Tracing the Architectural Legacy of Brazil in Porto-Novo, Benin

The Grand Mosque of Porto-Novo, Benin, was built between 1912-35
The Grand Mosque of Porto-Novo, Benin, was built between 1912-35 | © RODOLFO CONTRERAS / Alamy Stock Photo
Jareh Das

Benin’s capital city Porto-Novo boasts an astounding architectural legacy inspired by Afro-Brazilian culture. Built by freed slaves who returned to their ancestral home in the 18th century, the elaborately decorated buildings demonstrate a unique blend of Brazil and West Africa.

Buildings like the Grand Mosque of Porto-Novo have been influenced by Brazilian culture

Across the Bight of Benin (present day Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria) stunning examples of Brazilian architecture can be found in Lagos, Ouidah, Grand Popo, Aneho and Porto-Novo.

“At the end of the 18th century, after the Malé Revolt in 1835, the Brazilian Bahia government decided to send back slaves, including emancipated slaves from America, to Africa’s coast,” says Bellarmin Codo, historian and professor of Black-African history at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin.

It was here that former slaves and returnee Afro-Brazilians, commonly known as Agudás (derived from the word ‘àgùdà’ in the Yoruba language) or Tambos (the Portuguese phrase ‘ta boy‘ meaning ‘okay’) brought to their new homes an array of skills including architecture, carpentry, blacksmithing, goldsmithing and tailoring.

The architectural legacies of the Agudás in West Africa are still present today in the Beninese capital of Porto-Novo. Notable buildings include the Brazilian-style Great Mosque, the Ethnographic Museum, the Musée da Silva and the Musée Honmé, all of which exemplify an architectural legacy that brought together building traditions from Brazil, now translated on African soil. The main characteristics of this style of architecture are its incorporation of verandas, vestibules, large enclosed galleries, and raised living quarters.

Former slaves returned to Africa from Brazil, and used their skills to design and build

As in other West African cities, these important contributions are at risk of being lost as traditional building techniques and craftsmanship are falling by the wayside in favour of other design trends. Some of these buildings – such as the Grand Mosque – are left in states of disarray. The well-maintained ones rely heavily on private funding to ensure their future sustainability because government funding is limited.

“We charge to sustain the museum, and sales from our shops, which have works by local artists, add contributions to keeping this place going,” a spokesperson for the Da Silva Museum says.

Despite the setbacks, a number of the stunning buildings still stand today as markers of Benin’s Brazilian heritage.

1. Grand Mosque of Porto-Novo


Grand Central Mosque (Portuguese architecture), Porto Novo, Benin
© Michele Burgess / Alamy Stock Photo

Built between 1912-35, the Grand Mosque of Porto-Novo looks like a church at first glance due to its grand facade, twin towers, multicoloured walls and carved wooden door. Styled in a colour palate of faded yellows, browns, greens and blues, the building is reminiscent of 17th- and 18th-century churches of Bahia, a state in northeastern Brazil. The Grand Mosque is modelled on the Central Mosque of Lagos and is believed by historians to have been built by the same master masons. The mosque features a long central hall aligned towards the Qibla (the wall that holds the mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca), with a shallow, vaulted roof and two flanking bays, much of which now lies in ruins. The Grand Mosque was declared a historic monument by the city and is still used for daily sermons. Entry is free.

2. Alexandre Sènou Adandé Musée Ethnographique (Ethnographic Museum)


The main building of the Ethnographic museum Senou Adande in Porto Novo
© YANICK FOLLY / AFP via Getty Images

Displaying ceremonial masks, musical instruments and costumes, as well as staging temporary exhibitions on African history, this museum was founded in 1957 and named after Alexandre Sènou Adandé, an ethnologist, Beninese politician and international public servant. A tour of the museum begins with a large map showing the main tribal groups of Benin. The museum is housed in the former private residence of the Principal of the Porto-Novo Central City School. This colonial-style building is spread across two levels constructed on concrete pilings with a distinct white and cream faded exterior, blue wood shutters and an intricately designed entrance stairway. The spaces between the pilings were filled in years later, making the building appear more classical in design. Outside there is a small building that houses a shop with artworks by local artists and weavers. Entry is free.

3. Royal Palace Musée Honmé (Honmé Museum)


Statue in King Toffas Palace, Porto-Novo
© DEA / M. BORCHI / Getty Images

This museum once served as King Toffa’s 19th-century royal palace and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in 1996. Built by King Toffa I (c.1850-1908), a ruler of the kingdom of Hogbonu (which includes present-day Porto-Novo), the museum is surrounded by a wall built to protect the central building and seven atriums within. The structures were built using mud and feature rectangular courtyards, each with a specific function and which open onto one another in a regular pattern. This free museum houses a collection of historical artefacts that provide insight into the private lives of the royal court. The guide takes visitors around the rooms, describing their varied functions as well as drawing attention to artefacts including furniture, musical instruments, photographs of the royals, and objects used for religious and traditional rituals.

4. Musée da Silva


Originally a private residence of the prominent Da Silva family, today this building is the largest museum in Porto-Novo. Filled with Afro-Brazilian artefacts, the museum recounts Benin’s history from the time of the African Dahomey kingdom to the 19th century French invasion and its independence in 1960 led by a Marxist government, all within a typical Afro-Brazilian setting. Built using locally sourced materials including clay, stone and wood, the main house stands out with its distinct faded orange exterior and brown wooden shutters. Spread across two floors, the rooms open out onto a veranda encircling the building’s inner courtyard, typically of Luso-Brazilian architecture at the time.The ground floor of the main house displays photographs of the Da Silva family and its descendants, detailing their experiences as freed returnee slaves from Brazil. The living quarters above transport visitors back in time to when the family still lived there. The museum also has an outbuilding that displays photographs of Pan-African and African-American leaders as well as transcripts of speeches detailing key changes within the country. A quirky collection of old cameras, radios, hi-fi equipment, motorcycles, as well as vintage cars, are also on display. Entrance is 2,400 West African CFA francs (£3).

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