Joaquim d’Almeida was a freed African slave from the Mahi nation who became a slave trader in Brazil and then resettled as a retornado (freed slave who emigrated “back” to Africa) in the Dahomey kingdom (modern Benin) of coastal West Africa.
Little is known of d’Almeida’s early life, but he was born Zoki Azata to the Azima family from Hoko, north of Dahomey. He was probably captured and enslaved by the Fon at a young age. Azata was sent to Brazil where he was purchased and later freed by slave trader Captain Manuel Joaquim d’Almeida. Azata took his master’s name after he was emancipated and baptized.
After manumission, d’Almeida continued to work with his former master in the slave trade. He lived primarily in Salvador da Bahia between 1835 and 1845 but traveled often to West Africa, spending most of his time in the city of Agoué. According to his last will and testament, written in Salvador in 1844, d’Almeida already possessed a significant fortune. He named two illegitimate children as heirs if he failed to have legitimate children.
Brazilians began to dominate the slave trade in Benin in the 1790s, and by the start of the nineteenth century, Francisco Felix de Souza (called the “Chacha de Souza”) had a virtual monopoly on slave exports from Ouidah thanks to the privileges conferred on him by King Gezo of Dahomey. Joaquim d’Almeida is credited as the first slave trader outside of the de Souza family to gain the king’s approval, thus opening trade up to other merchants and helping him to establish his own monopoly in Agoué. Later, he was named a customs officer in charge of tax collection for trade between Agoué and nearby Little Popo, which increased both his political and economic power.
In 1848 d’Almeida established himself in Ouidah and quickly became the richest and most influential resident of that city. When the British took control of nearby Danish slave posts in 1850, he was forced back to Agoué where he spent the remainder of his life. According to legend, a fellow Afro-Brazilian poisoned d’Almeida after a dispute over money in 1857. He was buried at his home in Agoué, suggesting that he privately held a syncretic view of religion, notwithstanding his very public support of the Catholic Church.
Despite his sordid history as a slave trader, Joaquim d’Almeida is remembered as a distinguished citizen in the history of Benin. The Ouidah neighborhood he founded and once lived in is still called “Zokikomé” in his honor.
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James Almeida and Steven J. Niven
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