What is the island of Gorée and why should I visit?
Located a mere 2 kilometers off the coast of mainland Africa’s westernmost city, Dakar, is a small island. Despite only being 0.11 square miles, this Senegalese island allegedly (we’ll come back to that) served as the largest slave-trading center on the African coast. The island wasn’t populated before the Europeans arrived, but it was taken in turns by the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French as they vied for control of this strategically located island. Africans who had been captured along the western coast were brought here and then shipped to what is today the United States, Caribbean, and Brazil. Gorée now serves as a World Heritage site that is a reminder of the horrific impact of slavery and a memorial to those who were taken.
I believe visiting sites like this is critical to remind us of our past sins so that we may not repeat them, as well as recognizing the painful realities of our intertwined histories and working towards reconciliation. World leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Barak Obama, and Pope John Paul II have visited. If you have the chance, I encourage you to visit as well. It is uncomfortable to be reminded of our dark past, but necessary so that we never repeat our mistakes.
What can I find on the island?
The first thing that happened to me when I arrived was that I was sucked into a tour group, which felt inevitable whether I wanted one or not. My guide took us to the most prominent spot on the island, the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves), constructed in 1776, which is where slaves were held before being forced onto ships. Today, the house serves as a museum and a memorial. It includes the Door of No Return – the last spot in Africa that slaves passed before boarding a ship to go to the Americas. Seeing that spot, my heart sank to think of the thousands, possibly millions, of lives who passed through that door never to go home again.
There are other memorials on the island. You’ll find the Statue of Slave Liberation, which commemorates the abolition of slavery. There’s also a contemporary memorial to WWII. Since so many people visit, there are also a lot of vendors selling art. I was particularly impressed with the sand art, which the artists will make for you right there. Which reminds me – you should definitely take out some cash before coming because there are no ATMs on the island. I was out of luck and unable to purchase some of the art I wanted.
The island is also visually appealing and laid-back. If these sound like odd words to describe a place with such a horrific history, you’d be right. But that doesn’t make it any less true. The island is quiet, with only 1800 residents, and car-free. You’ll find rows of cobblestoned streets, colorful but faded European architecture, lots of plants, and beaches. You can see the skyline of Dakar in the background. It’s a discomforting juxtaposition.
How do I get there?
Visiting the island is a half-day trip from mainland Dakar, so most people don’t stay overnight. You can get to the island by purchasing a ferry ticket on the waterfront. The boats leave frequently. Tour agencies also do organized tours. I recommend staying in Dakar and making it a day trip.
How many people passed through Gorée during the slave trade?
Officially, there were at least one million slaves who passed through Gorée in the approximately 300 years it served as a trading post. For perspective, there were an estimated 10-12 million slaves in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, many modern historians dispute Gorée’s reputation as a major trading post. I highly recommend reading this discussion of the issue in the Washington Post. There is general agreement that slaves were traded on Gorée, but there remains a debate about how many.
I have to ask, does it matter? Yes, it’s important to get accurate historical facts. At the same time, it’s well-established that millions of Africans were captured, ripped from their families, sold into slavery, and shipped to the Americas. I believe Gorée can serve as a memorial for all of them, even if only a small number actually passed through the island. The world we live in today has been shaped in an enormous way by the results of the slave trade. We’re still seeing the aftershocks of this dark past play out today in the systemic racism that has persisted in the United States and globally. Centuries later, we’ve failed to atone for our sins. Gorée is a place for us to remember, reflect, and maybe one day, reconcile.