A decade ago, I have visited the island of Gorée in Senegal located less than 4 km from the city of Dakar. This photo took next to the memorial of the Liberation reminds me what I felt knowing details about the slave trade on the island.
Gorée was since the 15th century the center of rivalries between different European nations which used it for slave trading. Locally known as “Beer” or “Ber” or “Bir” in Wolof, it was first named “La Palma” by Portuguese in 1444, with some ancient maps also showing the name “Beseguiche” for it. The Dutch navy named it “Goede Reede” or “Good Harbor” in 1588. In 1677, the island was occupied by the French.
But the name did not match with what went on in this tiny island when wooden ships sailed from here across the Atlantic, with human beings chained in their holds.
On the island, there is a small fort known as Slave House. This was in effect one of the slave warehouses through which Africans passed on their way to the Americas.
Millions passed through the island and other similar trading posts to work in the plantations of the New World, including America.
Some ideas sustained that the island of Gorée was never really used for slave trading and that slave trading had been done in Saint Louis in the north or south in Gambia. These claims were so outrageous that the Senegalese government sponsored an international conference on the history of the island, and researched and found original archives from the French Port of Nantes showing that between 1763 and 1775 alone, one port had traded more than 103,000 slaves from Gorée; this thus shows that Gorée was indeed at the epicenter of slave trading, and stating otherwise is an attempt at falsifying history. The first slaves were taken from Gorée in 1536, and the trade continued at least until 1848.
The House of slaves was first built by the Dutch in 1776, and is the last standing slave house on the island. At the end of the 18thcentury, the island was a prosperous crossroad of merchants, soldiers, and administrators, with at its center slave trade. Today, it serves as a museum and a memorial to humanity. The upper part of the building like most slave houses was used by the Europeans who lived there; while the bottom part was used to house slaves packed on top of each other in humid, sordid, and disgusting rooms built for 15-20 people but housing sometimes over 100 people, while waiting to be taken to the Americas. On the bottom floor, there is a room used to pack young women among which the slave traders would come every night and choose those who will be used for their sexual pleasures; if any of these women were found pregnant from these traders’ visits, they were freed on the island or sent to Saint Louis. There were also rooms to house strong men, children, and women. There was also a dark tiny room where the most defiant ones were stacked on top of each other, and salty water was seeped through the walls to force dehydration and later death. The value of a man depended on his weight and muscles; the minimum weight was 60 kg. The value of a child depended on his/her denture, while that of a woman on her breasts.
The small size of the island made it easy for merchants to control their captives. The surrounding waters are so deep that any attempt at escaping would mean sure drowning. With a 5kg metal ball permanently attached to their feet or necks, a captured African who ever tried running away would surely drown in deep sea.
From the door of no return, the slaves were loaded onto ships which took them across the Atlantic. This was their last time on African soil.
Entire families were captured and brought to Gorée, but their destinations were seldom the same: the father could be shipped to America, while the Mother to Brazil, and the child to Haiti or the West indies. Separation was irrevocable.
The Portuguese, Dutch, French and British all fought and killed each other over the trade from there.
Converted into a museum and memorial in 1962, the House of Slaves now stands as a testament to the human suffering and devastation caused by the slave trade.