Today I will be talking about the island of Gorée, in Senegal. Located less than 4 km from the city of Dakar, Gorée island offers a sure route for ships. Since the 15th century, it has been the center of rivalries between diverse 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.
Before I dive further into the atrocities of human trading on the island, I would like to address ideas circulated by some stating 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.
Now back to the island itself. One of the most important if not the main stop on the island is the house of slaves. Of Reddish/pinkish color, this house was first built by the Dutch in 1776, and is the last standing slave house on the island. At the end of the 18th century, 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.
Not too far from the house of slaves is the castle which was used as a warehouse for millions of captured slaves.
After the abolition of slavery in 1848, the island’s population declined, with many moving to Dakar. Since 1978, the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today the island of Gorée is a memorial to all those who were separated from their loved ones, their lands, their society, their culture, uprooted and sold like cattle across the globe. It serves as a reminder of humanity’s ugly past, and what it is capable of for capital gain, hatred, and greed. Gorée is and should remain all of that, but also a true reminder to future generations that mankind should be loved, and a man’s life is precious, not to be sold like cattle. Attempts by some to absolve themselves from their ugly pasts should not stop those who were hurt from remembering, for celebrating the lives of those who perished, who were uprooted, and those who survived. Truth is truth whether beautiful or not, it is truth, and remembering is acknowledging all the good those who lost their lives, those who survived, gave to the world, because America will not be America without the Slaves’s lives and hard labor; Brazil will not be Brazil without the blood of those slaves; France will not be France, or Great Britain will not be Great Britain without the sweat and blood of African slaves. So Gorée is a reminder of all of that, and should be cherished for it.