On July 9, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Valongo Wharf a World Heritage site, along with northwest England’s Lake District, the walled city of Ahmedabad in India and the sacred Japanese island of Okinoshima, which doesn’t allow women on its shores.
Of the new sites on the list, none has a darker past than Valongo Wharf. Built in 1811, the wharf functioned as South America’s leading slave port. It was here that as many as 900,000 enslaved African men, women and children were held before being sold on the Brazilian slave market. Those who didn’t survive the ordeal—who died during the transatlantic journey or sometime after arriving at the wharf—were buried in mass graves nearby. The massive stone wharf loomed over Rio de Janeiro’s harbor, serving as the arrival point for nearly a million enslaved Africans during the first half of the 19th century. UNESCO will begin working to preserve “the most important physical trace of the arrival of African slaves on the American continent,” according to the organization’s official announcement. Valongo Wharf operated until the 1840s, when it was buried under newer docks built to welcome Teresa Cristina Maria de Bourbon, the new bride of Brazil’s Portuguese emperor, Dom Pedro II. Now both wharfs, covered by landfill after Brazil outlawed slavery in the late 19th century, lie near the Pedra do Sal, the historic center of Rio’s “Little Africa” neighborhood, which many former slaves came to call home.