The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World

Article excerpt

Toyin Falola and Matt D. Childs, [eds.], The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Although a marginalized field, the African Diaspora has been studied for about a century. In this volume, scholars from North and South America, Africa and Europe discuss historical and ongoing changes and innovations in African and American Yoruba communities. The theoretical perspective, presented in chapter one, calls for the scholarly inclusion of communities on both sides of the Atlantic in order to understand the African Diaspora, and in response to this call, the nineteen essays focus on a diverse set of aspects of the Yoruba diaspora "in the Atlantic World" (p. 6).

The first part of the anthology deals with the enslavement of the Yoruba in Africa (speakers of the Yoruba language, primarily in modern Nigeria, Benin and Togo) and their dispersion in the Americas. According to estimations, about half of the enslaved Africans who left the ports of the Bight of Benin between 1650 and 1865 were Yoruba - approximately one million people. Yoruba were taken to most parts of the Americas and the evaluated demographical weight of the group (less than 9% of Africans carried to the New World) is considered disproportional to the Yoruba impact on New World cultures. Subsequently, the main question in this book is why the Yoruba had, and still have, such a large influence on New World cultures if they never constituted a majority (p. xi).

It is known that most Yoruba were taken to the Americas during the first half of the nineteenth century - mostly due to the collapse of the Oyo Empire (1780) and the wars that followed, when war prisoners were sold to both slave traders in Africa and Atlantic slave traders. As a consequence of this, in the first half of the nineteenth century the Yoruba represented "the single most important ethno-linguistic grouping in the trade from the Bight of Benin" (p. 40). However, despite the fact that valuable historical information including a great number of details is found in the first chapters of the book, there is no developed discussion about the late entrance of the Yoruba people. It must be taken into account that relatively recent "strong influence" is easier to detect than, for example, cultural traces of Bantu origin that have been completely assimilated for centuries and are today present in manifestations of New World national identities.

The second part of the book contains detailed analyses of New World experiences and the emergence and changes of socially constructed "Yoruba" identities in Brazil, Cuba, Costa Rica, the British Caribbean and Haiti from the seventeenth century onwards. The ethnonym Yoruba was "adopted by Yoruba Christians in the mid nineteenth century to describe the pan-ethnic and linguistic grouping" (p. 41). It has been used since the sixteenth century and it has Muslim origins. It is also known that Yoruba were identified by different names in different parts of the Americas. Therefore, the question is if there is or was a pan-Yoruba identity with African roots or if we should rather talk about the persistence of local identifications from Yorubaland.

Personal histories and group identities of Yoruba people brought to the Americas are carefully studied. With emphasis on "lived experiences" and "personal histories" (p. 4), their activities and forms of organization are thoroughly described with basis in archival documents and newspapers. In Brazil, for example, the Yoruba were called Nagô in the northeastern state of Bahia whereas they were called Mina elsewhere. In Cuba, where 85 percent of the enslaved Africans arrived after 1800, the Yoruba were called Lucumi - both terms can be related to local identities in Yorubaland. The carriers of these ethnonyms being an estimated majority of the Africanborn slaves in Bahia and Cuba during the second half of the nineteenth century might have facilitated the continuity of strong local Nagô and Lucumi identities in the New World. …