Africa

Black President of Benin, Africa Descendant of Wealthy Slave Merchants

“The memory of slavery emerges here in large and small ways. In the 2016 presidential election, one candidate, Lionel Zinsou, angrily pointed out in a televised debate that his opponent, Patrice Talon, who is now president of Benin, was the descendant of slave merchants.”

By Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post, 1/29/2018

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OUIDAH, Benin —Less than a mile from what was once West Africa’s biggest slave port, the departure point for more than a million people in chains, stands a statue of Francisco Félix de Souza, a man regarded as the father of this city. 

There’s a museum devoted to his family and a plaza in his name. Every few decades, his descendants proudly bestow his nickname — “Chacha” — on a de Souza who is appointed the clan’s new patriarch.

But there’s one part of de Souza’s legacy that is seldom addressed. After arriving here in the late 1700s from Brazil, then a Portuguese colony, he became one of the biggest slave merchants in the history of the transatlantic slave trade.

In Benin, where the government plans to build two museums devoted to the slave trade in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, slavery is an embattled subject. It is raised in political debates, downplayed by the descendants of slave traders and deplored by the descendants of slaves. 

At a time when Americans are again debating how slavery and the Civil War are memorialized, Benin and other West African nations are struggling to resolve their own legacies of complicity in the trade. Benin’s conflict over slavery is particularly intense.

For over 200 years, powerful kings in what is now the country of Benin captured and sold slaves to Portuguese, French and British merchants. The slaves were usually men, women and children from rival tribes — gagged and jammed into boats bound for Brazil, Haiti and the United States.

The trade largely stopped by the end of the 19th century, but Benin never fully confronted what had happened. The kingdoms that captured and sold slaves still exist today as tribal networks, and so do the groups that were raided. The descendants of slave merchants, like the de Souza family, remain among the nation’s most influential people, with a large degree of control over how Benin’s history is portrayed.

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