The World of Gerard van Oost and Oludara

Posts Tagged ‘places’


In “The Fortuitous Meeting”, Oludara mentions that he “hails from the kingdom of Ketu”.

Ketu was the westernmost of the seven historical Yoruba kingdoms.  Yoruba tradition says that these kingdoms were formed by the descendents of the Orisha Oduduwa when they moved west from Ilé-Ife.  Oduduwa is credited with creating the Earth, at the command of the supreme deity Olorun.

Sopasan is credited as the first oba (king) in the line of Ketu, even though the city did not exist during his lifetime.  Instead, it was he who led forth the people from Ilé-Ife who would eventually inhabit Ketu.  Only the seventh king, Ede, would finally found the city.

The town was settled on a plateau with so few sources of water that a saying developed among the Yoruba: “Water becomes honey in Ketu”.  To compensate, inhabitants gathered rainwater in cisterns and dry wells.  This lack of water limited the size of the settlement.  However, the plateau provided excellent protection–Ketu was conquered only once in all its long history.

Sixteenth-century brass plaque, Benin

(Source: Penn Museum)

The town was built around a sacred Iroko tree.  According to custom, a human sacrifice was required to protect the town.  A hunchback from a nearby Ewe community was sacrificed at the entrance to the city, which is said have provided the town’s name.  The question “Who straightens the hump?” is “Ke ‘tu ike?” in Yoruba.  The answer: no one can straighten the hump, so no one can destroy the town.  The fourteenth oba, Sa, built a massive gate at the same spot.  The gate, crafted from Iroko wood, contained two wooden doors, one outside and one inside.  It was given the name Idena for “sentry”.

From the gate stretched an immense clay wall which surrounded the city.  Outside the wall lay the ditches from which its clay had been dug, providing further protection.  As a final defense, a row of thorn bushes was planted outside the ditch.

Remains of Ketou ditch

(Image: Centre of World Archaeology)

The Oba of Ketu takes the title Alaketu: “the one who owns Ketu”.  From the twenty-fifth Alaketu on, the position of oba has rotated between five different royal families: Alapini, Magbo, Aro, Mesa, and Mefu.  I will discuss the Oba in greater depth in another post.

Ivory belt mask – Sixteenth century Benin


To the west, Ketu shared a border with Fon-speaking peoples who would eventually found the kingdom of Dahomey and become their greatest rivals.  After many wars and much history, Ketu and their Fon neighbors both fell under French domination and were eventually united in the modern-day nation of Benin, while most other Yoruba kingdoms fell under British control and eventually became part of Nigeria.

Ketu still exists today, under the French-modified name of Ketou.  It is a city with a long and rich history, tracing its kings and traditions back over six-hundred years.  Many travelers visit Ketou and speak with the Alaketu himself to learn much of this magnificent history.

Belem Tower

In “The Fortuitous Meeting”, Gerard sees a painting in Pero’s office in which he recognizes Belem Tower.

This impressive building, constructed between 1515 and 1521 to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s famous voyage from Europe to India, is perhaps the most famous remaining symbol of Portugal’s great Age of Discovery, when the tiny nation dominated half the the world’s oceans.


 (Image: Governo de Portugal)

Belem Tower, used primarily to defend the entrance to the Port of Lisbon, was one of the last landmarks explorers saw as they set off on their remarkable maritime voyages.  Gerard’s case is no exception; he admired the famous tower as he set out from Portugal on his fateful journey to Brazil.


 (Image: Governo de Portugal)

The tower design contains a mixture of naval elements, Christian symbols, and Gothic and Islamic architecture.  This style is known as Manueline, after King Manuel I of Portugal.


(Image: Governo de Portugal)

Today, Santa Maria de Belem (trans. Saint Mary of Bethlehem), the location of the tower, is a district of Lisbon, and Belem Tower is a UNESCO Heritage site.


It comes as no surprise that the adventures of the Elephant and Macaw Banner begin in the city of Salvador.  At the time of Gerard and Oludara’s travels, Salvador is the capital and most important city in Brazil.

The population of the city and surrounding bay included around 1500 inhabitants of Portuguese or mixed Portuguese-Tupinambá origin, and several thousand more Tupinambá in the neighboring regions, many of them Christian converts. The African slave population was small but increasing rapidly, and would grow to the thousands well before the end of the sixteenth century.

Early 17th century map of SalvadorEarly 17th century map of Salvador

Although there were earlier attempts to settle Salvador, its permanent occupation began in 1549, when King Dom João III of Portugal sent Tomé de Sousa and over five hundred men (and under ten women) to establish a city on the shores of Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay).  Tomé was successful in his attempt, establishing what would remain the capital of Brazil for over two-hundred years.

sal1612Salvador in 1612


Salvador in 2007

Visiting Salvador today is like travelling through time.  The old center of the city (the Pelourinho), the place where Gerard and Oludara first met, is filled not only with historical buildings and monuments, but also with the unique music, food, dance, and style that emerged from hundreds of years of blending African and Portuguese cultures.



A visit to Salvador is an experience that is not easily forgotten.

(Illustrations: Photographs: Christopher Kastensmidt)