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Stool From Slave Trade Era Is Likely Destroyed In Brazil's Museum Fire

Sep 17, 2018
Originally published on September 17, 2018 9:24 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been two weeks since we saw those terrible images of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro being consumed by fire. It was Brazil's oldest museum, with a collection of some 20 million items. Many of those items are now gone, and they can never be replaced. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It's a wooden stool. It's at least 200 years old, and it came from Africa.

GUSTAVO PACHECO: If I close my eyes, I can still picture it in my mind. I would say it's 4 feet tall. It's very dark wood. It looks old.

REEVES: Gustavo Pacheco is a Brazilian anthropologist and writer. He spent six years doing research at Rio's National Museum and saw this African stool every day.

PACHECO: It's a piece of carved wood. It's a very fine piece of design. It's very harmonious. It's very beautiful, very beautiful.

REEVES: The museum had many precious items. Pacheco believes it's hard to overstate the significance of this one.

PACHECO: It's one of the few pieces that, in itself, could condensates centers of history, centers of relationship between the New World and the Old World. The relationship between Brazil, Africa, Europe, Portugal and all the countries involved in the slave trade.

REEVES: Pacheco was horrified when he heard about the fire.

PACHECO: I was devastated. I spent almost two days crying. I couldn't look at the fire on the TV screen without crying.

REEVES: This wooden stool was actually a throne for an African king. Its seat is shaped like a crescent. This throne was sent to Brazil in the early 1800s by the ruler of what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey and is now part of Benin on the West African coast. Many Africans shipped as slaves to Brazil around that time came from that area.

MARIZA SOARES: My field of research is this story. This is my research.

REEVES: Professor Mariza Soares is an expert in African Brazilian history. She curated the museum's now-destroyed African collection. The throne was the star item.

SOARES: It was located at the room of the African collection. And we just put it in the very middle of the room. And children used to like to visit because we put the throne together with the sandals that the king used to wear because he would sit it and leave the sandals on the floor. So we put the sandals on the floor.

REEVES: The king's name was Adandozan. Soares says the throne was his gift to the ruler of Portugal's empire, Dom Joao VI. Brazil was then a Portuguese colony. Adandozan sent his gift to Rio because Joao had transferred his entire royal court there from Portugal to escape Napoleon's invading army.

SOARES: The throne arrived in 1810, and it was exactly related to the enlargement of the slave trade.

REEVES: During the Atlantic slave trade, the Portuguese shipped an estimated 5 million Africans to Brazil. The massive human trafficking by Europeans of Africans over centuries is now seen as one of history's worst atrocities. King Adandozan in Dahomey was involved, says Gustavo Pacheco, the anthropologist.

PACHECO: Dahomey was one of the several African kingdoms that sold people into slavery, but not their own people. They sold war prisoners. They sold their enemies as slaves.

REEVES: By now, the British, once prolific slave traders themselves, were pressing Portugal to stop importing slaves to Brazil. Professor Mariza Soares believes Adandozan was worried by this.

SOARES: And he sent a chest full of gifts. And one of the gifts he sent was this stool because he was afraid he would have big losses related to the new policy of the British related to the slave trade.

REEVES: In fact, Brazil carried on receiving slaves for decades after that. There's a story about King Adandozan that lives on in Brazil. It's believed that among the people he sold into slavery was an African queen, the mother of a family rival. Some believe the queen, Na Agontime, ended up in northeast Brazil, where she established a famous voodoo temple.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BEIJA-FLOR SAMBA SCHOOL: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: Today in Brazil, she's still celebrated as a symbol of courage and defiance. Gustavo Pacheco again.

PACHECO: Na Agontime's story has been told over and over in books and songs, in carnival parades. It became sort of a modern myth in Afro-Brazilian culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BEIJA-FLOR SAMBA SCHOOL: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: That's Rio's Beija-Flor samba school singing it's carnival song about the legend of Na Agontime. Her story illustrates a crucial point. In Brazil, past and present are deeply entwined, especially when it comes to the slave trade, says Soares.

SOARES: We don't have slavery anymore, but the damage that slavery made here is still very alive.

REEVES: The majority of Brazilians are black or mixed race. They're far more likely than others to be the victims of poverty, violence and prejudice. Many Afro-Brazilians say their history is too often ignored, and the museum fire is an example of that.

LIA MANSO: That loss means a kind of expropriation of our history and the possibility that we can construct identity as black people in Brazil and know our past.

REEVES: Lia Manso (ph) is a human rights lawyer and black women's rights activist. She's Afro-Brazilian and knows the pain of not knowing her own history.

MANSO: Beyond my grandmothers and grandfathers, I don't know.

REEVES: Would you like to know?

MANSO: Yes. Yes.

REEVES: Manso, who's 30, says she thinks she had a great-grandmother from somewhere in Africa, she says.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINES DIGGING)

REEVES: At the ruins of the museum, workers are trying to make the building secure. The search through the ashes to salvage what remains of the collection hasn't yet begun. An effort's underway to recreate the collection digitally using documents and images from across the world. That collection contains so many treasures - Egyptian mummies, dinosaur skeletons, insects from the Amazon, records of lost indigenous languages and much more. Almost all is believed destroyed, including King Adandozan's throne, a wooden stool that looks so simple but means so much.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.