RIO DE JANEIRO — When tour guide Pedro Andres arrived at the site historians call the most important physical evidence of the arrival of enslaved Africans to the Americas, the scene he found was familiar. The Valongo Wharf was empty.
But Andres, who brings tourists to the wharf of his own volition and not because it’s recommended by his tour agency, saw little indication of that remarkable history. There are no memorials. Only a single sign above a large puddle far removed from the street. The wharf has been unearthed but is still ignored. Even people who live nearby, whose ancestry leads back to this point, don’t know of its existence.
“Sad,” said Andres, 26. “Sad that slavery ever happened, but also sad that its history is being neglected.”
How that history is honored at the site, and who gets to make those decisions, are questions at the core of another struggle over race and memory in the country that brought the most enslaved Africans into the Americas. The dispute, which pits federal prosecutors and historians against the right-wing presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, echoes a racial reckoning in Brazil that in recent years has taken on some of the country’s darkest moments and most enduring contradictions.
Brazil historically has demurred on questions of race, preferring instead to understand itself through the lens of class. Its intellectual elite have long described the country as a “racial democracy” forged by intermarriage and unencumbered by the racism plaguing other countries. But it also imported nearly 5 million enslaved Africans — an estimated 40 percent of the transatlantic slave trade — and in 1888 was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery.
Historians, federal prosecutors and advocates for racial justice say the Valongo Wharf presents a unique opportunity for Brazil to fully address that original sin and the racial inequality it imparted. But they say that the government under Bolsonaro has failed to meet the historic moment, perhaps intentionally, and that Brazil is once more choosing to ignore the injustices of its past.
“The least that Brazil can do is recognize this crime against humanity,” said Brazilian anthropologist Milton Guran, who worked on the UNESCO World Heritage application for the site. “The Valongo Wharf is a way to recognize that Brazil was the country that most received enslaved peoples and, therefore, is the country that has the greatest debt to Africa and the descendants here, who represent the largest Black population outside of Africa.”
But instead, federal prosecutors alleged in a lawsuit filed in September, the government has failed to honor commitments made during the administration of President Michel Temer in 2017, when UNESCO recognized the wharf.
A tourism welcome center has not been built. Almost all of the African artifacts that have been recovered — rings, amulets, religious items — remain locked away out of sight. The site itself has at times been littered with trash or flooded. The drainage system has repeatedly malfunctioned; a city worker was electrocuted in 2020 while trying to drain the site. The United States and a Chinese state utility company have each donated $500,000, but the money has yielded few improvements. There is still no concrete management plan for the site.
“All of this depends on the federal government,” federal prosecutor Sergio Gardenghi Suiama told The Washington Post. “But the federal government today hasn’t met its commitment to work with the local community, let alone advance an anti-racist agenda to honor its African heritage.”
Bolsonaro’s office deferred comment to the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage, the federal agency charged with overseeing the site. The institute declined a request for an interview last week and did not respond to written questions.
The biggest point of contention has been the dissolution of the site’s civic management committee. It was assembled to give the local community, specifically Afro-Brazilians, a chance to advise and oversee government officials working on the site. But the group was disbanded in 2019 when Bolsonaro dissolved many such committees to help “de-bureaucratize” the Brazilian government.
The presidential decree, Bolsonaro tweeted at the time, was to “reduce the power of politically equipped entities that use beautiful names to impose their will, ignore the law and purposefully slow Brazil’s development.”
But the elimination of the wharf’s committee left Black community members feeling excluded and without a voice in the site’s management.
“This isn’t neglect,” said Luiz Eduardo Negrogun, who sat on the committee. “This is a coordinated, clear and explicitly racist action to deconstruct and undo our attempts to rescue the site.” He added, "I’m not sad. I have a hate that runs deep.”
In legal filings, the federal heritage institute that oversees the wharf defended its management and said improvements were on the way. The agency said it was under no international obligation to work with a civic management committee. The local community can still participate in the site’s management, it said, by attending public meetings and following the agency’s online news page.
“There is no plan by the Brazilian Government to impede the participation of the interested community,” the institute said in court documents. “The absence of the management committee does not imply that there is an absence of management.”
But what has been absent, advocates say, is a full telling of the story. It begins in the 1700s, when Rio’s original slave market was in the city center. The daily spectacle of trading people and separating families had begun to discomfort the urban elite. They demanded not the end of the market, just that it be moved out of sight.
So it was relocated to the Valongo Wharf, where hundreds of thousands were sold. Mass graves, filled with people killed by disease or malnourishment from the journey across the Atlantic, are spread out around the wharf.
After Brazil banned its slave trade in 1831, the Valongo Wharf was remade into a port to greet the Brazilian emperor’s future wife, an Italian princess. Then it was built over again in 1904 and made into a municipal plaza. For more than a century, the wharf’s slave history lay hidden under two layers of infrastructure, buried and largely forgotten until it was brought to light once more in 2011 during the urban renewal project.
“An archaeological treasure,” the newspaper O Globo said at the time.
Monica Lima, a historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said the misery embedded here is so extreme that the wharf should be categorized among humanity’s most notorious sites and commemorated with the same international recognition.
“It’s for the pain and suffering that happened there,” she said. “The Valongo Wharf is similar to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau or Robben Island in South Africa or other places that have been recognized for a history of pain and suffering.”
But on a cloudy recent afternoon at the wharf, few were contemplating that history. Children rode bikes through the nearby city plaza. A father worked on his daughter’s bicycle, fixing a broken spoke. He lived in the neighborhood above the site, Morro da Providência, the oldest favela in Brazil, populated by the descendants of enslaved Africans. But he said he’d never heard the truth about this place.
“I knew there was something old here,” said Luiz Cláudio Coutinho, 34. “But I didn’t know what it was exactly.”
Down below, at the base of the steps, looking out at the stone remains was Larissa Rodrigues Mouzinho Lugarini, 28. She came here as a history student a decade ago, when the port was rediscovered. But she has rarely been back since. She shook her head, frustrated to see how little the site has been improved.
“It’s been 10 years,” she said. “But it’s still the same.”