The museum’s first display spares little: A slave kneels with her hands tied, right shoulder freshly branded with her owner’s mark by a man with sleeves rolled to his biceps.
The town of Cacheu on the coast of Guinea-Bissau was a Portuguese trading post where millions of slaves saw west Africa for the last time, bound, branded and shipped off to the Americas.
A new memorial has opened to commemorate the exiled sons and daughters of this impoverished nation, not only to recall Portugal’s brutal venture into Africa, but also to establish itself on the historical tourism circuit.
“The idea is to show that Cacheu was the first place where Europeans practiced transatlantic slavery on an industrial scale,” said Alfredo Caldeira, who heads the archives of the Mario Soares foundation — named after the late Portuguese president — which helped create the memorial.
Among the items on display are wooden collars that slaves were bolted into two-by-two and a huge, rusty pot where slaves’ rations were cooked.
“Despite its size, it wasn’t enough to feed everyone. The portions were very small and the dishes quite basic. It was all cooked quickly so they could get back to work,” tour guide Joachim Lopes said.
After taking in the horrors, retail therapy is at hand, with T-shirts and caps splashed with a chain logo available from the shop.
“The tourist aspect is important, but the main thing is to allow these people to rediscover a collective memory and dignity,” Caldeira said.
Cacheu is home to fewer than 10,000 people today, but was the capital of Portugal’s former colony from the 16th century onward, trading in people until the late 19th century.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach Africa in exploratory missions dispatched in the early 15th century. They would go on to trade, with Brazil’s help, an estimated 5 million of the 11 million people believed to have traversed the Atlantic, according to historians.
The idea for the memorial came in November 2010 when the first “Quilombola” festival was held in Cacheu, a name that refers to communities in Brazil formed by escaped slaves.
Their descendants from Brazil and the Caribbean had made an emotional pilgrimage to the land of their ancestors after identifying their roots through their DNA.
“They told us their stories. A lot of people cried that day. Some of them asked themselves if they were kin. We danced, we hugged, we shook hands,” high-school teacher Augusto Joao Correia said.
The Cacheu memorial’s founders now hope for success akin to neighboring Senegal’s celebrated Goree island, another Atlantic “point of no return” for slaves that has become a must-see for visiting heads of state and celebrities.
“Despite its contested position as a hub for the slave trade, Goree is key for tourism in Senegal, visited by several US presidents,” said Djiguatte Amede Bassene of the African Research Centre for the Slave Trade based in Dakar. “Elsewhere in Africa, other countries are asking: ‘Why not us?’”
Cacheu might also have in its sights a UNESCO project linking and promoting sites of historical interest and research into the slave trade, in which Goree is already involved.
The EU donated 519,000 euros (US$579,000) to the Cacheu project, 90 percent of its total cost, with the specific aim of increasing the cultural potential of such sites as a source of sustainable income for the country.
Lined with palm trees and painted a brilliant white, the three years of work by Portuguese architects have culminated in an impressive structure that stands out in a quiet, crumbling town that suffers in the rainy season.
The edifice was once the headquarters of the Casa Gouveia, the name of the Portuguese colonial-era firm that traded all kinds of goods, including people.
“In this building, local and European products were exchanged for men. Several of the objects testify to that,” memorial coordinator Cambraima Alanso Cassama said.
Other marks of the past are left to rot: The “bridge of no return” — the slaves’ final boarding point — has partially collapsed and flounders among the rigging and nets of fishermen.
Regardless, the memorial is a rare spark of hope for Cacheu’s residents.
The nation’s slave-trade story remains largely untold. One of the last traces was a 500-peso bank note that showed slaves lining up to board two vessels on the beach.
The note dropped out of circulation when Guinea-Bissau joined the CFA-franc zone in 1997.
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