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A 20-something writer from Sénégal and Canada. Writing about Africa, the Middle East, peace and conflict, human rights, culture, ethical fashion and lifestyle. Email: megcecile@gmail.com All words and images © Megan Cécile Radford, unless otherwise noted. Profile photo © Rabii Kalboussi www.rabiikalboussi.tumblr.com

Friday, November 11, 2005

The History and Legacy of Goree Island

As the ship ploughed through the balmy tropical waters I kept my eye on the strip of land that seemed to grow with each passing minute. It wouldn’t be long now before dozens of tourists and I would get off the ferry and step onto the fabled shores of one of the notorious Atlantic slave trades most important ports: Gorée Island.

For hundreds of years men, women and children from all parts of West Africa were brought to a barren little isle off the coast of Sénégal to be shipped to the Caribbean and parts of North America. This fact is often discussed when speaking about African Americans whose ancestors passed through the island. Their sufferings are documented and lamented on an ongoing basis so that African Americans can have a piece of heritage, a legacy to hold on to. But what is often overlooked is how the events at Gorée affected those left behind, what legacy is left for them. How do Africans respond to Gorée’s history and legacy? The answer to this question is that the Sénégalese people view the history of Gorée Island as irrefutable fact, a partial cause in their nation’s underdevelopment, and finally as a part of their history that stole from them their fellow Africans. These ideas, although negative, do not always translate into hatred but rather an awareness of the egoism of Western nations and the capability of man for evil.

The African people first began to recognize the white man’s attitude of superiority in the early days of Gorée’s inhabitance by them. The Europeans claimed African territory for themselves, and as a result, the history of Gorée is laden with European wars and individuals whose existence both in historical records and in the monuments they left behind prove that the Island was the slavery port the Africans believe it was. Gorée, previously uninhabited, was first discovered and claimed for Portugal in 1444 by Dinis Diaz (Barboza, pg. 4). It was used by three nations: Portugal, France and Italy. Then the conflicts over control of the strategic bit of land began. The Dutch were the first to build military forts on the island, but these were soon destroyed. Nations rallied for possession of Gorée, and it was seized by the French, Dutch, Portuguese and English till in 1677 the French managed to defeat the contenders and hold control of the island for much of Sénégal’s colonial era (Barboza, pg 4-9).
During the French rule on Gorée, the French Monarchy kept tight reign over the officials of the island. French slave-traders were granted monopolies over Gorée and the slave trade flourished. In 1786 King Louis XVI appointed Chevalier Jean Stanislas de Boufflers as commander and governor of Sénégal. Gorée was made the capital of Sénégal and chief French naval port in Africa (Barboza, pg. 12). Of course, the French officials did not run the island and all its affairs without help. There existed a class of women of mixed European and African blood called signares (Barboza, pg. 12). One Gorée woman said, “Signares are not a bad thing. It was what they call in French the bourgeois Goréan” (Barboza, pg. 14). But Sénégalese may not fully understand the impact that signares had on the slave trade. These rich and powerful women were often mistresses of French leaders on Gorée and were a cultural link between Europeans and African slave merchants. They participated in many of Gorée’s affairs, including bartering with indigenous merchants, or as the Africans named them, “slatee” (Haley, pg. 28), for slaves and explaining confusing African customs to the Europeans (Barboza, pg.13). Anne Pepin, local wife of the governor, was one of the most influential signares on Gorée, and as the wife of Jean Stanislas de Boufflers she wielded great power over island affairs (Barboza, pg. 12-13). It was her brother, Nicholas Pepin who built the most famous slave house that holds the legendary “Door of No Return”, beyond which Africans faced one of two fates: being fed to sharks if they were thought to be too weak or ill to survive the journey, or being taken away from their native Africa forever (Barboza, pg. 16). The Sénégalese regard it as a testament to the reality of the part Gorée played in the slave trade.


Although some would question this claim, the Sénégalese people believe strongly in Gorée’s historical validity in terms of the slave trade, even in the face of opposition. In fact, they go so far as to make the comparison that many articulate of calling the African slave trade the
“Black Holocaust”. One Sénégalese man commented on the denial that Gorée’s claims as a slavery port were historical by saying, “This is like those who deny the Jewish holocaust ever existed” (Gorée Island, 2004). Joseph N’Diaye (curator of la Maison d’Esclaves) agrees, also comparing revisionists (those who want to deny that Gorée was an important slave port) to those who deny the Jewish Holocaust (Gorée Island, 2004). Indeed, it would seem that the majority of Sénégalese, officials and everyday people alike “believe in” Gorée. “Three out of four people here know that Gorée is where most of the slaves left from, and the one in four are just trying to deny their past because they are ashamed,” one Taxi driver boldly stated (Gorée Island, 2004). Abdoulaye Bathily, Sénégalese Minister for the Environment echoes his conviction: “The house of slaves existed. From there, slaves were sent to the Americas. I am positive about it” (Gorée Island, 2004). There is no question in the minds of Sénégalese that Gorée existed as a major slave trading port: to them refuting this is like refuting Auschwitz’s part in the Jewish holocaust.

Another official who has voiced his opinion concerning the slave trade around Gorée is Abdoulaye Wade, President of Sénégal. In an interview with Charles Zorgbibe, a professor of the University of Paris and chairman of the editorial board of African Geopolitics/Géopolitique Africaine, the Sénégalese president freely expressed his opinion and his desire to join with Western nations to boost the economy their countries had a hand in destroying. His words were: “The underdevelopment of Africa, caused by a long process of impoverishment largely generated by slavery, in conjunction with certain consequences of the colonial period, is the most serious case of underdevelopment of our times” (Africa Against Terrorism, 2001). A nation and continent cannot endure the loss of millions of its inhabitants without drastic loss to their economy. Because of the Europeans, the great empires of Ghana, Kanem, Mali, and Songhay all fell, Songhay soon after European slave traders became prominent (West African Kingdoms, 2005). These empires were not replaced with another prominent African power till the Asantes, who themselves eventually rebelled against slavery and were finally beaten in 1900 (West African Kingdoms, 2005). In effect, the Europeans robbed Africa of both its people and its political structure. When the colonial era ceased, the Europeans left Africa in devastating disarray, unsure of how to support itself in the modern world and lacking all resources to do so. President Wade has been actively seeking to modernize Sénégal’s economy and is asking for help from Western nations who have so long withheld and hoarded their wealth. A recent news report read, “All Africans are asking for is infrastructure so Africans can work," he said, specifically requesting "heavy military equipment to help with farming” (Slavery the Greatest, 2003). When the past two centuries are taken into account, this is not so very great a request.

One North American group that would have no qualms about sending development tools to Sénégal are the thousands of African Americans who live in Canada and the United States. Every year African Americans pour into Gorée Island on pilgrimages “of discovery and reflection” (Gorée Island, 2004). African Americans feel that the Island holds an important part of their history that they need to experience. A travel and tourism site comments, “Each February- designated ‘Black History Month’ in the United States- flights across the Atlantic from the USA to Sénégal are sold-out” (Gorée Island, 2004). During one episode that took place on Gorée during the past season of the Amazing Race, one contestant (of African-American descent) broke into tears at the Door of No Return because he felt he had connected with a part of himself he never could before. Many black Americans travel to Gorée to receive that same experience. It is as if they feel that Africa is calling to them, as if they are incomplete till they have stood on the homeland of their ancestors. Perhaps this is a deep-seated psychological remainder of their ancestor’s unwillingness to leave Africa in the first place…perhaps not. But whatever causes North Americans of African descent to cross the Atlantic, Sénégalese welcome them with open arms. Anna Rosalie Faye (daughter of the curator of la Maison d’Esclaves on Gorée) says that to Goréans these seekers are like long-lost family members (Barboza, pg. 19). Sénégalese welcome the children of slavery with open arms, recognizing that they are a part of Africa too. Alex Haley documents his experience with this phenomenon in the last chapter of his family epic, Roots. Alex Haley traveled to Gambia (a country inside Sénégal and very similar in culture) where his ancestor’s tribe, upon hearing that he is the descendant of one of the great families of their village, performed a ritual ceremony which welcomes one who was lost as their own. The tribe was overjoyed that their pain had not been for naught.

The ancestors of Alex Haley, and of modern-day Sénégalese, faced great pain. Through their struggles Sénégalese today hold a legacy of understanding of the audacity of Western nations. But they do not turn this knowledge into acts of rage against the former kidnapping races but use it to make their country a better place. In 1992 Pope Jean Paul II visited Gorée and made an apology to the African people for Christian missionaries’ part in the slave trade (Goree: The Slave, 2003). But the Africans harbour very little malice towards white people. There were occasions in my walks down the streets of downtown Dakar, the capital city of Sénégal, when my family and I would hear traces of bitterness in loudly called jeers of “American, American!” But these were shouts from young men jealous of the prosperity they see in the West, not hatred to Westerners because they stole African ancestors. Indeed, the Sénégalese do not ask for apologies in words, but in action. The African people are content to ask for aid in their country and for their personal financial difficulties. In fact, all whites who visit will be asked for money or for help to travel to a Western country so Sénégalese can get the training they need to improve their country’s standing in the world. Abdoulaye Wade has stated that it is not right to ask American companies for compensation for the generations of loss: “We are going to create an anti-racial racism” (Africa Against Terrorism, 2001). They do not ask for compensation or payment for the wrongs committed so many years ago but simply aid in helping Sénégal rise from its present state of poverty. There is a big difference: one is a demand for compensation funds that are undirected and have little purpose other than to atone for America’s past sins, the other is a calculated request for development funds.

In effect, the Sénégalese have turned their awareness and firm-held belief of the events at Gorée not into negative action, but a plea for help. Gorée’s history may be fraught with European wars, leadership and atrocities, but Sénégalese are taking it as their own, embracing in the process their relatives far across the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. They are making their own history now and in the process humbly asking the West to once again step beside them, this time as helpers and friends, not conquerors. The question is what is next? Has anything really changed in the last couple hundred years? What will the West do with its power in this century? Perhaps the greatest question that we in the West need to ask ourselves is if the Sénégalese can turn great pain into compassion for their lost ones and understanding for us, how much more should we turn our ancestors’ sin into compassion and action on the behalf of those they wronged? Our response to Gorée’s history and legacy should be one of quiet, humble atonement. Nothing more, nothing less.


Works Cited

Africa Against Terrorism. Summer-Fall 2001. AG Quarterly Magazine. November 11, 2004. Available: http://www.african-geopolitics.org/show.aspx?ArticleId=3082.
Barboza, Steven. Door of No Return: The Legend of Gorée Island. Cobblehill Books, 1994.

Gorée Island: Great destination, pilgrimage site, hoax?. 2004. About, Inc. Accessed November 11, 2004. Available: http://goafrica.about.com/library/weekly/Gorée /aa 220100c.htm

Gorée: The Door of No Return. Johnson, Ann E. and Klein, Robin. With Russ Costin. Meme Chose Production, 1991.

Goree: The Slave Island. 8 July, 2003. British Broadcasting Corporation. Accessed March 31, 2005. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3054442.stm

Haley, Alex. Roots: the Saga of an American Family. Doubleday, 1976.

Slavery the Greatest Crime. August 7, 2003. Media 24. Available: http://www.news24.com/News24/South_Africa/Bush_in_Africa/0,,2-7- 1505_1384554,00.html.

West African Kingdoms. British Broadcasting Corporation. Accessed January 2005. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/4chapter4.shtml

Walton, Andy. 1998. Cable News Network, Inc. Tiny island weathers storm of controversy. Accessed 1998 Cable News Network, Inc. Available: http://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/1998/africa/Sénégal/

2 Comments:

Blogger msblkwidow said...

Thank you for this information. I am interested in the History of Goree Island; and this information has answered a few questions that I've have for many years.

Again, thank you.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Interesting essays...Have you ever been to Africa?

6:44 AM  

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