Between Scam and Symbol

Gorée Island’s “House of Slaves”

View from the “House of Slaves.”

Delightful little pastel homes, with bougainvilleas tucked into every corner, the sea sparkling at the ends of narrow, dappled streets. Inside one such delightful home, painted a cheerful pink: narrow, grey-walled cells, heavy with the memory of pain. Above the door of each separate cell, a label made of shreds of the word “family:” men to the right, women — left, children — in the middle. And in a tiny cubicle, shreds of “human being:” “recalcitrant prisoners.”

This is the story I would have liked to tell you about Senegal’s Gorée Island. I would have strolled, then paced, around this tiny (less than half a square kilometer) patch of land, shifting my gaze from the lovely, pastel surface of colonialism to its dark and bloody underbelly, both in full view here. I would have considered, on the one hand, the handful of Europeans in their flowery houses and, on the other, the millions of enslaved Africans said to have passed through this island. I would have felt uncomfortable and horrified and moved; you would have appreciated my intricate descriptions of subtle emotional shifts.

Two uncooperative factors stand in the way of that story: my emotions — and historical facts.

My feelings are more receptive to the joy bouncing off a patch of bougainvilleas than to the faint must of suffering which hangs around an empty cell — especially if that cell is labelled only in a foreign language. As to the facts: the number of slaves shipped out of Gorée Island is the subject of historical controversy and may have been as “low” as 300 per year. A tour guide at the so-called House of Slaves, with those cells labelled “recalcitrant prisoners,” might tell you that a total of a million enslaved people had waited to be shipped across the Atlantic from here. Historians’ estimate hovers around… zero.

Instead, then, let me tell you a story of politics, gullibility, and tourism. A story of the power — and failings — of human emotions. A story too complex to be captured in the single compelling image of a pastel-colored home.

The Door of No Return

As we entered the House of Slaves, I held in my mind the pieces of information I’d gathered about this place during the previous night’s cursory glance at the internet.

  • It was a holding place for slaves waiting to be shipped across the Atlantic.
  • There was some controversy about the exact numbers of people held captive here.
  • With a 4.5 star rating, Trip Advisor ranks it as the #1 thing to see in Dakar.
  • Most of the commenters on Trip Advisor were profoundly moved by the place, which brought the horrors of slavery to all-too-vivid life for them.

I wasn’t one of those people. My feelings failed me, and I found the House of Slaves… beautiful. And empty. The labelled cells were indistinguishable from countless dungeons I’d seen in British medieval castles. I understood that this was a terrible place, of course — but I couldn’t understand the visitors who were moved to tears by their visit.

If we’d done a bit more research, Ben and I would have known that the doorway towards the sea — a tiny blue rectangle flanked on the side by two imposing flights of stairs, through which we gleefully scrambled out onto the wall below — was called the “Door of No Return” and was supposed to be the gate through which slaves were made to embark on their tragic westward journeys. Instead, after climbing out the little door, Ben smiled approvingly at the breeze’s expert hair-tousling, while I leaned back a little over the sea to catch the sunlight on my face.

I’d read a couple blog posts about people’s experiences in Gorée, and everyone said they “made friends”… Everywhere you go here — starting with the ferry terminal — you’re pounced on by would-be tourguides.

I’m afraid we’re not friend-making types.

If we had been, we would have probably paid a guide to fill the cells with affecting stories for us. Instead, we tried deciphering the French signs in the single-room exhibition for a while, then headed back to the sunlit bougainvilleas.

The Door of No Return.

Siding with the “Slavery Deniers”

Gorée Island is listed on the UNESCO world heritage list. On the UNESCO website, we can read that “from the 15th to the 19th century, it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast.” The BBC and The New York Times have both claimed that millions of slaves had been held here. Celebrities like Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and multiple US presidents, as well as (according to Wikipedia) 200 000 visitors every year, have visited not only Gorée Island but also its House of Slaves. Judging by Trip Advisor reviews, most, like me, come to the island under the impression that Gorée really did play a major role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the House of Slaves really did house slaves waiting to be exported.

Other sources paint a completely different picture. The Telegraph quotes historian Ralph Austen:

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.

Philip Curtin’s statistical analysis of documentation of trans-Atlantic voyages suggests that no more than 300 slaves departed from Goree each year. Similar numbers appear to be backed up by the Du Bois Institute’s Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (as reported and further backed up here).

When this data was publicized in a 1996 article in the French press, Senegalese historians were outraged. Here’s historian Mbaye Gueye:

It is true that the slave trade has never been among the preoccupations of European historians, but this was nothing less than an attempt to falsify the past. There are evidently still people who simply wish to absolve themselves of this past.

Mbaye Gueye claimed to have more than ad hominem attacks up his sleeve — he apparently found “original archives from the French port of Nantes that showed that between 1763 and 1775 alone one port had traded more than 103,000 slaves from Goree” (the quote is from the same NYT article.)

This is the one (initially) solid-looking piece of evidence I’ve been able to find for the Gorée-as-slave-trade-center theory — but even this crumbles under scrutiny. In a footnote in this article, we read that the numbers in the Nantes records were for trades brought in from all of West Africa. Gorée isn’t mentioned in them at all.¹

As far I’ve been able to verify, then, Gorée was hardly the slave-trading center that UNESCO makes it out to be. As to the so-called Slave House, it was:

  • in the area of the island populated by rich free people (and, sometimes, their domestic slaves),
  • facing out to a treacherous part of the coast that ships probably wouldn’t have departed from,
  • built after the zenith of the slave trade.

Not every horrific slave story is a true story.

The True Story

If the House of Slaves wasn’t a holding pen for America-bound slaves, what was it? The house, built around 1776, belonged to the Pépins, a family of rich merchants of mixed Afro-European descent.

The most famous member of the family, Anne Pépin, was the mistress of Senegal’s French governor Stanislas de Boufflers, who according to Wikipedia “attempted to mitigate the horrors of the slave trade.” Anne Pépin was one of the so-called “Signares:” African and Afro-European women who had formed relationship with powerful white male invaders, and who often worked as merchants and owned land and slaves.²

What should we think of the Signares? Were they feminist icons, black women who managed to wield considerable power in an era where that would have hardly seemed possible? Or femmes fatales who used their sex appeal to their advantage and didn’t shy away from the slave trade, buying and selling their own kinsmen? Were they the victims of the lust and power of male European invaders, who eloped with them only to leave them behind and sail off to Europe, often back to the wives they had left behind? Were they just making the best of an awful situation, using their influence to ensure better treatment of their partners’ domestic slaves — or were they heedless of the suffering they contributed to, driven by the pursuit of wealth and power?

The answer may well be: all of the above. The human soul is a complex place — but that doesn’t bring in tourists. Can you blame the people of Senegal for not broadcasting the story of these mixed-race slave-owning badass island ladies? Can you blame them for, instead, feeding visitors the thrillingly familiar story of easily condemnable attrocities hidden in the dungeons of a pastel town? After all, the House of Slaves is Senegal’s top tourist destination, and its historically inaccurate story has forty years of bestseller status speaking in its favor.

Anne Pépin and her family didn’t keep slaves waiting to be shipped across the Atlantic — those were held in a fortress on the other side of the island — but they probably did own so-called indigenous slaves: people kept on the island by force for domestic labor. (It was most likely indigenous slaves who built the Slave House and many other Gorée buildings.) This is another part of the Gorée story that isn’t often told: by the eighteenth century, over half of the island’s population consisted of indigenous slaves. The mistreatment these people endured was just slight enough for us to have erased it from our collective memory.

The “cells” of the House of Slaves, then, were probably the lodgings of indigenous slaves, whose lot, though certainly not enviable, didn’t feature the shackles now exhibited here.

And the Door of No Return? We don’t know for sure, but it may have been… a garbage dump for throwing waste into the sea. (Take this with a grain of salt; the reference is from the UK’s The Daily Mail, which isn’t exactly famous for stellar journalism…)

Where the Myth Came From… and Where It’s Headed

The whole story about the horrors of the House of Slaves seems to have originated with a single person: curator Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye. For forty years, right up to his death at 86, he led daily tours of the house, telling his gory and compelling tale to transfixed audiences.

During those forty years, the House of Slaves and its Door of No Return acquired a cult status. Members of the African diaspora would come here to come to terms with what their ancestors had lived through. (Those who come from the United States are especially unlikely to be retracing their ancestors’ footsteps; the slaves who did pass through Gorée were overwhelming shipped to Europe and South America.)

Since Ndiaye’s death, no one has been proclaiming the myth of Gorée quite so forcefully. More and more visitors are aware of the controversy surrounding the House of Slaves; it’s right there in the Wikipedia article. The Bradt Guide to Senegal cites both the Phil Curtin numbers and the alleged Nantes document, diplomatically concluding “The true numbers may never be known.” In other words: “we don’t want to anger anyone.”

A sign outside the door to the House of Slaves stamped “UNESCO” informs you that the site is “under renovation” to bring it up to 21st century museum standards. There’s no explanation of this mysterious phrase, no grand retraction of the House of Slave’s claim to fame — but the museum is slowly ceasing to be a memorial to the invented horrors of the building it’s housed in and turning into a monument to the very real horrors of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Rebranding the museum: this mural no longer graces the walls of the House of Slaves. (Source.)

Slowly but surely, Gorée is turning into a symbol. I wish UNESCO openly acknowledged that they’d made a mistake, rather than quietly filing away old signs — but at least the end destination is a noble one. I don’t want people to stop coming here. This tiny, remarkably preserved island is uniquely placed to play the role of an anchor for the imagination.

Ndiaye didn’t really invent the story of the House of Slaves; he simply relocated a true story to this tiny island. The shackles exhibited here weren’t used in this house — but they were certainly used during the horrific forced journey across the Atlantic so many had to endure. Gorée wasn’t the main location of the slave trade — there were many places like it, each with its trickle of atrocities.

In fact, there is a true “door of no return” west of the Atlantic: South Carolina’s Sullivan’s Island, the site of a checkpoint and quarantine house for 40% of the slaves shipped into British North America. Today, Sullivan’s Island is a wealthy beach resort town, with some of the highest real estate prices in the area.

There is a House of Slaves in Gorée for exactly the same reasons for which there isn’t one in Sullivan’s Island: political convenience and monetary gains.

You visit Sullivan’s Island to sunbathe — or to bask in the glory of the American victory which took place there in 1776. You visit Gorée to feel bad — about what you already know.

The next time I walk by a pastel home, I’ll remember to search for its bloody underbelly. It might be small, and complicated, and scarred in the strangest of patterns, but it will be there. After all, if this tiny island can’t hold its millions of slaves, they’ll have to spread out over the rest of the world.

I wish I had been less gullible, but I don’t regret visiting the beautiful, complicated island of Gorée.

[1] Here’s the whole footnote.

Following the I997 conference, articles in the N. Y Times and the newsletter of the U.S. West African Research Center in Dakar (WARA) indicated that Prof. Mbaye Gueye of Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar had found archival materials in Nantes that indicated a much larger Goree slave trade. Prof. Gueye showed the author a copy of the relevant document in June 1998; it is a summary of slaving voyages from 1763 to 1775, which add up to 294 ships carrying 103,135 slaves. The only destination indicated is “N. Gulinee” (Upper Guinea), and Gueye simply maintains that Goree, with its excellent harbor, served as a transhipment point for some of the ports in present-day Guinea and the Petite Cote of Senegal (south of Dakar), whose small size and sand bars made them unattractive destinations for ocean-going vessels. This claim is probably true, but the major slave trading outlets of this region were at St. Louis and the Gambia River and would not generally have required such services. (I am grateful to Martin Klein for help with this issue).

[2] The ship which took Obama to Gorée was called “La Signare.”

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