Cemetery of the New Blacks
The Cemetery of the New Blacks was operational from 1769 until 1830 as part of the Valongo complex. The Valongo was the main slave market, but when that market was moved from outside of the Imperial Palace, all of the logistics of this trade had to move with it. Since the cargo was human, it wasn't possible to just move the point of sale. The Valongo would be the point of disembarkation, and so along with the market, there had to be a place of quarantine for the sick. The island of Villegagnon was used for this purpose and came to be the place where anyone with smallpox was exiled. There was also a "fattening house;" a warehouse where newly arrived Africans who were in no condition to be sold were kept and fed until they could be sent to the market. The Valongo complex also required a cemetery.
Newly arrived Africans were called "Pretos Novos" or "New Blacks." We can think of them as "unbroken" Africans. After some time enslaved in Brazil, they were called "Ladinos" or "Seasoned." We can think of them as "broken by slavery". The third category was "Criolos" or "Creoles" and they were the Blacks born enslaved in Brazil. To this day, "criolo" is one of the most hateful epithets one can hurl at a dark-skinned Brazilian, worse than the linguistic equivalent of the "n-word."
The cemetery itself rose from its own burial in 1996 when the family living at 36 Pedro Ernesto Street began a renovation project on their house. When the workers began to dig, every shovelful of soil brought forth bones. The owners of the property contacted the authorities and an archaeological dig ensued. The survey logged 5,563 fragments. Twenty-eight bodies were identified, most of them young males between the ages of 18-25, along with youths between 12 and 18 years old, and children from 3-10 years of age. The analysis confirmed that the bodies had been burned, cremated after the flesh had decomposed. Most were Bantu people bearing tribal marks of the Angolans. You can read about the details of this crime scene here:
Bones That Talk (Revista Pesquisa, Dec. 2011)
Even more horrifying, studies concluded that the site had been simultaneously used as a trash dump. Bodies thinly covered with dirt and trash would collect until the fetor became unbearable and it would be lit afire. After the blaze, a new layer would be added on top of the ashes. And so on, and so on. Just to give an idea of the volume, in the last 6 years before the cemetery was closed, 1824-1830, around 6,000 bodies were interred in the Cemetery of the New Blacks. That's about 3 per day.
Have you ever heard of a site that is designated as a dump and a cemetery? I haven't. I've heard of archaeological digs in trash pits and I've heard of old graveyards. What are we saying when we agree to call this place both a trash dump and a cemetery? And doesn't a cemetery have graves in it? A trash dump is where people throw away things that have passed a point of usefulness. A cemetery is where people honor their dead in sacred rituals. Perhaps this place is most accurately called a Crime Scene, as it, in fact, is a mass grave in a trash dump, and not a cemetery at all.
A new archaeological project was done in 2017 where, after six months of careful excavation, scientists were able to dig deeply enough to uncover a fully intact skeleton. A young African woman, perhaps in her early 20's, she was dubbed "Bakhita" and, following great discussion with various concerned community groups, it was decided that her remains should be on permanent display.
Timeline of burials
1500-1769: Bodies were buried sometimes near churches, but often left on the beaches or in the streets to rot.
1582-present: Santa Casa da Misericórdia was the first hospital in Rio de Janeiro. Today, the organization oversees 11 public cemeteries, 2 private ones and a crematorium. Records from the early 19th Century comprised the primary source material for Mary Karasch's seminal work Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro.
1655-1709: Near what is now Largo da Carioca, the Franciscans designated land to cope with the ever growing numbers of Indigenous and African corpses.
1758-1768: Saint Rita Church had a small plot that was used when the market was at Praça XV.
1769-1830: Cemetery of the New Blacks, Rua Pedro Ernesto, 36, Gamboa, Rio de Janeiro.