In the city of Ouidah, in the south of present-day Benin, a small West African country, there is a surname that everyone easily recognizes.
The De Souzas continue to be an important family on a social and economic level in this small town that became one of the most important slave shipping ports on what is known as the "slave coast", since more than one million of the estimated 12.5 million Africans who were subjugated.
The famous 19th century Brazilian human trafficker Francisco Félix de Souza, alias
, left a strong mark in Ouidah, where he is also remembered for the favors and ventures he carried out locally, in a story that evidences the existence of multiple memories. about slavery.
In a certain way, De Souza —among others— occupied the space left vacant by the European forts that began to be abandoned when the slave trade began to be abolished at the beginning of the 19th century.
However, this abolition did not imply the cessation of the sale of human beings, which not only continued, but reached the same levels as during the boom of the eighteenth century.
In this second treaty (as the period in which it was illegal is known) characters like De Souza had a leading role, something that undoubtedly had an impact on his personal enrichment.
Francisco Félix de Souza became a kind of viceroy or governor of Ouidah, with full powers that allowed him to accumulate considerable wealth, which attracted the attention of the European merchants who arrived at this port.
By that time, about half of the city's neighborhoods, especially in the southern zone, had been created by De Souza and the entire network of local merchants and dealers supplied him and depended on him for business.
This is how the Agouda community emerged in the city, a term that designated Afro-Brazilians.
The traffickers were joined by freed slaves who migrated or were deported from Brazil, after the trade was abolished in the main empires.
Regardless of whether De Souza's position was overestimated, the city is an example of how the discourses of the descendants of slaves and the descendants of traffickers like De Souza converge.
For years, his offspring tried to rehabilitate his image by highlighting his more human side, such as the gestures he was said to have with local slaves, such as not separating the families of captives or saving them from being sacrificed in the kingdom of Dahomey.
This revaluation of a slave trader may seem incredible from the West, but in Africa it can be understood a little more, since the history of trafficking is not seen as an African problem in many cases, and also the identities of victims and perpetrators are a both diffuse in these accounts, with multiple actors involved in the trade.
A very graphic case of how blurred identities are today is that of a direct descendant of Francisco Félix de Souza, Martine de Souza, a local historian whose great-great-grandmother was captured by the kingdom of Dahomey in her home village and sold into slavery.
Perpetrators on the one hand, victims on the other.
This is how lineages intertwine.
This is how these towns were marked forever.
With this they live, with this they deal.
Martine de Souza's generation is the one that has begun to tell the full story of Chacha, to acknowledge her participation in the slave trade.
They want to apologize, they want to reconcile with the Africans of the diaspora.
They offer them a place to return to, where they can discover their roots, where they can live in harmony.
“Those of us who are here today want to reconcile with people of African descent in the Americas, as human beings.
We also want to reconcile with our ancestors.
Because we feel a lot of pain, but so do our ancestors.
Therefore, what can we do?
Come together, pray, and forgive ourselves.”
Healing through dialogue and self-criticism
Together with her daughter, Martine is creating a memory tourism project in the city, which they call "The Victory March", where they travel the so-called "Slave Route" of Ouidah, but in reverse, from the coast to the city, to symbolize the return of the Africans to their land.
And in front of the house of the De Souza family, located next to where the slave market supposedly operated, they ask for forgiveness and make libations to venerate the ancestors who died in these infamous years of humanity.
The voodoo religion, which is practiced by the majority in southern Benin, plays a central role in these ceremonies.
For the followers of this creed, the ancestors are among us, their spirits coexist with ours, that is why we must be in harmony with them.
If they're not at peace, we won't be either.
“History haunts us, we cannot escape it.
We cannot deny who we are.
The only way to free ourselves and be happy is to talk about it and be brave to face the descendants of those who left the continent in tears.
We have to face them, with courage, hug them, ask them to forgive us, only then can we move forward.
I know that among us are the spirits of those who did not make it, and those spirits are in these lands, they are still suffering, they cannot forget”, concludes Martine.
The history of the slave trade is in the present of Ouidah and Benin.
In addition to these attempts by the De Souza family to redeem the role of their famous ancestor, the Patrice Talon government is also promoting museums of memory of the transatlantic trafficking, something that Benin has been developing for decades, such as the Ouidah'92 project. , promoted by Unesco.
It is a clear line that began at the end of the last century with which healing is sought through dialogue and local self-criticism, understanding that the slave trade was a trade with multiple actors involved.
At least in Benin, one of those actors is trying to turn that page, the most tragic and painful of all.
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