Asalaa Maalekum, Mrs. Blackwell’s class! Thanks for all your awesome questions last week, I’ll answer them later this week. This week, I’m going to focus on a more heavy subject in cosaan senegale (Senegalese history): the slave trade and history of Gorée Island in Senegal. This is waaaaaay too large of a topic to properly tackle in one little blog post (some people dedicate their lives to studying this, not to mention the ), but I’m going to do my best to give you an introduction to this part of Senegalese history that continues to have a huge impact on Senegal today.
Gorée Island is right off the coast of Dakar, a 20 minute ferry ride from downtown. It is a tourist destination as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – President Obama himself came to visit in 2013. The history of Gorée is that it is widely believed to be one of the main trading ports used in the trans-atlantic slave trade to ship West African peoples out to the Americas and Europe for slave labor.
A very, very brief and summarized historical interlude:
The region of West Africa now known as Senegal and the Gambia (the smaller country
within the borders of Senegal) were home to many powerful empires of African people before Europeans set foot on West African soil. Mansa Musa, a king during the Mali empire, was rumored to have so much gold that during his religious pilgrimage to Mecca (a very important Islamic religious site) he brought thousands of men along to carry his pounds of gold bars, erecting cities for him and his entourage at every stop along the way. Of course, whether or not all of that is true is not certain, but what is important is that his reputation alone reached all the way up to Europe during the 1400s.
In the 15th century, the Portuguese set foot on West African soil in search of gold and trading opportunities, including the trade of slaves. Though slave trade had existed within African countries long before then, the arrival of Europeans in West Africa (Senegal has been passed back and forth between Portugal, the
Netherlands, Denmark, France, and England up until the final colonization by France in the 1800s) began the long history of taking African slaves overseas to work on plantations for European enterprises. Between the 15th and 19th centuries (that’s 400 YEARS of slave trade), it is estimated that at least 10 million African people were enslaved and transported to Europe or the Americas to work. Though the majority of slaves were taken from Central Africa, especially the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a large portion of slaves in the trans-atlantic trade were taken directly from the Senegambian region.
La Maison des Esclaves and the Door of No Return:
The ‘Maison des Esclaves’ (House of Slaves) on Gorée is large, bright, spaceous, yet interspersed with small, cramped rooms with barely any light. These rooms are credited towards being the last stop for enslaved African people on their way out to sea to be transported across the Atlantic Ocean – a deadly journey where the majority of people died before reaching the shore due to illness, malnutrition, and suffocation from being shackled side-by-side in impossibly cramped quarters.
Within la Maison des Esclaves, there is an opening in the back of the building known as the ‘Door of No Return’, commonly discussed as being the last door enslaved Africans ever went through before heading out on to the dangerous open sea.
Today, the idea that Gorée was the most important slave port in West Africa, or even that there were many slaves there at all, has been debunked. There were other places in Senegal that had more enslaved people taken from (namely Zuiginchor), and it has come to light that the Maison des Esclaves may not be much more than a symbol representation of what some slave houses were like. However, just because some of the facts around Gorée are more likely myths, it is only a small myth within an enormous, overwhelming truth. The trans-atlantic slave trade was real, it was horrific, and the effects of its damage can still be found all over the world. Today, Gorée stands as a sort of symbol and memorial to all of the people who were taken from their homes in West Africa to a life, if they lived, of brutal torture and slavery.
The plaque above, found at la Maison des Esclaves, reads: “Millions and millions of men, women, and children today are saying ‘no’ to the misery and the shame, because the men who were treated as slaves by the people in power knew in their heart that they were men. And many have died in those three centuries so that no one will ever forget it”.
What do you think about Gorée Island? Did you know about this part of West African history?
It is impossible for me to try to explain the entirety, or even a relatively small portion, of the history of the trans-atlantic slave trade and colonialism in Senegal. I encourage you to learn more about the history of slavery – in Africa, in Europe, in South America, and especially in the United States. It is a part of the world’s history that will never, in our lifetimes, not be relevant and important to understanding how our world works today.
Do you have any questions about Gorée and the history of slavery in Senegal? I can do my best to answer them later this week.
Ba ci kanam, insh’allah.