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The United Nations cultural organisation UNESCO recently designated the Valongo Slave Wharf in Rio de Janeiro a World Heritage Site. Never heard of Valongo Wharf before? You’re not alone. Despite being an area of enormous historical and social significance for Rio, it is only a recent discovery. Its newest label as a heritage site brings hope to push the city’s history of slavery to the forefront.
Valongo Wharf is in the port area of downtown Rio de Janeiro, and its recent award of an African UNESCO Heritage Site has thrust it into the international spotlight. What’s particularly remarkable about this area is that it received nearly one million African slaves over several decades, making it the biggest point of entry for African slaves in the whole of the Americas.
It remained an unknown secret until its discovery during renovation work in the port area for the 2016 Olympics. Prior to it being unearthed, the wharf was buried under a car park, a large square popular for parties on the weekend, and a nondescript street.
During the slave trade, Brazil was the main destination for African slaves in the Americas, largely thanks to it being a convenient port-of-call for ships coming over from Africa. Once the enslaved Africans arrived in Rio’s port, they were left in the Valongo Wharf to gain weight and recover from the ordeal of being forcefully taken from their homes and then making the long journey to Brazil. Many could not handle the trauma and died during transit. Thousands of enslaved Africans were buried in a nearby cemetery next to the wharf.
The cemetery was only discovered by chance in 2011. A couple refurbishing their home in the area found a mass grave beneath the floor, filled with bones and skulls. Further excavation revealed thousands of bodies in the area, and the owners decided to convert their home into a memorial ground to respect the deceased. The site is known today as the Instituto Memoria e Pesquisa Pretos Novos – Institute Memorial and Research of New Blacks – and is the final resting place of approximately 6,000 Africans. The whole port area is thought to hold 30,000 bodies in total.
UNESCO believes the Valongo Wharf deserves the same consideration in history as the incidents at Hiroshima and Auschwitz, in order ‘to make us remember those parts of the history of humanity that must not be forgotten.’
The wharf was constructed in 1779 to use as a trading area for slaves. It was built near the port to be close to the arriving ships and also to shield what was considered an unsightly trade from the busy city centre. Between 1770 and 1830, thousands of slaves were transported through this area.
After the country had become independent from Portugal, Brazil banned the slave trade in 1831, yet slavery continued, illegally, until it was finally abolished in 1888. Today, the area has significant points of tourist interest that are repurposed as other attractions. Praca XV is a large square popular for its outdoor parties and live music, yet it was once the original slave auction area. Pedra do Sal, known for its live samba nights on Mondays and Fridays, is where former slaves resided, coining the nickname for the area as Rio’s ‘little Africa’.
Local tours are attempting to bring this history to light by centring excursions around significant points in the port area. The Afro-Rio Walking Tour explores important sites that help define the African and Afro-Brazilian history, emphasising the Atlantic Slave Trade. Visitors to this tour will discover the history of Valongo Wharf and Pedra do Sal plus visit the Memorial of the New Blacks. The tour with Casa Bromelia on Mondays and Fridays is a samba tour that weaves a combination of traditionally modern Brazilian activities – such as homemade caipirinhas and samba dancing – with a stop at Pedra do Sal or Praça XV. The excursion simultaneously embraces the modern-day appeal of the area whilst informing guests about the sites’ significant place in history.
With attempts like these to bring the slave history to light, could the area be Rio’s newest attraction? Culture Trip spoke to Sadakne, the woman behind Afro-Rio Walking Tour, who explains that although the response has been positive, the history is mostly unknown. She says, ‘often people tell me that spending the day with me on the walk changes the way they see the city. Brazilians have expressed concern, and even tearful rage, that they haven’t learned any of this when they covered the subject in school.’
Yvonne Ivanescu, an expat living in Rio de Janeiro who took the Afro-Rio Walking Tour, also feels the history hasn’t received much attention and questions if it will be the next biggest tourist site. ‘I think it’s a great thing that [Valongo Wharf] has been declared a UNESCO site because I feel Rio de Janeiro seems to try to make the history disappear, and I think that’s why they created all these other attractions nearby. I think for tourists, it’s interesting, but I don’t know if a lot of individuals will go and see it. There is so little time for most tourists; they want to see the other iconic attractions.’
Although the new World Heritage Site hasn’t made it onto all tourist radars, for some, it has. Jeff Hanson from the US was visiting the Memorial of the New Blacks and said it was essential for any visitor to go there to discover the complex history of Rio. ‘I found out about this place on an online forum. It was recommended as a place that was “off-the-beaten-track”,’ he explained. ‘Now I’m here, I don’t know how this place isn’t one of the top places to go. It’s like a piece of history that we have to remember, to respect those that died or we could even say killed, you know? I love that it’s a UNESCO site, that’s great news. Everyone needs to know about this place, to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’