Benin Reckons With Its Slave Trade Past

Benin’s history is indelibly linked to the slave trade: Local leaders sold their war prisoners to European traders. The country is now trying to heal the rifts still keenly felt in society.

The historical city of Ouidah

Even the entrance to the city bears a strong message. While other cities conceal the bitter chapters of the past, Ouidah confronts them head-on. The Atlantic slave trade flourished here from the 16th to the 19th century .

One last look

The palm trees off the coast of Ouidah were probably the last many saw of the African mainland. Portuguese, French and English slave traders shipped millions of people to the Americas. It was the local leaders who ensured a steady supply: They took prisoners during their campaigns of conquest and sold them off to the traders.

Fostering a culture of remembrance

The 1990s heralded a change in Benin’s culture of remembrance. The “Porte du Non-Retour” — the Gate of No Return — was donated by UNESCO to serve as a memorial to victims of the slave trade. An international conference on the slave trade was held in 1999, which saw then-president Mathieu Kerekou travel to Baltimore in the US and apologize to the descendants of former slaves.

From fortress to museum

The new Ouidah Museum of History is located in the restored Portuguese Fortress. It’s part of a project spearheaded by President Patrice Talon examining Benin’s multifaceted history. Many Beninese can trace their ancestry back to the families of former slaves — or their tormentors. Talon himself has been accused of being a descendant of the latter, as has much of the country’s elite.

History of the oppressors

Many believe this painful story needs to be told if there is to be real reconciliation in the country. But will it work? Since August, visitors have been able to view items from the former kingdoms of Ouidah and Dohamey that were once associated with the slave trade.

Route of the Slaves road, Ouidah

Tourism Minister Jean-Michel Abimbola says Benin has earmarked €1 billion ($1.8 billion) for projects like the museum to help the country work through its difficult past. Visitors from abroad are also welcome — even from neighboring Nigeria. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is mainly locals who have come here to understand their country better.

Deutsche Welle

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