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Badagry, Nigeria’s slave trade history

A trip to Badagry, near Lagos, Nigeria: Badagry's slave trade museums, the Point of No Return and ruminations on tourism around Badagry's history. #badagry #slavetrade #nigeria #lagos #pointofnoreturn via @rachelsruminationsA trip to Badagry, near Lagos, Nigeria: Badagry's slave trade museums, the Point of No Return and ruminations on tourism around Badagry's history. #badagry #slavetrade #nigeria #lagos #pointofnoreturn via @rachelsruminationsA trip to Badagry, near Lagos, Nigeria: Badagry's slave trade museums, the Point of No Return and ruminations on tourism around Badagry's history. #badagry #slavetrade #nigeria #lagos #pointofnoreturn via @rachelsruminationsA trip to Badagry, near Lagos, Nigeria: Badagry's slave trade museums, the Point of No Return and ruminations on tourism around Badagry's history. #badagry #slavetrade #nigeria #lagos #pointofnoreturn via @rachelsruminations

While I was in Lagos for work, I took an extra day to visit Badagry, Nigeria. This town on the east side of Lagos was the “Point of No Return” in the Nigerian slave trade for 400 years. It is now home to three museums about the Badagry slave trade and Badagry history.

We were met in Badagry by our guide, Simon Stone Eyanam, who introduced himself as a reggae musician (You can see him under the name “Cornerstone” in this video.)

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Pinnable image Text: Slave trade museums and the Point of No Return in Badagry, Lagos, Nigeria (and Rachel's Ruminations logo) Image: a hand holding up a set of leg irons: two U-shaped pieces attached to a horizontal straight rod.

Badagry slave trade museums

1. Williams Abass Slave Museum

Our first stop was Seriki Faremi Williams Abass Slave Museum, a “Brazilian Baracoon.” Built in the 1840’s, this was, essentially, a warehouse for storing slaves. Single-story, it is made up of 40 rooms built around an open interior space with a well, still in use.

Each room, about three meters by three meters, originally had only one small window near the ceiling for ventilation, and up to forty men, women and children were locked in there, sometimes for months, awaiting purchase by Europeans who arrived by ship.

Looking down a dirt alleyway between the former warehouse rows of rooms: single story, with metal roofs. It's clear in the picture that people are living here: pots and pans and buckets sit outside each doorway. In the background a woman is busy cleaning something in a plastic tub on the ground. On the left, in front, a young man in shorts without a shirt leans over to a cage covered in metal sheeting; there's a monkey inside. the young man looks at me, not the monkey.
These rooms were built to hold slaves up to 40 in a room. Normal-size windows have been added.

The museum itself only occupies a few of the rooms. The first contains some of the instruments used to control the captives: original chains and manacles, for example.

Our Badagry guide holding up a set of leg irons. It consists of one horizontal metal bar and two more, each bent into a U shape and hanging from the straight bar.
Manacles were used to chain the ankles of two slaves together.

History of Badagry slave trade

The guide pointed out that most of the African part of the slave trade was actually carried out by Africans, not Europeans. Slavery was already part of the culture when the Europeans first arrived in the 1400s; slaves were captives after wars or they were criminals, enslaved as punishment. At first, the Europeans could just trade for existing slaves.

The increasing European demand was what spurred Africans to continue capturing and selling slaves, which didn’t end until well into the 1800s. A thriving slave auction arose in Badagry, where slaves were exchanged for weapons, alcohol, and other products from Europe.

The second room of the museum is one of the original cells, and it was easy to imagine how nightmarish this would be with only that one small window—still there—and crowded with people for weeks or months on end, without a toilet or other sanitary facilities. Many died before even getting on the ships to be carried across the Atlantic.

I can only imagine how that period of imprisonment under such cruel conditions would break the captives’ spirits, if they survived.

Simon, our guide at Badagry, has dreadlocks held back in a ponytail and wears a brightly-colored Nigerian style shirt. He holds the tip of the umbrella, which is bundled closed, and probably rests on the floor outside the picture. It reaches to about his shoulder height. It's a deep red color in very poor condition, but still gives an idea of what a hard job it must have been for the slave who had to hold it all the time.
Simon shows us a large, cloth umbrella that a slave had to hold up over Abass’s head at all times.

Badagry’s Brazilian baracoon and Abass, its owner

Another room gave information about Seriki Williams Abass, the owner of the “baracoon.” Ironically, he had been a slave himself, brought to Brazil to be a domestic slave. He had been taught to read and write, which allowed his owner to send him back to Africa, where he worked with his former owner as a slave trader. Even after the slave trade ended, he was a prominent and respected chief in Badagry.

Our guide told us of the intention of the Nigerian government to convert the entire former “baracoon” to a museum, but for now it’s occupied by local families, who will eventually be evicted to accommodate the museum. They still use the original well for their water needs. The building is owned by descendants of Abass, so it is, for the moment, a private family museum. In the courtyard stands his tomb, along with the tomb of one of his many wives, presumably the first, or perhaps the favorite.

I found it interesting and a bit puzzling that he is still honored in this way by his family.

We passed two cannons on the way to the next museum, just around the corner. According to our guide, a cannon was worth one hundred slaves, while a bottle of liquor was worth ten and a gun was worth thirty.

two antique cannons in Badagry, Nigeria, just lying on a sandy piece of ground.
two antique cannons

2. Mobee Slave Relics Museum in Badagry

Another museum, called Mobee Slave Relics Museum, also addresses slavery, and is, like the Abass museum, family-owned by descendants of a traditional chief who was a prominent slave trader. This one was High Chief Mobee, and I enjoyed the irony of his epitaph in this museum:

A plaster sign, white with a green frame around it. Above the sign it reads "The slave facilitator in Badagry Kingdom." and inside the frame it reads, under a picture of a crown and two crosses: "In loving memory of our dearly beloved father Chief Sunbu Mobee of Boekoh Badagry who died on October 16 1893 "Sweet is the remembrance of the just" Rest IN Peace. By the family"
Chief Sunbu Mobee’s epitaph

Just? An African who enslaved other Africans for sale to Europeans?

This museum consists of just one room, and the man who explained the objects around the room to us was, I think, a member of the family. He showed us the noisemaker that was used to announce the arrival of the chief, as well as telling us pretty much the same story of slavery that our guide had already told us. Like the other museum, this one has artworks illustrating how the captives were treated, and examples of chains and other implements of enslavement and torture.

The main figure in this photo is a man, muscular and naked except for a loincloth. He is chaned at both wrists and grasping a stalk of sugar cane out of three depicted stalks. In the other hand he holds a machete, presumably preparing to harvest the sugar cane. Beyond him are the words, also in bronze, "ATLANTIC SLAVES WORKING IN SUGAR PLANTATION". Beyond that is just a small, unrecognizable part of the rest of the bas relief.
Bas reliefs on the outside walls of the Mobee museum depict how slaves were treated in the sales process and once they were in the Americas.

The contrast between the lesson of these two museums – that slavery was nightmarish for the captives – and the evident pride and profit in being descendants of prominent slave traders is something that neither museum addressed directly. I found the conflicting messages striking.

You might also be interested in Livingstonia: A glimpse of Malawi’s colonial past

The Point of No Return in the Badagry slave trade

When the European ships arrived, the slaves were taken out of the jails and chained together single-file, except for children who were chained to their mothers. They were taken by boat to Gberefu Island, just across a small distance of water. Originally the slave traders used a traditional wooden canoe, but we crossed in a small motorboat with a dodgy motor.

Two small boats, much like rowboats, only with outboard motors. One is blue and the other green, both are quite beat up. The dock behind has a railing in concrete that was decorative once, but is in very bad repair.
boats moored at the crumbling dock on Gberefu Island

Arriving on the island, the slaves were marched on a narrow path through a forest across to the ocean side of the island. It’s not far; I’d guess we walked a kilometer or so. Today it’s a scrubby, sandy path, and I found it difficult because of the heat and the deep sand. For the captives, it would have been a hundred times worse: weakened by their captivity, they were carrying the extra weight of the chains that bound them together and the fear and despair they must have felt.

The path is sandy and goes straight into the distance. On either side is low scrubby brownish grass.
The path as it looks today. When the slaves made this journey, the path would have been narrower and surrounded by forest.

We passed a “spirit well” on the path. This well was believed to cause anyone who drinks the water to forget their past. The captives were forced to take a drink before reaching their destination.

The well itself is square and walled in red bricks. Around that is another square of walls, plastered in white and open on one side enough for a person to enter and reach the well. The white square of walls has a pole in each corner and those poles hold up a square thatched roof.
the Spirit Well

The path ends at the “Point of No Return” on a long straight beach lined with tall coconut palms and, when I was there, considerable surf. The captives were loaded again onto small boats to be taken to the ocean-crossing ship moored off the beach.

A memorial, a beach and tourism in Badagry

The history of this place is shameful and heart-breaking. In any form it would be difficult to convey the magnitude of suffering caused by the slave trade for 400 years. Unfortunately, the Point of No Return doesn’t manage to express its significance clearly enough.

A memorial marks the spot where the slaves finished their walk across the island, though it does not appear as originally intended. The two vertical pieces, leaning inwards, were meant to represent a man and a woman chained together, but the salt water has caused the chain to disintegrate and fall off the monument.

In the foreground, a concrete sign carved with capital letters reading: BADAGRY SLAVE ROUTE POINT OF NO RETURN JOURNEY TO UNKNOWN DESTINATION Beyond the sign is a flat piece of land, partly brown dirt and partly grass-covered, with a few tall palm trees spaced over it. Beyond them is the monument, just two concrete poles, slightly leaning inward, each with a round hole at its tip. A man walks toward the monument; only his upper body is visible above the sign.
The Point of No Return memorial in Badagry, Nigeria, is those two vertical concrete structures in the background.

That disintegration is indicative of the state of the place as a whole: neglected. Between the memorial and the beach, for example, a start was made at building a larger, better memorial, but it appears to have been abandoned, leaving only the foundation.

Putting aside the history of the place, the beach itself should have enormous potential for tourism. On the day we visited, it was completely deserted as far as I could see in both directions, and those coconut palms are lovely lining the beach. Yet the sheer quantity of trash strewn absolutely everywhere was disheartening.

The beach extends straight ahead, with a row of tall palm trees along the left and the edge of the ocean on the right. The waves aren't huge but the edge of the water is white with foam. The sand down the center of the picture is light brown and strewn with trash (many plastic bottles) and dead seaweed and leaves.
Looking west from the Point of No Return monument in Badagry, Nigeria: nothing but palm trees and trash in both directions.

Set back behind the line of palm trees to one side of the wide path are the hulks of several small vacation homes. I say “hulks” because the houses were started four years ago, according to our guide, but never finished.

The same goes for the path itself. A scheme at some point in the past intended to make the memorial accessible also for the disabled or elderly, which would require a better surface than the deep sand we walked through. Only about the last one or two hundred meters has actually be paved with bricks.

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Many people, nevertheless, do visit the place: mostly Nigerians visiting their own history, and often school groups too. If the local government is ever going to get foreign tourists to come here, though, they’ll have to invest considerable funds to make it accessible and worth the trip. (And that’s putting aside all the other reasons foreigners don’t visit Nigeria: corruption; crime; inflation; and their fear of Boko Haram, despite the conflict’s distance from Lagos.)

Other things to see in Badagry

A few other sites in Badagry are worth visiting, though we could only see exteriors because we visited on a Sunday. The first storey building in Nigeria, built in 1845, can be viewed. The Badragry Black Heritage Museum, in a beautiful 1863 colonial-era building, originally a district office, serves as a more general slave trade museum. It houses more information on the slave trade and the rest of the history of the people of Badagry. We also peeked over the wall into the missionaries’ cemetery; it is as neglected-looking as the Point of No Return.

A wide, low building of two stories, with the roof extending forward over a balcony that runs the entire length of the building. Along both shaded floors are several doorways and, on the ground floor, two archways as well. A sign in the middle reads "Badagry Heritage Museum."
the Badagry Heritage Museum

A trip to Badagry, Nigeria

I think it’s safe to say that Badagry is very off-the-beaten-path, and, given its minimal level of development for tourism, I certainly wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it. The still-standing slave forts of Ghana would be a more natural choice to explore the history of the slave trade.

However, if you are going to be in Lagos anyway, as I was, it’s worth a visit, both for the adventure of driving there (see my post about driving in Lagos) and for exploring Badagry’s remaining slave trade relics.

Getting there

I can’t give much advice on how to get there; the school where I led a workshop provided me with a car, a driver and a security guard. I’d suggest doing the same: getting a car and driver; take local advice about whether the security guard is actually necessary. Taxis are available; ask at your hotel. There is also public transportation of a sort; I saw plenty of small vans on the road, but I have no idea how you’d get from central Lagos out to Badagry with them.

The drive took us more than two hours in each direction, so I’d suggest putting aside a whole day for the trip if you’re getting there from central Lagos. Google shows it, as I check now, midday on a Monday, as 66 kilometers from central Lagos taking 2 hours and 42 minutes.

If you’d rather not try to arrange it yourself, this Viator tour offers essentially the same itinerary I took.

Details of the 3 museums

The Seriki Faremi Williams Abass Slave Museum: beside the Badagry post office. Open Monday-Saturday 9:00-17:30, Sunday 10:00-17:00.

Mobee Slave Relics Museum: on Mobee Street off of Hospital Road. Open daily 9:00-17:00.

Badagry Black Heritage Museum: Lander Road. Open Monday-Saturday 9:00-17:00. Closed on Sunday.

Pinnable image Text: Badagry, Nigeria: Its slave trade history (and Rachel's Ruminations logo) Image: A vertical strip of a photo in which part of a concrete sign is visible, showing only the words "Badagry" and "Point". In the background, a bit blurry: a few palm trees and the two almost vertical pillars of the monument.
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12 Comments

  • Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    February 29, 2016 at 10:48 am

    Here in the other Lagos (Portugal) is the Slave Market Museum, built in the 15th century and the first slave market in Europe to sell the unfortunates captured and transported from Africa. We’ve visited other museums as we’ve traveled to try and understand its impact upon the countries who imported them and the slave’s descendants in places as disparate as Curacao, The Corn Islands in Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Your post illustrates well the full horror and disturbing facts of the trade.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      February 29, 2016 at 6:19 pm

      One forgets how far-reaching the slave trade was. Millions taken captive and shipped across the ocean. Communities destroyed in Africa because of their kidnapped population. Whole societies in the New World dependent on slavery for their prosperity. Prosperity in Europe based on the slave trade (those Golden Age Amsterdam buildings I’ve written about, for example). And so on.

      Reply
  • noel

    March 1, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    Yes I’m a little depressed reading about this, although the history is quite fascinating and to see that other African people did this to each other.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      March 2, 2016 at 7:51 am

      It’s not just history, for two reasons. First of all the extent of its effects are visible to this day in Africa and the Americas. Second, slavery in various forms still exists today in some parts of the world.

      Reply
  • Ruth - Tanama Tales

    March 4, 2016 at 6:25 am

    Rachel, your post taught me certain things and reminded me others. I think the worst part of this is remembering that the slave trade was carried mainly by Africans. In modern times, I have observed how one race damages the people of their own race. Seems like they have not learned anything from history.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      March 4, 2016 at 11:20 am

      It was carried out by Africans, but wouldn’t have grown as huge as it did without the insatiable demand from the European traders. Apparently the slavery that was practiced in Africa originally was considerably more benign and much smaller scale. People didn’t carry out raids in order to collect slaves. Rather, prisoners taken in conflicts over other issues became slaves, and it wasn’t hereditary slavery either.

      Reply
  • Nancie

    March 5, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    Hi Rachel! Interesting post, Nigeria is not on my list to visit. That being said, I would probably want to this. Did you know that there is a slave museum in Lagos in Portugal’s Algarve? It wasn’t open when I was there this winter. Definitely on my list to see next time. Thanks for hosting this week! #TPThursday

    Reply

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