RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Buried for more than a century, part of the history of Rio de Janeiro – and of Brazil – is emerging.
In a development aimed to transform Rio’s port into a modern tourist and business hub – the Marvelous Port project – City Hall officials discovered ruins beneath the surface.
These vestiges of the county’s past found along Avenida Barão de Tefé belonged to what was known as Valongo’s Wharf.
Thousands of men, women and children who were captured in Africa walked the pier after exiting slave ships arriving in Brazil between 1818 and 1830.
The complex featured markets, warehouses, a quarantine area, a cemetery and other establishments connected to the slave trade.
In 1843, Rio’s Empress’s Wharf was erected on top of the Valongo. The project was aimed at welcoming the arrival of future Empress Teresa Cristina, who came from Italy to marry Dom Pedro II, the reigning emperor of Brazil.
A series of urban reforms in the centuries that followed further erased any remaining vestiges of Brazil’s involvement in slavery, which is now being unearthed.
Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes requested the Marvelous Port project be altered so the archaeological findings can be preserved, enabling the wharf to become a memorial.
“I intend to build a plaza similar to those in Rome,” Paes said. “These are our Roman ruins. In addition, we are going to build a museum to house the pieces and objects that are found in these two ancient moorings.”
A team of 12 archaeologists from the National Museum’s Anthropology Department, which is overseeing the project, said they knew the piers existed during the 1800s. But they didn’t know whether the structures had been preserved or destroyed, says archaeologist Tânia Andrade Lima, who supervises the work.
“Our main interest was in finding Valongo,” Lima says. “We believe it’s important to speak out against all instances of erasure, of social amnesia, of forgetting, which the social dynamic forces upon certain segments, especially those of the [once-]enslaved black population.”
Among the uncovered materials being catalogued are pieces of footwear, decks of religious cards owned by the slaves and buttons that the captives made from bones.
What most impressed Lima were the embellishments made by female slaves from a type of palm fiber. The women attached the jewelry on the ropes that held them captive in an effort to maintain their femininity.
“[The jewelry items are] so fine that they don’t even seem to be made of palm fibers,” Lima says. “It’s moving to know that even in such a degrading situation, these women sought ways to make themselves more attractive.”
Rio’s past emerging to light
In 1996, during renovations of her house on Rua Pedro Ernesto, Ana Maria Merced found bones sticking out of debris dug from her home.
Merced, 54, realized they were human bones, which she thought were remnants of a massacre.
“Then I talked with a gentleman from the community association who remembered the history of the cemetery,” she says. “I contacted the José Bonifácio Cultural Center, which is located nearby and works with Afro-Brazilian culture, and they got in touch with the Mayor’s Office.”
The bones found beneath Merced’s house were the remains of slaves buried in the Cemitério dos Pretos Novos (Cemetery of New Blacks).
In the book “À Flor da Terra: o cemitério dos pretos novos no Rio de Janeiro,” (At the Surface of the Earth: The Cemetery of New Blacks in Rio de Janeiro), historian Júlio César Medeiros da Silva Pereira says the slaves were humiliated after their deaths.
The slaves’ naked bodies were wrapped in mats and often dumped in shallow graves that were just a few inches deep. The deceased also were buried without any respect for their African culture’s traditions or their religious beliefs, Pereira wrote.
The dead were stacked on top of each other and burned weekly, Pereira says.
The Cemetery of New Blacks operated from 1772 to 1830, according to historians.
In 1830, Brazil signed an agreement with England that abolished the slave trade in order to receive recognition as an independent nation from Portugal.
The registry of obituaries at the Church of Santa Rita, a Catholic organization responsible for overseeing the cemetery, lists 6,119 burials that took place in the cemetery’s last six years of operations, Pereira wrote.
Anthropologists and biologists used 5,563 bone fragments found at Merced’s house to identify 28 bodies ranging between the ages of 3 and 25.
Rio to have an archaeological tour
Merced did not receive any funding or incentive from the local government to recover or preserve the remains she found in 1996.
So she preserved history on her own.
In 2005, her family bought the two properties adjacent to her house and they founded the Institute of New Blacks (IPN), which has become a reference for Afro-Brazilian culture.
Last year, the IPN received the Rodrigo Melo Franco de Andrade award from the National Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN).
IPHAN also is sponsoring a study to help the IPN identify the cemetery’s original perimeters.
All of the remains and artifacts found on Merced’s property are stored at the Brazilian Institute of Archaeology (IAB).
But architect Washington Fajardo, deputy municipal secretary for cultural heritage, said the City Hall has big plans for Merced’s property and the IPN.
“The plan includes details regarding the cemetery, since it is one of the areas with links to slavery in the region,” says Fajardo, who is responsible for the new project in the Valongo and Imperatriz Wharf areas. “We want to connect the two places as part of an archaeological tour.”