The United Nations Slavery Memorial, officially known as The Ark of Return – The Permanent Memorial at the United Nations in Honour of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, is a permanent installation located at the Visitors’ Plaza of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The memorial is designed by Rodney Leon, a Haitian-American architect, and was installed in 2015. Its purpose is to serve as a constant reminder of the long-term impacts of slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade.
Historical Context of Slavery
The concept of the Slavery Memorial originated from various resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly, including A/RES/62/122, A/RES/63/5, and the Durban Declaration.
In 2013, the memorial was designed by Haitian-American architect Rodney Leon, whose winning entry was selected from 310 submissions from 83 different nations. The designs for Mémorial d’Ebène by Nicolas Grun and Pierre Laurent came in second and third, respectively, to Sofia Castelo’s Middle Passage and Carlo Gondolfi, Paola Passeri, Alessandra Ripa, and Monica Sacchetti’s The Wounded Earth.
The Permanent Memorial Trust Fund supported the project with a contribution of 4.5 million dollars. India also contributed 250,000 US dollars towards the project. The white marble required for the project was sourced from Vermont.
The unveiling of the memorial was originally planned for 2014, to coincide with the 69th session of the general assembly. However, due to insufficient funds and to align with the International Decade for People of African Descent which commenced in 2015, the unveiling was postponed until 2015.
The memorial was unveiled on March 25, 2015, which is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The design of the memorial won one of the Pinnacle Awards of the Marble Institute of America in the same year.
UN Slavery Memorial
The Ark of Return – The Permanent Memorial to Honour the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade at the United Nations
The Permanent Memorial was revealed on March 25, 2015, which coincides with the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Situated on the United Nations Visitors Plaza in New York, the purpose of the memorial is to encourage people around the world to reflect on the impact of the slave trade and to challenge racism and prejudice in contemporary society.
Visitors can pass through the Ark of Return to experience three primary elements. The first element, Acknowledge the Tragedy, is a 3D map that depicts the global scale of the triangular slave trade.
The second component, Think About the Legacy, is a life-size human figure resting in front of a wall that has pictures of a slave ship’s interior etched on it. The harsh circumstances under which millions of Africans were carried during the Middle Passage are depicted in this piece.
The third element is a triangular reflecting pool named Lest We Forget, where visitors can pay homage to the millions of souls lost. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly established a Permanent Memorial at the United Nations in New York City to honor the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Notable Slavery Memorials Worldwide
Historic Centre of Salvador de Bahia (State of Bahia, Brazil)
During the mid-1500s, Bahia, a densely populated colonial city with brightly colored buildings and fine stucco work, became one of the earliest slave markets in the Americas. As the former capital of Brazil, Bahia brought in large numbers of enslaved Africans to work in its sugarcane fields, contributing to Brazil’s status as the biggest exporter of sugar to Europe in the 1600s.
Cape Coast Castle (Cape Coast, Ghana)
The Gold Coast, which is now present-day Ghana and was once a Portuguese colony, was the central hub of the slave trade. Out of more than 40 castles and forts that were built by the Portuguese to hold enslaved Africans, Cape Coast Castle is the most famous. The castle’s dungeons once held up to 1,500 enslaved people who were later taken out through the main gate, which is also known as the Door of No Return.
Le Morne Brabant (Mauritius)
Le Morne Brabant is a basaltic monolith situated on the west coast of Mauritius. In the early 19th century, this mountain served as a temporary shelter for those who escaped captivity. These people, known as the Maroons, built homes in the caves that were embedded in the mountain.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is also known as the National Lynching Memorial, is a national monument created to honor the black victims of lynching in the United States. It is aimed to raise awareness about past racial terrorism and promote social justice in America. The memorial was founded by the non-profit organization called Equal Justice Initiative and it opened in downtown Montgomery, Alabama on April 26, 2018.
Whitney Plantation Museum
The Whitney Plantation, legally known as The Whitney Institute, is a non-profit museum that commemorates the history of the Whitney Plantation. The plantation operated from 1752 to 1975, and its main crops were indigo, sugar, and rice. The museum has preserved more than a dozen historical structures, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Whitney Plantation Historic District.
International Slavery Museum
The International Slavery Museum, situated in Liverpool, UK, is dedicated to the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. The museum, a part of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, has three main galleries that highlight the lives of people in West Africa, their eventual enslavement, and their continued struggle for freedom. The museum also discusses modern-day slavery, as well as topics on racism and discrimination.
Slavery Remembrance Day
On this day in 1791, an uprising of enslaved Africans began on the island of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. This event was significant in the fight to end the transatlantic slave trade.
The International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition is a reminder that enslaved Africans actively resisted their captivity.
In 2020, we had the privilege of inviting photographer Eddie OTCHERE to reflect on and respond to the uprising and Toussaint L’Ouverture. You can now join Eddie in conversation with historian Sudhir Hazareesingh, learn about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s story and view the portraits held in the Gallery’s Collection. Additionally, you can explore further with Sudhir’s recommended reading list.