An African country reckons with its history of selling slaves

Visitors in January take pictures at the Door of No Return in Ouidah, which marks the site where slaves were shipped to the Americas.
(Jane Hahn/For The Washington Post)

Less than a mile from what was once West Africa’s biggest slave port, the departure point for more than a million people in chains, stands a statue of Francisco Félix de Souza, a man regarded as the father of this city.

There’s a museum devoted to his family and a plaza in his name. Every few decades, his descendants proudly bestow his nickname — “Chacha” — on a de Souza who is appointed the clan’s new patriarch.

But there’s one part of de Souza’s legacy that is seldom addressed. After arriving here in the late 1700s from Brazil, then a Portuguese colony, he became one of the biggest slave merchants in the history of the transatlantic slave trade.

In Benin, where the government plans to build two museums devoted to the slave trade in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, slavery is an embattled subject. It is raised in political debates, downplayed by the descendants of slave traders and deplored by the descendants of slaves.

At a time when Americans are again debating how slavery and the Civil War are memorialized, Benin and other West African nations are struggling to resolve their own legacies of complicity in the trade. Benin’s conflict over slavery is particularly intense.

For over 200 years, powerful kings in what is now the country of Benin captured and sold slaves to Portuguese, French and British merchants. The slaves were usually men, women and children from rival tribes — gagged and jammed into boats bound for Brazil, Haiti and the United States.

The trade largely stopped by the end of the 19th century, but Benin never fully confronted what had happened. The kingdoms that captured and sold slaves still exist today as tribal networks, and so do the groups that were raided. The descendants of slave merchants, like the de Souza family, remain among the nation’s most influential people, with a large degree of control over how Benin’s history is portrayed.

In building the new museums, the country will have to decide how it will tell the story of its role in the slave trade. Is it finally ready, for example, to paint de Souza as the slave merchant that he was?

“The tensions are still there,” said Ana Lucia Araujo, a professor of history at Howard University who has spent years researching Benin’s role in the slave trade. “In the past, the country had a hard time telling the story of the victims of the slave trade. Instead, many initiatives commemorated those who enslaved them.”

Unlike some African countries, Benin has publicly acknowledged — in broad terms — its role in the slave trade. In 1992, the country held an international conference sponsored by UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, that looked at where and how slaves were sold. In 1999, President Mathieu Kérékou visited a Baltimore church and fell to his knees during an apology to African Americans for Africa’s role in the slave trade.

But what Benin failed to address was its painful internal divisions. Kérékou’s apology to Americans meant little to citizens who still saw monuments to de Souza across this city. Even Ouidah’s tour guides had grown frustrated.

Unlike some African countries, Benin has publicly acknowledged — in broad terms — its role in the slave trade. In 1992, the country held an international conference sponsored by UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, that looked at where and how slaves were sold. In 1999, President Mathieu Kérékou visited a Baltimore church and fell to his knees during an apology to African Americans for Africa’s role in the slave trade.

But what Benin failed to address was its painful internal divisions. Kérékou’s apology to Americans meant little to citizens who still saw monuments to de Souza across this city. Even Ouidah’s tour guides had grown frustrated.

“These people don’t know the history. De Souza was the worst person, and he’s still treated like a hero,” said Remi Segonlou, who runs a small business showing visitors around the city.

The memory of slavery emerges here in large and small ways. In the 2016 presidential election, one candidate, Lionel Zinsou, angrily pointed out in a televised debate that his opponent, Patrice Talon, who is now president of Benin, was the descendant of slave merchants. In villages where people were abducted for the slave trade, families still ask reflexively when they hear a knock on the door whether the visitor is “a human being” or a slave raider.

“Our anger at the families who sold our ancestors will never go away until the end of the world,” said Placide Ogoutade, a businessman in the town of Ketou, where thousands of people were seized and sold in the 18th and 19th centuries.

When his children were young, Ogoutade told them they were barred from marrying anyone who was a descendant of the country’s slave merchants.

Some of Benin’s foremost scholars are battling the country’s unwillingness to interrogate its messy past.

 

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