«THE DISCOVERER OF THE DISCOVERERS»
RESEARCH FOR THE FILM, BY C.S. NICHOLSON
The story goes something like this: One day in 1548, in the Kingdom of Whydah, on the coast where the Atlantic Ocean bends to the West African landmass, the hunter Kpatè and his brother (some say friend) Zingbô go to the beach to catch crabs. Out on the horizon something entirely new is discovered: A boat carrying something ruddy and human-like, looking back on the beach through a camera, or perhaps binoculars. This boat-being on the ocean is clearly an incarnation of Zo, god of fire. At least according to Zingbô, who immediately takes flight in a slapstick of cowardice.
Kpatè, meanwhile, being made of braver stuff, decides to stay and draw the ship’s attention. This author of a destiny yet unknown makes a bonfire for Zingbô’s «fire god». To really make sure he catches the ship’s attention, Kpatè then removes the raffia covering his waist, grabs a long stick, and fashions a flag. Then he starts waving it across waves that, for the longest time, separated continents.
This, then, is how Europeans are discovered by a citizen of Whydah: drawn in by the long pole of a naked man, standing right there on the beach, fearlessly waiting for what will soon turn out not to be gods at all, but rather sunburnt seamen from a far-away kingdom called Portugal. These explorers, or maybe merchants, are the vanguard of other «zojɛ̀àgě». (Lit. «Zo coming ashore», the first noun for such pinkish people.) First the French, then the Dutch, the British, and so on. And with them Whydah, and subsequently Dahomey, then finally the Republic of Benin shall all be graced with trade, wealth and civilisation. All thanks to one fearless man: Kpatè, hunter of gods burnt by the sun, like so many Icaruses.
Or something like that. Although certain details have changed with time, the central elements of this account have been passed down through successive generations of Kpatè’s descendants, the Kpatènons*, in the coastal town of Ouidah. The short film «The Discoverer of the Discoverers» doesn’t try to get to the bottom of what actually happened during this historic (by some accounts first) encounter between West Africans and Europeans. Instead, it focuses on how the event is remembered today. «The Discoverer of the Discoverers» is not a factual documentary, but rather a collective dream about history. Like the end credits state, somewhat unhelpfully: «Some of the claims made in this film are not supported by the historical record or contemporary evidence.»
The story, as presented in the film, is drawn from oral tradition. To unravel what we can and cannot say about «what really occurred» with any measure of conviction, it might be useful to turn to historical literature dealing with West Africa’s connections with Europe.
THE KNOWN KNOWNS
In 1755, on the morning of All Saints’ Day, Lisbon suffered a 7.7 magnitude earthquake. Ribeira Palace, the residence of Portuguese kings since the early 1500s, also housed the Portuguese Guinea Company. This corporation by royal charter managed the empire’s commerce with West Africa. The palace’s 70,000-volume library was wiped out by the earthquake, fires and ensuing tsunami. Perhaps the Portuguese Guinea Company’s archives were likewise lost to waves, flames and fresh abyss? Whatever the case, no log book or written account of any Portuguese sailors’ first encounter with the people of Whydah seems to have survived.
We do know that the first Europeans to explore the Bight of Benin were the Portuguese, beginning in 1472. A decade later, they erected a trade fort on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana). By the second half of the 1500s, the Portuguese were trading regularly at Hulagan, the kingdom of «the Popos». (Currently known as Grand-Popo.) (Law, p. 29) Hulagan is less than 50 kms from Kpatè’s hometown, Ouidah. Indeed, in an account of the family tradition published in 1959, an elder descended from Kpatè told local historian Casimir Agbo that his ancestor already knew about the European presence in Hulagan before making contact with the Portuguese ship:
«Aja**, the Whydahs’ point of origin, had long maintained relations with the various countries of the Popos, where the Whydahs had already made contact with Europeans. ... One day Kpatè, accompanied by a comrade called Zingbô, was chasing land crabs in the vicinity of Ouidah beach. ... Suddenly, on the ocean, they saw a ship passing quietly. Zingbô had never seen one, as for Kpatè, he was already aware of both ships and Europeans, as he once frequented the countries of the Popos prior to the emigration of his tribe.» (Agbo, p. 17, translated)
So the current tradition recorded in «The Discoverer of the Discoverers»—that Kpatè was the first sub-Saharan to ever encounter Europeans on the African continent—seems to be a fairly recent embellishment of the oral history. But a detail that hasn’t changed since Agbo first published the Kpatènon family’s oral history 64 years ago, is the supposed year of Kpatè’s discovery of Portuguese discoverers: 1548.
THE YEAR OF THE DONKEY
1548 isn’t the only proposed date for the first European landing at Ouidah. In the 1910s, the town’s French colonial administrator, Marcel Gavoy, proposed that Kpatè would’ve welcomed the Portuguese in 1580. According to historian Robin Law, however, Gavoy’s guesstimate appears to have been based on a mathematical error. (Law, pp. 24-25) To further complicate matters, the local ruler to whom Kpatè is said to have led the Portuguese—King Kpassè—is thought to have reigned from around 1620 to about 1640. To make pinpointing a date even more befuddling, in 1625 a Portuguese ship was captured by Dutch pirates, probably off Ouidah. Which would suggest that Kpatè’s discovery had already taken place. (Law, p. 30) The facts, then, cannot quite confirm nor deny any of the proposed dates.
What the facts do make clear is that not all particulars of the various versions of Kpatènon family lore can hold true all at once. If the year was 1548, the king couldn’t have been Kpassè, etc. etc.
Tradition further states that Kpatè discovered Europeans twice. The second story is practically identical to the first, except this time the whites are French. One anecdote recounts a tiff between the Europeans when the Portuguese return, only to find they’ve been superseded by a mötley crüe of Frenchmen:
«Annoyed to see himself preceded and supplanted by French traffickers, the Portuguese commander demanded the right of priority in Ouidah. To this end he showed the French the land formerly granted to him by the king of the Whydahs; as proof, he had soil dug from which he took out the stone on which were engraved the date of his first landing and that of the granting of land.» (Agbo, p. 20, translated)
Indeed, Portuguese explorers were in the habit of erecting padrões—stone pillars—to mark (or claim) new territory. Perhaps the date 1548 stems from just such a padrão? To the best of my knowledge, however, no stone pillar matching that description has survived in Ouidah.
As for the Kingdom of Whydah, a European trading post was only established there in 1671—a good 123 years after Kpatè is said to have welcomed the first Europeans.
A HERO’S CULT
There seems little reason, however, to doubt the Kpatènon family’s basic claim that it was their ancestor who first welcomed Europeans in the Kingdom of Whydah. In 1864, British soldier (and infamous orientalist-in-disguise with a penchant for measuring penises) Sir Richard Francis Burton published an account of his time in Dahomey. This kingdom had occupied Ouidah since 1727, and Burton makes mention of the locally venerated deity «Kpate, the first Whydah man who, sighting a ship from his plantation, brought it to anchor by waving a cloth tied to a long pole, and led the captain into the town. Like Triptolemus, he is worshipped as a benefactor to mankind.» (Burton, p. 146)
Here, Burton is referring to a prince from ancient Greece who was said to be among the first priests of the cult of Demeter, goddess of harvest, and Persephone, queen of the Underworld. Prince Triptolemus became deified in Greek mythology as the inventor of agriculture. And indeed, Kpatè has long assumed an elevated place in Ouidah’s pantheon, due to his association with Europe. Law, citing French anthropologist Christian Merlo, writes that the main focus of the veneration of Kpatè shifted in the 1930s. Whereas earlier he had been associated with material gains from the Atlantic slave trade, under French colonial rule Kpatè was celebrated as «the hero of the importation of European civilization». (Law, p. 14)
Writing about a rare and major ceremonial event in 1948, Casimir Agbo observed that only four cults were allowed to hold processions in Ouidah—and only after the memory of «the patriarch Kpatè» had been celebrated with a sacrifice of pigs and goats at a feast in his honour. No Voodoo celebration in Ouidah was considered complete without brandy, and so «tradition requires that Kpatè be honoured ... because it was through his mediation that European importers and civilisers gained access to the land of Whydah and, therefore, to Dahomey.» (Agbo, p. 132, translated)
In 1871, seven years after the soldier Burton published his proto-anthropological travelogue comparing West African religion to Greek mythology—that most Western of navels in which to gaze—the king of Dahomey held an English entomologist hostage. On a whim. For eight months. J. Alfred Skertchly, who found his time as King Glèlè’s forced friend rather pleasant, later published a book on his experiences in Dahomey. In it, he briefly mentions «Kpate, a canonised Whydah man, who first enticed Europeans to the town. His emblem is a tree stump with a white rag tied round it.» (Skertchly, p. 473)
SOUVENIRS OF SUNBURNT WHITES
Which brings us to the matter of the relics kept by the ancestral cult of Kpatè. In «The Discoverer of the Discoverers», various objects are taken out of Ghana Must Go bags (or «IKEA bags», as they’re known to Westerners). These objects are said to be gifts, brought by returning Portuguese for the man who’d beckoned them to make landfall at Ouidah in the first place. Once the Iberians were told that Kpatè had passed away, the merchant seamen gifted the presents to his family who, or so the story goes, has kept them ever since. They include oil lamps, cutlery and crockery, and are used during ceremonial occasions, such as when a new successor to Kpatè is enstooled.
As far as I know, these relics have never been examined by an expert, so their age and origin don’t appear to have been verified. The oil lamps certainly look very old. As for the china, it is conceivable that Portuguese sailors might have brought plates from the Far East in, say, 1548. Vasco da Gama had established direct trade with Asia when he reached India in 1498. In 1513, Jorge Álvares had made first contact on Chinese soil.
In «The Discoverer of the Discoverers», several of the cups and dinner plates are shown to have the backstamp, in green, of «Thuringia». The oldest porcelain factory in the German state of Thuringia wasn’t established until 1762. As for backstamping, that only «began with the introduction of porcelain in Europe around 1720.» And these were not green: «Until around 1820 the stamps were made by hand in blue.» Even the larger dishes with Chinese motifs are painted in a style artistically distinguishable from the earliest china brought to Portugal that are found on display at the Museum of the Orient in Lisbon.
This is not to say that merchant Portuguese sailors never gave Kpatè’s family gifts of lamps, china and cutlery. That some of these items may have been lost, or broken, or stolen, or sold in the past 400 or 500 years hardly requires a suspension of disbelief. Rather than proving the story untrue, perhaps this only helps us understand the nature of time and memory? Our imaginings about the past are intangible. They have no objects. There’s no way of verifying those thoughts, feelings and experiences, even when dates, names or artefacts are on our side. They’re their own fleeting fancy. They could just as well be true as they could be false. Certainly, scientifically dated physical objects from our distant past may serve as props in the stories we make of history. But can they displace the impressions passed down from generation to generation? Are not the academic truths about the distant past powerless in the face of the generalised, accumulated experiences of a community?
History is a science, but the vast majority of people aren’t scientists. Evidence rarely makes entire communities or cultures utterly redefine the myths that undergird their identites. Yet lurking in the uncertainties, in the doubtful claims and negligible inaccuracies, are emotional truths. Things that may not be literally or entirely true, but that point to experiences that were very real nonetheless. The role of collective memory is not to establish the facts, but to maintain what always eluded dates, statistics and objects that you can reach out and touch, even to this day.
* Kpatènon, the surname of Kpatè’s descendants, literally means «mother (or owner) of Kpatè». The Kpatènons make up one branch of a wider family called Ahombakla.
** Here, Agbo may be thinking of Aja Tado, a town in present-day Togo that’s considered the ancestral home of the Ajas, forebears of all Gbè-speaking peoples. (E.g. Whydahs, Fons, Gens, Guns, Ewes, et al.) The Kingdom of Tado was an important polity until the late 1400s. In «The Discoverer of the Discoverers», Kpatènon elder Avocèvouyè Akéhintô Zounvi sings a song that alludes to Dahomey’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Whydah in 1727 until France’s colonial takeover in 1894. In the song, Mr Zounvi sings, «Dahomeans are children who / waged war, razing Mother's house / They are our grandchildren, / bringing bullets for our destruction.» This is most likely a reference to the Fons of Dahomey attacking the Whydahs, both of whom trace their heritage to the Ajas of Tado.
Agbo, Casimir: Histoire de Ouidah du XVIe au XXe siècle (1959)
Burton, Richard F.: Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome. With Notices of the So Called "Amazons," the Grand Customs, the Yearly Customs, the Human Sacrifices, the Present State of the Slave Trade, and the Negro’s Place in Nature, vol. II (London, 1864)
Law, Robin: Ouidah—The Social History of a West African Slaving ’Port’ 1727-1892 (Oxford, 2004)
Skertchly, J. A.: Dahomey as It Is; Being a Narrative of Eight Months’ Residence in that Country, with a Full Account of the Notorious Annual Customs, and the Social and Religious Institutions of the Ffons; also an Appendix on Ashantee, and a Glossary of Dahoman Words and Titles (London, 1874)