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Beautiful island, sorrowful past

Just off the Senegal coast, Goree offers a glimpse of what the unknown looked like to African slaves.

By TOM TRACY
Published October 5, 2003

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[Photos: Tom Tracy]
A Senegalese woman in traditional garb walks down a village street, bordered by lush foliage, on Goree Island. The island is home to about 1,000 people.

Arriving at Goree Island by ferry, visitors get this view of the infamous La Maison des Esclaves, or Old Slave House, built by the Dutch in 1776.

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GOREE ISLAND, Senegal - When President Bush made a brief stop this July at the old slave house here, he was paying a call at what has become a kind of touchstone for African-Americans tracing their roots to the slave trade.

Located off the coast of the West African nation and former French colony of Senegal, Goree Island is symbolic for these Americans, who are unable to identify precisely where in Africa their ancestors originated.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of slaves departed from this region for various points in the Americas, north and south. So Goree, less than a tenth of a square mile in size, has taken on the role of a must-stop destination for traveling dignitaries, tourists and the black Diaspora who have an afternoon to spend in that part of the world.

Pope John Paul II visited here in the early 1990s, and Presidents Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton were also visitors.

Historians don't agree on whether the slave trade was intended to be one of Europe's early pursuits in West Africa. More than five centuries ago, when Portugal's Prince Henry instructed his seafaring explorers to chart farther south along Africa's Atlantic coast, he wrote of seeking the glories of intellectual pursuits, discovery and the spread of his Catholic faith.

But greed set in as the entrepreneurial Portuguese navigators realized they could make small fortunes by bringing slaves back to Europe. With the Portuguese explorations and colonization of Brazil, in particular, came the need for even more slave labor. The Portuguese became the first large-scale European slave traders.

Over the centuries, the Dutch and French also used Ile de Goree (the island's name in French) and other West African ports for housing, preparing and transporting slaves to the Americas.

Recent writings cast doubt on Goree's popular association as the major slave-trading port, noting that is was a more often a place for shipping goods, not people. But its symbolism has taken on a life of its own. So it was here that Bush publicly declared slavery one of the greatest crimes of history.

Visitors to the region arrive first at Senegal's coastal capital of Dakar, the largest and most popular city in West Africa, where the official language is French. The 20-minute ferry ride from Dakar to Goree gives passengers an unobstructed look at the relatively modern Dakar and the colorful, colonial-era buildings on Goree.

Walking the island's bougainvillea-lined streets and arriving at the coral-colored La Maison des Esclaves, House of Slaves, recalls that moving scene in Steven Spielberg's 1997 film Amistad, in which the British Navy fires cannons on another slave house along Africa's coast as a symbolic closure to European slave-trading.

West Africa's place in slave trading was probably first brought to popular understanding when Alex Haley wrote about Roots in the 1970s. (Haley's brother, George, was from September 1998 to July 2000 the U.S. envoy to the neighboring Republic of the Gambia, also part of the African-American roots tours).

The first Goree Island slave houses date to 1536, although the first Europeans set foot on the island in 1444, according to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Goree has been designated as a World Heritage Site.

At La Maison des Esclaves, built in 1776 by a Dutch family, visitors can enter abysmal slave-holding cells or wander through a storage room that leads to the infamous "Door of No Return." It faces the sea and is thought to be a portal through which many slaves presumably left Africa, never to come back.

One can only imagine the horror of this place as slaves were shackled to its plain walls at their neck and feet, weighed, branded, separated from family, fattened and priced for shipment.

Upstairs at the slave house are the relatively luxurious quarters for the European slave traders.

For 1,000 of its permanent residents and for visitors wanting to see more, Goree offers other points of interest, including a scenic beach near the ferry slip, where colorful fishing vessels line the shore. There are also a Maritime Museum, ruins of Fort Nassau and the Musee de la Femme, which examines the role of Senegalese women in traditional and modern West African culture.

Strolling around the island's foliage-lined streets, cooled by ocean breezes, conjures up a kind of guilt that this place could be so beautiful.

- Tom Tracy is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: South African Airways offers direct, seven-hour flights to Dakar from New York's JFK International Airport. Call toll-free 1-800-722-9675. Air France and several U.S. carriers offer daily flights from Miami, Atlanta and other cities to Paris; Air France has daily flights from Paris to Dakar. For information on the Air France service, call toll-free 1-800-237-2747.

Tours to Goree can be organized from the wharf at Dakar. The wharf is located just north of the Place de l'independence. The ferry ride to Goree takes 20 minutes.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: To take an online virtual tour of the Goree Slave House visit: http://webworld.unesco.org/goree

Consult the Lonely Planet Guide to The Gambia and Senegal, and Door of No Return: The Legend of Goree Island, by Steven Barboza, Cobblehill Books.

Senegal's tourism office in New York can be reached at (212) 279-1953.

[Last modified October 3, 2003, 10:13:34]

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