riverside landing on the Island, towards the Point of No Return on the Atlantic border of the Island, a well stands alone in the middle of the plain.

Save for the roof that has been put over it to venerate its historical status along with a sign wall that proclaims its disturbing name, the well looks like any other.

But its history or legend suggests that it was the beginning of the horrendous journey that would take slaves who were forced to drink from it from their native land to either their slave masters or to their death.

In Ouiday (Whydah in English), Benin Republic, the ‘Tree of Oblivion’ served a similar purpose. The story around the tree, which today is represented by a monument at the spot it once stood, suggests that slaves were made to walk around it a number of times after which they also lost their memory.

Anago said, “The batch of slaves for each voyage was much and could easily rebel against their few masters during the transatlantic trip. So, the Europeans on the slave ships colluded with the African merchants to enchant the well at the Point of No Return.

“All the slaves were made to drink from it. After that, they lost all the memory of their origin. It essentially took away their consciousness and they were easily controlled this way. This is why I prefer to call it ‘Well of Memory Loss’. From the well, they were taken on the coast, loaded like animals on the ships and taken away.”

But some historians have argued that the well could have easily been spiked with a chemical but that enchantment was the most available explanation in an age when there was little scientific understanding.

Our correspondent peered into the well and there was clearly water in it. Like the well at the Brazilian Baraccoon, it has stood in that spot against all odds for more than a hundred years.

Anago said unlike the Baraccoon well, there is no record to pin down exactly when the well was dug, as it could be way older than 170 years because of the purpose it served at the time.

An elderly villager on the island told our correspondent that young people used to throw stones in the well as its dark history is well known among the young and the old.

“Nobody dares to fetch water from the well. We are all still afraid of it because of the story of its past that we have heard,” he said.

Our correspondent’s guide explained that this was why the Lagos State Government decided to construct a roof over it to prevent its destruction.

The ‘Miracle Well’

One of the most iconic buildings in Nigeria, the first ever storey building, a white-walled relic of the slave trade era has attracted numerous visitors over the years, not just for its pioneering history but because inside it, the Yoruba translation of the English bible was birthed in the hands of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Africa’s first indigenous Anglican bishop.

But these are still not the only things special about this building constructed by missionaries between 1842 and 1845.

Sitting under a tree in the courtyard and still serving those who manage the compound till date, is a well that predates the building itself.

This is what has become known as the ‘Miracle Well’ so named because of the great quality of its water.

Anago said this was dug in 1842 just at the start of construction of the first ever storey building in the country.

But more than the length of its years, the well seems to represent the coming of Christianity at the exact same period the slave trade was flourishing. Again, it occupies the same street as the one in the Baraccoon.

Three wells, three phases of slavery

Despite the different years in which the three wells were constructed, there is a symbolic inter-connection among them, historians say.

While the Baraccoon well is said to stand for the first stage of slavery, the Slaves’ Attenuation Well symbolises the point of disconnection from the slaves’ root. But very few fortunate slaves had the opportunity to experience the third phase, like former slave and first African bishop of the Anglican church, Samuel Ajayi Crowther.

According to records by the Anglican church in Nigeria, Bishop Crowther, who was captured as a child, sold into slavery and later freed, came back as a clergy man to Nigeria in 1843 and began the translation of the English bible to Yoruba in the same building touted as the first in Nigeria at Badagry.

Dr. Adekunmi Alo, a historian, explained that his presence in the building and use of the Miracle Well as his source of water at that time, completed the circle of slavery, a symbol of freedom for shackled slaves who once drank from the Baraccoon well and those who lost their memory after drinking from the well on Gberefun Island.

Could there have been some who had opportunity to taste water from the three wells?

Alo said this would have been very important for history, admitting that he had seen no record of any such freed slave.

“Most of the slaves sold by Seriki Abass would have drunk from the well in the Baraccoon but it is likely that all the slaves shipped from Badagry would have been made to drink from the well at the Point of No Return. The only reason a slave would have had an opportunity to drink from the well in the missionary house at the marina water front (Nigeria’s first storey building) was to have been freed and come back home as a Christian. That completes the three phases of slavery,” Alo said.

National monuments left to ruin

However without the dates inscribed on these wells or the words used to describe them, many may not know the enormity of their historical status. Yet, their state pales in comparison to other existing relics of the slave trade era in Badagry, many of which have become a sour point for historians.

For Professor Ayinla Lawal, who teaches history and tourism at the University of Lagos, how Nigeria treats its heritage sites and monuments is nothing short of despicable.

Many historical and heritage sites recognised as national monuments by the National Commission on Museum and Monuments dot the various states in Nigeria. On Lagos Island, there are still few slave trade monuments the same way they are in Badagry.

Unfortunately, many of them are left in the hands of descendants of whoever built them with no support for preservation from the government.

Through this arrangement, some of the monuments meet their destruction.

A typical example is Ilojo Bar or Casa de Fernandez, also called Olaiya House, a building constructed and completed in 1855 in Brazilian architecture by returnee slaves who learned their skills while in slavery.

Despite being named a national monument as far back as 1956, the building was pulled down by the family under unclear circumstances and without government authorisation in September 2016, a case that has elicited widespread outcry and a government inquiry.

Prof. Lawal said, “I have visited Badagry many times and expressed my disappointment with the way the relics are handled. Compared with Ghana, we are lagging behind. I have not hidden my disappointment. They should go to Ghana and learn the way they handle their historical monuments there.

“The so-called Point of No Return, there is a little put in place to show the importance of the place. The place is just left ordinarily like that. You become surprised about things that took place there during the slave trade era like the way they drank from the well that made them lose their memory.  These are important historical elements that should have been kept alive.”

The don said pieces of Nigeria’s history would continue to die so far as the government continues to “make only noise without funding” to restore and maintain the historical sites in the country, while families who maintain them do not have enough money to do the needful restorations.

Lack of funding killing history

If the status quo in Nigeria’s heritage sites and places like the Brazilian Baraccoon remains, over the next few decades, there may not be anything to see of the relics anymore, experts have reiterated.

To find out what is wrong in terms of funding for restoration works in Nigeria’s heritage sites and museums, our correspondent looked into the budget allocation for the National Commission for Museum and Monuments, an agency under the Ministry of Information and Culture.

The result showed that over the last few years, nothing whatsoever has been budgeted for maintenance or restoration of heritage sites.

In 2016, the budget for the commission was N3.52bn out of the N44.8bn allocated to the ministry overseeing it. Out of the N3.52bn, N3.2bn went into recurrent expenditure (personnel and overhead costs).

2015 was worse. The budget was N3.4bn all of which went to recurrent expenditure.

The following year, 2014, the budget was N3.5bn out of which N3.2bn went to recurrent expenditure.

Prof. Abayomi Akinyeye of the Department of History, University of Lagos, explained that the restoration and maintenance of the heritage sites in Nigeria is exactly why the commission was established.

“Government’s attention needs to be drawn to the decadence that is going on in those places. The importance of the preservation of these relics and monuments constitute a vital part of our history, which is why the government should not stand by while they fade away,” the don said.

According to him, if Nigeria’s artifacts no longer exist, a lot of revenue from tourists that could have been used to maintain them would be lost.

Anago told our correspondent that he had had reason to voice his concern about the government’s aloofness over heritage sites such as the Brazilian Baraccoon in the past, insisting that the current arrangement would only hasten the destruction of existing relics in the sites.

He said, “The government said the idea of leaving the sites in the hands of families is to have a living museum whereby the descendants of people like Seriki Abass can live there and when people come, they can see them. But that is not working.

“With the history behind this place, nobody should live in these places. People living here should be evacuated, while the government take over the place and upgrade it.

Saturday PUNCH saw a number of people living in the Brazilian Baraccoon as tenants of the Abass descendants.

Tourism and Nigeria’s GDP

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the global body tracking the economic and social value of tourism, in the rating of the contribution of tourism to countries’ GDP, Nigeria ranks 173 out of 184 countries.

Experts say this is exactly why more needs to be done to attract tourists.

Statistics from the WTTC shows that the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Nigeria’s GDP was N1.6bn (1.7% of total GDP) as of 2015.

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