Last weekend we went to Ouida, which is a very historical
town in Benin. It is the stronghold of voodoo, and also
the place from where nearly 12 million slaves departed to
America (Brazil and the Caribbean mainly).
The Portuguese were the first to arrive to Ouida (Whyda back in the days). But they didn’t stay too long. Then the French came and built their fort. Today the fort is the Museum of History of Ouida, a very interesting place full of very old maps (some of the originals from the 1700s!) and a good recount of the local history in the kingdom of Abomey days, and in the slave trade chapter.
Many people blame only the Europeans for the slave trade. But it was not them running behind the locals to put them into boats and ship them across the world (those were the Spanish in Latin America, see the movie “The Mission” for more reference on that one). In West Africa it was really the same locals between the kingdoms of Abomey, Allada and Porto Novo (in the Benin area) who chased each other and profited dearly by handing them for exchange to the europeans. I mean, it takes two to Tango.
The slaves were walked from their homelands for months in miserable conditions (chained to the neck or the feet, almost starved), many of them committed suicide before even making it to Ouida. There they were taken to the fort where they stayed in filthy and inhumane conditions until a good number gathered in order to fill a boat.
Between the fort in downtown Ouida and the beach, there are about 3.2 kms that the slaves would walk to the unknown. This same path is now called “Route des Esclaves” (Slave Route) and it is a historical walk in Ouida. It starts at the fort and continues to the “Tree of Forget” where slaves were asked to go around three times. It was believed that then they would forget their previous lives: where they were coming from, their families, etc. (I don’t think it worked very well though)
Along the Slave Route there are different points where the caravan would stop: In one to be branded with burning iron as cattle, in another to spend some time in a dark box-like building to disorient them and simulate the conditions of the ship. These days there are a series of fetiches alongside the route.
At the beach nowadays, there is a very moving memorial called the “Door of No Return”. It is a beautiful arch with the picture of slaves marching through it and some iron statues with chains on each side. The beach itself is very beautiful: the sand is redish, the sea very blue and the forest on the coast. I was standing there and thought of the many people who passed through there in miserable conditions and never saw their families or their homeland again.
In the ships the life was not much better. They were terribly cramped and in the most unhygienic conditions. Men were chained chest to the floor and women back to the floor for the patrons to come and rape them whenever they wanted. This was done with two intentions: one the pleasure of the person on top, and second to get them pregnant and procreate babies to make up for the ones who would die on the trip (which were a lot). So “mestizaje” or mixing of races began back in the slaves ships. At the end only the strongest both physically and in will made it to America and those were the ones Europeans wanted to work in their American plantations or to build the new cities there.
The story didn’t finish with the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in the 1800s, and it hasn’t actually finished yet. The slaves sold to America brought with them their African culture and gens which mixed with the locals and made us Latinos so wonderfully diverse. Voodoo remains the main religion in Haiti, everyday life practices are almost identical in some areas of Brazil and the Caribbean as they are here in West Africa and I thank them dearly also for the beats of Samba, Salsa, Merengue and Cumbia. But then we have racism which has shaped America into every fiber of our culture.
In this side of the world the value of the human being decreased very much, making it easy for people to sell or enslave young ones for their own interests. The mistrust among the locals is there behind the warmth of the culture and the voodoo has evolved from a spiritist tradition to more of witchcraft and sorcellierie practice (more on Voodoo soon).
Slave trade was a very sad chapter of human history and one example where the West world was wrong in their utilitarian thinking. Even more sad is that it still continues today in modern practices such as child traffic and forced labour, so commonly found here in Benin but also around the world (I saw a lot in Cambodia and Mexico, but probably in other places is the same). Still when my 15-year old students hand me passionate essays on the dignity of the human life and I meet engaged Beninoises who have made of their personal mission to work for the human rights in this corner of the world, I smile and think for myself that there is still plenty of hope for human race.