RUINS OF RIO’S SLAVE PAST: The Valongo Slave Wharf and Surroundings
As Rio de Janeiro rushes to redevelop the old port district in a vast urban renewal program called Porto Maravilha (Marvelous Port) — ostensibly for the FIFA World Cup this year and the Summer Olympics in 2016, but really a long-term real-estate scheme — archaeological discoveries are providing new insights into the city’s long role as a major center of the African slave trade and diaspora.
Rio received more slaves than any other city in the Americas: more than 1.8 million African slaves, or 21.5 percent of all those who landed in the New World After a long trans-Atlantic journey from the Angola, the slave ships docked at a stone wharf on Valongo Street, where local “fattening houses” prepared the human cargo for sale. Foreign visitors chronicled the horrors of the slave markets during the early 19th century.
The Valongo slave wharf functioned until the 1940s, when authorities constructed more elegant docks. After Brazil ended the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1850, and abolished slavery itself in 1888, the slave facilities disappeared. Still, a residential port district called Little Africa remained nearby, where African languages were spoken into the early 20th century. Although long neglected by authorities, this district has gained recognition as a cultural health of Brazil’s popular samba music and dance.
Despite the new archaeological discoveries, construction crews now tear apart the district. An elevated expressway has been demolished to make way for new boulevards, parks, and underground tunnels. Developers press ahead with projects like the “Museum of Tomorrow,” costing about $100 million and designed in by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. A new skyscraper complex will pay homage to Donald Trump and a gated community will house Olympic judges.
In the midst of this frenzied overhaul, a debate has arisen over whether Rio is neglecting its past in the all-consuming rush to build its future. The city has installed plaques at the ruins of the slave port and a map of an African heritage circuit, which visitors can walk to see where the slave market once functioned. Still, scholars, activists and residents of the port argue that such moves are far too timid in comparison with the multibillion-dollar development projects taking hold.
“We’re finding archaeological sites of global importance, and probably far more extensive than what’s been excavated so far, but instead of prioritizing these discoveries our leaders are proceeding with their grotesque remaking of Rio,” said Sonia Rabello, a prominent legal scholar and former city councilwoman. In addition, descendants of African slaves who live as squatters in crumbling buildings around the old port are organizing to obtain titles for their homes.
All this new criticism adds to preexisting concerns about the scale, speed, and social impacts of the redevelopment plans. Mary Jander, Managing Editor of Future Cities, called Rio’s “Olympic oppression” one of the ten worst scandals of the year, while New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman criticized the port plan for having “no guarantee that what’s good and worth preserving about the urban mix of the existing port won’t be sacrificed to a sea of office towers.”
Rio’s rich heritage is too valuable to be lost in a rush toward some uncertain future. One hopes that the project will slow down and proceed with historical, social, and archaeological safeguards before it is too late.
Source: Simon Romero, “Rio’s race to future intersects slave past,” New York Times, March 8, 2014