Ouidah was the second largest slave port in the Atlantic slave trade behind Luanda in Angola. From the 1670s to the 1860s, the city supplied well over an estimated one million enslaved Africans to the trade.
In the early modern period, the West African Kingdom of Dahomey expanded into the region now belonging to modern Benin. It shared a border with the Kingdom of Whydah, which included the city of Ouidah and its surroundings. Whydah had become wealthy in part through trade in slaves to both Europeans who came to Benin’s coast, as well as Arab traders who approached the kingdom through the Trans-Saharan trade routes, and Dahomey followed suit. In 1472, Dahomey signed a treaty with the Portuguese for trading rights, though Dahomey participated in the early modern slave trade through the selling of war captives to other European slave traders. In 1727, King Agaja of Dahomey captured the port city of Ouidah and folded the entire Kingdom of Whydah it into his thriving kingdom. Portuguese, English, Dutch, and French traders who had connections with Dahomey built forts in or near the city from which to engage in the slave trade.
The next century saw a cycle of slave and palm oil trade in Dahomean Ouidah as the European traders there vied for access to African trading partners. With the decline in the Atlantic slave trade in the 1830s, palm oil became the main commodity traded from the fort. Under King Glele’s rule (1858-1877), there was a revival of the slave trade as Brazilian slavers came to Benin searching for enslaved Africans. This caused the British to blockade the port, and offered an opportunity for the French to gain influence with the locals. By then, the age of colonization had drastically driven down the price of palm oil, as Europeans could now easily get it from any number of places in Africa. The port of Ouidah fell into decline.
The SSDA Ouidah collection currently consists of the transcription of 19th century Portuguese-language Baptismal records from the Portuguese fortress São João Baptista de Ajudá (Fort of St. John the Baptist of Ouidah) from 1866-1884. These documents are from the period immediately after the final revival of the slave trade in Ouidah and the eviction of French missionaries from the fortress.
This transcription was created by the journalistic photographer and self-taught ethnographer Pierre Verger (1902-1996), who specialized in the African diaspora, specifically African culture and economy, the Atlantic slave trade, and African-based religions in the Americas. This transcription was obtained by Dr. Mariza de Carvalho Soares, of the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, on a trip to West Africa. She graciously donated this collection to widen access to it, and ensure its digital preservation. The original from which Verger transcribed is presumed to have been lost, making his transcriptions the sole surviving copy of these records.