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Brazil House in Jamestown, Ghana, can be conceptualized as an urban landscape of memory framing Tabon identity. But the house is also a powerful modern tool of nostalgia and longing for authenticity that sparks the desire of the Tabon to explore their roots and origin

The nasal yet slippery vowels of Portuguese spoken by Brazilians echo throughout the second floor of Brazil House in Jamestown, Ghana; evidence of a language in which a subtle change of accent had developed across the Atlantic Ocean. Brazilian Portuguese has over time departed from the ‘clipped speech’ of its the mother country, Portugal, releasing itself in an equatorial casualness smoothed over the rhythm of Brazilian daily life. [1] Although Portuguese is not spoken among the present-day community of Afro-Brazilians in Accra, its remnants are found in their music, retaining the same Portuguese songs sang today in the Brazilian drama bumba-meu-boi. [2] Of course a century and a half after their arrival, the Portuguese words sang by these Afro-Brazilians have lost their meanings along with their proper pronunciations, taking on the Ga way of heavily articulating vowels. The very name given to these Afro-Brazilian returnees in Ghana, Tabon, is a localization of the Portuguese phrase ‘ta bom?’ or ‘esta bom’ connoting both the question ‘is everything okay?’ and an affirmation of well being in response. [3] To think of the predominantly Ga society acknowledging their new settlers through the Portuguese language is highly probable because pidgin-Portuguese itself was the language of trade along the coast of pre-colonial Accra. In the late 15th century, through the establishment of St. George d’Elmina castle, the Portuguese opened up the region for trade, creating the first international overseas sector of the Gold Coast economy. [4]

Within a century later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Portuguese established a powerful economic system in Brazil previously unknown to the world. Long before large-scale slaving had reached the Caribbean and North America, the Portuguese had been transporting Africans in numbers to work the plantations of the Brazilian northeast; slavery had been the thread that bound her Atlantic empire together driving virtually all economic activity in her South American colonies. [4] The Brazilian system was characterized by large-scale plantations founded and controlled by the family unit, the organ that cleared the land, founded plantations, purchased slaves to ensure its expansion and continuity. The early Portuguese settlers differed from any other European colonialists of their time because of their high degree of mobility, acclamation to their new society and their widespread practice of miscegenation. [4] These three characteristics created a physical and social environment in Brazil that allowed subsequent Portuguese colonizers to establish family-owned plantations throughout Brazil. As pioneers, the Portuguese set the example, establishing patterns of relationships and lines of commerce, their language becoming the lingua franca in coastal Asia, parts of Africa and in Brazil well into the eighteenth century. [5]

In a similar manner that the Portuguese language underwent a form of localization in pre-colonial Ghana by way of Afro-Brazilians, architecture in the form of forts and coastal houses began to reflect Portuguese influence on the local landscape. Constructed more than three hundred years after Portugal’s establishment in Elmina, the Brazil House constitutes the latter form of architecture built not by the Portuguese themselves, but by their slaves who had returned to the continent of their fore bearers having spent generations working as slaves in Brazil. According to the Brazilian architectural historian Nestor Reis, the years immediately predating their departure back to Africa, was known as a period of Greek Revival architecture in Brazil led by the Portuguese royal court. [6] Many of these Afro-Brazilian slave returnees brought the knowledge and skills of building among various professions back to West Africa. Trained as builders of Baroque architecture in the cities of Recife, Bahia and Rio de Janiero, the legacy of Afro-Brazilian craftsmanship and patterns of living are still prominent in the Brazilian quarter in Lagos, Popo Aguda, and to a lesser degree on Brazil Lane in Accra.

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Figure 1. Stone architecture of houses on Brazil Lane

The story of Brazil House is a biography of a house that has had different lives, each of which bears the footprints of Accra’s urban history. Its birth in 1836 on Brazil Lane, Jamestown, presents an alternative outcome to the transatlantic slave trade, providing shelter and security for individuals whose ancestors had once left Africa as slaves but who were now returning as free Afro-Brazilian men and women. Originally built with a reddish-brown stone and bounded by a local clay mortar, the architecture of the house has come to withhold pieces of local and transatlantic history as it changes with time and who occupies it. This narrative rests on what is called a ‘critical geography of architecture’, simply a way of understanding architecture through the voices of not just its producers (architects, planners) but its users (inhabitants). Through the isolation of this house, change within the urban realm can be traced or mapped in a fluid urban culture. In other words, it is the Brazil House that tells us the story of how the city of Accra has grown.

The arrival of the Tabon, as these seven AfroBrazilian families in Accra and their descendants have come to be known, occurred during a period when coastal Accra was divided into Dutch, Danish and British territories. Dressed in top hats, finely tailored coats and fluent in Portuguese, the Tabon were skilled craftsmen, builders, traders, tailors, architects and farmers among many other professions. They were seen as modern men and women and became fully integrated into the host society of the Otublohum Gas in Dutch Accra. Given a strip of land along the coast situated in a strategic position between the British and Dutch forts, the site itself reveals much of the middleman position held by the Tabon economically and socio-politically. With their backyards oriented towards Jamestown’s fishing harbor—Ghana’s strategic point of entry and departure for economic trade on the coast up until mid twentieth century—and their fronts directly accessible by Jamestown’s main streets, the houses of Brazil Lane by virtue of their location drew them deeply into the workings of both a local and overseas trade. The earliest structure of Brazil House, a single-storey house built by Mama Nassu, a respected elder among the returnees, was the first ever to be built on this strip of land. Within the walls of this house the Nassu family grew rapidly, the first generation of children marrying into an Otublohum royal family, integrating even deeper into local society.

The 1850-60s in Accra witnessed the rise of an entrepreneurial niche made up of chiefs, local businessman and small traders working through and for European parties in Accra, while the 1870s was a period of exercising their newfound capacity in the different, fast-growing trade overseas. The advent of the Industrial Revolution had caused many European manufacturers to turn to the West African market for palm kernel and palm oil as lubricants for machinery and as principal ingredients for soap and margarine manufacture. [7] Brazil House’s backyard, the Jamestown harbour, became a vital site for a new fleet of steamships, whose faster service and larger cargo capacities stimulated trade and drew the localized economies of West Africa more fully into the currents of the world capitalist system.

Forty years of living on Brazil Lane had seen the expansion of Mama Nassu’s family through the union of his daughter to a royal member of the Otublohum clan; his grandchildren beginning to grapple with their dual-identities as Otublohum Gas and Tabon. This generation of the Nassu family witnessed the dawn of a profoundly different Accra, the nature of its furious expansion causing them to adapt in ways characteristic of both Brazilian and Ga society. This marked a shift within an economic system that was based on wealth in people—slavery—to wealth based in land and property. The decline of the former in accordance with British Gold Coast law and the dramatic increase of the latter stimulated by a rapidly growing overseas trade, is pronounced physically when Kofi Acquah, the grandson of Mama Nassu, demolishes the original one-storey structure of Brazil House, and expands it into a two-storey, larger house which is then sublet to a series of foreign traders for half a century. Kofi Acquah names the new structure ‘Warri House’ after the Nigerian port town Warri, where he had worked for many years, acquiring both economic capital and appreciation for Afro-Brazilian architecture built by returnees who has settled in Nigeria.

The Brazilian House in Nigeria represented a progressive symbol of modernity and a reflection of the economic situation of their time, the single-storey building with its humble two or three rooms could no longer be regarded by the local population as an effective way of communicating wealth. Their newfound technical expertise and overseas trade was pronounced architecturally in a two-storey building coated with stucco made with imported cement and roofed with imported corrugated iron. [8] Similarly to the landscape in the Accra, the emergence of the merchant’s two-storey structure was a bold statement of power challenging the one-storey compounds of native kings and chiefs. The net result of these changes in religion, family structure, economics and politics was that the upwardly mobile Nigerian chose for his new home a Brazilian house. [9]

The era of subletting ends in 1974 when Mama Nassu’s grand daughter, Adelaide Apponsah Acquah returns with her husband William Lutterodt to raise their family in Warri House. In this time period, the wider city of Accra is beginning to take shape in the nationalistic vision of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah. The development of a modern tropical architecture movement through the works of modern planners and architects affected Jamestown in one critical way—the transfer of the important Jamestown harbour to the newly planned industrial capital of Ghana, Tema—forever relegating the function of Jamestown to that of the ‘old city center’. The Lutterodt family trace the path of urban future when the head of the household, William Lutterodt, moves his family to Tema in light of a prestigious civil service job, leaving Brazil House to other Nassu family descendants. Warri House then becomes home to an increasing number of tenants who seek incredibly limited accommodation within Jamestown. Over the next thirty years, the physical structure of Brazil House begins to deteriorate as the household composition increases within an even more densely populated town. By 2001, Warri House is an overwhelmed space that has been economically capitalized upon through its division into smaller parts, shared among 84 tenant parties.

Beginning June 1999 various local and global actors within Accra embark upon a rehabilitation project to restore the architecture of the Brazil House, and in doing so ascribe new futures to the building. Propelled by Brazilian President Lula’s visit in 2005, the endeavor is set in motion by the Brazilian Embassy who acquired financial support from companies within Brazilian and Ghanaian private sector. While working in conjunction with a local non-governmental organization, GAMADA (Ga Mashie Redevelopment Agency), UNESCO Ghana, and the owners of Brazil House, these set of actors over a course of eight years reshape and restore the house structurally and incorporate a museum of Tabon history on the ground floor of the main house. Renamed the Brazil House, the material culture of the present structure expresses memories beyond those of the current owners, embodying the unintentional prosthetic memories of the lived-in histories of the houses.

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Figure 2. Plaques of Tabon Personalities in Brazil House Museum

The rehabilitation project transforms the Brazil House primarily from that of a family and tenant residence into that of a heritage museum. In this light, the house embodies the idea of the museum as an emblem of memory providing a sense of permanence to counter Tabon notions of belonging as opposed to rootlessness and the displacement brought about by the circuits of slavery. Heritage in this context becomes an expansive force that allows contemplation of loss and disruption to be assessed and to an extent cured through the display of their flourishing in Ghanaian society.

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Figure 3. Launch of Brazil House with Brazilian and Ghanaian leaders

As a form of tangible heritage [10] the Brazil House located within Brazil Lane can be conceptualized firstly as an urban landscape of memory framing Tabon identity. Furthermore in the context of the Afro Brazilian diaspora, the house is a powerful modern tool of nostalgia and longing for authenticity, sparking the desire of the Tabon to explore their roots and origin. It is important here to evoke former Brazilian Ambassador Serra’s contrast between the landscape of forts in Jamestown and the houses built in the accommodation of the slave trade. Whereas the forts in their restoration and declaration as heritage sites assume the identity of the European who built them, UNESCO’s Slave Route project opens up the Brazil House as an anticolonial platform for colonial objects to become subjects. [11] The incorporation of various tools of heritage markers within the house such as biographical plaques feature prominent members of the Tabon community, a function that is quite distinct from the experience of slave forts. Here, there are names and faces to the slaves and their descendants, next to them are stories that illuminate their lives and successes following their resettlement. Against the backdrop slave forts along Africa’s Altantic coast that offer finality and loss, the Brazil House offers a narrative of continuity—a return to a different future.

* Mae-ling Lokko is a Ghanaian-Filipino doctoral student of architecture at the Center for Architecture, Science and Ecology in New York, USA. She is currently living and doing research between Accra, Ghana, and New York on sustainability in the African city.


[1] Wilcken, Patrick (2004) Empire Adrift: The Portuguese court in Rio De Janeiro, 1808-1821. London: Bloomsbury. p. 46
[2] Schaumloeffel, Marco Aurelio. (2008) Tabom-The Afro-Brazilian community in Ghana. Barbados: Lulu. p. 4
[3] Bob-Milliar, George M. Chieftaincy, Diaspora, and Development: The Institution of the Nkosuohene in Ghana. African Affairs. 108/433. p. 10
[4] van Kessel, I. (2002) Merchants, Missionaries and Migrants:300 years of Dutch-Ghanaian Relations. Ghana: Sub-Saharran Publishers. p. 20
[5] Wilcken, Patrick (2004) Empire Adrift: The Portuguese court in Rio De Janeiro, 1808-1821. London: Bloomsbury. p. 182
[6] Freyre, Gilberto. (1964) The Masters and the Slaves- a study in the development of Brazilian civilization. New York: Knopf.
[7] Feinberg, Harvey M. (1989) Africans and Europeans in West Africa- Elminians and Dutchmen on the Gold Coast during the eighteenth century. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society
[8] Reis, Nestor (1970) Quadro de Arquitetura no Brazil.. Sao Paolo: Editora Perspectiva.
[9] Dumett, Raymond. (1983) E. African Merchants of the Gold Coast, 1860-1905—Dynamics of Indigenous Entrepreneurship. Comparative Studies in Society and History. Vol. 25. No.4. p. 667
[10] Mabogunje, Akin L. Lagos—Nigeria’s Melting Pot. Nigeria Magazine. No.61L128-155. 1961
[11] Vlach, John Michael. The Brazilian House is Nigeria: The Emergence of a 20th- Century Vernacular House Type. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 97. No. 383 (Jan-March 1984). p.13
[12] Tangible or material heritage refers to physical fabric of the built environment such as natural landscapes, settlements, buildings and monuments. Graham, Brian & Howard, Peter (2008) The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited. p.4
[13] UNESCO The Slave Route Newsletter. La route de l’esclave. September 2000. No.1

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