Society

Valongo Wharf in Brazil is an attempt to bury history

BDValongo

Cais do Valongo (Valongo Wharf), an archaeological site reconised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. It was the largest port of landing of slaves in Americas. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

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Summary

  • Built in 1811, it was the site of landing and trading of enslaved Africans until 1831 when the Blockade of Africa banned the Atlantic slave trade to Brazil (although clandestine trade continued until 1888 through other routes).
  • During its 20 years of operation, it is estimated that about a million slaves landed at Valongo.
  • Brazil received about five million slaves through the Atlantic slave trade.

The Valongo Wharf is an old dock situated in the port area of Rio de Janeiro, between the current Coelho e Castro and Sacadura Cabral streets.

Built in 1811, it was the site of landing and trading of enslaved Africans until 1831 when the Blockade of Africa banned the Atlantic slave trade to Brazil (although clandestine trade continued until 1888 through other routes).

During its 20 years of operation, it is estimated that about a million slaves landed at Valongo. Brazil received about five million slaves through the Atlantic slave trade.

The name Valongo, an abbreviation of vale longo (long valley), owing to its location between two hills, in fact referred to a complex of structures directly connected to the slave trade.

In addition to the wharf, it included the establishments selling slaves along Valongo Street; the lazaret, a quarantine station located nearby where slaves infected with contagious diseases were taken; the Cemetery of Pretos Novos, where victims of abusive treatment and diseases during the Atlantic crossing were buried.

The wharf where enslaved people arriving from Africa, and all manner of goods were unloaded was built by order of Prince Dom Joᾶo VI. It operated for the purpose of trafficking until 1831, when a law was introduced ordering that all those entering the country henceforth would be considered free.

After a sudden drop of numbers, the flow of African slaves once again increased clandestinely, brought to work on coffee plantations in Rio. This resurgence led to the promulgation of a new law, issued in 1850, banning the Atlantic slave trade definitively.

Described and depicted by numerous accounts by foreign travellers as a sinister and repugnant place, Valongo market was a shameful blight on the life of the city, one that became increasingly intolerable.

Hundreds of thousands of Africans brought in by the Atlantic slave trade disembarked at Rio at that time, making it one of the main entry points for enslaved Africans, not just in Brazil, but in the Americas as a whole.

One particular event does seem to be opportune in terms of eradicating the old wharf and its sinister image. The arrival in Rio de Janeiro of the Princess of Two Sicilies, Teresa Christina of Bourbon in 1843, for her marriage to Emperor Pedro II, transformed the sombre landscape into its antithesis.

It was precisely Valongo that was chosen for the Princess’s grandiose landing. The old wharf was covered over by landfill and in its place emerged Empress Wharf, renamed, modernised, and embellished. Valongo Street was also renamed Empress Street, clearly showing the intention to rid the region of the vestiges and stigma of slavery for good.

The wretched masses coming from Africa were replaced by a European princess and her court, a highly symbolic opposition and supposition of these two extremes.

However, in February 2011, archaeological excavations unearthed the stones of the Empress Wharf and, at a deeper level 0.60 m below them, a floor of rough, uneven stones of the older Valongo Wharf, covered by land fill made for the Empress Wharf.

The latter was also sealed by a new landfill covering the entire area at the beginning of the 20th Century during the construction of the Port of Rio de Janeiro. Valongo Wharf, deep below, was forgotten.

In the slave regime, work automatically became synonymous with slavery. Manual and mechanical work were a “Black thing” to be executed solely by the enslaved, “the hands and feet of the masters”, or, “the most precious cattle of the master.” Boxer (1969:188) mentions the maxim, then in vogue, that work was “for dogs and negros.”

For the ruling classes, whose nobility was defined “by what the person did not do” (Schwartz 1988:210), the only dignified activities were those that required intellectual ability, destined for the Whites, in contrast to those needing only manual skill, the task of Blacks, for the Whites, “the sciences and administrative posts” (Mattos 1990:113); for the Blacks, tools.

As a result of this ideology, Africans and their descendants remained inexorably linked with work and slavery. Far from signifying their liberation, the end of slavery and trading in Africans, decreed belatedly in Brazil in 1888, left them at the mercy of new forms of subalternity. The mindset did not change amongst their enslavers.

From the end of slavery, Afro-descendants have ceaselessly fought for integration into society on equal terms with Whites. However, the 134 years that have lapsed since have still proven insufficient to ensure basic rights for the overwhelming majority of the Black population in Brazil.

In 2017, Valongo Wharf was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site but as at the time of writing, the Brazilian Government has not even erected a memorial at the site and has taken few steps to raise awareness of its importance.

The Brazilian Government has failed to honour commitments made in 2017. A tourist welcome centre has not been built. Almost all the African artifacts that have been recovered, rings, amulets, religious items, remain locked away out of sight.

The site itself has been littered with trash or flooded. The drainage system has repeatedly malfunctioned while a city worker was electrocuted in 2020 as he attempted to drain the site. The United States and a Chinese utility company have each donated $500,000, but the money has yielded little improvement.

A civic management committee for the site was recently dissolved for what the government said was, “to reduce the power of politically equipped entities that use beautiful names to impose their will, ignore the law and purposefully slow Brazil’s development.”

The authorities in Brazil are clearly uncomfortable with this dark part of the country’s history. As one member of the dissolved committee said, “This is not neglect. This is a coordinated, clear and explicit racist action to deconstruct and undo our attempts to rescue the site.”

An attempt to bury history.