A somber slave route being turned into a theme park

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Things to do


Date of travel

January, 2024

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The Slave Route

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As well as voodoo, Benin’s city of Ouidah, is known for its role in the 17th to 19th century Atlantic slave trade. What is known as The Slave Route highlighted the journey captives would have taken before boarding the ships.

We began at Tchatcha Square, where newly arrived slaves would be auctioned as a commodity, with those appearing strong being worth more than those who looked sickly. Metal spheres on the ground signified shackles whilst in the middle a huge shady tree, planted in 1747 by a Dahomey king, was known as the Tree of Oblivion: slaves had to walk around it several times to erase all memories of Africa. On one side was the blacksmiths where the slaves would have been branded.

As it was 3km to the sea, we drove to the next point passing the Memorial Zomachi, a large unfinished house built in 1992, with poignant bas-reliefs on the outside depicting the slave story. Although it was intended to be a museum, the owner passed away before it was completed, but there were hopes that it would be finished by the government.

Having reached the next stop, we parked and continued on foot down a dusty track. On our left would have been a windowless place where slaves would have been held, but it has now been demolished. We continued to the tree of return, a kigelia tree, known as the sausage tree because of its long gourd like fruits and eventually found the Mémorial Zoungbodji. This was built on the common grave where those too weak or sick to travel would have been buried, either dead or nearly dead. Black iron gates featured a line of slaves and behind it was an abstract monument in three main colours: red the representing the blood that was shed, brown for the slaves and black for their chains. Whilst it was said to contain three faces and depict the route taken, I’m afraid I failed to understand it.

Another short drive took us down an unpaved road to the Gate of No Return, a stunning memorial arch built in 1995. Both sides were covered in images of enslaved men and women whilst the main mural on the inland-facing side depicted enchained men walking toward the sea and a ship waiting for them in the distance. On the sea-facing side, the mural showed them walking away from their homeland with a single tree in the distance representing the land that most of them would never see again. Oxidised bronze figures stood at either side representing the enslaved Africans staring out to sea. Nearby stood a cement Egungun, a traditional masked figure that recalls departed ancestors whilst at the left-hand side was a temporary arena erected for the annual voodoo festival held the previous week.

Further to the right were two monuments on the beach which we saw from a distance. ‘Memorial du Grand Jubile (sic) de L’an 2000’ was a huge piece of granite with the map of Benin cut out and a cross placed in the middle, with biblical verses and people on each side. It was erected by Catholics to commemorate the arrival of missionaries in Benin. The other was a simple concrete wall painted with Benin UNESCO and Maporte du No Retour (Gate of No Return).

Whilst we had driven the journey from the slave market to the Gate of No Return in an air-conditioned vehicle, the slaves would have walked in the heat, not knowing the fate that was in store for them.

Nearby building works were creating a five-star hotel and we read later that ‘Marina Project’ is developing a vast tourist complex in Benin’s attempt to market itself as a major destination for Afro-descendant tourists in the diaspora. As well as the hotel, the waterfront development will include a spa, a life-size replica of a slave ship, memorial gardens, a craft market, and an arena for voodoo performances. I suspect it will be controversial.

Helen Jackson

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