Friday, July 2, 2010

Lest we forget. Île de Gorée.


Sometimes, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, it's good to be reminded of man's inhumanity towards ourselves.  There's enough human suffering in the world - millions of people are struggling to put a roof over their heads, food on the table and clothes on their back.  Countless are dying of incurable diseases.  We don't need to add to human suffering by torturing and killing each other.


This posting is about slavery....something we very often but sadly associate with Africa as the people of that continent were, once upon a time, captured, sold and transported as human cargo across the seas to be the property of someone else.  

Slavery has existed, in one form or another, through the whole of recorded human history — as have, in various periods, movements to free large or distinct groups of slaves.

An estimated 12 million Africans were shipped to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries.  Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States.

Île de Gorée ("Gorée Island") is one of the 19 communes d'arrondissement ("commune of arrondissement") of Dakar.  It is a tiny island that is located about 2 km  from the main harbor of Dakar.

Gorée's premier attractions are the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves) and its Door of No Return. Today, both serve as emotional reminders of the days of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Gorée was one of the first places in Africa to be settled by Europeans, as the Portuguese settled on the island in 1444. It was captured by the United Netherlands in 1588, then the Portuguese again, and again the Dutch who named it after the Dutch island of Goeree, before the British resumed control in 1664.

After the French gained control in 1677, the island remained continuously French until 1960. There were brief periods of British occupation during the various wars fought by France and Britain. In 1960 Senegal was granted independence.

Historians differ on how many, if any African slaves were actually held in this building, as well as the relative importance of Gorée as a point on the Atlantic Slave Trade, visitors from around the world continue to make it an important place to remember the human toll of African slavery.

Built around 1776, the House of Slaves was once the home of a wealthy Senegalese Métis (Franco African) woman trader named Anna Colas Pépin wealthy trader who may or may not have kept a few slaves on the ground floor of the house.

In the early 1960's, the House of Slaves was reconstructed and opened as a  largely through the work of Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, who was a tireless advocate of the belief in that slaves were held in the building in great numbers before passing through the Door of No Return to board the slave ships headed for the Americas.  This belief has made the house both a tourist attraction, and the site for dozens of state visits by world leaders to Senegal.

Since the 1980s, academics have downplayed the role that Gorée played in the Atlantic Slave Trade, arguing that it is unlikely that many slaves actually walked through the door, and that Gorée itself was marginal to the Atlantic slave trade.

Regardless of whether or not the House of Slaves served as departure point for slaves, even those who argue Gorée was never important in the slave trade view the island as an important memorial to a trade that was carried on in greater scale from ports in in other parts of West Africa.  Since the publication of Alex Haley's novel, "Roots",  in the 1970s, African-American tourists from the United States have made the House of Slaves a focal point of a visit to Senegal to reconnect with their African heritage.  Many, especially those descended from enslaved Africans, describe highly emotional reactions to the place.  Given the history behind the place, I can understand their reactions.

In 1978, Gorée was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Aside from the House of Slaves, there are some small museums and I believe a fort to be visited.  If that's not enough to keep me busy, the island is pedestrian only and from the pictures I've seen, there seem to be lot of narrow alleys, lined with brightly colored houses, that would be perfect for a daytime stroll.