Saturday, February 20, 2010

Benin and Its Slave Trading Past

Gate of No Return - A memorial to the slave port that was on the shores of Benin
Benin also was the home of a major slave trading kingdom in Africa, the Dahomey Kingdom. Their rule spread over areas we now call Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Burkina Faso. Selling slaves to Europeans in exchange for weapons helped them build their strength. The weapons fueled their ways and the slaves they sold were often their prisoners of war. The memorials to the slave trade in Ouidah are vivid. First one starts at an old Portuguese fort where slaves were exchanged. Now there are photos and art work that remind you of the terrible injustices done there and speak to the strength of the Dahomey Kingdom and African’s direct involvement and profit in the slave trade. Along the 3km route to the water where slaves were marched, there are statues and memorials. There is a tree, the Tree of Forgetting, where slaves walked around 9 times in order to purge their memories of Africa before they got on the boats and then there was another tree, the Tree of Return, marking the point of last goodbyes. By turning three times around the tree, slaves could ensure that their spirits would return to their homeland after death. Along the route one is reminded of the incredible brutality and all the efforts made to break everyone’s spirits and also all the people who died before even setting off on the journey.

Another thing I found interesting was the deep connections they referred to with culture in Brazil, Haiti and Cuba and the parallels that exist today with religion, music, traditional dress… For instance, Benin has many salsa musicians and the dance lives strongly today. I believe that in the US we are taught that slaves lost all connections to the home countries and maybe in direct ways they did, but in larger ways the cultures have found ways to stay in touch. Former slaves came back to live back on the shores of Africa and countries keeping connected culturally.

I have always been interested in the history of slavery and visiting Ouidah was a very interesting way to experience the history more deeply and avoid the throngs of tourists that mob the other African slave ports. In fact, I also got a chance to visit Goree Island off the coast of Dakar, but Benin’s display was more powerful.

If you are interested in learning more I just found this NPR link to a story about Benin and the history of slavery there.

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