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Afro-Cubans in Lagos: Hilario Campos & Feliberto Muniz

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In Leonardo Padura’s Havana Fever (part of Havana Quartet) the protagonist, Mario Conde has now retired from the Police Force and works as an antique dealer, specialising in books, whilst still investigating crime. Padura’s Cuban noir is next to Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy as introduction to Castro’s Havana.

 

In relation to his new life, Conde says

 

The early morning and late evenings were the most fruitful hours for the sellers of old books who’d set up shop in the plaza de Armas, in the shade of weeping figs, the statue of Father of the Fatherland, and austere palaces that were once the seat of a colonial power that believed the island was one of the most precious jewels in its imperial crown. The tourist hordes, either eager or bored by their compulsory immersion in a bath of pre-packed history, usually began or ended their itineraries in the old city in the vicinity of what was once its central square. Although the booksellers always welcomed them as potential, if overly wary customers, experience had shown they could get them to pocket the odd book only with great difficulty and after much persuasive spiel, and then it was usually one that was generally of little historical or bibliographical value

 

I confess, I was one such tourist on a particular Sunday in July in the year of Our Lord 2002. It was after a night, first of a walk along the Malécon, then of dinner at the Nacional, followed by an evening of the most sensuous of parades and entertainment at the Tropicana. Sunday morning browsing books at the plaza de Armas, was a senseless pastime as neither Jan nor I had much Spanish between us. There was little hope of finding an English text in this most Spanish of cities even though it was 3000 miles due west of Madrid or Córdoba. But, I did find a book- Afrocuba: an anthology of Cuban writing on race, politics and culture edited by Pedro Perez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs. It was a miraculous find. There were chapters on Òrìshì, Ifá, initiation rites, àdìrę, etc. It was the chapter by Rodolfo Sarracino Magriñat “Back to Africa” that was a revelation.

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I’ve always known of the Brazilian presence in Lagos. But, I had no idea of the Cuban connection. Hilario Campos was born in Cuba in 1878 and died in Lagos in 1941. He built Cuban Lodge, Campos Square Lagos, to house repatriated Afrocubans. Cuban Lodge is described as

A single-storey, stone house comprising two dwellings, each with its own entrance and mock classical façade.above the entrance, a plaque with large lettering: Cuban Lodge.

 

I had always thought that Campos Square was a term of Portuguese origin, ‘campos’ meaning ‘field’. But Hilario Campos had returned to Lagos in the company of another Cuban, Garro. Both were carpenters. By the start of the 20th century Campos was a wealthy landowner. There is some evidence that Hilario Campos returned to Lagos, a child brought by his parents. His father is referred to as “babalao” in some documents. Hilario Campos is buried in the same grave as Johanna Cicelia Munis who was born in Cuba in 1870 and died in Lagos in 1908.

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The Munis(z) link is intriguing too. Cecilia Muniz was born in Matanzas Cuba and married Juana Veliz (born in Lagos). They had a son Andrés (born 1894) and a daughter Nicolasa (born 1897) both of whom went to live in Lagos with their parents. Andrés studied in England returned to Cuba as an interpreter for a British sugar firm. He married a local girl Estebalina Hernandez and they had 4 children. Nicolas on the other hand gave birth to Feliberto Muniz in Lagos in 1912. The two branches of the Muniz(Lagos and Cuban) family continued to correspond well into the latter half of the 20th century.

 

 

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Sarracino concludes

This is a family divided by the 19th century slave trade, whose members, some born in Cuba still under paternal tutelage, took an incredible venture of returning to Africa and, what is even more notable, that one of the family members, born in Cuba, [bred in Lagos], returned to his native [Cuba], founded a family and corresponded with the African family, a correspondence which has been kept up by the second generation, who only know what one another look like through photographs

 

In a newspaper interview Sarracino says that the Afrocubans left Cuba in 1844 in a ship with a over a 100 freedmen that set sail for Lagos but was intercepted by the Royal Navy and diverted to Freetown, Sierra Leone. There were further migrations in 1850, 1860, 1880 & 1895. Additional material on the Afrocuban connection in Lagos can be found in Solimar Otero’s book Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World.

 

This is a story about the Campos and Muniz families, Afrocubans families. But it is also about the value of books.  An accidental and miraculous discovery in Havana of a book written in English spoke to how the written word, the text, can reveal as much as it conceals. There are now further questions such as how is the simple letter “z” transmuted to “s” in Munis(z) and why? (See the inscription on the grave stone).

 

Padura talks of how the story of Havana Trilogy “ambushed, shoved and pushed [him] into writing it”. Well, although strictly speaking I’ve not written a story in the sense of a fictional account, the story of the Campos and Muniz families “ambushed” me too, on a sultry tropical Sunday morning in Havana, when as a tourist I walked through the plaza de Armas, bored but unhurried, browsing Spanish titles, antiquarian texts that called to be handled like precious jewels, that asked to be caressed and loved like the loveliest women on perfumed nights. Yet, it was a humble paperback text, written in English, that caught my attention, or more accurately, that seized my attention- Afrocuba in Lagos!

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