Island of Gorée

Wednesday, 5 August 2020 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, UNESCO World Heritage
Reading Time:  8 minutes

© Inextre/cc-by-sa-3.0-es

© Inextre/cc-by-sa-3.0-es

Île de Gorée is one of the 19 communes d’arrondissement (i.e. districts) of the city of Dakar, Senegal. It is an 18.2-hectare (45-acre) island located 2 kilometres (1.1 nmi; 1.2 mi) at sea from the main harbour of Dakar, famous as a destination for people interested in the Atlantic slave trade although its actual role in the history of the slave trade is the subject of dispute. Its population as of the 2013 census was 1,680 inhabitants, giving a density of 5,802 inhabitants per square kilometre (15,030/sq mi), which is only half the average density of the city of Dakar. Gorée is both the smallest and the least populated of the 19 communes d’arrondissement of Dakar. Other important centres for the slave trade from Senegal were further north, at Saint-Louis, Senegal, or to the south in the Gambia, at the mouths of major rivers for trade. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name is a corruption of its original Dutch name Goedereede, meaning “good roadstead“.

Gorée is a small island 900 metres (3,000 ft) in length and 350 metres (1,150 ft) in width sheltered by the Cap-Vert Peninsula. Now part of the city of Dakar, it was a minor port and site of European settlement along the coast. Being almost devoid of drinking water, the island was not settled before the arrival of Europeans. The Portuguese were the first to establish a presence on Gorée circa 1450, where they built a small stone chapel and used land as a cemetery. Gorée is known as the location of the House of Slaves (French: Maison des esclaves), built by an Afro-French Métis family about 1780–1784. The House of Slaves is one of the oldest houses on the island. It is now used as a tourist destination to show the horrors of the slave trade throughout the Atlantic world. After the decline of the slave trade from Senegal in the 1770s and 1780s, the town became an important port for the shipment of peanuts, peanut oil, gum arabic, ivory, and other products of the “legitimate” trade. It was probably in relation to this trade that the so-called Maison des Esclaves was built. As discussed by historian Ana Lucia Araujo, the building started gaining reputation as a slave depot mainly because of the work of its curator Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, who was able to move the audiences who visited the house with his performance. Many public personalities visit the House of Slaves, which plays the role of a site of memory of slavery. In June 2013, President of the United States Barack Obama visited the House of Slaves. The island of 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. They named it after the Dutch island of Goeree, before the British took it over under Robert Holmes in 1664.

Gorée with Dakar in the background © Remi Jouan/cc-by-3.0 © flickr com - John Crane/cc-by-2.0 © Gregor Rom/cc-by-sa-4.0 © HaguardDuNord/cc-by-sa-3.0 House of Slaves with Portal of Sorrow/Door of No Return © flickr.com - Robin Elaine/cc-by-2.0 © Inextre/cc-by-sa-3.0-es Portal of Sorrow/Door of No Return © flickr.com - Wandering Angel/cc-by-2.0 Harbor of Goree © Delphine Bruyère/cc-by-sa-3.0
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House of Slaves with Portal of Sorrow/Door of No Return © flickr.com - Robin Elaine/cc-by-2.0
Maison des Esclaves, or the House of Slaves, was built in 1780–1784 by Nicolas Pépin. Although it is the home of the infamous “Door of No Return”, which is said to be the last place exported slaves touched African soil for the rest of their lives, there is little evidence at Maison des Esclaves to suggest a “large-scale trans-Atlantic slave trade” economy. According to census records obtained from the 18th century, the majority of enslaved population fell under the category of domestic slaves, rather than slaves to be exported. Pépin and his heiress may have had domestic slaves, but again there is little archaeological evidence that they were involved in any slave exportation business. Despite this lack of evidence, Maison des Esclaves has become a pilgrimage site to commemorate forcible removal of Africans from their homeland, also known as the African diaspora. This contrasts with the role of the site of Rue des Dongeons on Gorée. At Rue des Dongeons, as the name suggests, there is a presence of dungeons, which can clearly be associated with the confinement of the slaves to be exported. However, many historians claim neither the island nor the house played a significant role in the slave trade. Ralph Austen of the University of Chicago stated that “There are literally no historians who believe the Slave House is what they’re claiming it to be, or that believe Goree was statistically significant in terms of the slave trade.” Historian Ana Lucia Araujo has said “it’s not a real place from where real people left in the numbers they say.” Conversely, UNESCO claims that “from the 15th to 19th century, Goree was the largest slave trading centre on the African coast.”

On the southcentral end of Gorée, in the Bambara quarter, although less abundant in artifacts, the deposits from this area differ in sediment inclusions from the rest of the island. Inclusions such as limestone, red bricks, shell, or stones in these two to three meter depositions are no older than the eighteenth century and shows frequent building up and tearing down processes. This could be correlated to the extensive settlement of this area maybe by domestic slaves beginning in the eighteenth century. Quartier Bambara was a segregated settlement, which suggests domestic slavery rather than exportation. The maps of this settlement has segregated boundary lines that eventually, by the mid-eighteenth century, were shown to be reduced. Found in the center of the island, Bambara was inhabited by the Bambara people. The Bambara people had an unfavorable stereotype; found in the mainland of Senegal and Mali, the Bambara were known for being excellent slaves. Brought to Gorée by the French, the Bambara people were set to build roads, forts and houses. These buildings (Maison des Esclaves, Quartier Bambara, and Rue des Dungeons), made of stone or brick, contrasted with the structures built by the Africans made of straw and mud. This contrast aided in the segregation and status separation between the Africans and the European inhabitants and followed the common association that masonry was a European influence. However, the construction of these architectural buildings were most likely built by the slaves, and without floor plans, as indicated by the haphazard city layout and irregular angles in the rooms. Settlement analysis demonstrates the possibility that with time, the masters’ and the enslaved peoples’ statuses evened out enough to work and live side by side on the island by the second half of the eighteenth century.

Read more on Île de Gorée: the perfect Dakar day trip, UNESCO.org – Island of Gorée, BBC, 27 June 2013: Goree: Senegal’s slave island and Wikipedia Island of Gorée (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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