African Diaspora in Guanabara Bay

Texto da comunicação oral feita no congresso internacional Streets, Routes, Methods I: Reflections on Paths, Spaces and Temporalities. O evento, ocorrido em Florença no início de maio, foi organizado pelo  Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz (Max Planck Institute) e pelo eikones NCCR Iconic Criticism (Universidade da Basileia).

Thank you very much for inviting me to assist to this marvelous conference.

My name is João Carlos Nara Jr. and I work on the Conservation Projects of the heritage listed buildings of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, particularly on the Conservation Projects of the Brazilian National Museum. Aside from Architect, I am also Archaeologist and Historian, and my academic research is about Santa Rita Parish, in the port area of Rio de Janeiro.


Have you ever found a treasure? What would you do if this treasure was black slave bones? This happens with the couple Merced and Petrúcio Guimarães, who found an African burial ground at home.

Based on the Brazilian federal law on archaeological heritage, the family has converted their house into a cultural center to celebrate the Afro-American memory. Merced likes to say that the African slave trade has constituted “a black holocaust”.

This presentation is divided into four parts: First is the need of conceptualization, after these archaeological findings. Second, the urbanization of the Guanabara shore. Third, the successive control policy of the slave trade. And fourth, the current touristic appeal of the region.

Let’s begin with some questions: How could we think a territorial musealization? The monuments are a function of the past, or can reveal ancient processes? Actually, it is useful to understand the monuments as vectors or nodes more than mere vestiges.

Hidden memories of Afro culture

This premise is important because significant traces of the monarchy were deleted and forgotten with the advent of Brazilian Republic, as well some aspects of the slavery dynamics used to support the prior regime.

Rio de Janeiro was founded in fifteen-sixty-five and became the colonial capital in seventeen-sixty-three. Rio also received the Portuguese kingdom court in eighteen-o-eight. In the community area of Santa Rita parish existed a slave complex until eighteen-fifty.

Surprisingly, forty percent of the ten million African people transferred to America arrived in Brazil, two million of them in Rio de Janeiro, which has already been the most African city of the Atlantic in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Nowadays, the aspiration for social inclusion and several types of research about black culture are bringing back memories hidden in the rich Rio de Janeiro city heritage. Let’s see two interesting approaches to the problem.

Regarded as a city conceived on the sea, Rio de Janeiro is a huge pore. The Greek term πόρος means of passing a river, ford, ferry; narrow part of the sea, strait; paths of the sea; artificial passage over a river, bridge; pathway; duct, opening; aqueduct; port; journey, voyage. Was it a coincidence that Rio de Janeiro (Flumen Ianuarii) may be interpreted “open door” (from ianua, in Latin)?

Porosity is a concept used by Walter Benjamin in his Reflections on Naples, and applied to Rio de Janeiro by Bruno Carvalho, Professor from Princeton University, to explain the cultural history of the city.

Another approach method may be the rescue of the maritime paths of slave trades, overgrown by the Guanabara Bay waters, yet noticeable in his islands, ancient piers, and historical neighborhood.

Rio de Janeiro harbor region

[Showing maps about the urban evolution of Rio de Janeiro.]

Maritime paths of slave trades

The slave traffic indeed obeyed a method, involving sanitarian surveillance, customs house, quarantine, docks, eventual fattening houses, commercial booths, and even a specific burial ground to pretos novos (namely, newcomer slaves, especially who had died before the sale).

Such an intricate system deserves a complex narrative. This approach may offer a more insightful perception of the slave monuments and their relationships with landscape and temporalities.

Therefore, this approach to the slave trade tracks in Rio de Janeiro can help to elude the political orchestration of the archaeological findings in the context of urban revitalization lead by the city hall, likewise the social activist’s framework imposed upon the materiality of the African diaspora in the carioca harbor region.

Afterward Valongo… back to Santa Rita

The previous mayor, Eduardo Paes, has created the Historical and Archaeological Circuit for the African Heritage Celebration. The current one, Marcelo Crivella, deserves to construct a territorial Museum of Slavery and Freedom. The Valongo Wharf is at the heart of the both ideas.

The Valongo Wharf proposal for inscription on the World Heritage list will be soon appreciated by UNESCO. Its proposal summons up three controversial arguments: relative historical value, symbolic dimension, and sensitive heritage.

Meanwhile, challenging cursory explanations reliant on mass tourism, the Valongo African burial ground, hosted by Merced and Petrúcio Guimarães, continues to be open to the visitors.

Even though, few researchers have studied Santa Rita church, the first rococo church of America, who was the source of the tricky urbanization of the shore. Under Santa Rita plaza, the first official African cemetery is hidden. But this will be my upcoming investigation.

Thank you very much!

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