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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Babalawo and the American Professor

Mariniano Eliseu do Bomfim photographed at his house in Salvador Bahia, 1940-41. Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, Anacostia  Community Museum Archives

Professor Lorenzo Dow Turner, the first African-American linguist, arrived in Bahia, Brazil in October 1940 to research Afro-Brazilian culture. This trip was part of his work to research the existence of African survivals in the Americas, which had started with his study of the Gullah language in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia in the early 1930s. As soon as he arrived in Bahia he was directed to an elderly man who was considered the sage of Afro-Brazilian culture. Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim – his Yoruba name was Òjélàdé – who was in his mid 80s and in declining health. Nevertheless, Turner found him to be a veritable fountain of information. He recorded hours of songs, folktales and life experiences delivered in Yoruba, English and Portuguese delivered by Senhor Martiniano, as he was called by Brazilians.

Business card of Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim (his name is written in the old Portuguese orthogrpahy) with his handwritten name in Yoruba.  Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Born free in Bahia in 1859, the child of ex-slaves who had been able to buy their freedom, Martiniano was sent to Lagos by his father as a teenager in 1875 to study at the Faji School of the Anglican Church Missionary Society. He would stay in Lagos for 11 years. At the school he learned English, perfected the Yoruba he had already learned in Brazil and acquired a trade as mason and house painter. After his formal schooling, Martiniano studied to be a Babalawo, a practitioner of the art of divination known in Yoruba as Ifá.

Mãe Aninha (Eugenia Ana dos Santos) leader of the Candomblé Temple Ilé Axé Opo Afonjá which she founded with the help of Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim in 1910.  Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives

After his return to Brazil, Martiniano served as consultant for Brazilian and foreign scholars studying African cultural survivals in Brazil (see Images from the Ruth Landes papers). He was also an important member of the Afro-Brazilian religious community of the Candomblé and was a collaborator of the famous Mãe Aninha in the organization of the temple Ilé Axé Opo Afonjá in 1910. Martiniano also travelled back and forth from Bahia to Lagos trading in goods on both sides of the Atlantic and becoming a important link with the Afro-Brazilian returnee community in that city. He also taught English to well-to-do Afro-Brazilian families.

You can learn more about the career and travels of Professor Turner from the Lorenzo Dow Turner papers.

Alcione M. Amos
Museum Program Specialist

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