Ouidah is one of the important historic cities of Benin, having been one of the main boarding points for slaves bound for the Americas during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Of the eleven million Africans sent into exile through the slave trade, nearly two million left from the Bight of Benin, including 60% who were funneled through the two main ports of Ouidah and Lagos.
Ouidah served as a trading post and marketplace for European slavers and the vassal state of Abomey. To guarantee its “royal monopoly”, the city of Ouidah remained isolated from the rest of the kingdom, under the control of a senior official of the State, the Leader of the Whites (yovoghan).
In this relatively centralized kingdom established by King Agaja of Agbomi (1708-1740), the slave trade was constituted as a royal monopoly by King Kpengla (1774-1789) and sustained through periodical raids on the outskirts of the kingdom, to the profit of the Fon people.
The Slaves’ Trajectory
During the time of the slave trade, captives were gathered on a public square to be put up for sale. Chained together, they then walked the distance of a few kilometers to the beach. From the beach, they boarded canoes to be transported to the ships where they would be crowded into the holds to await the long voyage to the New World. Believing that the white slavers planned to eat them, some preferred, during this transportation by canoe, to throw themselves into the sea and die by drowning.
In modern-day Benin, the memory of the slave trade practiced by the Kingdom of Abomey stirs up tensions periodically between the Fon and ethnic groups located further north, who were at the time subjected to these annual raids that condemned so many of their people to slavery across the Atlantic Ocean.
Today in Ouidah, places of commemoration have been established in memory of the victims of slavery. These sites pay tribute to the past so that those who were sacrificed should never be forgotten.
The Auction Square, where ship-bound slaves were sold and branded.
The Tree of Forgetting, around which slaves circled in a ritual intended to make them forget their former lives.
The Tree of Return, planted by the King of Dahomey, intended to safeguard the return of the souls of the captives after their death.
The Memorial Monument, built over the common grave of captives who died before being deported.
The Gate of No Return, a monument located on the beach and erected by UNESCO in 1995 in memory of the Africans who left their homeland from that place.
The Gate of No Return