Brazil has a long history of slave trading. The vast plantations that cut a living out of the verdant jungle north and south of the Amazon River needed human labor to create them, cultivate them and keep them running. Though native populations were exploited to some degree – anyone who has seen the movie The Mission has an idea of how that was handled – the vast majority of agricultural labor was done by enslaved Africans.
The wealth inherent in the slave trade meant that its history is forever entangled with the history of piracy and privateering. Because Brazil continued to import Africans to the New World after other slave-exploiting economies, like that of the U.S. and Mexico, had put embargoes on the trade, her ports and the seas outside them became targets for the opportunistic freebooters. Bartholomew Roberts routinely captured slavers off the west coast of Africa and then brought them to Brazil for the sale of their cargo at a tidy profit. If he was lucky he might even be able to sell the ship he appropriated. Later, in the heyday of the privateers, the Brazilian coast was a great hunting ground. Just as Roberts had off the coast of Africa, men like William Mitchell and Louis Aury would take a slave ship headed for Brazil and divert her to the Gulf Coast of Mexico, Texas or Louisiana for the sale of the unfortunate people she carried.
The history is both rich and disgusting. Slavery made the New World a more culturally diverse place for adding the unwilling immigrants to the mix. It also created a permanent stain on the otherwise forward thinking intentions of all of our founding fathers. For me personally, it is telling that Bolivar’s revolution was the first widespread uprising in the New World to include freedom for both African and Native slaves as an unquestioned tenant of its mission. And historical slave trading by buccaneers, pirates and privateers certainly takes a bit of the “heroic” and “egalitarian” wind out of their sails. Forgetting an injustice only makes it possible to repeat it – in fact slavery is a very real horror all over the world even as I write – and so a new archaeological find in Rio de Janeiro can only add to our knowledge of a practice that makes most of us uncomfortable at best.
The Cais do Valongo, or the Valongo wharf, was one of the largest intake ports for African slaves in Brazil. For over two hundred years people were off-loaded from ships and taken to holding houses where they were washed, fed and shaved before being exposed at local auctions. Once purchased, most would be marched to the interior and their new home on a sugar, cotton or – most likely – coffee plantation. The practice, which began in the later half of the 16th century, continued until Brazil officially banned slavery in 1888.
This article from Guardian UK tells us that what may have been the hub of the wharf was unearthed in the process of giving the Rio de Janeiro port a face lift in preparation for the 2016 Olympics. It includes information on the ongoing recovery and hoped for preservation of historical finds that include the possible slave-trade wharf as well as the Empress’ wharf, which was built on or near Valongo in the 1840s to welcome Brazil’s future Empress Teresa Cristina, and a 19th century sewer system. Archaeologist Tania Andrade Lima, who has been looking for Valongo for the National Museum, is hopeful that the find is authentic and that it will be possible to “integrate the finds into the new ports design”.
Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, is quoted as saying “These are our Roman ruins,” and I think that speaks volumes. Rome was a master slaver, unrivalled before or since. As a person of mixed race and multicultural heritage I hope that none of what we as humans have done to one another, good or evil, will be forgotten. That way we can continue to do what is right, and never again build a Cais do Valongo anywhere in the world.
Header: Rugendas Slave Market, Brazil, via Virginia.edu