By Andrew Willis, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – One of the appeals to traveling in Brazil is the rich diversity and heritage pervasive in the relatively young country. In Rio de Janeiro, authorities have established a series of cultural sites intended to explore the city’s former unfortunate role as the world’s largest African slave market in the Nineteenth Century.
At present, few visitors to Rio venture into the Saúde and Gamboa neighborhoods of Centro near Praça Mauá and the port zone, with many locals equally unaware of their historical importance.
Yet roughly one million slaves are thought to have arrived at the Cais do Valongo (Valongo Quays), shaping the face of modern Brazil.
Now a new Historical Circuit of African Heritage hopes to rectify this lacuna, with a key component of the trail opening to the public for the first time last month (July 24th).
Inspiration for the idea came in early 2010 when workers, installing a new drainage system as part of a huge neighborhood regeneration plan, discovered hundreds of personal objects belonging to former African slaves.
Rio’s architects were called in and the enormity of area’s importance was quickly understood. Long known about, the exact location of the Valongo slave-trading complex had remained a mystery until then. The Cais do Valongo are estimated to have received roughly 500,000 slaves between 1811 and 1843 alone, according to Tânia Andrade Lima, the head archaeologist working on the project.
“The archaeological site holds extraordinary social importance for the self esteem of the African-descended community and the construction of their identity,” says Lima.
Last month’s opening of the Jardim do Valongo (Garden of Valongo) is the latest stepping stone towards the completion of the Historical Circuit of African Heritage.
Originally inaugurated in 1906 in an effort to beautify the port area, today the garden and inner buildings house some of the artifacts uncovered by archaeologists in recent years. Now visitors and locals alike can see them for the first time.
Wooden combs and toothbrushes, a chainmail purse, pieces of broken pottery, thimbles and perfume containers, provide an evocative insight into the lives of the unfortunate souls who landed at the quays and into a life of slavery, a practice only abolished in Brazil in 1888.
Of the 10.7 million slaves shipped across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries, between a third and a half are estimated to have landed in Brazil. This compares with fewer than 400,000 sent to the United States.
“Life was clearly very tough for them,” says Leonardo Loureiro solemnly, the garden’s appointed tour guide on opening day.
Other sites along the Historical Circuit of African Heritage include the location where salt was unloaded from boats by slaves (Pedra do Sal), as well as warehouses and the Pretos Novos Institute showing further archaeological remains.
As well as shedding greater light on Brazil’s African heritage, the new historical circuit has fed into a series of difficult debates in the emerging nation, including the issues of class divide and how best to compensate former injustices.
In a recent article by Humberto Adami, who visited the Cais do Valongo took the opportunity to revisit the issue of reparations for the families of former slaves.
“A judicial initiative in this area needs to be worked on by a team of lawyers … so that we can answer the question that won’t go away: what should be the reparation for the [former] slavery of black men and women in Brazil?”, said Humberto Adami.