Ouidah – Benin’s Route of Slaves
Explore a tragic history on foot in Ouidah
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It’s not often you travel to forget, but those were the rules then if not now. Then – two centuries ago – slaves destined for the New World were led along a sandy four kilometre track from their cells in the fortazela São João Baptista de Ajudá, the fort of Saint John the Baptist of Ouidah, by way of a Tree of Forgetfulness to waiting ships. Today the ships have gone, but the memory remains.
I have mixed emotions at being here. It feels right to learn more about the transatlantic slave trade from one of its largest ports of operation, yet coming from a nation that did so much to instigate it is troubling. British maps of the period label each section of West Africa’s shoreline with its most common commodity: Grain Coast, Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Slave Coast, as if were nothing more than a well-stocked supermarket ripe for looting.
Every major European nation became involved, from the Danes and Swedes to the Dutch, Belgians, French and Spanish. Benin’s route of slaves is the result of the Portuguese need for cheap (in other words, free) labour in their Brazilian colony. The flag of Portugal hung limply from Ouidah’s small fort while the rest of Benin was known as the French colony of Dahomey.
Looking more akin to a high-end tropical villa than a colonial stronghold, its thick whitewashed walls, red corrugated zinc roofing and grand stairways align around a dusty courtyard. It’s baking hot even in the early morning, and all rather forlorn now the empires have come and gone. I’m the only visitor.
At the gates of the fort the gingerbread-coloured sands are thick with the tyre-treads of the zemidjan motorcycle taxis that run frequently and cheaply to the Atlantic waves. But it seems right to walk Benin’s route of slaves.
Statues, large modern concrete forms of arch-backed chameleons, curly-tailed lions and triple-headed men, line the route. They commemorate the first festival of voodoo culture in 1992. It was in this small strip of West Africa that voodoo religion developed. It was the slaves that left these beaches that transferred it to the islands of the Caribbean where it is now mostly associated. A low ancient voodoo temple filled with coiled pythons stands opposite the much grander Roman Catholic basilica. Religion remains important here and close to the surface of everyday life in a way that doesn’t happen back home.
Amid the statues is a much older site of unofficial pilgrimage, the Tree of Forgetfulness. As part of their passage to the Atlantic, slaves would be forced to circle the tree, a symbolic way to forget being free, forget being an elder or a traditional healer, and forget your family, your parents, your children, your sisters and brothers. The walk was dehumanising in the truest of senses. They became an object, to be shipped, bought and sold as another saw fit. Around 12.5 million people were shipped from African shores in this way – a trade that continues to have repercussions across the globe.
Beyond the statues and the Tree of Forgetfulness is a modern arch that rises from the beach front. Local men and women lay out souvenirs and voodoo trinkets in front of it on the sand, their backs facing the ocean. This is the Door of No Return, loaded with symbolism, from its colours echoing the sand to the metalwork castings shaped into human legs supporting cannon – the goods sometimes exchanged for those sold at the second-largest slave port of the Atlantic trade.
I share the beach with the Door of No Return and a trio of mixed-race Americans; two generations, a mother, her daughter and her daughter’s partner. ‘Alleluia!’ the mother cries loudly from the steps of a second monument, celebrating the Catholic millennial jubilee year. She beams. ‘Alleluia! Jesus is Lord!’
Far from being a door of no return, a place of unalterable historic horror, Benin’s route of slaves, linking the fort of Saint John the Baptist with the sands of Ouidah, has become a way of memorialising – and celebrating – humanity. I leave, for the long trek back, uplifted.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Ouidah is roughly an hour on good roads from Benin’s largest city, Cotonou, which is served by Cadjehoun International Airport. Bush taxis regularly ply the route as and when full, or taxis can be privately hired too.
Do – Activities & Attractions
While in Ouidah you should also pay a visit to the ancient Python Temple, a basic structure where you can get a photograph with one of the tens of the sleepy snakes, and the impressive Catholic basilica opposite.
Stay – Accommodation
There are a variety of hotel options in Ouidah. Cheaper options tend to exist in town, with more expensive ones on the beach. Hotel Terra Nostra is a good low-budget choice, while La Casa del Papa is an impressive structure stretching out over the water of a lagoon with individual bungalows, tennis court and pool.
Eat – Restaurants
Restaurant d’Amicale is a good spot in the centre of town to try African staples such as attiéké, a cassava-made carbohydrate served as a side to grilled fish and meat stews. Côté Pêsce has a similar, if more upmarket menu, with an added French flair.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
The coast’s dry season lasts from November to February. January sees the annual voodoo festival take place. Rain and humidity are at their worst around July, when transport can be severely affected and the climate pretty miserable.
Safety – Possible risks
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Cash is king in Benin. Banks in Ouidah have ATMs that accept international cards and dollars/euros are exchangeable very easily. Expect to spend around $80/day, dependent on your choice of hotel, transport and food. The route of slaves has no entrance fee.
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Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Staying in locally-owned hotels and eating at small restaurants, where your money stays within the local community, is one of the best ways of travelling responsibly in West Africa. Bargaining for souvenirs and transport is a way of life, but remember everyone deserves to make a decent living.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Tourism in Benin is still in its infancy, and levels of service don’t always match up with Western expectations. Remain patient and polite – a smile goes a long way
The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin is a beautifully written novel centered on the town’s slave trade.
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