The Slaving Port of Ouidah and Monumental Discourse around the Atlantic Perimeter
by Saima Akhtar and David H. Colmenares
The UNESCO-sponsored Slave Route Project and Ouidah’92 conference in the present-day Republic of Benin were projects that were crafted by international and local institutions to promote African arts and culture and, at the same time, commemorate victims of the slave trade. Yet, following the Vodun-inspired Ouidah 92 conference, the establishment of a series of monuments in 1993–94 to memorialize the more than one million Africans deported from the port of Ouidah can arguably be seen as political projects that utilized Beninoise culture, religion, and heritage to flatten plural memories of the slave trade and promote the narratives of the local and political elite. In this post, we examine two architectural projects that were the result of this moment, the Door of No Return and the Slave Route, and argue that their construction coincided with a critical turning point for the Beninoise economy, which opened up under the leadership of President Soglo in the 1990s. In line with current scholarship on the topic, we examine the spatial configuration of the site to show that the two projects capitalized on what historian Ana Araujo calls a “memorialization movement,” which sought to not only bolster a growing interest in tourism, but to also create a monumental discourse that drew in specific powers and peoples situated around the Atlantic perimeter.
The three kilometer dirt road that leads to the Door of No Return [La Porte du Non-Retour] in Ouidah, a port city in the Republic of Benin, serves a sort of pilgrimage site for a handful of local Beninoise, the occasional tourist, or the visitor who seeks to uncover a painful chapter of this town’s slave trading past. The path, commonly known as the Slave Route, stretches from the market square, where slaves were once sold, to the sandy shores of the Atlantic Ocean and contains over a hundred sculptures and a number of murals meant to commemorate victims of the trade. In the two decades since its inception, time has had a considerable effect on the site — many of the sculptures lay in disrepair and its colorful murals have been reduced to faded outlines of what they once were. The contrast between the deteriorating conditions of the site and past efforts to consecrate the memory of human suffering pose important questions about its intended purpose as one of the most well known memorials of the West African ‘slaving ports’ along the Atlantic perimeter.
Together, Ouidah’s Door of No Return and Slave Route are collective memorial sites that were constructed by local and international actors through contending uses of the past and ongoing present. In particular, the UNESCO-sponsored Slave Route Project and Ouidah’92 conference — a ‘festival of Vodun arts and cultures’ which actually took place in January 1993 — created the opportunity for political and “neo-liberal” interventions that, as many scholars of this period argue, capitalized on the cultural consequences and memories of the slave trade to elevate Ouidah as a heritage town (1). Consequently, this obscured the ways in which local and Euro-American colonial actors worked in concert along the Atlantic perimeter to bolster the trade and deportation of more than one million Africans from Ouidah in the 16th to the 19th centuries. We examine the site as a collection of signs, meanings, and narrative layers that were meant to participate in a ‘monumental discourse’ that appealed to different publics and sensibilities. At the same time, we hope to extend existing analyses of the site to show that its historical layers point to a more global phenomenon, where arts and culture played a vital role in what historian Ana Lucia Araujo calls a “memorialization movement,” whereby cultural tourism projects enabled Ouidah (and the Republic of Benin) to open up towards the Atlantic Rim, memorialize the slave trade, celebrate African culture, and promote the ‘return’ of its diaspora (2).
The first project, The Slave Route: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage, was launched by UNESCO’s General Conference in 1993; the second was the Benin-organized Ouidah’92 conference, also known as Retrouvailles Amérique-Afrique: Premier Festival Mondial des Arts et Culture Vodoun, which took place in the same year. The projects came to fruition, in part, because of the Republic of Benin’s first democratically elected president, Nicéphore D. Soglo’s, efforts to promote cultural diplomacy throughout the 1990s. In public speeches and African summits, he asked the international community to acknowledge its involvement in the slave trade and, by extension, in slavery’s ominous legacy in the African present. In calling for what he called “reconciliation,” Soglo did not shy away from urging greater economic cooperation from powers beyond the Francophonie, most notably the Americas, where, through the slave trade, West Africa came to share deep cultural ties and diasporic connections.
Soglo’s concerted campaign spurred a resolution by UNESCO in 1993 to begin one of its major “flagship projects,” the Slave Route, along with the somewhat contested involvement of Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide’s involvement signaled UNESCO’s push to involve “broader African diaspora” in the project (3). This came to the fore in the aftermath of another controversial UNESCO-sponsored project, the Five-hundredth Anniversary of the Discovery of America, where UNESCO seized the opportunity to extend “the debate ignited among native and Afro-descendent populations of the Americas in 1992” (4) towards a large-scale cultural, scientific, and preservation-oriented project. But this broadening of aims and international agents came at a cost to Soglo’s government, as he lost some control over the project. Moreover, the transformation of a regional initiative into an internationally organized endeavor revealed the extent to which the politics of nation building, identity, and memorialization in Benin were disconnected (5).
Soglo, in turn, responded by organizing a parallel event. Ouidah’92, which was held in collaboration with international institutions which included UNESCO, consisted of an international conference and cultural festival that brought together artists and musicians from Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States. These participants, it can be argued, were carefully chosen to create the image of a shared cultural constellation created by the forced migration of Africans to the very locations from where they came. The festival, led by the scholar, poet and diplomat Nouréini Tidjani-Serpos, centered on the idea of Vodun, not primarily as a religious system, but as a sort of matrix of cultural production that originated in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey and spread across the body of the Atlantic. In this sense, Ouidah’92 sought to revitalize the common cultural heritage of the West African diaspora and cast the legacy of the slave trade in a more positive light. Soglo’s government went to great lengths to show how this change offered a more fruitful ground for ‘reconciliation,’ and for even greater Transatlantic cultural and economic integration. But at a local, and less explicit level, the maneuver gestured at the need to accommodate the claims of various political factions that vied for hegemony over an emerging democratic state. For one thing, political scholars have remarked that the memorialization of slavery under Soglo’s regime ran in tandem with a general rehabilitation of the political and symbolic legitimacy of the ancient Kingdom of Dahomey — a kingdom that was deeply involved in the slave trade. In particular, the royal families of Abomey preserved their ascendency through colonial and independent Benin and played a key role in the re-establishment of Benin’s democracy through their participation in the transitional National Conference (6).
To complicate matters further, Soglo’s family connections tied him to the powerful Afro-Brazilian de Souza family, who were descendants of the infamous Francisco Félix de Souza (1754–1849), the most notorious slave trader in pre-colonial West Africa. In this regard, the celebration of Vodun culture in Ouidah, rather than the more traditionally associated royal capital of Abomey, came into question. After the rejection of more historically justified bids made by Abomey and Cotonou, the choice of Ouidah as the capital of Vodun culture seemed like a scheme of factional accommodation within a false framework of the “memorialization movement.” Yet, the cultural struggles underlying the events did not go unnoticed by some of the principal foreign actors. For example, the Catholic Church viewed with suspicion the sudden rehabilitation of Vodun after two decades of formal suppression and tended to favor UNESCO’s approach (7), while France, the former metropole, decided not to partake in UNESCO’s venture because of Aristide’s original involvement in it.
Soglo’s cultural policies and the government’s participation in international projects, such as UNESCO’s Slave Route project, the Door of No Return, and the Ouidah’92 festival, provided an opportunity for Ouidah to become a space of economic and cultural renaissance after years of isolation following French colonial rule. However, the narrative constructed through the configuration of the sites is one that selectively remembers and upholds selective events of the past while suppressing others. The walk down the Slave Route path, for example, begins against the backdrop of the de Souza family mansion. A pedestal and statue, constructed as part of the Ouidah’92 conference, stands in front of the mansion and its plaque designates the place where slaves were once displayed, auctioned off, and began their descent towards ships docked in the Atlantic. The presence of the mansion and an oak tree, dubbed the Tree of Forgetting, cast a shadow over this former market place and create a strange juxtaposition between the dark history of the site and the gleaming yellow compound that stands behind it. There is no mention, as Forte notes, that “at least half of Ouidah’s population are descendants of slave merchants,” which makes an already uneasy proximity between the monument and the de Souza household even more stark (8). It is from this point that visitors begin their pilgrimage down the Slave Route.
Similar juxtapositions are visible further down the path. Visitors encounter sporadically placed divine and zoomorphic cement sculptures on pedestals along the edge of the dirt path. The figures were commissioned and crafted by Beninoise artists including Cyprien Tokoudagba, Fortuna Bandeira, and Dominique Gnonnou (aka Kouas), some of whom have strong affiliations with the Beninoise governing class and have a history of working to reproducing visions of the West African elite (9). On a whole, the figures are meant to celebrate Vodun religion and culture, but, as Araujo notes, they also harken back to the political imaginary of the royal families of Abomey (10). Moreover, the seeming purposeful destruction of a number of statues may point to the tension between the representations of these figures and their reception among local ‘Ouidahners.’
There are, however, sculptures that reference the harsh cruelties that victims of the slave trade endured on land before being shipped off. To view these sculptures, however, one must make a detour off the main Slave Route path into a small village where, when we visited, reggae music was blasting and eager tour guides guided us into a clearing where three sculptures stood on pedestals bearing the Ouidah’92 logo. The dissonance between the gravity of these sculptures and the energetic life of the village was again quite striking. Two of the sculptures showed how deportees would be treated if they were thought to be acting out of line. A figure is shown sitting, strapped into a small metal cage, with his appendages bounded and a steel metal bar thrust into his mouth. The imagery is painful, yet the touristic experience is oddly disconnected from the somber narrative that emerges of the victims of the slave trade.
The path continues from this point to the shores of the Atlantic. Walking along the last few meters of the route, a large, concrete red and gold gate becomes visible and creates a visual connection between the Slave Route and the Door of No Return. The gate and the metallic sculptures that flank it, show signs of wear and deterioration caused by the salinity of the ocean. The white, red, and gold paint that embellish its surfaces were also fading, having missed the regular maintenance that structures of its size require before falling into disrepair. Nevertheless, the gate still creates a monumental scene at the edge of the ocean and tells a story about the fate of those who stood at the spot centuries ago. The decorated frieze, which faces the beach, depicts two lines of deportees with bound hands, chained to one another, traversing the sands to board a ship with an unknown destination. The columns reproduce the image of the sculptures that stood in the village clearing, showing male and female captives on their knees with their appendages bound as they awaited their fate in Portuguese-built forts. The backside of the gate shows illustrations of their native towns, as they were carried away.
In its entirety, the gate and the route leading to it, are designed so that those who walk through it are able to build upon the narratives, histories, and memories presented to them along the way — ones that appeal to a largely foreign audience (11). The spatial arrangement of the two projects is meant to provoke empathy and emotion from those who move through it. Moreover, as Forte again writes in regard to the renewal of diasporic connections sparked by the festival and the touristic promotion of the site, tourists, particularly African-Americans and Afro-Brazilians returning to uncover a so-called piece of their lost past, can relive this period; not based on ‘historical’ reconstructions based on facts, but instead “on the capacity of places and natural landscapes to suggest ancient stories and to inspire sensory perceptions.” (12) This point is reified through the construction of third monument, located just a few meters east of the Door of No Return, which was commissioned and built by local governmental and Catholic factions. The stated purpose of the Memorial of the Great Jubilee of 2000 is to commemorate the “first messengers of good news to Dahomey.” The structure is roughly the same size, if not larger than, the Door of No Return, and serves as its counterpart — welcoming back to the land of Dahomey the forgotten sons and daughters of the African diaspora. A large cross stands in the center of a cutout of the country, while images of devout Africans are shown to raise their hands up towards the cross, the country, and an illuminated pyramidal shape that hovers in the corner. As a final stop on the supposed Slave Route, this third monument serves to celebrate the lost diasporas and traditions of the Transatlantic and beckon their return to Benin.
Perhaps even more striking is the wholesale appropriation and adoption of UNESCO’s memorialization discourse. The touristic procession from the slave market square to the Door of No Return closely follows UNESCO’s original aim of commemorating the memory of the slave trade by very literally inscribing a Slave Route path onto the shores of Benin. The metaphor is made real, in this sense, by creating a veritable via crucis (13) that connects various memorial ‘stations’ along the three-kilometer stretch of the path. This urban reconstruction of the path, from the slave market to the ships, is meant to evoke empathy for the plight of slaves. And yet, any effort to remember and memorialize the past is put into question by the states desire to suppress marginalized memories of the slave trade in favor of nation-building on a global stage and Transatlantic integration in Benin. Despite its disrepair, the tensions between narrative discourses in Ouidah’s memorial site continue to point towards the ongoing complexities that memory and reconciliation pose in former West African slaving port towns, and the peoples and nations in their periphery.
(1) See Jung Ran Forte, “‘Ways of Remembering’: Transatlantic Connections and African Diaspora’s Homecoming in the Republic of Benin,” Social Dynamics 33 (2007) : 123–143. Forte uses the term neo-liberal to describe the patterns in the 1990s that allowed “the opening of the country to foreign capital and investments” and the establishment of the tourism industry. In line with this moment, Soglo launched a cultural policy that promoted Beninoise traditional culture, renewed ancestral connections, and “established Benin as a homeland of the African diaspora.” Ouidah’92, Forte goes on to argue, was at the center of this project.
(2) Ana Lucia Araujo, Public Memory of Slavery (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010), 75.
(3) UNESCO, “The Slave Route Pursues It’s Path of Light,” http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/events/prizes-and-celebrations/celebrations/international-days/20th-anniversary-of-the-slave-route-project/ and “UNESCO Acknowledges Cuba’s Contribution to Slave Route Project,” http://www.cadenagramonte.cu/english/index.php/show/articles/19720:unesco-acknowledges-cubas-contribution-to-slave-route-project.
(4) UNESCO, The Slave Route: 1994–2014 — The Road Travelled. Brochure of the 20th Anniversary (UNESCO, 2014), 2.
(5) See Nassirou Bako-Arifari, “La Mémoire de la Traite Négrière dans le Débat Politique au Bénin dans les Années 1990,” Journal Des Africanistes 70 (2000) : 1–2.
(6) On Soglo’s regime, see Emmanuel V. Adjovi, Une Election Libre en Afrique: La Présidentielle du Bénin, 1996 (Paris: Karthala, 1996).
(7) See Patrick Claffey, “Kérkou the Chameleon” in Staging Politics: Power and Performance in Asia and Africa, Eds. Julia Strauss/Donal O’Brien (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 101–103.
(8) Forte, 131.
(9) See Joseph Adandé, “Memory of Slavery in Contemporary Beninese Art,” in Slavery in Art and Literature: Approaches to Trauma, Memory, and Visuality, Eds. Birgit Haehnel/Melanie Ulz (Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2010), 230–236.
(10) See Araujo, “Mémoires de l’Esclavage en Enjeux de la Patrimonialisation,” in Les Traites et les Esclavages Perspectives Historiques et Contemporaines, Eds. M. Cottias et al (Paris: Karthala, 2010), 364.
(11) While we did see locals walking through and lingering near the beach and the gate, it seems that the procession down the Slave Route to the Door of No Return is largely a touristic activity that specifically targets (and is used by) foreign audiences. We also saw local Catholic priests and nuns tour the Jubilee Gate with large groups of school children.
(12) Forte, 131–132.
(13) See Araujo, 363.
Adjovi, Emmanuel V. Une Election Libre en Afrique: la Présidentielle du Bénin.Paris: Karthala, 1996.
Araujo, Ana Lucia. Public Memory of Slavery. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010.
Claffey, Patrick. “Kérkou the Chameleon.” Staging Politics: Power and Performance in Asia and Africa. Eds. Strauss, Julia/O’Brien, Donal. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007. 91–110.
Forte, Jung Ran. “‘Ways of Remembering’: Transatlantic Connections and African Diaspora’s Homecoming in the Republic of Benin.” Social Dynamics 33 (2007): 123–143.
Haehnel, Birgit/Ulz, Melanie (Eds.). Slavery in Art and Literature: Approaches to Trauma, Memory, and Visuality. Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2010.
Law, Robin. Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port’, 1727–1892. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004.
Cite this page:
Akhtar, Saima/Colmenares, David H. “The Slaving Port of Ouidah and Monumental Discourse around the Atlantic Perimeter.” From Traditional to Contemporary Aesthetic Practices in West Africa, Benin and Togo. The Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Blog. Ed. Baader, Hannah. August 2016 <https://medium.com/from-traditional-to-contemporary-aesthetic/the-slaving-port-of-ouidah-and-monumental-discourse-around-the-atlantic-perimeter-a41968341a57#.3q8ffl3o4>.