An industry like no other. The politics of memory in Rio de Janeiro’s old slave port
For a long portion of its history, Rio de Janeiro’s port was the heart of the world’s busiest slave trade. However, the traces of this dark and shameful industry have been gradually erased by collective amnesia and historical reframing. In 2009, 7 years before the 2016 Olympic Games, a vast port revitalization project was launched, that sought to turn the derelict port into a world-class, upscale mixed-use leisure and entertainment district. In 2011, excavation work unearthed the ruins of the Valongo, a stone wharf now recognized as the greatest landing site of enslaved human beings in history. In July 2017, the Wharf was listed as part of UNESCO’s World Heritage, as a site of collective pain and suffering, in the same category as Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
The paper investigates the ongoing debates surrounding Porto Maravilha, the highly controversial urban mega-project that is transforming Rio de Janeiro’s port. It examines the struggles of the Port’s Afro-Brazilian residents to reclaim historical traces of the slave past, such as the Valongo Wharf, the Dom Pedro II warehouse or structures linked to the old slave market, as tangible proofs of this long-negated history and as a tool of resistance against historical amnesia and denial. Various groups linked to the Brazilian Black Movement have pushed for the creation of a memorial space, as an essential part of a process of reparation that would grant them respect and pride in a society deeply divided along racial lines. However, given Brazil’s current political context, oblivious to the poor and hostile to Afro-descendant cultures and religions, little has been achieved to preserve and memorialize site linked to the slave trade.