Behind Rio’s beach-centric lifestyle and sun-drenched atmosphere lies a complex African heritage that has shaped an important chunk of Brazil’s history. Rio played a significant role in the country’s slave trade in the 18th century and beyond, with traces of this sensitive past remaining in the city’s recently rejuvenated port area and the bustling downtown region.
A relatively unknown fact about Rio de Janeiro is that it was once the largest slave port in the world, with a total of two million slaves passing through the port where Rio’s most popular museum – Museum of Tomorrow – currently stands. Many of the slaves came from Angola, Congo, Benguela and Mozambique, bringing with them African heritage that plays a significant role in Rio’s cultural scene today through music, dance, and religion. These enslaved Africans are also the reason behind Brazil having the largest black community outside of countries in Africa.
The slave trade was huge in Rio de Janeiro in the 18th century, contributing to over half of the city’s economy at that time. The main area in the city where the slave trade took place is now known as Porto Maravilha – a once-rundown area renovated just before the 2016 Olympics, becoming one of the city’s most exciting new cultural and artistic hubs. The excavations that took place during the reconstruction of the area revealed key historical sites that shed new light and interest in the area’s past.
Cais do Valongo was discovered in one such excavation and identified as the main wharf built for trading slaves. Nowadays, it is known as Praça XV, a large square famous for late-night weekend parties and local live bands. The surrounding area is known as the Valongo Complex, which comprises important areas representing the slave trade. The most significant include Largo do Deposito, known today as Praça dos Estivadores, where the slaves were once traded. Rua do Valongo was built to connect the wharf to Largo do Deposito in order to move slaves along to the trading area.
Near the Praça dos Estivadores were the Casas de Engordas, a set of small buildings where the slaves were fed before being sold. One of the most heart-wrenching places in the area is the Cemiterio dos Pretos Novos, a house-turned-museum that is a memorial to 6,000 slaves who died on arrival in Rio after the journey across the ocean and were buried in a shallow grave on that spot. In total, it’s estimated that there are approximately 30,000 slaves buried in the area.
In 1843, the Cais da Imperatriz was built over the former wharf to welcome Dom Pedro’s future wife, Queen Teresa Cristina, to Rio. By this time, slavery still hadn’t been abolished but was considered a condemned practice. The new wharf was built to help bury the negative memories associated with the slavery that took place at that site. Other landmarks constructed for this purpose include the Valongo Hanging Gardens, a Greek classicism-styled garden that overlooks the street that used to be the slave trading point.
One of the most famous sites that links back to the past slaves of Rio is Pedra do Sal, known for its Monday night samba parties where both locals and travellers come together to sip caipirinhas in the balmy, humid nights and listen to the live samba bands. Centuries ago, the sea used to reach as far as the rocks at Pedra do Sal, and it was the point where the slaves unloaded the salt that the Portuguese colony brought over to Brazil. It later became the main home for freed slaves – becoming known as Little Africa, where the African freed or escaped slaves would practise capoeira, play music, and build a new life in Rio. Nowadays, African heritage still plays a huge role in Rio’s culture, such as in Carnival; religions, including Umbanda and Candomble; in samba; and certain foods such as feijoada.