The Complexities of Île de Gorée

During orientation, my study abroad group took a trip to Île de Gorée. This small island sits about ½ a mile of the coast of Senegal and on the surface looks like a care free tourist destination. As you descend the ferry you are greeted by vendors hawking their souvenirs and tourists and locals a like basking in the sun on a long rock-strewn beach. Locales sit under large Baobabs and soccer games are played in a large pitch located just a few hundred yards from the port.

It is true that Gorée is a popular tourist destination and that the local population lives well off of this income, but this ideality hides a brutal past which is what makes Gorée an important part of Senegalese and Colonial history and memory. From the 15th to the 19th century, Gorée served as the largest slave trading market on the west coast of Africa. Held successively by Portuguese, Dutch, English and French was prized for its ideal location, safe location and for the control that it exerted over Dakar. It was the Portuguese who first realized the strategic importance of this small, 28-hectare island.

 

It is not its role as a strategic military base though that gives this island its important historical role. As the transatlantic slave trade began to grow, the island became of greater and greater importance and at the height of the trade there were 28 slave houses located on the island. In these slave houses, up to 20 slaves were held in 8ft by 8ft rooms for up to three months. They were then escorted in to central courtyard, where buyers would look down from a balcony and bid on the slaves. Slaves were then escorted through what is now known as the door of return, onto ships that would transport them to the Americas.

 

Today, only one slave house remains, and while on the island I had the opportunity to visit. It is difficult to explain the emotions that I felt as we walked through the slave quarters and looked through the door of no return. If forced to choose one world it would have to be powerful. It serves as a stark reminder of the atrocious acts of slave traders and owners and as such it is easy to understand why this is such an important place.

        

After having visited the house of slaves, it was difficult to understand how this place of such human suffering could still be the beachy tourist destination that many people seemed to be treating it as. Walking away from the slave house, one is greeted by the sounds of the revelers on the beach and the boys playing soccer that greeted our group as we first got off the ferry. Reconciling these two aspects is something that we as a group have attempted to interpret and wrestle with throughout our time here. Though it has been difficult to reconcile these two dynamics, it has served as a powerful reminder to all of us in the work that is still needed to reconcile the past and histories that must not be forgotten.