Benin: the slave trade in Ouidah


Well. We have reached the point in my trip when it turns abruptly from the (mostly) life-affirming wonders of Vodoun culture to the despair-inducing horrors of human trafficking. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, as many as 12.5 million people were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World between 1501 and 1866. Almost 2 million of those people embarked from the area around Ouidah called the Bight of Benin, and Ouidah itself was one of the busiest slave ports on the African continent. An estimated 12-13 percent of those who boarded the slave ships did not survive the Middle Passage.

These maps from the Database illustrate the major embarkation points and the routes that were followed to the Western hemisphere.

west africa slave ports

slave trade routes

As you can see, the Gold Coast of Ghana was also a major trafficking port. I visited two slave forts while there, a few days after leaving Benin. It was a sobering experience, to say the least.


I’ll cover those in a later post, but back to Ouidah for now. I started out at the Portuguese fort, which has been turned into a museum about slavery, but I got there at 3:45 thinking it closed at 5, and it actually closes at 4. They wouldn’t let me in, so unfortunately I can’t tell you anything about what’s inside. I did, however, get hooked up with an excellent tour guide who agreed to take me to five of the six stops along the “Route des Esclaves” on his motorbike. (The sixth stop is the Door of No Return on the beach, which I had already seen.)

The first stop is Chacha Plaza (below), where the slave market used to be. Men, women, and children were sold under the tree in exchange for goods. Then they were taken across the street to an iron worker’s workshop, where they were branded with the buyer’s mark and shackled with chains.


The second step is the Tree of Forgetting. A statue marks the approximate spot where enslaved people had to circle a tree, nine times if they were male and seven if they were female, in order to forget their past, where they came from, and who they were, so that they would become docile and wouldn’t rebel. There’s sickening poetry in that.


It didn’t seem like something Europeans would believe in so I asked my guide to clarify and he said that in fact, it was a king of Dahomey who initiated the ritual. Although some of the leaders of Dahomey rejected slavery and resisted cooperating with Europeans, this particular king raided the villages of other nearby societies and sold everyone captured to the Portuguese. In fact, it was Dahomeans who handled the transport of enslaved people along the six steps of the Route Des Esclaves and then handed them over to European control at the point of embarkation.

The next stop is in the village of Zoungbodji, close to the ocean. It is the site of a compound where enslaved people were kept for up to two months while others were rounded up, until there were enough to load a ship full. They were stuffed in like sardines and not given enough to eat or drink. The space was sealed tight and had no windows, so that not even one bit of light could enter. This was supposed to disorient people so that they would become less rebellious, and it was also supposed to weed out the weak from the strong. The weak would die, and the strong would be prepared for the light-less, cramped, and otherwise horrific conditions in the hold of the ship.


I can’t remember what percentage of the people who were enslaved actually made it onto the ship, but it was less than half. The others – not only those who had died in the hut but also those who were judged too sick or too weak to make the voyage – were dumped into a pit that served as a communal grave, and buried alive. The spot is now marked by a monument.


The fifth step is the tree of return. Everyone who made it this far alive had to circle the tree three times, in the belief that this would allow their spirits to return to their homeland upon their deaths. I have no idea why a king who dehumanized people in the most brutal and pitiless way would throw a bone like this to the departing. Maybe he was afraid of divine retribution by their shared gods? I don’t know.


All I know is that Ouidah is a complicated place – one of immense suffering and also immense beauty. Instead of showing you a photo of the Door of No Return, which I featured in a previous post and which commemorates the stretch of beach from which Africans took their last steps on their home soil before departing in boats, I will instead return to beauty… because I don’t know about you, but I need a palate cleanser after all that heartlessness and misery.

It’s difficult to see in the picture below (I was warned to be discreet so I pointed and clicked rather haphazardly), but a woman is on her knees showing reverence for a Vodoun adept who is possessed by a spirit. She knows he is possessed because he is wearing the woman’s outfit that I showed you in the other post, and adepts only wear that clothing after they fall into a trance.


While the Vodoun Festival is a one-day affair, the unofficial festivities continue for days before and after. The tour guide and I passed two different dances on the way to the Route des Esclaves, and we circled back to them afterwards. I didn’t take any photos because these were local gatherings and the guide told me it would be frowned upon. I was happy to oblige for reasons I will get into another day.

So, there’s no photographic evidence but I will paint a picture for you instead: In both cases, people gathered at the intersection of two streets to watch and pay respects to a handful of adepts in trance outside of their respective Vodoun temples. At the first spot, a group of women wearing strands of beads and matching wax-print fabric sang and danced to the same choreography, but they would intermittently add their own unique flourishes as the spirit literally moved them. Sometimes they circled a tree over and over again while singing and dancing, until they’d be panting for breath and have to take a break. Anyone who addressed them got on their knees first. At the second spot, men and boys took turns wearing a pair of those big red and cream-colored wing things that I saw at the Vodoun Festival. They’re pretty heavy, and I know this because each person struggled to get them over their shoulders when they first put them on. Then they walked around their own sacred tree while rolling their shoulders so that the evil spirits couldn’t alight on them.

I stopped at each spot for about ten minutes, and then I had to meet my taxi at a pre-arranged spot in front of an art museum I had hoped to visit, the Zinzou Gallery. It’s in a beautifully restored colonial building.


In the end, I didn’t have time for more than a brisk walk around the space, but I did see one piece of art that I loved.


The artist-in-residence, Pauline Guerrier, had installed site-specific work inspired by her time in Benin. The “weavings” above are made from braided hair.

So as you can see, culturally, spiritually, and artistically rich life goes on in Ouidah despite the horrors of parts of its past. That’s the thought I ended my trip to Benin with. The next morning, we drove across the border into Togo.

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