Brazil's leap forward unearths a painful history

JULIANA BARBASSA Associated Press Published:

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- In a rundown part of Rio de Janeiro's harbor district, archaeologists are digging up fragments of a history many Brazilians would rather ignore.

Up to a million men and women forced into bondage in Africa emerged from the bellies of ships onto the Valongo wharf of what was once the world's busiest slave-trading port. Today, as Brazil surges forward on the world stage, scholars hope the trove of beads, bracelets and statuettes they are finding will also prompt Brazilians to look backward with greater interest at their slave heritage.

The wharf that was intentionally buried in 1840 and replaced by a beautiful new port is coming back to light as part of a $5 billion project remaking Rio's port region for tourism and business ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games.

Brazilians have long viewed their country as a racial democracy free from prejudice and the institutionalized discrimination that marked U.S. history.

"There was a real desire to erase Valongo, to erase this history, to take it right off the map," said Tania Andrade Lima, chief archaeologist of the dig, as she pointed out Valongo's rough, uneven stones. "These were sidewalks made for slaves to tread," she said, contrasting them with the checkerboard of polished flagstones of the replacement wharf that replaced it.

"Brazil never came to terms with this part of its history," she said. "The people who landed here were never able to tell their stories."

Brazil took in nearly half of the approximately 10.7 million men and women shipped across the Atlantic, compared with about 645,000 taken to the U.S. It abolished slavery in 1888 -- the last country in the Americas to do so -- and the legacy weighs heavily on its descendants.

Today, nearly half the population of 192 million defines itself to census-takers as black or part-black, and despite anti-poverty programs that have raised their income by 56 percent on average, they still earn only 57 percent as much as whites.

Rio officials say the rediscovery of Valongo is a chance for the country to face its intentionally obscured history.

By 1821, nearly half of the city's population was held in bondage, according to a census taken then. They all passed through Valongo; many stayed in the area, giving rise to neighborhoods that still have deep connections to Afro-Brazilian heritage.

Valongo came into existence because the neighbors complained. They hated the filth, smell and health hazards that came with having slaves paraded naked and often sick through residential areas. So a new wharf, away from residential areas, was needed, and Valongo opened in 1811.

"The slave trade even then was already understood as inhumane, even though it was practiced, so it was necessary to hide their arrival," said Washington Fajardo, Rio's head of cultural heritage and urban renewal.

It lasted 29 years, until 1840, when it was replaced by the elegant wharf built to welcome Teresa Cristina, the Portuguese emperor's new bride.

The excavation is a challenge. No physical traces of Valongo remained, and the geography itself had been transformed by landfill that pushed the ocean back hundreds of feet. So using historical maps, Lima's team dug trenches through the neighborhood.

Artifacts sifted from the dirt already fill hundreds of plastic bags. The most precious finds are a delicate earring with a Muslim half-moon pendant, rings made of woven reeds, copper bracelets, pierced shells and coins used as pendants.

Many of the artifacts are amulets or religious objects linked to the idea of shielding the body, Lima said. "These were bodies that were so abused, so violated, that they covered themselves in amulets meant to give them strength."

Other objects probably represent cunning efforts to keep religious and cultural practices alive but concealed from a watchful boss's eye. There are clay pots with carved religious symbols on their bottom, clay deities less than three centimeters (an inch) tall, a sword and scabbard five centimeters (two inches) long.

No other site is so rich in material about Brazil's newly arrived slaves, said Cristina Lodi, head of the federal institute for historical heritage in Rio de Janeiro state.

Looking over a table heaped with artifacts, she said: "We can write this history now through these finds."

The area around the dig has long been a black residential area. Rubem dos Santos, aka Confete ("Confetti"), is a 75-year-old samba composer and Afro-Brazilian activist who heads the Little Africa Cultural Center near the wharf's ruins.

"This is the place we go to understand who we are," he said of Valongo. "These songs that came from Africa, they landed here. Everything for us starts here."

The heritage circuit planned for the area will include a mass grave discovered in 1996 which historians estimate contained 20,000 bodies; the Little Africa Cultural Center; and a small plaza called "Pedra do Sal," said to be the birthplace of samba.

"The memory of slavery and of this historical period has long been veiled, obscured," said Fajardo, the city official. The heritage trail "will show the wound that was slavery.

"But we avoid calling this a memorial -- that's something linked to death. We want to show this as something that is alive, to point out how black culture helped form the archetype of what it means to be Brazilian today."