Uncovering the legacy of slavery in Rio de Janeiro

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Rio de Janeiro was once the planet's largest slave city – and a walking trip through its "Little Africa" parts is the best way to explore the history that shaped Brazil's national essence.
Rio de Janeiro was once the planet's largest slave city – and a walking trip through its "Little Africa" parts is the best way to explore the history that shaped Brazil's national essence.

Rio de Janeiro was once the planet’s largest slave city – and a walking trip through its “Little Africa” parts is the best way to explore the history that shaped Brazil’s national essence.

As I joined the crowd of museum visitors, my gaze fell upon a glass-covered pit filled with fragments of human bones scattered in the earth. This haunting sight was just a glimpse of the grim reality hidden beneath the surface in the Gamboa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro’s downtown.

Mass Graves and Forgotten Histories

“It wasn’t a cemetery, because that implies a sacred ground,” explained Kelly Tavares, a tour guide at Rio Encantos Experiences, as we explored the Gamboa and Saúde neighborhoods, part of Rio’s Port region known as “Little Africa” due to its significant African diaspora population. “It was a mass grave.”

Uncovered in 1996 during renovations of a family home, the pit of bones was confirmed by archaeologists to be an 18th-century makeshift burial site created by the Portuguese for the enslaved Africans who perished during the treacherous Atlantic crossing to Rio de Janeiro. 

Today, this solemn site is known as the Memorial of the New Blacks, transformed by homeowners Merced and Petrúcio Guimarães into a museum and research center dedicated to preserving this tragic history.

Exploring the Legacy of Slavery

The Memorial of the New Blacks is just one of several places in Rio’s downtown port region where visitors can delve into the city’s dark past of slave trade. 

This district witnessed the arrival of approximately two million enslaved individuals on Portuguese ships between the 16th and 19th centuries. 

The legacy of slavery and the subsequent years of resistance are integral to Brazil’s narrative, with nearly half of the population tracing their ancestry back to Africa and iconic cultural traditions such as samba, Carnival, and capoeira deeply rooted in Black culture.

Revealing Hidden Histories

“We deliberately aren’t told about Black history and the significance of slavery in both Brazil and Rio,” remarked Ynaê Lopes dos Santos, a history professor at the Federal Fluminense University in Rio state. “From the 19th Century onwards, Rio became the largest slave city in the world.”

As visitors and scholars alike continue to uncover and illuminate these hidden histories, the importance of acknowledging and confronting the legacy of slavery remains paramount in understanding Brazil’s complex social fabric and cultural identity.

Gary Monroe

Gary Monroe is a seasoned contributor to the Los Angeles Business Magazine, where he offers insightful analysis on local business trends and economic developments. With a focus on Los Angeles' dynamic commercial landscape, Gary's articles provide valuable perspectives for entrepreneurs and business professionals in the city.

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