Rio de Janeiro’s Forgotten Legacy of Slavery Shadows the OlympicsBreaking News
tags: slavery, Olympics
As the soft glow of the sun began to rise over the piazza at the heart of this city’s Olympic celebrations, the statue of the Viscount of Mauá, from whom this square takes its name, silhouettes against the amber sky. The Olympic flame will soon be burning nearby. An extravagant Museum of Tomorrow, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, juts out into Guanabara Bay, while a gleaming Olympic Boulevard stands as the centerpiece of Rio’s redeveloped port.
The Viscount, a 19th century industrialist, became one of the richest men in the world at the height of slavery in Brazil, though the history books record that he was an opponent of the practice. His presence is a reminder that Rio de Janeiro cannot so easily escape its past. Slavery is woven into the fabric of the old city. Rio hosted one of the biggest slave ports in the world, and its legacy echoes down the ages, from the foundation of the first favela shantytown nearby to the growth of samba music, created by former slaves. Though the slave wharf and many public records about the extent of slavery have been destroyed, the past—with which Brazil has never truly reckoned – cannot easily be forgotten.
More than 5.5 million slaves set sail from Africa bound for Brazil between the 16th and 19th centuries. 4.9 million arrived alive, and of those, more than two million docked in Rio de Janeiro, with half of those coming in the first half of the 19th century alone. In contrast, less than 400,000 slaves disembarked in mainland North America in total. “The consensus for a long time was that the British were the main slave traders and the Caribbean was the main destination,” says Daniel Domingues da Silva, a historian at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who works on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. “Now it’s becoming clearer that the Portuguese were the main traders and Brazil was the principle destination for slaves on the Atlantic.”
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