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Student Village Academy Forums GENERAL DISCUSSIONS The Amaros-Agudas and Saros who built Lagos

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      Shekinah Brama

      The Amaros-Agudas and Saros who built Lagos

      Originally written  


      From the National Archives, a view from the air of Lagos in 1929 (United Kingdom)

      According to the Lander brothers, who were on the coast in 1830, Badagry and Lagos have always belonged to Benin. For centuries, Lagos served as a frontier military and trading post of the Benin Empire for trade between Europe and Africa. Benin, on the other hand, kept a small contingent of soldiers in the area under the command of four military leaders and paid the king of Lagos an annual tribute.

      Before it was annexed by Britain via the Lagos Treaty of Cession in 1861, this military presence, along with the trade with European traders, caused an economic boom in Lagos that drew Europeans, Brazilians, Cubans, and Sierra Leoneans.

      As a British colony, Lagos developed into a stratified, segregated society with a social divide between a number of groups, with the Saros, Amaros-Agudas, traditional elite, Muslims, and indigenous Africans at the top. Liberated Africans from the Nigerian region were resettled in Sierra Leone under the name Saro (a contraction of Sierra Leonean in the Yoruba language), but they started to return to Lagos, Abeokuta, Ibadan, Calabar, Onitsha, Lokoja, and Port Harcourt as merchants and CMS missionary workers in 1837. They were mostly of Yoruba descent, but they also had Igbo, Nupe, Basa, Hausa, and Efik people living among them.

      The Amaros-Agudás were Afro-Brazilian & Afro-Cuban returnees who returned to Nigeria starting about 1830 (Afro-Cubans) and 1852 (Afro-Brazilians) and by 1899 so many had arrived that it was said that one of every seven residents of Lagos had come from Cuba or Brazil.  Amaro means “those who stayed outside”) was the name the Yoruba called the Afro-Brazilian & Afro-Cuban Returnee and Aguda was the common name throughout West Africa. The term which possibly was derived from Whydah has come to mean Catholic and with this meaning, it entered the Yoruba vocabulary, as the Amaros-Agudá were mainly catholic unlike the British and Saro population who were mostly protestant.

      Between 1850 and 1930, the Saros and the Amaro through established international and modern businesses, and public intuitions, built modern real estate and pioneered most of the schools in Lagos and environ. Obviously, through philanthropy, the introduction of new knowledge and industrial skills, the Saro and Agudá were the engine and workforce behind the rapid development and modernization of Lagos in the 1800s.

      Each group resided in separate areas of Lagos. The palace of the Oba is in the northwest corner of Lagos Island, called Isale Eko. The Europeans lived on the Marina (southwestern shore of the island), Saros in an area called Olowogbowo (western point of the island), and the Amaros-Aguda lived in the centre of the island, in the area known as the Brazilian Quarter (or Aguda PoPo), and indigenous Africans on the rest of the island. Europeans formed only a small part of the population in Lagos. There were 111 “whites” in 1881 and 308 in 1901. Saros was estimated to have formed 20% of the population of Lagos, and its vicinity by 1865 and the figure became 2.56% in 1872. The population of Amaros-Agudas was 1,237 in 1872, while that of Saro was 1,533. By 1899, the Amaros-Agudas made up 14% of the residents of Lagos.

      The saros were protectants and had acquired the English language, education and way of life in Sierra Leone. This made them the preferred choice of the British colonial government for administrative and public employment.  They were active in Lagos society as clergies, colonial civil servants, lawyers, doctors, teachers, publishing and other professionals. The Amaros-Agudás tended to be Catholic with high industrial skills and spoke Portuguese. They were masons, carpenters, painters, locksmiths, tailors, shoemakers’ seamstresses, cooks, and bakers Consequently, the locals and even the Saros, whom the Aguda dismissively called òyinbó dúdú (black Europeans), became their apprentices.

      The Amaros-Aguda made their biggest and best contribution to Lagos in the fields of building construction and architecture which greatly influence western Nigerian architecture.  The first Lagos brick kiln (oko tijoolò in Yoruba, which translates loosely as a brick farm) was established In 1859 by Mateus da Cruz, an Amaro-Aguda and one of the Yoruba word for brick, tijoolò, is derived from the Portuguese word for brick “tijolo.”

      The Afro-Brazilian Quarter, also known as Aguda PoPo, is a neighborhood in modern-day Lagos that extends northeast from Tinubu Square to the Faji Market and south-west through Cow Lane towards Bamgbose Street. The streets in the neighborhood, which were first constructed around 1869, were given names like “Shetelou, Pedro, Martins, and Bamgbose” in honor of significant local figures. Tokunbo street, which translates to “the street of the new member of our family who has come from (over) the ocean,” is one of the most significant ones in the neighborhood.

      These refugees joined a tiny but already established group of Brazilian slave traders. Even after the proclamation of 1862 (which determined that slaves should be turned into apprentices and should receive their freedom within two to seven years) when Lagos became a British colony, the returnee Afro-Brazilians who were themselves former slaves or decedents of former slaves owned slaves as late as 1875.

      The Aguda community in Lagos established a catholic presence in Lagos and built its first cathedral, the Holy Cross Cathedral. The master builder was Lázaro Borges da Silva, an Aguda from Brazil in 1850 and the second tower of the church was built by Francisco Nobre another famous Aguda master builder considered the most gifted in Lagos. The altar and pulpit were built by Balthazar dos Reis, a famous Aguda cabinet maker and woodcarver. Jorge Quirino Roberto considered a “master painter,” was in charge of the new church’s painting. The cathedral was finally opened in 1881.

      Holy Cross Cathedral Catholic Church, Lagos, Nigeria, ca.1917  
      Yoyo Arárọ̀mi House built and owned by Lázaro Borges da Silva in the late 1800s. Source: Taken by Pierre Verger in the 1940s. 

      The Shitta Bey Mosque was built by João Batista da Costa, an Aguda in 1882 on Martins street in the Brazilian Quarter. He was assisted by an indigenous builder named Sanusi Aka. He was also responsible for the foundation of the Lagos Central Mosque which was completed by his disciple, Sanusi Aka. Shitta Bey Mosque was commissioned by Mohamed Shitta Bey, a wealthy Saro businessman who had led a group of Muslims from Sierra Leone to Lagos in 1844. Shitta-Bey alias Olowo Pupa was the first titled Seriki Musulumi of Lagos. Shitta Bey is reported to have donated between £3000[ and £7000 to build the mosque, the Muslim Afro-Brazilian community also provided resources and labour for the mosque’s construction, including the Cardoso family of Lagos (João Antonio Cardoso and his son, Braimah Cardoso).

      The Shitta Bey Mosque was built by João Batista da Costa, an Aguda in 1882 on Martins street in the Brazilian Quarter in the Baroque style of a Catholic church from Bahia,
      Aerial view of the Shitta Bey Mosque in 1970s or 1980s showing the way the pilasters stabilize the front (and possibly the) rear façades. Source: Alan Vaughan-Richards, “Le Nigéria.” In Rives Coloniales: Architectures, De Saint-Louis à Douala, edited by Jacques Soulillou (Marseilles: Editions de l’Orstom, 1993).

      The Muslim Afro-Brazilian community include Cypriano Ribeiro (also known as Alfa Tairu Eko Ribeiro, father of Maximiliana (Maxwell), the wife of Marcolino Assumpção, whose sons later would change their surname to Alakija, Martin Bamgbose, Elias Fernandez, and Aruna Martins. Also identified as Muslim were the Augustos, Pedros, and Gomez Afro-Brazilian families.

      Porfirio Maximiliano (Maxwell) Alakija and family in Bahia. From left to right: (standing) Delhi and Porfírio Maxwell, (seated) Ignez, George, and Cleonice date unknown. Source: Lorenzo Dow Turner collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, DC
      In London, it became apparent that the name Plácido Assumpção was utterly unpronounceable in English and provoked laughter since the English translation, assumption, led to the comic translation of Placid Assumption. So Plácido Assumpção changed his name to Adeyemo Alakija. Honório Assumpção changed his name to Olayimika Alakija. According to a source referring to the family’s oral history, Alakija is a mixture of Ala meaning “comes from” and Kija a corruption of Ikeja, a town in Nigeria. There are actual Yoruba towns named Ikija in Ogun states and their rulers are known as Alakija which translates to Lord or owner of Ikija.

      In 1913, the auctioneer Andrew Wilkinson Thomas, A Saro hired his cousin, Herbert Macaulay, a Saro architect/surveyor and Balthazar dos Reis, an Àgùdà carpenter to build his Ẹbùn House in Lagos. The house which was destroyed by fire in the 1980s was situated at 85 Odunfa Street in Olowogbowo and close to the Shitta Bey Mosque,

       Ẹ̀bùn House’s front and South façades in Lagos built in 1913. The front (and West) façade faced Ọdúnfá Street. Source: Photo taken by Pierre Verger in the 1970s. 

      James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy additional Saro, donated £50 to start the CMS Grammar School in Lagos in 1859 so that it could purchase supplies. After acquiring the cocoa seeds from a Brazilian ship and the island of Fernando Po in 1879 and 1880 and establishing a successful cocoa farm in Ijon, Western Lagos, Davies is credited with establishing cocoa farming in west Africa. In 1867, Davies, who gave a contribution of £100, was followed in making contributions to the CMS Grammar School Building Fund by Moses Johnson, I.H. Willoughby, T.F. Cole, James George, and Charles Forsythe.

      Hilário Campos may have been the most affluent of the Afro-Cuban Amaros-Aguda who arrived in Lagos in the nineteenth century. He built the Cuban Lodge as a residence for his family and also as a site to receive the Cubans who had recently arrived. He founded several civic associations. Campos Square and Campos Street located in the Brazilian neighbourhood of Lagos were named in his honour.  Other Afro-Cubans in Lagos were the Abul, Amaral, Cardoso, Carrena, and Salustiano.

      João Esan da Rocha built a large house on Kakawa Street that became known as the Water House because João Esan had a water well dug in the backyard. The well was fitted with an imported pumping mechanism, da Rocha made part of its fortune by selling its water. João Esan and his son Candido João were owners of several houses and hotels in Lagos. Joaquim Francisco Devodê Branco owned 18 homes in Lagos and 2 in Porto Nova.

       The da Rocha residence on Kakawa Street in the Brazilian Quarter. It was built in 1875. Source: O.A. Akinyeye, Eko: Landmarks of Lagos, Nigeria (Lagos: Mandilas Group Limited, 1999) 

      The popular Aguda proverb in Yoruba, “Agudà je lábé Gèeési, isé owo wa lawad n je,” roughly translates to “We Agudás do not depend on the British for our sustenance, for our professional aptitudes are enough to take care of our needs.” The Afro-Brazilian elite in Lagos in the nineteenth century was so successful, and their success, unlike those of the Saros, was relatively


      Source of images and history:

      Amos, Alcione M. 2017. “Amaros and Agudás: The Afro-Brazilian Returnee Community in Nigeria in the 19th Century.” in Yoruba in Brazil, Brazilians in Yorubaland: cultural encounter, resilience, and hybridity in the Atlantic world, edited by Afolabi, Niyi and Falola, Toyin., Durham: Carolina Academic Press.

      Nozomi sawada (2011). The educated elite and associational life in early Lagos newspapers: in search of unity for the Progress of society. A thesis submitted to the University of Birmingham for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Centre of west African studies School of history and cultures, College of Arts and Law, University of Birmingham,

      Adedoyin Teriba (2017), Afro-Brazilian Architecture in Southwest Colonial Nigeria (1890s-1940s)



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