Thursday, November 17, 2011

Île de Gorée - The Dark Side

During the school break the last week of October we set our sites on a day excursion to 
Île de Gorée - a  low key island  that offers a welcome respite from the crush and bustle of Dakar (no cars or taxis allowed!)  yet sets itself apart because of it's horrid past. 

On this particular day the island seemed to be void of tourists -  perhaps because it was in the middle of the week? yet the vendors of arts and crafts were still out en force! ;+} - saved for the next post.

Upon departing off the ferry onto the island we chose to hire a Senegalese guide (whose name we sadly did not write down) and one who had a command of English - to help us navigate the island and the history associated - it is small and you can go it alone - but it sure is helpful to get an orientation of the past and present.

While I tried to figure out how to articulate the depth and breadth and painful history of this island  for this blog post I had a tough time starting. After a little time doing some web research  I came across a great write-up that I thought was eloquently written - and represented the experience we had while integrating the pictures I took. So rather than struggle for words - I'm taking the liberty of posting the story by Rosebell Kagumire. 


The Port of Dakar

Additional passengers (before Tabaski)
Approaching Île de Gorée


Just four kilometers from Senegal's biggest port of Dakar, a visit to the Atlantic Ocean Island of Goree is like a pilgrimage. History surrounds you. By boat it's just fifteen minutes on a route decorated by similar tourist boats and fishermen canoes. When the island of Goree appears on the horizon, it is like a flat plain on one side and a hill on the other.  My hired guide, Aladji Ndiaye Dit Giande, smiled when I asked about his long name and said simply that a Senegalese must have four names. 

As we descend into a sea of tourists and locals hawking jewelery and art crafts, Giande tells me that Goree Island is the first place where Europeans landed on the African continent. It is the furthest point into the Ocean and has a deep harbour. That is why it became the largest slave-trading centre on the African continent after the Portuguese started the trade in 1536 - the story of the worst form of exploitation of the African people ever.Giande has mastered even the tiniest bits of the islands history because he was born on the island as were his parents. Giande's ancestors belong to the local tribes that occupied the island, mainly fishing communities, before the slave traders came.

Today, Goree Island offers a glimpse into the world's dark history. It is estimated that more than 20 million African men, women and children most of them from West Africa were held on this island before being shipped to the Americas and Europe. In fact, Giande's great-great-great grand parents were among the many that survived being shipped off to unknown lands in America before slave trade was abolished in 1848.  Giande tells me all this as we walk from one small cell to another; he recites the history clearly as if it happened yesterday.  As we walk uphill, through the small European-like alleys on the island, it's impossible not to marvel at his immense knowledge about his homeland.He says he started working as a tour guide on Goree Island as a youth and has learnt English from the islands many tourists.

Walking through Goree's narrow streets, the marks of slavery are still visible even 161 years after the last slaves were trafficked through this harbour. The Island was first taken by the Portuguese in 1444 and later the Dutch in 1588 who supposedly bought it from a local chief. It derives its name from the Dutch word Goode Reede  meaning good harbour. Giande shows me the many slave houses; warehouses where about 30 men, chained and shackled were put in an 8-square-foot cell with only a small window.

Some had a punishment chamber a tinier cubicle where many Africans were locked up with their lower body under water. Former South African president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela actually crawled into one of these cells. The cell is not even a metre high, and about three metres long, yet the slave dealers forced about 20 people to stay there for days. There writings on the walls which date as far back as the 14th century in the waiting rooms where people were weighed are still visible. One had to weigh over 60 kgs because to be shipped you had be very strong. In one of the rooms, the mark 60 kgs is still on the wall. Many women and men were chained and fed for months to gain weight. Those who failed were thrown into the sea. The black iron shackles, the five-kilogram balls that were tied to the captives feet or necks, and the captors guns are in the slave house museum with other items used by slave traders.

But what is more heart wrenching are the slave cells for infants. Then Giande leads me into a dark corridor leading to a small door and the most beautiful view of the Atlantic. But it was never beautiful for the millions of Africans that went through it forcefully: It was the Door of No Return for every slave.

This is the door where many, including world leaders, have stood wondering how such inhuman trade could be allowed to go on for over 300 years. In 1981, a former French prime minister, Michel Rocard while standing at the door said, "It is not easy for a white man, in all honesty, to visit this Slave House without feeling ill-at-ease" Then in 1992, Pope John Paul II visited and apologised to Africans for Catholic missionaries who engaged and benefited from the slavery of Africans. We visit Goree's Catholic Church which dates to the slave days.

This church was for rich white slave dealers Giande tells me, Not even an African chief of the rich collaborators could sit there. They had to observe the mass from the yard.One of the significant icons on the island is the Slavery Freedom Monument of a black man and woman standing with their shackles broken. Brought from the Caribbean, the monument portrays the end of centuries of enslavement of black men and women.

Today's Goree is vibrant tourist destination and has about 1,500 inhabitants. From atop the volcanic hill on the island, one gets the perfect view of the island that is ironically shaped like Africa. Goree has been a UNESCO world heritage site since September 1978. Though Goree is a memorial to all Black people, it tells a touching story for anyone who cares about humanity.

One of many inviting and narrow streets

House of Slaves
House of Slaves

Leaning over the balcony on this staircase, the buyers and the European slave traders were able to observe the slaves and to discuss the muscular value of each, because each African ethnic group had its quoted value and specialization. The upper part of the building served as a residence for European traders

Cell reserved for men

Inside Cell

Shackles and Gun

The Door of No Return

 Once the slaves left through this gate leading into the sea, it was their farewell to Africa. Just outside this gate, there was a wharf of palm wood, which served as a loading dock, and some of the slaves obviously awaited the loading to try to escape by plunging into the sea - drowning due to the shackles and weights still on them. They could not go far as they were  shot by the guards, or if sick or injured were thrown into the sea and devoured by sharks.

Standing just through the door

The Catholic Church
Slavery Freedom Monument


  1. Isle de Goree is truly a separate world from the hustle and bustle of the city. The colonial charm combined with the somewhat grim history and set in a lush flowery environment, which is rare in Senegal this island is worth a visit many times. I am glad you guys liked it - next should be Isle Ngor - even tinier and though it does not have the history it is perfect for flying kites and having a great lobster lunch (the best and cheapest in town)

  2. As I understand the history of African slavery, both whites and blacks were complicit in developing the trade, which merely demonstrates that we are all capable of heinous,inhumane actions.
    Wonderful story!

  3. Sigrid - you are right it commands and demands more than one visit. We look forward to going back. And have Ngor on our list too - do I sense another blog post - perhaps ;+}

  4. Dwight - Thanks for staying up with the adventure and history to go with it. It's sad even today we can't seem to lick prejudice and persecution - in all the forms it comes in. I'm looking forward to going back and digesting more from the museums.