Alex Castro | Writer |
Brazil considers itself a good and peaceful nation if only because it forgets having been one of the greatest slave economies of all times.
Many times, a clear conscience helps one sleep soundly, or, in our case, it is a sheer lack of memory.
African slavery in the Americas is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Modern Era.
Around eleven million people were transported by force from Africa to the Americas. Among the many nations responsible for this lucrative trade, Portugal was the main one. Among the many nations that bought these persons and generated wealth at their expense, Brazil was the main one. Among the many Brazilian ports that received this disgraced human mass, Rio de Janeiro was the main one.
The history of African slavery in the Americas is a Portuguese enterprise from beginning to end. In 1441, Portugal brings the first enslaved persons to Europe. In 1888, Brazil becomes the last country in the continent to abolish the horror of slavery in 1888.
This crime against humanity is, above all, Portuguese, Brazilian, carioca.
In Germany, even those young persons whose parents were born after the Second World War lower their heads in silence, and feel ashamed and sad when they hear about Nazism, the Holocaust or Auschwitz.
In Brazil, if we had more shame and a longer memory, we should react similarly when we hear the words slave quarters, slave ship, and slavery.
This is our crime.
In Rio de Janeiro, the main port of arrival for enslaved populations in the early 19th century was the Valongo Wharf. In 1843, it was deactivated and landfilled by an Imperial government deeply ashamed by the enterprise of slavery that made it so wealthy.
Today, the Valongo Wharf has been rediscovered and repackaged for tourists. This scenery of horror is part of the “Historical and Archaeological Circuit for the Celebration of African Heritage” along with other attractions such as Pedra do Sal, the Valongo Suspended Gardens and the Cemetery of the New Blacks, the latter being rather a mass grave where the victims of the transatlantic voyage were thrown into.
While there is no shortage of tourist attractions in Brazil and in Rio de Janeiro, what is missing are spaces that promote a true understanding of the horrors that occurred (and keep occurring) under our eyes, on our soil, in our slave quarters, in the maid’s quarters inside our apartments, in our poor communities.
The Holocaust perpetrated by the German government in the 1930s killed approximately six million Jews, one third of the world’s total Jewish population, along with countless hundreds of thousands other people.
This horror should never be understated.
And it was by no means the only horror perpetrated by European civilization in its long history of horrors.
It is impossible to visit places of torture and death such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor without respect and reflection, or without thinking about the memory of hundreds of thousands of people who suffered there.
Auschwitz killed 1.1 million people. Treblinka, 900,000. Sobibor, 200,000.Brazil received four million enslaved persons, and one million entered the country through the Valongo Wharf in central Rio de Janeiro.
Why do we, Brazilians, not have the same attitude of respect and reflection when we visit former slave quarters in colonial sugar mills, or when we walk past the ruins of whipping posts in our town squares?
I am now standing on the Valongo Wharf, trying to forget these haunting figures and focusing on the individual and indivisible experience of stepping off a slave ship right there on these rocks, on this ground.
I imagine being separated from my family and from everything I knew, with no personal belongings and crossing the ocean huddled together with hundreds of people agonising in an infectious ship, not knowing if I would see my homeland ever again. I imagine being condemned with an infinite curse as my enslaved condition will be inherited by my descendants for
I imagine Rio de Janeiro as an unknown place full of horror for a recently arrived enslaved African like myself. It is the place where my weakest fellow countrymen come to die. It is the ground whereupon the enslavement of my body begins. It is my first experience on this new world where I am treated and exploited as a captive.
I imagine that Rio de Janeiro continues to be a place of horror for my descendants, and the descendants of my descendants, for the people who share my blood and my skin color – those who still are today the main homicide victims and also the largest prison population – and who still have to hear that there is no racism in Brazil.
All of this happened yesterday, and keeps happening today.
The police does not enter the penthouses of the descendants of the enslavers in the same way they invade the shacks of the descendants of the enslaved.
The past, like a stone thrown in water creates concentric circles that reverberate in the present.
The past is the present.
Alex Castro is a writer. In 2015, he published the Autobiography of the Slave-Poet by Juan Francisco Manzano in Brazil. In the following year, he was invited to the International Book Biennial in Havana, where the Spanish edition of the same book was launched. In 2018, the Autobiography was one of the books selected by the Brazilian Government for the National Programme of Books and Educational Resources. He also wrote Otherphobia: Militant Texts (2015), and his next books “Attention” and “The Prisons” are due in 2019 and 2020 by Editora Rocco.