It is 40 C in the shade and my T-shirt is drenched with sweat. I’m standing on a pristine, golden sand beach in Ouidah, Benin, a remote corner of West Africa rarely frequented by tourists.
I’m facing what is called the Gate of No Return, a massive sculpted gateway marking the final stretch of La Route des Esclaves, The Route of the Slaves. In front of me there is just the blueness of the Atlantic Ocean all the way to South America.
During over 200 years of colonial rule hundreds of thousands of African slaves were shipped from this stunning beach to the New World, mainly to what is now Brazil, the US and the Caribbean. Ever wondered why French is spoken in Haiti, why some Brazilians have African heritage or why voodoo is practised in parts of Louisiana? The answer is slave trade from the centuries before mankind learned better than to keep other humans as property.
Ouidah used to be one of the busiest centres of slave trade in West Africa. British, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch slavers made their fortunes here trading in human lives. Newly established colonies needed workers and West Africa was chosen as the source of cheap labour.
Slaves were captured by traders directly in villages across Benin and neighbouring countries. Some, particularly war prisoners, were sold into slavery by local rulers. One cannon could allegedly buy as many as 15 men or 21 women.
The Route of the Slaves is a 4 km-long dirt path walked by as many as 2 million men, women and children whose fate was no longer their own. That sunny day in April 2015 I take that route in a car accompanied by a local guide.
It starts at the slave market where traders came to examine the human ware available for sale and select the most promising ones. Those selected were then subject to several months’ imprisonment in a specially designed chamber where they were kept crammed like sardines, sitting in one position, with very little food and no light. Those who survived were deemed fit to travel to the colonies, and those dead or sick were discarded – literally thrown into a moat. Those lucky (or unlucky) enough to survive were herded together and led down the Route. The next stop was the Tree of Forgetting. Slaves were supposed to walk around the tree in circles in order to forget their history and heritage and become devoid of identity and willpower. The step after that involved circling the Tree of Return. That ritual was to guarantee that the slave’s spirit would come back to Ouidah after their death, to finally find peace.
Slaves were then chained together and loaded onto ships sailing for unknown destinations. According to historical sources, some captives tried committing suicide by drowning in the sea or swallowing their tongue. Many perished along the way and those who survived the journey spent the rest of their days working on spice and sugar cane plantations.
Many, altogether around 4 million West Africans, ended up in Brazil, enriching the country’s culture with African influences. One particularly infamous Brazilian trader whose house is still standing in Ouidah was Francisco da Souza. He allegedly arrived penniless from Brazil and left Benin a rich man. His descendants can still be found in the Bahia region in Brazil.
In 1848 the age of Enlightenment brought an end to slavery in West Africa, at least officially. However, the ignoble practice continued unofficially through the better part of the 19th century. Some say it continued as late as the 20th century, with desperate parents selling their children as slave labour to help them escape the life of crushing poverty and hunger.
Today Ouidah is a tranquil village with unpaved sandy roads lined with palm trees. Barefoot children and baby chicks are running around in clouds of dust among the mud huts. The town’s bloody history is commemorated in subtle and rather symbolic, yet immensely powerful ways.
There are no pictures of the slaves or the captives, no chains, no prison, just that peaceful sleepy village. The only monument that remains is a square in place where the moat that buried the bodies of those who couldn’t stand imprisonment once stood. At the entrance there is a statue of a kneeling slave in chains with a gag in his mouth. Inside, there is a slave with broken chains, his arms raised towards the sky. The Tree of Return still stands in the middle of a public square. Women and children rest under its branches seeking refuge from the scorching sun.
The contrast between what is and what was couldn’t be greater, and it is that that almost brings tears into my eyes.