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Sad history amid sunny beaches on island of Goree

The history stirred by a visit to a slave merchant's house in West Africa carries a special poignancy for American travelers. "Through this door they went, their eyes locked on an infinity of suffering, for a journey without return."

The message, hand-scrawled in French on thin tissue paper, is pasted above a small door looking west over the Atlantic. For many Affricans, the door marked their final passage to slavery in the New World or to death in the bowels of ships on the high seas.

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The stark simplicity of the words contrasts sharply with the gaggle of tourists who have come to view the House of Slaves on the tiny island of Goree. The island, a drop of basalt, beaches, and tropical vegetation, sits in the middle of the harbor of Dakar, capital city for the West African country of Senegal.

Once a major marketplace and final way station for the West African slave trade, goree is now a village of 1,000 inhabitants and a haven for tourists and Senegalese seeking refuge from urban Dakar. For a round-trip ticket of $1.50 and a 20-minute ferry ride, travelers and locals can escape the concrete and glass towers, the parks and broad boulevards, that make Dakar one of Africa's most moder cities. They can find relief in the narrow by- ways, pastel-colored 18th-century buildings, stone quais, and clear waters of Goree.

Increasing numbers of visitors are making the trip. Each weekend the population of regulars -- fishermen, cafe owners, artists, retired diplomats, and commuters -- swells to three times the normal size. Ten times a day the ferry, named Blaise Diagne after an early Senegalese mayor of Dakar, pulls up to the wharf to deposit its cargo of tourists, Russian seamen from a trawler docked in the harbor, Senegalese schoolchildren, courting couples, and families of picnickers.

Toting plastic fish net bags of French bread, fresh fruit, peanut oil, and transistor radios, they spread out over the beach, sprawling under red and blue umbrellas or clustering in cafe's serving tiebou diene,m the fish stew that is Senegal's national dish. Boys glide across the water, wind-surfing on yellow and purple sailed surfboards. Young Senegalese dive for coins tossed by tourists on incoming boats or storm the boats like pirates, only to jump from the bow once they have clambered aboard.

But beyond the sunny beach and blue- green waters, through shadowy streets with names like Rue des Dongeons, lies a darker history.

As early as 1536 Portuguese traders began to use Goree as a base for slave trading. By 1785, the island boasted 110 slave owners; 350 to 400 slaves were ready for sale; another 1,750 were being kept as house slaves; and there were an estimated 118 slave houses operating on the island. One of these, a brooding faded coral structure, has been preserved by a private Senegalese citizen and former French paratrooper, Joseph Ndyiaye. It serves as a museum and memorial for Goree's past.

Its thick walls open onto a courtyard. On either side of the courtyard, a staircase spirals to a second floor that served as the merchants' offices and family quarters. Through the mouth formed by the staircases, cobblestones lead to the rooms where the slaves were kept, shackled and awaiting transport. One room is marked for men, valued at 115 gallons of rum; a second is for women, worth 95 gallons; a third is for children; and a fourth for weighing and measuring. Each room is cramped and dark, with small windows staring through stone walls at the ocean beyond. A single door at the end of a dark hall leads to the area where a wharf once stood and slavers docked.

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"If there walls could talk," Mr. Ndiaye has written on a small sign plastered to the wall in the courtyard. To many Americans, he has done the talking himself. Lillian Carter visited Goree and the slave house in 1978, and Henry Kissinger described his 1976 visit as "a moving and sad experience."

Mr. Ndiaye considers the museum of particular importance to Americans. He commented to one American visitor that a major hope of his work and his museum was for "our brothers who are American to refind their identity through their increasing interest in the land of their ancestors."

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