LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A wharf in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro used as a marketplace for African slaves has been declared a United Nations heritage site to preserve evidence of “one of the most brutal episodes in the history of humankind”.
The UN’s cultural organisation UNESCO said up to 900,000 enslaved Africans are believed to have landed at Valongo Wharf, the busiest slave port in Brazil, from when the stone wharf was built in 1811 until it was landfilled in 1842. Brazil was the world’s greatest importer of slaves, taking in about five million Africans, and the last country in the world to officially abolish slavery, in 1888.
A UNESCO statement said warehouses built at Valongo could accommodate more than 2,000 slaves, often in toxic and suffocating conditions which fuelled diseases and led to mass graves at the site with a cemetery holding up to 6,000 burials.
Remnants at Valongo, including bones, implements and food, are evidence of the brutal treatment of slaves. “The presence of the sacred and the sense of ancestry found in the place has turned Valongo into a symbolic landmark for social movements promoting racial equality,” UNESCO said in statement.
“From a historic point of view, this is a testimony to one of the most brutal episodes in the history of humankind.”
Although Brazil abolished slavery about 130 years ago, Latin America’s largest economy acknowledged in 1995 the use of slave labour in its economy.
The 2016 Global Slavery Index produced by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation estimated that there are currently about 161,000 slaves in Brazil.
Brazil has been praised by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and activists for making progress on tackling slavery in the past decade.
Efforts have included setting up mobile units of inspectors, prosecutors and police who raid places where slave labour is suspected, and the creation of a “dirty list” of employers investigated by labour inspectors and found to be using slaves.