It is strange to go as a tourist to historic sites commemorating tragedy. Gorée Island is best known as the launching point of many of the slave ships bound for the new world. While they were being held awaiting transport, many of the slaves were kept at what is now known as the House of Slaves. This house is now a museum about the slave trade and a memorial to those who were murdered and kidnapped.
I studied the slave trade in high school and college. I read Beloved, and Roots. But actually being in the physical place where such atrocities took place made them real for me in a new way. When newly enslaved people were brought to the holding facility, men, women, and children were separated and locked in tiny, dark, underground rooms. The air is so wet underground there that many died of pneumonia. The men’s cell and the children’s cell had no toilet facilities; the inmates were allowed out once per day for exercise and to relieve themselves. Conditions were filthy, and disease was rampant. The women’s cell was the only one with a hole in the floor for excrement. This convenience was given because the women were also being used sexually by the slave traders. Young, pretty, women were sometimes kept on the island as the mistresses of the slave traders, and much of the island’s population came from these unions. (Gorée Island was uninhabited before it became a shipping hub, because it has no local source of drinking water.)
The cells in the House of Slaves are on the ground floor (and below) of the house. Traders bound for the Americas would stand up on the second floor balcony, and enslaved people would be brought out to stand at the base of the stairs for inspection and possible purchase. One of the cells has a door in it that faces the ocean. This has come to be known the “Door of No Return,” because people would go out of it and never come back. (Technically, it has been pointed out, this door was probably rarely used because it was impractical to load ships this way. I still find it a powerful symbol.)
I felt deeply ill the entire time I was visiting the museum. The only bright point was the number of African-Americans who were also visiting, for whom this museum was obviously a deeply felt pilgrimage.
It felt strange to walk around the rest of Gorée after seeing the museum. The island is beautiful, much more so than the modern city of Dakar. There are no cars on the island, and it was a relief to escape the choking exhaust of the city. The people of Gorée make most of their living from the tourist trade, and were all friendly and eager to talk to me. Whenever anyone found out I was American they immediately said, “Clinton came here!” Apparently President Clinton visited the island with Jesse Jackson some time ago, and they brought with them a substantial contribution to the historic preservation society that maintains the house of the slaves and other historic sites. Clinton and Jackson walked all over the island, dedicated a monument, met the inhabitants, and obviously won many friends.
In contrast, George W. Bush also visited the island during his presidency. Unlike the previous presidential visit, however, he had all the residents of the island evacuated or locked in their houses for security. He made no donations, and contributed nothing to the local economy, in fact robbing everyone of several days income because no tourists were allowed to visit the island during his visit or its security preparations. People in Senegal don’t like Bush very much.
You can see all my photos from Gorée Island here.