Last year’s push to make the Black Lives Matter movement mainstream challenged travelers to seek perspectives left out of their guidebooks. This aspect of the movement added momentum to an ongoing conversation about the origins and interpretations of historic landmarks, venerated memorials, and key sites in the United States, especially those of the colonial and Civil War eras.
Some 400 years ago, enslaved Africans first arrived in colonial Virginia. But the impact of slavery reached far beyond the original colonies. The transatlantic slave trade, active between 1525 and 1866, forcibly removed 12.5 million people, mainly from Central and West Africa, and redistributed them across the Americas, Europe, and the Caribbean. To commemorate this tragedy and ensure the world takes steps toward reconciliation, UNESCO launched the Slave Route Project in 1994 to document the dozens of sites essential to the history of slavery.
Here are nine places that played a critical role in the transatlantic slave trade—and which have taken steps to raise public awareness about its global impact.
Historic Centre of Salvador de Bahia (State of Bahia, Brazil)
In the mid-1500s, this densely built colonial city, its streets lined with brightly colored buildings and fine stucco work, became one of the first slave markets in the Americas. Formerly Brazil’s capital city, Bahia brought in thousands of enslaved Africans to work its sugar cane fields, helping make Brazil the largest exporter of sugar to Europe in the 1600s.
Travelers visiting this epicenter of the Afro-Brazilian culture can hear the rhythmic sounds of samba music echo off the cobblestone streets of Pelourinho, a historic neighborhood and location of the first slave market, as well as where enslaved people were publicly punished for various infractions.
Nearby, Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People Church) teaches visitors about enslaved people’s roles in building and creating the cathedral during the 1700s. Its Candomblé service—a mix of the traditional religions of West Africa and Roman Catholicism—includes atabaques (Afro-Brazilian hand drums), old African chants, and dances.
Cape Coast Castle (Cape Coast, Ghana)
The Gold Coast, a former Portuguese colony and present-day Ghana, was once the epicenter of the slave trade. Of more than 40 Portuguese-built castles and forts forged as holding places for enslaved Africans, Cape Coast Castle is the most well-known. As many as 1,500 enslaved people were held in the castle’s dungeons before passing through the main gate, also known as the Door of No Return. It was often the last glimpse the enslaved had of their homeland before being shipped across the Atlantic. The castle now serves as a museum, educating travelers about the horrors that occurred.
Le Morne Brabant (Mauritius)
Le Morne Brabant, a basaltic monolith located on the west coast of Mauritius, once provided temporary shelter for those escaping captivity in the early 19th century. The escaped, known as the Maroons, built homes in the caves embedded in the mountain.
Today, visitors can pay homage to those enslaved in the past, who looked to Le Morne as a place of freedom and salvation, by visiting the International Slave Route Monument located at the foot of the mountain. The memorial’s design is patterned after a compass, each stone sculpture pointing toward the different locations from which the enslaved were purchased or stolen.
Gadsden’s Wharf (Charleston, South Carolina)
During the transatlantic slave trade, about 40 percent of enslaved Africans brought into the U.S. passed through Charleston’s harbor, which was the largest port in North America at the time. Those who survived the voyage would be held in various warehouses and slave markets until sold to the highest bidder. Historians estimate that more than 90 percent of all African Americans can trace at least one ancestor to this area.
After 20 years of planning, it was announced that the old wharf would be the future home of the International African American Museum, which is set to open in early 2022. In addition to the museum’s historical and cultural exhibits, it will also include a family history center for ancestral research, a social justice action lab, and an African ancestors memorial garden. Travelers can walk a few blocks away to visit the Old Slave Mart Museum, built in 1859 and considered the last surviving slave auction gallery in South Carolina, to read accounts of Charleston’s role in the interstate slave trade.
Island of Gorée (Dakar, Senegal)
A tiny island off the coast of Senegal, Gorée was the largest slave-trading center on the West African coast between the 15th and 19th centuries. Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), a striking red house built on the island in 1786, is said to memorialize the final exit point of those enslaved in Africa.
Converted into a museum and memorial in 1962, the building shares a more intimate story about the slave trade, documenting personal stories from the owners of the house and the enslaved people who worked there. To learn more about Senegal’s integral role in slavery and the key figures in the resistance against European colonizers, visit the IFAN Historical Museum, an old cannon battery that was turned into a historical museum in 1936.
Liverpool’s Maritime Mercantile City (England, United Kingdom)
Liverpool’s Maritime Mercantile City features glittering waterfront views from Stanley and Albert Dock to Pier Head, but it was also the heart of the city’s slave trafficking business from 1696 to the early 1800s. At its peak, this waterside city controlled 80 percent of the British slave trade and derived 40 percent of its income shipping enslaved people from Africa. Stone carvings of slave ships can be found engraved on the Port of Liverpool Building in Pier Head.
Travelers can visit the International Slavery Museum near Albert Dock, which details Liverpool’s connection to the slave trade. In August 2020, Liverpool City Council named 20 streets where markers will be placed, detailing that destination’s history with slavery.
Valongo Wharf (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Noted as the “most important physical trace” of the arrival of enslaved Africans to the Americas, Valongo Wharf was the largest arrival and trading site of enslaved Africans in Brazil. Close to a million Africans passed through this harbor from 1811 to 1831 (when the transatlantic slave trade was banned). Illegal slave trade activities continued at the port until 1888, when operations were officially shut down.
The port’s ties to slavery remained unknown for centuries until its discovery in 2011 during renovation work for the 2016 Olympics. The wharf now exists as an exposed archeology site where travelers can study the remains of the original stonework and view the three historical markers chronicling the events that occurred.
Travelers can explore nearby Cemitério dos Pretos Novos (Cemetery of the New Blacks), one of the world’s largest slave burial grounds. Discovered in 1996 when a family was doing home renovations, the site serves as an archaeological and cultural center to protect the history of African culture in the city. Praça XV de Novembro, a large square used for music concerts, was the site of Rio’s original slave auction, and the Pedra do Sal, the historical center of Rio’s “Little Africa” and the birthplace of samba, is where many formerly enslaved people settled.
Royal Palaces of Abomey (Benin)
Built by the Fon people between 1625 and 1900, the Royal Palaces of Abomey were homes to the leaders of the Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful empires along the western coast of Africa. Under the twelve successive kings who ruled, the slave trade thrived as the leaders would seize people from other African states as prisoners of war. These captives would be sold as slaves to Portuguese, French, and British merchants, who shipped them to nations in the Americas, particularly Brazil.
Today, the palaces of King Ghézo and King Glélé house the Historical Museum of Abomey, which tells of the kingdom’s rich history and its resistance toward France’s colonial occupation.
Monticello (Charlottesville, Virginia)
Thomas Jefferson designed nearly every aspect of Monticello, from the now mostly intact mountaintop estate to its 5,000-acre working plantation and vineyard. While his Virginia estate is often romanticized, it was also home to over 400 people he enslaved to cultivate the land. In total, of the more than six hundred people Jefferson enslaved at his various properties, he freed only 10 people—all members of the same family.
Pay tribute to those who lived and died on the plantation at the African American Burial Ground, where archeologists identified 40 or more unmarked gravesites in 2001. Continue learning about the lives of those who lived on the estate at the exhibit dedicated to Sally Hemings, enslaved and owned by Jefferson and mother to six of his children, which relates poignant stories told by her son Madison and other family members.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel. Click here for National Geographic reporting on the pandemic. When planning a trip, be sure to research your destination and take safety precautions before, during, and after your journey.
Nneka M. Okona is an Atlanta-based writer who focuses on food, travel, grief, and self-care. Follow her on Twitter.