A Walk Along the Slave Route
FROM the 17th to the 19th century, the city of Ouidah served as a major slave-trading post in West Africa. Located in what is now the Republic of Benin, Ouidah witnessed the export of more than a million slaves. Often, Africans supplied fellow Africans as human cargo in exchange for such items as alcohol, cloth, bracelets, knives, swords, and especially guns, which were in high demand because of intertribal warfare.
Between the 16th and the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic to satisfy the demand for slave labor in the plantations and mines of the New World. About 85 percent of the slaves, says the book American Slavery—1619-1877, “went to Brazil and the various Caribbean colonies of the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch.” An estimated 6 percent went to the colonies that would later become part of the United States. *
At the start of their journey, many of the slaves—chained, beaten, and branded—walked the two-and-a-half-mile (4 km) route that now goes from the Ouidah Museum of History, a reconstructed fortress, to what is called the Door of No Return, which stands on the beach. The door marks the end of the Slave Route. It is more symbolic than literal, for the slaves did not all depart from the same spot. Why did slavery become so popular?
A Long, Ugly History
In very early times, African rulers sold war captives to Arab traders. Later, European powers entered the slave trade, especially after establishing colonies in the Americas. At that time, intertribal warfare and the resulting captives provided an abundance of slaves, making war a lucrative enterprise for both the victors and the greedy slave traders. In addition, slaves were acquired through kidnapping or from African traders who brought them from the interior. Nearly anyone could be sold as a slave, even a prince who had fallen out of his king’s good graces.
A well-known dealer was Brazilian Francisco Félix de Souza. In 1788, De Souza took command of the fortress that was the hub of the Ouidah slave market in the Bight of Benin. At the time, Ouidah was under the Kingdom of Dahomey. However, De Souza and Dahoman King Adandozan had a falling out. So De Souza, perhaps while in prison, conspired with the king’s brother, and together they ousted the ruler in 1818. Thus began a lucrative relationship between the new king, Ghezo, and De Souza, who was placed in charge of the slave trade. *
Ghezo was intent on expanding his kingdom and needed European weapons to do it. Hence, he appointed De Souza as viceroy of Ouidah to help administer trade with the Europeans. With exclusive rights over the sale of slaves in that part of Africa, De Souza soon amassed a fortune, and the slave market, situated near his house, became a hub for foreign and local buyers.
A Walk Wet With Tears
For the modern-day visitor, a tour of the Ouidah Slave Route begins at the reconstructed Portuguese fort. Originally built in 1721, the fort now serves as the aforementioned museum. Captives destined to be slaves were confined in the large central courtyard. Most had walked, chained together, for many nights before their arrival. Why nights? Darkness helped to keep them disoriented and made it harder for escapees to return home.
When a group of slaves arrived, an auction was held, after which traders branded their acquisitions. Slaves consigned for export were taken to the beach, where canoes or small boats ferried them to ships.
Another point on the historical Slave Route is the former site of the Tree of Forgetfulness. Today a memorial stands in place of the tree around which the slaves were forced to walk—males allegedly nine times and females seven. This exercise, they were told, would clear their memory of their homeland, making them less inclined to rebel.
The route also features a monument that memorializes the Zomaï huts, which no longer exist. Zomaï refers to the constant darkness inside the huts, which got the crammed captives used to the wretched conditions they would encounter aboard the ships. Indeed, they may have been held in the huts for months while awaiting transportation. Those who died during the ordeal were thrown into a mass grave.
A monument called Zomachi, which symbolizes repentance and reconciliation, is especially poignant. There, every January, descendants of both slaves and slave merchants request forgiveness for those who perpetrated the injustices.
The last stop along the tour route is the Door of No Return—a memorial that symbolizes the slaves’ final moments on African soil. This large, arched entrance features bas-relief friezes of two rows of chained Africans converging on the nearby beach, with the Atlantic in front of them. At this point, some desperate captives are said to have eaten sand so as to remember their native land. Others chose death, strangling themselves with their own chains.
Beginning in the early 1800’s, efforts to abolish slavery mounted. The last boatload of slaves sent from Ouidah to the United States arrived in Mobile, Alabama, in July 1860. Their servitude, however, was short-lived, for the U.S. government issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Slavery finally came to an end in the Western Hemisphere in 1888 when Brazil abolished the practice. *
A most visible legacy of the slave trade is the vast African diaspora, which has significantly influenced the demographics and culture of many lands in the Americas. Another legacy is the spread of voodoo, a form of religion involving magic and spells that is especially popular in Haiti. “The term voodoo,” says Encyclopædia Britannica, “is derived from the word vodun, which denotes a god, or spirit, in the language of the Fon people of Benin (formerly Dahomey).”
Sadly, harsh forms of slavery continue today, although not always in a literal sense. Millions, for example, slave to survive under harsh economic conditions. Others struggle under oppressive political regimes. (Ecclesiastes 8:9) And millions are held captive by false religious teachings and superstitions. Can human governments emancipate their subjects from those forms of slavery? No. Only Jehovah God can do that, and he will! Indeed, his written Word, the Bible, promises that all who turn to Jehovah by worshipping him in harmony with Bible truth—the truth that sets men free—will one day enjoy “the glorious freedom of the children of God.”—Romans 8:21; John 8:32.
^ par. 3 From its relatively small beginnings, the slave population in the United States expanded, largely because of natural population growth as slaves had their own children.
^ par. 7 “Ghezo” is spelled in various ways.
^ par. 17 The Bible’s view of slavery is discussed in the article “The Bible’s Viewpoint: Did God Condone the Slave Trade?” in the September 8, 2001, issue of Awake!
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“MAN HAS DOMINATED MAN TO HIS INJURY”
Many believe that the slave traders obtained their quarry by raiding villages and kidnapping whomever they wanted. While this may have happened, slavers likely would not have taken away many millions of people “without the cooperation of a huge network of African rulers and merchants,” said professor of African history Dr. Robert Harms in a radio interview. How true that “man has dominated man to his injury”!—Ecclesiastes 8:9.
© Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY
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Approximately 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic for slave labor
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Built in 1721, this Portuguese fort now serves as the Ouidah Museum of History
© Gary Cook/Alamy
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A statue of a slave bound and gagged
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The Door of No Return—a memorial that symbolizes the slaves’ final moments on African soil
© Danita Delimont/Alamy