Welcome to Gorée Island, a 50 hectare (half sq. km) paradise just off the Senegalese coast in West Africa. Today it’s a tropical paradise frequented by international tourists and local students from Dakar, Senegal’s capital, but historically this place bears the grotesque scars of slavery. For over three hundred years, Gorée was a key slave-trading centre on the African coast.
“Gorée was at the centre of the rivalry between European nations for control of the slave trade.”
I took the 20 minute ferry ride to Gorée while visiting Senegal last week. I watched the island approach with a group of about a hundred excited Senegalese students – many of whom had never been on a boat before – and immediately noticed the beautiful historical architecture. This was a testament to the four European nations that controlled the island at various points in history.
The Portugese were the first to arrive in 1444, followed by the Dutch, English, and French. All traded in slaves.
There used to be about a dozen slave houses on the island, which acted collectively as a warehouse where slaves would be kept and sorted before getting shipped across the Atlantic. The last of these buildings was built by the Dutch in 1776, and is known today as the House of Slaves. Historians believe that the slaves were kept on the ground floor in cells, while the wealthy white slave masters lived in comfortable quarters on the second floor.
The tour guide, an elderly Senegalese man with a French beret, told me that a male slave had to have a minimum weight of 63kg (138 lbs) to be eligible for being sold abroad.
The most haunting thing about this place is the “door of no return.” It’s been visited by Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, and represents the moment of farewell – a final goodbye to the continent many called home. There is plenty of mystery and speculation about this door. Some historians say it was merely used to throw garbage into the sea, while others believe that slaves would exit through the door to board a ship bound for the Caribbean.
In any case, today the door has become a symbol for the Diaspora, a place that urges us all to pause and remember the suffering that millions of slaves endured during the TransAtlantic slave trade.
As the Westernmost point of Africa, Goree Island was an ideal spot for the slave trade. The Caribbean and its sugar plantations lay almost directly West, and the trip across the Atlantic typically lasted between six and eight weeks.
Establishing exact numbers is impossible, but it’s estimated that about 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic. About 15% died at sea, mostly from sickness, suicide, and murder at the hands of the crew.
Many of the slaves who ended up in the Caribbean became part of the sugar industry, feeding the British teatime obsession. This is the dockyard in London where that sugar, along with rum, tea, and cotton, would end up.
Here’s what it looks like today.
From this spot, traders would leave with manufactured goods, like guns and alcohol, and exchange them for slaves when they reached Africa. African tribal kings would kidnap fellow Africans from other tribes and sell them to the Europeans in exchange for their goods.
As I walked through one of the London warehouses – now a museum – it struck me that exploitation on such a mass scale requires incredible amounts of infrastructure, intention, and cooperation. This wasn’t a case of “a few evil slave traders,” but a demonstration of injustice forming the fabric of entire societies.
While the TransAtlantic slave trade is no longer legal, we must remember that slavery still thrives today. The human heart is still greedy and willing to take advantage of another. While about 12 million Africans were kidnapped and enslaved in the span of 400 years, an estimated 21 to 35 million people live in slavery today.
As we visit places like Goree Island, let us not only remember the past, but be moved to action in the present.