Slavery's Bitter Legacy in W. Africa

Radio Expeditions: Descendants Cope with Complicity in Brutal Trade

Statue of bound slave woman in Benin slavery memorial

Statue of bound slave woman in Benin slavery memorial All photos by Josh Rogosin, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption All photos by Josh Rogosin, NPR

Martine de Souza, a museum guide at the Slavery Museum in Ouidah, Benin. hide caption

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Statue of a bound slave woman.

Statue of a bound and gagged woman at the Slavery Museum in Ouidah, Benin. hide caption

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A beach in Benin

Beach in Benin. Over the course of four centuries, an estimated 12 million captured men, women and children were loaded into ships on the West African coast and sent into slavery. hide caption

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Detail from -- The Door of No Return -- a memorial to slavery in Ouidah, Benin. hide caption

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The Portuguese began trading African slaves in Europe in the 1440s, and by the early 1500s ships filled with slaves captured in Africa began sailing across the Atlantic to the New World. During the four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, an estimated 12 million Africans were taken from their continent and brought to the New World and Europe.

Americans are still struggling to come to terms with this nation's history of slavery. And in West Africa, some are also trying to reconcile the complicity of African rulers and slave merchants in the slave trade.

For the latest journey of the National Geographic Radio Expedition project, NPR's John Burnett traveled to Benin where he met a woman who's trying to tell the complete story of the slave trade — and her own family's role in it.

Martine de Souza, a museum guide in Ouidah, Benin, has made it her cause to educate visitors — both African and foreign — about Africa's domestic slave trade.

She has quite a perspective on the issue: Her great grandmother was a slave, and her great, great, great-grandfather was the infamous Francisco "Cha Cha" de Souza, a Portuguese slave trader.

De Souza led Burnett down the old slave route to the spot on the beach where it is believed the terrified captives boarded ships for the "Middle Passage" — the route across the ocean to the New World. Many would not survive the trip, cut down by disease, malnutrition, abuse or neglect.

A vigorous debate continues over whether the descendants of those now alive in the United States and European nations should pay reparations for their ancestor's involvement in the African slave trade. And Africans are having their own dialogue over this dark chapter of their history.

"Today, 150 years after the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, there is still bad blood between descendants of raided villages and descendants of the Kingdom of Dahomey," Burnett says. "The kings of Dahomey — located in Abomey, in present-day Benin — aggressively captured and sold neighboring tribespeople to the slavers. The practice was quite developed, and went on for some three centuries."

The story of the slave trade is kept alive in the songs of village griots, or tribal storytellers, who sing the history of the slave-conquering kings of Dahomey.

"The slave trade could not have endured for four centuries and carried nearly 12 million people out of Africa without the cooperation of a huge network of African rulers and merchants," says Dr. Robert Harms, a professor of African History at Yale University who has extensively researched the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Harms is the author of The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade, an award-wining book detailing the day-to-day routine on a French slave vessel in the 1700s.

"Most Americans think that ships would come from the United States or from Europe to Africa and the sailors would just get off and run out and grab a shipload of people and stuff them in the ship and bring them back. And I think that is a very condescending view of Africans.

"That view suggests that Africans were so disorganized that they could let that happen year after year after year after year," Harms says. "I think we need to see African societies as well-organized societies that participated in the slave trade, because the ruling classes often thought they had something to gain from it."

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