Goree: the island of No return

Saturday June 27 2009

The island of Goree as seen on approach by boat from Dakar. From a distance, the island looks like any other ancient settlement with a mixture of colourful maroon and yellow buildings glistening in the sun. Fred Oluoch

OVER A CENTURY AND A HALF AFTER THE ABOlition of slave trade, Goree Island off the coast of Senegal still stands as a stark reminder of one of the darkest moments of Africa, and indeed humanity.

A mere three kilometres out in sea opposite the capital city of Dakar, Goree Island is like any other ancient settlement with a mixture of colourful maroon and yellow buildings glistening in the sun.

Only after making the 30 minute boat ride to the island, does one come face to face with one of the horrors of modern history.

Although slavery was abolished in 1848, Goree is still home to 39 former slave houses complete with the instruments of slavery — shackles, chains and weights and writing on the walls in the holding rooms where slaves were kept before shipment to lifelong servitude in the New World.

The island was the last stop for hundreds of thousands of captured African men, women and children who later ended up living in bondage as slaves.

Historians have over the years argued as to whether Goree Island was truly the epicentre of the slave trade in West Africa. But one thing is indisputable. Slaves were shipped out through here.


The slave houses tell the silent story.

There are 39 slave houses on the island built at different times by various occupying forces that used Goree as a strategic gateway on the Atlantic coast. All the slave houses face the sea.

The first slave house was built in 1536 and is now used as a priest’s house for the Presbyterian Church.

The largest slave house was also the last to be built in 1776 by the Dutch and is currently the centre of attraction on Goree Island. It still bears the various rooms through which the slaves passed. It was here that the captured Africans were brought to be loaded onto ships bound for the New World, through the infamous “Door of no Return.

The tour of the slave houses by 62 year old Faye Ibrahim also known as “Max Tonton,” evokes a powerful imagery making one feel like the events happened just yesterday.

In the slave house the slaves were separated according to age and gender. While the upper floor served as the residence of the slave master, the lower floor was reserved for the slaves who had been weighed, fed and held before being loaded into ships for the transatlantic journey.

In the waiting room, men were separated according to weight. Still visible on the walls are writings showing the various weights and dates of various ship loads of slaves.

Those who weighed 60kg and above were deemed ready for shipment and were expected to fetch good prices for the masters. Those below the required weight were sent to fattening rooms, in which they were fed like cattle to gain weight and be ready for the “market.”

The fattening rooms were known as Inapte Temporaiire, and those who failed the “fattening”  process were either thrown into the sea, or if lucky became domestic servants in the homes of White settlers on the island. They served as cooks.

Even though they were not in chains, they could not escape because they could not swim having been captured from the interior and thus had no experience with the sea. The island became a virtual prison for them.

The plaques on the doors of the slave houses still read Hommes for men, Enfantes for children and Jeunes Filles for young girls. Children below the age of eight were kept together regardless of their gender.

The rooms had a standard size of 2.5 square metres and were occupied by 20 slaves with shackles of iron and 10kg weights between their legs.

The slaves stayed in the rooms for three and a half months waiting for ships from the Americas and the Caribbean to come and pick them.

There are also the Cellule Des Recalcitrants (detention cells) for the captured who tried to foment rebellion among the slaves. 

But the heart wrenching  is the “door of no return” in which the slaves exited Africa for the last time to the unknown. From the door step, one has a beautiful view of the sunny Atlantic Ocean waves illuminated by the sun rays.

But one can only imagine how the beauty was lost on all those millions of Africans who passed through it, some to their deaths at sea in treacherous voyages in ships where they were packed like sardines, and some to servitude.

Nevertheless, on the island today too stands a statue of two slaves celebrating their emancipation. Known as the Statue Coveles, it shows a male and female slave standing on an African drum, hugging, with the male holding a broken chain in his hands, representing freedom.

The statue was made in 1999 by the descendants of former slaves from Guadaloupe as an appreciation of their forefathers who passed through the island.

Though some historians have refuted claims that Goree Island was the epicentre of slavery, many believe it was the largest transit centre for slaves on the entire West coast of Africa as far south as Angola.

It is estimated that more than 20 million Africans, majority of them from West Africa passed through this island and shipped to the Americas, Caribbean and Europe and sold into slavery.

LIKE ZANZIBAR ON THE EAST African coast,  Goree is important to the early history of  the continent and its links with the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean.

Most of the black people  in the diaspora today — the US, Europe, West Indies, Guadalupe, Surinam, Martinique, Brazil and Cuba — whose descendants came from Africa, are believed to have passed through Goree Island.

It was for this reason that in 1978, Unesco  entered Goree Island into the World Heritage List.

The island’s past is overwhelming to most visitors whose only contact with the brutality of slave trade comes from history books and movies.

Although infamous for its history, Goree is now a universal shrine, where people from all over the world go  to commemorate the tragedy inflicted by human beings on fellow humans.

As the boat leaves the island for the mainland, one cannot help but ponder how the maritime industry played a key role in the slave trade.

The question going through the mind is whether it is morally right for Senegal to benefit from its less glorious heritage, from a place where millions of Africans in a state of captivity passed through to a life of bondage in the New World.

Some argue that history cannot be changed and that it has to be told to generation after generation, and of the hardships and resilience of their ancestors in the hands of slave traders. The houses still bear the marks of the slaves’ suffering.

The history of the 45-acre island goes back before the days of slavery. African fishermen from the mainland used it as a fishing outpost during the dry season, and left during the rainy season to go back to the mainland to farm.

Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to come to Goree in 1444, and attracted by its natural deep harbour, opened it up for other explorers who stopped at Goree to repair their ships, rest and get fresh food supplies. Later it attracted the attention of slave traders, who exploited its natural harbour.

The Dutch — who gave the island its name — the British and the French controlled Goree at different times. 

Goree officially became a French colony after the 1885 Berlin Conference that partitioned Africa, and remained so until Senegal attained independence in 1960.

The island remains the biggest tourist attraction in Dakar, hosting between 1,200 to 1,500 visitors per week.