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Brazil's Colonial History Unearthed

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  • Jaime Pretell
    Brazil s Colonial History Unearthed Slave cemetery a haunting reminder. A remodelling project on a 19th century home in Rio De Janeiro s old Gamboa district
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2006
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      Brazil's Colonial History Unearthed

      Slave cemetery a haunting reminder.

      A remodelling project on a 19th century home in Rio De Janeiro's old Gamboa district came to an abrupt halt when labourers digging in the yard to check the foundations found thousands of human bones.

      The homeowner, Ana de la Merced Guimaraes, soon discovered that her house was sitting on the Cemeterio dos Pretos Novos - Portuguese for Cemetery of New Blacks - a crude burying ground for African slaves that historians had thought was lost.

      Ten years later, the city wants to preserve the find, a harsh reminder of Brazil's colonial past. Andre Zambelli, head of Rio's Cultural Heritage Department said the find is certainly one of the city's most important discoveries. 'It shows how the slave trade happened, confirms what's in textbooks, puts history in our hands, said Andre.

      It's possible that more than 20,000 bodies were buried on the site between 1769 and 1830, but no one knows exactly because no records were kept. The bodies are thought to be those of slaves who died before they could be were sold.

      Workers have recovered 5,563 bone fragments and teeth, some rounded or carved in styles characteristic of people that lived along the Congo River in Mozambique and South Africa. They also found pieces of fine English china, stoneware and African clay pipes, dishes and metal ornaments dumped in the graves as trash.

      Brazil was the New World's biggest market for African slaves. Of an estimated 10 million Africans brought to the Americas, nearly half came to Brazil, where they worked in gold and diamond mines or on coffee and sugar plantations.

      'It was Rio's holocaust,' said Marcelo Monteiro at the Municipal Council for the Defence of Black Rights. 'Few people know about it. We're rediscovering a story that was erased from history.'

      Haidar Abu Talib, of the Muslim Charity Society, said many of the slaves buried in the cemetery were Muslims. He said former slaves remained invisible even after slavery was abolished in 1888 and some Brazilians would like to keep it that way.

      Although nearly half of Brazil's 183 million people are black or mixed-race, the country's cherished self-image as a 'racial democracy' is a myth. Most of the poorest Brazilians are black.

      The United Nations Development Program said in a recent report that Black people make up 70 percent of the poorest tenth of Brazilians and just 16 percent of the wealthiest tenth. Afro-Brazilians earned an average of $74 a month in 2000, less than half the pay for whites in 1980, it said. The report went further to say that: 'The farther one goes up along the power
      hierarchy, the whiter Brazilian society becomes.'

      Rio officials want to bring black history more in the open by creating a walking tour and putting the cemetery on tourism routes. Andre Zambellie says he wants to show how Africa contributed to the founding of Rio De Janeiro. 'We want to make an open-air museum, with a tour from the docks to the cemetery, with bilingual folders and a map showing where slaves were displayed and sold.'

      But Ana de la Merced Guimaraes is sceptical the city will invest in the cemetery that her workers have unearthed. Officials have done little to preserve the bones, she said, and rains washed away some of the exposed remains. Ana also faces resentment from her neighbours who feel she should not have told the city about the cemetery.

      'I don't have anybody's support,' she said. 'People ask me why I'm doing this, but the more I learn about how the Africans were abused and realize it's been forgotten, I swear they won't forget it here, not while I have the strength.'

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