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Badagry, Nigeria’s Slave Past

It took me a whole separate post just to describe driving to Badagry in Lagos, Nigeria. Badagry was the “Point of No Return” in the Nigerian slave trade for 400 years.

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. I’ll add a link when his album “We are Not Slaves” is released.).

Slavery Museums in Badagry

Our first stop was Seriki Faremi Williams Abass Slave Museum, a “Brazilian Baracoon.” Built in the 1840’s, this was, essentially, a warehouse for 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.

These rooms in Badagry, Nigeria, were built to hold slaves up to 40 in a room. Normal-size windows have been added.

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.

Manacles were used to chain the ankles of two slaves together. Badagry, Nigeria

Manacles were used to chain the ankles of two slaves together.

The guide pointed out that most of the African part of the slave trade was actually carried out by Africans, not Europeans. Slavery was part of the culture when the Europeans first arrived in the 1400s. 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.

Simon shows us a large, cloth umbrella that a slave had to hold up over Abass's head at all times. Badagry, Nigeria

Simon shows us a large, cloth umbrella that a slave had to hold up over Abass’s head at all times.

Another room gave information about Seriki Williams Abass, the local man who owned this business. Ironically, he had been a slave himself in Brazil but had been taught to read and write, which allowed him, once he was freed, to go home and start working as a slave trader.

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.

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

two antique cannons

The second 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:

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.

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.

Bas reliefs on the outside walls of the Mobee museum in Badagry, Nigeria, depict how slaves were treated in the sales process and once they were in the Americas.

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.

The Point of No Return

When the European ships arrived, the slaves were taken out of the jails, chained together single-file, except for children who were chained to their mothers, and taken by boat to an island 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.

boats moored at the crumbling dock on the island off Badagry, Nigeria

boats moored at the crumbling dock on the 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 to the Point of No Return in Badagry, Nigeria, as it looks today. When the slaves made this journey, the path would have been narrower and surrounded by forest.

The path as it looks today. When the slaves made this journey, the path would have been narrower and surrounded by forest.

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.

The Point of No Return memorial in Badagry, Nigeria, is those two vertical concrete structures in the background.

The Point of No Return memorial 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.

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.

Looking south from the Point of No Return monument in Badagry, Nigeria: nothing but palm trees and trash in both directions.

Looking south from the monument: 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.

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.)

A few other sites in Badagry are worth quick visits, 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 Heritage Museum, in a beautiful 1863 colonial-era building, originally a district office, 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.

the Badagry Heritage Museum, Lagos, Nigeria

the Badagry Heritage Museum

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.

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