Sites marquants de la Route de l’Esclave au Bénin
Sites marquants de la Route de l’Esclave au Bénin is part of the Tentative list of Benin in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
The Highlights of the Slave Route in Bénin comprises eights monuments across the country that symbolize the route enslaved took to reach the coast where they embarked on slave ships. Ouidah was one of the main centers for the sale and embarkation of slaves within the framework of the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century. Here a series of places of memory are linked to that trade, such as the Door of No Return. More inland, for example at Yaka and Fiditi, places of hiding are selected.
Map of Sites marquants de la Route de l’Esclave au BéninLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
Back in 2008 we gave a pretty thorough visit (including walking the entire "route") to the T List site which was then called “La ville d'Ouidah : quartiers anciens et Route de l'Esclave”. It has since “morphed” into something larger (with a completely new Ref No) via the addition of 4 sites “upcountry” from Ouidah (to make 8 in all) and a new title “Sites marquants de la Route de l’Esclave au Bénin”. We have only visited 1 of these additions but, in this review, as well as covering the original locations, I will share what I have been able to discover about the additions, as part of a wider objective of trying to understand the entire site as it may now be nominated.
The original site, placed on Benin’s T List in 1996, lacked any description or location details but the assumption must be that it covered (at least) the 4, now separately identified, locations in/around Ouidah. I suspect that every visit will commence at the “Fort Portugues” (incorrectly described in the UNESCO description as being in Ketou province). Strictly this isn’t a part of the “slave route” which relates to the c4km "path" along which slaves are supposed to have walked to their embarkation for the Americas having reached Ouidah and been sold for onward transport. But the Fort is clearly a focal point for any history of Slave trading in the Area (See Wiki). Indeed it has, for many years (including during our visit), been the site for the Ouidah Museum and is about to re-emerge after a lengthy period of restoration as the “International Museum of Memory and Slavery (MIME)” forming a significant part of Benin’s tourism push (One wonders if inscription of this recently added T List site might be another plank in the strategy?!). Interestingly the fort remained as an enclave under Portuguese sovereignty until it was reclaimed in 1962 by newly independent Benin. Before they start on the Slave route most visitors also go to the Temple des Python (not proposed as a part of the T List entry!) - a Voudon site where you can have a snake wrapped around your neck! As mentioned later, Ouidah "sells" itself as an African centre of Voudon as well as "Place of Memory" for slavery.
The start of the actual straight line “route” to the beach is at the nearby “Place aux enchères” (i.e the so-called Slave Market) . Its current official title is “Place Chacha” - a surprising title since it “commemorates” the Brazilian slave trader who was “right hand man” for King Ghezo of Dahomey (1818-59) at Ouidah, having helped him ascend the throne and whose descendants live in Ouidah to this day! (it was he who was fictionalised as the "Viceroy of Ouidah" by Chatwin and played, even more "fictionally" from Elmina, by Kinski in Herzog's Cobra Verde). From there a number of "significant" locations are passed on the way to the sea. These are presented as being akin to the “Stations of the Cross” as part of a “pilgrimage” walk to “la Porte de Non-Retour” on the beach some 4kms away, along which, “events” took place during the slave’s journey to the beach. The actual number of “stations” after the Fort varies between 5 and 7 according to the teller - only 3 of which have been given separate locations in the UNESCO description (though one of those, Zoungbodji, refers to “sites du village”). This link provides a description of the walk, identifying 7 (The UNESCO identified equivalent locations are No 1, 5 and 7) and an example of a typical “Narrative” which accompanies each.
But are there any authentic tangible remains along this “trail”? Apart from the Portuguese Fort and the occasional tree (which might or might not be old/authentic – different stories are told) it will be noted that the memorials/statues which are on display are all modern and that the locations where they are situated may or may not have “authenticity” as usually understood relating to the aspect commemorated. In fact the entire development arose from an initiative by Haiti/Benin (who were already working together on a project to celebrate their common Voudun religion at Ouidah) supported by other African states at the UNESCO General conference to establish a “Slave Route Project”. This was officially launched in Sep 1994 in Ouidah. The project had very wide objectives primarily concerned with “break(ing) the silence over the slave trade and slavery, to highlight the global transformations and cultural interactions stemming from that tragedy and to contribute to reflection about cultural pluralism, reconciliation and intercultural dialogue,”… it was NOT about identifying World Heritage locations!!
That meeting led the Benin government to set about “memorializing” slavery in Ouidah via a mixture of fact, legend and invention backed by some new memorials and statues to provide at least something "tangible". 2 of the most noteworthy (“stations” 5 and 7 in the walk above) are
a. The "Mass Grave Memorial" in Zoungbodji with its mosaic and statue (photo) by a noted Béninois artist, Cyprien Tokoudagba (who also worked on the Abomey bas-relief restoration). This is reported/claimed to be the site of a mass grave of slaves who died whilst held in a nearby "Barracoon". This may or may not be correct but, as with a holy site where a miracle was supposed to have happened, its "authenticiy" isn't really relevant - what is "important" is for it to be "believed" or to be "representational" of what did happen elsewhere. The location is presented as hallowed ground and silence/ removal of shoes is required.
b. “La Porte de non Retour” by another local architect/painter - Fortuné Banderia. This is of note since there was obviously never a “door” on the open beach (Ouidah never was a harbour and ships had to be reached by boats from the beach). The memorial "Door" is here a metaphor, building on the powerful World-wide “recognition” gained by the real "doorway" in the so called “Maison des Esclaves” at Goree (Senegal) which had already been given the name - even though it had almost certainly never been used as an embarkation point for slaves. Such is the “power” of the image that Elmina Fort (Ghana) has also had one of its gates assigned that name!
We have visited 4 West African slave trade-related (T)WHS sites at Goree, Kunta Kinte Island, Gold Coast Forts and Ouidah. To different degrees they all have similar "issues" - lack of authentic tangible remains of the Slave trade and the creation/presentation of a memorialized narrative not necessarily grounded in fact. For anyone interested in pursuing this subject further in relation to Ouidah, the following articles provide background and discussion about how and why the “Trail” got developed (including its role in Benin’s Tourism strategy), the nature of its “authenticity” and the way it is presented – in particular as it relates to the commonly expressed narrative of the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.... and of course the extent to which any of this is "relevant" when assessing the site's "heritage value (IMO the first is the best if you only have time/inclination for one!)
Having been added to Benin’s T List in 1996, the original T List entry got as far as a nomination for 2002 but was withdrawn as “incomplete”. I have been unable to discover anything about the history of this initial nomination beyond this statement. Interestingly it describes the route as “running from Djougou in the north of Benin to Ouidah, and passing through the Royal Palaces of Abomey”. – so, despite its then title of “La ville d'Ouidah : quartiers anciens et Route de l'Esclave”, it appears that the nomination extended beyond that town. Given UNESCO’s involvement in and commitment to the concept of the “Slave Route Project”, one might have thought that any nomination would have been given all necessary assistance and support to lead to “success” - let alone allowing it to go forward "incomplete"! Nevertheless, it is clear that, as early as 1999, preparation work had commenced and that it was already looking beyond the short route in/around Ouidah for a full nomination. The only connection to the Slave route for the town of Djougou which I can discover is that it was the “homeland” of one “Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua” who is one of relatively few slaves whose individual story came to be told – the circumstances are described here. I can only assume that, just as Gambia’s sites associated with Kunta Kinteh (“Roots”) got inscribed in 2003, Benin might have been trying to achieve a similar degree of “personalization”. Whatever - Djougou doesn’t figure in the new T List site definition.
And what of the 4 locations beyond Ouidah which are identified in the 2021 T List description? Looking at them, I get the feeling that Benin is trying too hard to assign “Slave Route” connections to what are (perfectly valid and interesting) cultural sites with their own Non-slavery related values and thus extend any WHS it might achieve using the “Memorialisation of Slavery” justification to cover a wider part of the country.
1 Place Singbodji. (a.k.a Simbodji) This is a "square" situated in the buffer zone just outside the already inscribed “Palaces of Abomey” and named after the 2 story palace of King Ghezo which it fronted (substantially rebuilt during the French administration). The entry to the Palace Museum is via this square and any palace visitor will thereby also “visit” it - though I don't remember it being of any "note" when we unknowingly passed through it. The UNESCO description of the Royal Palaces of Abomey in 1985 emphasises the power and grandeur of the Kingdom without the word “Slavery” appearing even once!! Even the ICOMOS evaluation includes but a single mention! Yet, any “telling” of the story of slavery in Benin can’t avoid the issue of the leading role of the Dahomey Kingdom in it. But why should this square outside the palaces be considered particularly relevant for a inscription supposedly about the "Slave Route"? The choice has been justified on the basis that it was “un lieu de tri d’esclaves par le roi avant leur acheminement vers Ouidah”. It was undoubtedly a location of much ceremony and an area for visiting guests to wait. This thesis “The Royal Palace of Dahomey: symbol of a transforming nation” and this article “Power by design” provide an idea of the square’s role in Dahomian royal life - but I can find nothing which indicates its use as in the UNESCO statement for the king to “sort slaves”.
2. The remaining 3 “up country” locations are all said to be “related” to the Slave trade in that they were places of “hiding” and “resistance”. They certainly represent ethnic groups (mainly Yoruba) who were in conflict with Dahomey across the 18th/19th centuries (the focus period for the site), but their direct relationship to the Slave trade itself is, from my researches, at most “secondary”.
a. “Les Mamelles de Save” (a.k.a “Oké Shabè”). These are a series of hills in central Benin within what was the Yoruba kingdom of Shabe which had/have primarily a religious role and also “…..servaient de refuge aux habitants de la région lors de la période où l’esclavage régnait en Afrique. Ils se cachaient dans les cascades entre la racine des collines et la terre pour se protéger contre l’envahisseur” See this.
b. “Les Collines sacrees de Dassa” (a.k.a “Yaka”). From this article these seem to have been (and still be?) primarily a religious site with some caves where people did hide from slaving parties of neighbouring kings - “On y trouve également des vestiges de la résistance à l’esclavage dont témoignent les grottes refuges. En effet, ce territoire perché sur les hauteurs a servi de site refuge durant les périodes de guerres d’invasion menées par les royaumes voisins en vue de constituer des groupes de prisonniers destinés à servir d’esclaves.”
c. The “Porte de Kekou” (a.k.a “Akaba idénan”). This is a ceremonial gate, once part of the protective walls of the Yoruba city of Kekou which was captured by Dahomey under Glélé in 1886 (8 years before Dahomey itself was defeated by France). This description of the Gate by WMF states that "In the late eighteenth century these defenses helped repel multiple attacks from the Kingdom of Abomey" but doesn't mention "slavery" at all. I suppose it could be regarded as a place of "resistance" against slavery since that would no doubt have been the fate of many captives if Dahomey had triumphed earlier (others of course would have been sacrificed at Abomey in the "Annual customs"). By the 1850s the international Slave Trade had largely stopped (In 1852 King Ghezo signed an agreement with the British to cease) and the Dahomey Kings “moved on” to palm oil growing and trading for their wealth. But "local" wars continued as did "local slavery" (Britannica - "Gezu accomplished a smooth transition to palm oil exports; slaves, instead of being sold, were kept to work palm plantations")! The gate and its associated shrines etc are undoubtedly interesting and worth preserving and publicizing but why link them to the International Slave route?
Successor to TWHS La ville d'Ouidah : quartiers anciens et Route de l'Esclave (1996)
2021 Added to Tentative List
2001 Incomplete - not examined
The site has 8 locations