Share story

RIO DE JANEIRO — Sailing from the Angolan coast across the Atlantic, the slave ships docked here in the 19th century at the huge stone wharf, delivering their human cargo to the “fattening houses” on Valongo Street. Foreign chroniclers described the depravity in the teeming slave market, including so-called boutiques selling emaciated and diseased African children.

The newly arrived slaves who died before they even started toiling in Brazil’s mines were hauled to a mass grave nearby. As imperial plantations flourished, diggers at the Cemitério dos Pretos Novos — Cemetery of New Blacks — crushed the bones of the dead, making way for thousands more.

Now, with construction crews tearing apart areas of Rio de Janeiro in the building spree before this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, stunning archaeological discoveries around the work sites are providing new insight into the city’s brutal distinction as a nerve center for the Atlantic slave trade.

But as developers press ahead in the surroundings of the unearthed slave port — with futuristic projects like the Museum of Tomorrow, costing about $100 million — the frenzied overhaul is setting off a debate over whether Rio is neglecting its past in the all-consuming rush to build its future.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“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 legal scholar and former city councilwoman.

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.

Developers are working on an array of flashy projects, like a complex of skyscrapers branded in homage to Donald Trump and a gated community of villas for Olympic judges.

Slave-trade past

At the same time, descendants of African slaves who live as squatters in crumbling buildings around the old slave port are organizing in an effort to obtain titles for their homes, pitting them against a Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church that claims ownership of the properties.

“We know our rights,” said Luiz Torres, 50, a history teacher and leader in the property-rights movement. With the slave market’s ruins near his home as testament, he added, “Everything that happened in Rio was shaped by the hand of blacks.”

Scholars say the scale of the slave trade here was staggering. Brazil received about 4.9 million slaves through the Atlantic trade, while mainland North America imported about 389,000 during the same period, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a project at Emory University.

Altogether, Rio received more than 1.8 million African slaves, or 21.5 percent of all slaves who landed in the Americas, said Mariana Candido, a historian at the University of Kansas.

Activists say the archaeological discoveries merit at least a museum and far more extensive excavations.

“The horrors committed here are a stain on our history,” said Tânia Andrade Lima, chief archaeologist at the dig that exposed Valongo, built in the early 1800s.

Neglected area

The squalid wharf functioned until the 1840s, when officials buried it under more elegant docks. Both wharves were eventually buried under landfill and a residential port district, called Little Africa.

Many descendants of slaves settled where the slave market once functioned, with African languages spoken in the area into the 20th century. While the district is gaining recognition as a cradle of samba, one of Brazil’s most treasured musical traditions, it was long neglected by the authorities.

On Black Consciousness Day, observed annually in Brazil on Nov. 20 to reflect on the injustices of slavery, Rabello, the legal scholar, pointed out that Rio’s hard-charging mayor, Eduardo Paes, who is overseeing the biggest overhaul of the city in decades, did not attend a ceremony at Valongo in which residents began a campaign to have it recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Complicating the debate over how Rio’s past should be balanced alongside the city’s frenetic reconstruction, some families still live on top of the archaeological sites, occasionally excavating Brazil’s patrimony on their own.

“When I first saw the bones, I thought they were the result of a gruesome murder involving previous tenants,” said Ana de la Merced Guimarães, 56, who lives in an old house where workers doing a renovation first discovered remains from the mass grave in 1996.

It turned out Guimarães was living above a dumping ground for dead slaves that was used for decades, until around 1830. Scholars say that as many as 20,000 people were buried in the grave, including many children.

Guimarães and her husband opted to stay in their property, opening a modest nonprofit organization on the premises, where visitors can view portions of the archaeological dig.

“This was a place of unspeakable crimes against humanity, but it’s also where we live,” Guimarães said, complaining that public agencies had provided her organization little support.

An African city

Slavery’s legacy is obvious across Brazil, where more than half of its 200 million people define themselves as black or mixed race, giving the nation more people of African descent than any other country outside Africa. In Rio, the large majority of slaves came from what is now Angola, said Walter Hawthorne, a historian at Michigan State University.

“Rio was a culturally vibrant African city,” Hawthorne said. “The foods people ate, the way they worshipped, how they dressed and more were to a large extent influenced by Angolan cultural norms.”

Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, making it the last country in the Americas to do so. Now, the relatively relaxed approach to the archaeological discoveries is raising doubts about how willing the authorities are to revisit such aspects of Brazilian history.

“Archaeologists are exposing the foundations of our unequal society while we are witnessing a perverse attempt to remake the city into something resembling Miami or Dubai,” said Cláudio Lima Castro, an architect and scholar of urban planning. “We’re losing an opportunity to focus in detail on our past, and maybe even learn from it.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.