The Viceroy of Ouidah, by Bruce Chatwin

While I was reading The High Mountains of Portugalwhich I reviewed in my previous post, I was also re-reading The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin, which, like The High Mountains of Portugal, paints a harrowing picture of slavery in the Portuguese and Brazilian colonies in Africa. The Viceroy of Ouidah is probably the most unforgettable depiction of white men losing their minds when trying to deal with “Darkest Africa”, centuries ago, that has ever been written. Let’s just say, Africa wins out. Think the jungles, despair and death of the film Apocalyse Now, but Africa-style.

The Viceroy of Ouidah, published in 1980, tells the story of a Brazilian who tries to run an outpost for slave trading in 1812 in Dahomey, what is now Benin, on the west coast of Africa. It is more contentious than many others in the same genre, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, for its negative depiction of African culture. But then, Chatwin, who died in 1989, aged 48, also depicted Brazil, the slave traders, the European colonizers in Dahomey and the Viceroy of Ouidah himself as pretty horrible.

There is hardly anything that doesn’t go wrong with this enterprise, almost as if the very act of slavery is a curse passed on from white men to black rulers, that depraves and ruins everything. And in case you think it was bad in Dahomey, Chatwin depicts Brazil, the homeland, as just as bad if not worse, as per this list of descriptive terms courtesy of the New York Times:

“…rats, ticks, flies, snakes; floggings, stranglings, pluckings, hangings, maimings, animal crucifixions, knifings, castrations, spearings; wens, hemorrhoids, harelips, shrivelled limbs, ulcers, corroded teeth; whips, flails, yokes, neck-chains, branding irons, metal masks; urine, dung, mucus, spittle, blood, pustules, grease, slaver, blotches and slime.”

As the epigraph of the book says:

Beware and take care
of the Bight [bay] of Benin.
Of the one that comes out
There are forty go in.
(Slaver’s proverb)

This means that many people would go ashore, but few would come out again, due to the malaria, yellow fever and other tropical diseases endemic there.

When history meets fiction

Chatwin’s novel portrays the life of fictional “Francisco Manuel da Silva”, the patriarch of an enormous family, and who died mad as dog, who is loosely based on the life of a historical white Brazilian, Francisco Félix de Sousa, who was a powerful figure in Ouidah, the so-called Slave Coast of West Africa. Ouidah (/ˈwiːdə/), historically also called The Kingdom of Whydah, and Ajudá, is a city on the coast of the Republic of Benin. Benin used to be the Kingdom of Dahomey,  (/dəˈhoʊmi/) that existed from about 1600 until 1894, when the last king, Behanzin, was defeated by the French, and the country was annexed into the French colonial empire.

The Kings were nothing like the nice, friendly, educated royal family in the movie Coming to America. The royal palaces were, well, one-storey mud buildings. The kings had a fixation with chopping people’s heads off and got rich from the slaves they caught in neighbouring kingdoms and tribes. And the last king had an army of women warriors. All fact though it sounds almost as strange as The Viceroy of Ouidah.

Chatwin’s skinny novel has a cult following and even today, people stand amazed at the use of language in it:

“Only a non-African could have written this book; it is Africa viewed from the outside: clammy, lethargic, filled with emotional torpor and inexplicable weirdness. That said – white, black, African, Brazilian, no one escapes the author’s fascination with treachery, immorality and the grotesque extremes of human behaviour.” (Rtrvd. from, 2016-08-02)

Chapter 1 opens with the relatives and descendants of the Viceroy gathering in 1974 to celebrate the anniversary of his birthday with a mass, and the memorial ceremonies are described as a comedy of manners, where things are “civilized” according to Western manners, but just – not quite. While the relatives pose for a group photo, Da Silva’s last living daughter, “Mama WeWe Eugenia da Silva”, aged 121, lies on a sofa in a back room like a well-dressed mummy, occasionally stretching her claw-like hand out the window to pat the curly heads of the little boys playing outside. And her mind goes back to how she ended up on the sofa. Here are some choice lines. Now, imagine the whole book full of images like these!

“Turbaned ladies hobbled towards the cathedral, scuffing the dust with feet too splayed and calloused to admit the wearing of shoes. Their cottons were printed with leaves and lions and portraits of military dictators” (p.8)

“Someone had stolen the ivory Dove of Peace inlaid into the altar table. Though the Virgin still beckoned from her niche, her hands were tied in a tangle of cobwebs” (p. 10.)

“It was the hour when the fetish priests slaughtered a fowl over Aizan, the Market God, an omphalos of cut stone standing alone in an empty space” (p. 13)

“Dom Francisco himself lay sleeping under his bed, in a chamber that overlooked a garden of red earth and plastic flowers where lizards sunned themselves on the flat white marble tombs” (p. 17)

And that being said, this is fiction. And not all of it is horrific. There is something shabby but dignified about the wall-eyed brother of the king, Kankpé, who does a coup d’état with the help of Francisco da Silva. He wants more than obeisance from Da Silva – he wants respect, to be treated like royalty by the white man and the white man’s kings. (But he also wants lots of chopped-off heads.) But to Da Silva he is just another louco local, to be kept at arm’s length and fobbed off with trinkets. Da Silva’s increasingly desperate letters to the shareholders of the company in Brazil are full of pathos and deep longing for his homeland, and pleas to escape from Ouidah. But his every endeavour is doomed to a kind of systemic collapse, like a slow descent into hell.

If you think the extracts from the diary of the traumatized “Father Ulisses” on the horrors of slavery are overdone in The High Mountains of Portugal – well, you ain’t read nothing yet. Just give The Viceroy of Ouidah a try. 

About the header image

Background: Photo taken in the DRC by M.F. O’Brien. Figures in traditional clothing: “The célébration at Abomey (1908). The veteran amazones (AHOSI) of the Fon king Béhanzin, Son of Roi Gélé.” (Source: Wikipedia)

The Viceroy of Ouidah in other media

A film, Cobra Verde, was made in 1987 and is based on The Viceroy of Ouidah, note, based on, not the entire narrative. (Apart from that, Klaus Kinski is too blond. Francisco da Silva was a half-breed and quite dark by Brazilian standards, which is part of the dramatic tension in the novel.) It was directed by Werner Herzog and starred Klaus Kinski. There is no film that can create images more dramatic and nightmarish than those conjured up by Chatwin’s prose. But in case you are interested, a clip can be found here.

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