The Atlantic slave trade is not an issue to mess around with. It involved the forced displacement of millions, the death of millions, the inhumane treatment of millions, and its effects have been so long-lasting they continue to be felt by millions today. Île de Gorée, a little island three kilometres offshore from the Senegalese capital, Dakar, played a role in Atlantic slave trade, but did it play the role that most people think it did? Or did someone mess around with the details?
Île de Gorée: Arrival of Europeans
There are mixed accounts as to whether Île de Gorée was inhabited or uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived in 1445 CE. What is known, is that there was no source of fresh water on the island, which means it was unlikely to have sustained a permanent settlement of any size. There’s a good chance, however, that it was used off and on as a fishing camp.
There is also uncertainty as to whether the Portuguese purchased Île de Gorée from the traditional owners, or if they just moved in and claimed the island as theirs. We’ll probably never know the truth of the matter, so you are free to make up your own mind about the proceedings.
The island was of strategic interest to various European maritime powers, and it was fought over and changed hands multiple times between the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British over the next two centuries. The French took control of Île de Gorée in 1677, and they maintained control of the island (minus a few temporary episodes where it was lost to the British) until Senegal gained independence in 1960.
Île de Gorée operated as a trade port throughout; goods for sale included leather, gum, ivory, beeswax, and grains. And, until the effective abolishment of slave trading (in Great Britain in 1807, and in France in 1826), traders could also come to Île de Gorée to purchase human cargo.
Slavery in West Africa
When Europeans arrived in West Africa in the 15th Century most of the kingdoms, empires, and communities they encountered practised slavery in some form or another. By some accounts, as much as 30% – 50% of the populations of these communities were kept in slavery – it is important to keep in mind though that the type of slavery they practised was not chattel slavery (i.e. where the slave is the property of the owner with no rights whatsoever), but rather a form of domestic slavery, where the slaves perform household and agricultural chores but retain some rights.
Of all the materials, goods, and produce that West Africans communities had on hand to trade with European merchants, slaves proved one of the most plentiful and profitable items of sale.
The role of Île de Gorée in the Atlantic slave trade
How many slaves passed through Île de Gorée is a point of contention.
Many historians claim – and they have records to support their claims – that Île de Gorée never played much of a role in the Atlantic slave trade, and that numbers were as low as 300 per year. Others – who say the records are wrong, or at least incomplete – have made claims that the slave trade on the island reached heights of 100,000 per year.
The discrepancy is vast. How is the public to know which statistic to trust?
And then, further adding to the confusion, are the well-meaning but misleading claims of Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, the founder of the Maison des Esclaves museum.
Maison des Esclaves, Île de Gorée
The Maison des Esclaves, or House of Slaves, occupies a building on Île de Gorée built in 1776 for a wealthy Senegalese family. The building was converted into a museum in 1972 by local Senegalese man, Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, who did all he could to bring attention to the role of Île de Gorée in the Atlantic slave trade.
And bring attention to Île de Gorée he did. Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye is purported to have claimed that up to 15 million slaves were processed on the island, and that more than one million were processed in the Maison des Esclaves, where they passed through the so-called Door of No Return (seen in the photo above), before being loaded onto a waiting boat for transportation.
The attention Ndiaye raised helped to make this island, and this museum, a symbolic memorial for the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.
His claims are now known to be exaggerations and distortions of the truth. Historians tell us that the house was not used in the slave trade at all – at least not in any significant way. The house most likely kept its own slaves, but these would have been domestic slaves and not for sale.
And the Door of No Return is pure fiction. The coastline in this part of the island prevents ships from approaching the shore, and thus it is incredibly unlikely that any slave ever passed through the Door of No Return on their way to a waiting boat. If slaves were moved from this house to a boat then it would have taken place via the docks in the harbour.
But does it really matter if this house played a key role in the Atlantic slave trade?
Does it matter if a slave last touched African soil here, or if they last touched African soil a few hundred metres away at the docks?
The Maison des Esclaves is a memorial more than a museum, It provides a much-needed focal point for those who wish pay their respects to the victims of the Atlantic slave trade. And its importance in this role should not be understated, as its like is largely missing from the rest of West Africa – where, historically, at least 40 slave trading posts operated.
Did someone mess with the details of Île de Gorée’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade? It seems likely. Did they do wrong? I leave that for you to decide.
Practical information and how to reach Île de Gorée:
Île de Gorée is 3 km offshore from Dakar. Ferries run to the island throughout the day (trip time is 20 – 30 min). Make sure to bring your passport as you need to present it to board the ferry. More transport info here.
Read more on Île de Gorée in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.