Goree: Senegal's slave island

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Goree IslandImage source, AFP

Goree Island is on the great western bulge of Africa - the nearest point on the continent to the Americas.

The Senegalese people called it Ber. The Portuguese renamed it Ila de Palma.

The name was changed to Good Reed by the Dutch and the French called the island Goree - meaning "good harbour".

But the name did not match with what went on in this tiny island between the 16th and 19th Centuries when wooden ships sailed from here across the Atlantic, with human beings chained in their holds.

On the island, there is a small fort known as Slave House. This was in effect one of the slave warehouses through which Africans passed on their way to the Americas.

Millions passed through the island and other similar trading posts to work in the plantations of the New World, including America.

Slave depot

The shipping of slaves from Goree lasted from 1536 when the Portuguese launched the slave trade to the time the French halted it 312 years later.

The Portuguese, Dutch, French and British all fought and killed each other over the trade from there.

The island is just 3km (nearly two miles) off the Senegalese coast, and its tiny size made it easy for merchants to control their captives.

The surrounding waters are so deep that any escape attempt would ensure death by drowning.

With a 5kg metal ball permanently attached to their feet or necks, a captured African would know what jumping into the deep sea would bring.

In 1978 Unesco designated Goree a World Heritage site.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The House of Slaves, built by the Dutch, is the last surviving Goree slave house

Today modern cargo ships go past the island, on their way to and from Dakar's harbour.

'Ill at ease'

The island, with some 1,300 inhabitants, is said to be so tranquil that there are no cars, no crime, and those who visit Goree are said to behave more like pilgrims visiting a holy shrine than as tourists.

Most visitors do not even spend the night on Goree. There is only one hotel.

During his visit to Goree in 1981, Michel Rocard, the former French prime minister, said: "It is not easy for a white man, in all honesty, to visit this Slave House without feeling ill at ease."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Some 1,300 people live on the island now

Pope John Paul II also visited Goree in 1992 and asked for forgiveness, because historians say that a lot of Catholic missionaries were involved in the slave trade.

The slave house at Goree has also been visited by former South African President Nelson Mandela.

He toured the island three years before his election in 1994, and insisted on crawling into a cramped holding cell.

President Barack Obama is visiting the island with his wife Michelle, who has slave ancestry, and his two daughters.

His predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W Bush, have also visited the island during their visits to Senegal.

"There's this link between Obama, an American originating from Africa through his father, and his wife, an African-American originating from Africa through her ancestors," said House of Slaves curator Eloi Coly.

"I think with all these ingredients gathered together, this visit by the Obamas should be very special."

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