The moment you set foot on Goree Island, you get a sense of peace. It feels worlds away from busy Dakar, but it rests only three kilometres off its coast. As you start walking down its narrow streets, you realise how vivid it is, with hundreds of artists showing their handcrafted work on its small alleyways. The atmosphere is vibrant and colourful, the island is full of life… But beneath its picturesque facade, the island hides a brutal history.
The first time I heard about Goree island was in 2013 when the then US President Barack Obama visited the island. I vaguely remember him looking out over the sea from a salmon-coloured building, with the sound of hundreds of flashes trying to capture the moment he and Michelle appeared out of a hole in the wall.
I knew very little about this symbolic visit and its meaning until I went there myself. We had spent two very intense weeks in Senegal’s southern region of Kedougou, travelling with Accion Senegal, a Spanish NGO operating in the area. We had been isolated, visiting very poor areas – far away from any tourist attraction. So on our last day, we went to Goree Island, knowing only that it had been a slavery port in Africa.
Our guide was a young local artist from Goree. His name was Mame Gueye. Entering that same salmon-coloured building where the Obamas had provoked a media frenzy was a slap in the face.
“Millions of people were processed and shipped away from here,” Mame said, as we entered the courtyard at the House of Slaves. “They were brought here, where we are standing right now, and stripped naked,” he added.
We stopped at the bottom of the spiral staircase as he went on.
“Every person who passed this way was branded like cattle, with each European company having its distinctive mark,” Mame said. “The selected ones would then be taken from the courtyard through the corridor to the “Door-of-no-return”. “For many, that was their last glimpse of Africa”. “They were shipped to a life of slavery in Brazil, the Caribbean and America,” Mame said.
We peered into several chambers with corroded metal fittings that once held chains clinging to the walls. They were humid, narrow, with low ceilings, dark and cold. Slaves would wait for months in these cells until they were branded and sold.
“Traders used a 5 kg metal ball to stop captives from fleeing,” Mame said, with a somber voice. “For the disobedient, there were neck rings and leg chains,” he added.
For one second Mame stopped.
“Those who fell sick in the house would be thrown into the ocean, to avoid the spreading of diseases.” “Imagine being thrown into the ocean with a 5kg metal ball chained to your foot. Some even carried two.”
Our group fell silent.
Mame then showed us the unventilated isolation cell used to punish rebellious slaves. The same cell in which Nelson Mandela sat in silence during his visit to the island in 1991, one year after his release from prison.
We then entered a room that was saved specifically for virgins. A room where young girls would be kept before being traded to their masters. Or for the pleasure of their traders. “They were periodically paraded in the courtyard for the white masters to choose from.”
We were speechless.
At one point the only thing I could think was: “How could people be so cruel?” Mame guided us up to the merchants quarters, where traders examined and weighed their human cargo. It was a different world. Wooden floors, colourful walls and huge windows allowing the sea breeze in… The contrast between the inhumanity in the cells and the opulence above was huge.
Goree was ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. There were up to 28 slave houses on the island. Some believe it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast. Others argue the site was a minor location in the slave trade, and some have even question whether it was a part of it at all.
Regardless of the numbers, the House of Slaves stands as a testament to the human suffering and devastation caused by slave trade. For over 300 years, it was one of the ugliest places on Earth.
Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a “symbol of human exploitation and a sanctuary for reconciliation”.