Sometimes moving to a new place means noticing more. You appreciate everything, take in the smallest details — the light falling on the river, the split-second delight on the face of the children passing by, holding ice cream. Your vision sharpens; you catch every nuance you would have missed at home.
When I moved to Dakar, this didn’t happen to me. Instead, during the first few months, I was almost entirely blind. I saw splotches of color walking the street, things whose name was only “new.” I didn’t venture out much — I’d get overwhelmed after a block, lost after two. I didn’t look at people while I walked; their looking back felt threatening. Thinking I wanted a ride, taxi drivers would honk at me twenty times on one walk. I’d get exhausted just from shaking my head.
Now, after three months, I’m starting to see. The pale pastel houses. The dark, dense, dear trees. The mosaic sidewalks, crumbling round the edges, that aren’t really for walking. They’re for setting up your fruit stand, sitting to chat with your neighbor, parking your car, ducking when a honking taxi prevents from walking on the sandy street. A sort of extended doormat, a different color for each home, they belong less to the pedestrians and more to the houses. Sometimes a tree or a car takes up half the sidewalk. Sometimes there’s a barrier right through the middle, separating one pattern of mosaic from the next.
I see all these things now. Dakar is a place, a stable backdrop to daily life. It has an atmosphere. Tufty clouds; strong contrasts of light and shade; warmth on your skin. The sweet smell of incense — a newness in the air felt the moment I arrived here, but only noticed when a guidebook named it. Fruit sellers’ melodic chants of the names of their offerings. Children singing. Goats bleating.
The people, though, still blur and disappear. Every moment in a taxi is a revelation — lost the next instant. A grain of Sahara sand falling through my fingers. The colorful clothes — yellow and turquoise, pink and purple, checkered, striped, polka-dotted, everything in between. I wish I could paint each one, but they vanish before I’ve so much as seen the pattern. And the people in the clothes? I lack the eyes to see them. Each face is characteristic — and forgotten as soon as it’s seen. A rounded profile; a glint of an earring; a toothy grin. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I see the sunlight on a face and not the face.
But I’m learning. On my walk today, I saw whole tableaux. A woman in a colorfully speckled dress carried a child on her back. Only the little girl’s head was visible, and her hair was studded with colorful clips, extending the pattern on the dress. Two boys, five or six years old, were the best of friends, arms draped round each other’s shoulders. Three others played with a suitcase — one sitting inside, another pulling it like a stroller or a wheelbarrow. Then they started zipping it up; the little boy, grinning, fit almost entirely inside.
Little boy, I know this delight too. I also grew up huddled around a suitcase, waiting for the next journey to sweep me across the ocean. I also have this joy: to find a snug corner someplace you’re not meant to fit. A pillow fort, a tree branch, a clearing in a forest.
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.
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.
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.
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 placeslike 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.
 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).
Two paintings. One — rough rainbows, jagged angularity, empty textured patches. The other — soft rounded glow, smattering of light, pearly overflowing haze. An etching table, some mushrooms. Between them — an unmistakable, unexplainable thread of kinship. In front of them — me, heart racing.
It was supposed to be just another stopover. I might have easily gone to see Magritte instead, but I hesitantly opted for the unknown and the temporary. It was meant to be a little excursion to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium; just passing the time on the outskirts of the real adventure: a week in Morocco.
Morocco pales in comparison.
Rik Wouters, this painter I’d never heard of before, followed me all the way to magical Marrakesh. His life and paintings kept me up at night for the entire trip.
What was it about Wouters? Many of his paintings are seemingly unfinished, as if he just stopped as soon as he got bored. This might sound like a weakness. In fact, it means the complete banishment of boredom from the canvas. It means achieving one of the alleged aims of impressionism — “capturing the moment” — like no impressionist ever had. It means staying true to the essences of things, even if these turn out to be no more than a smudge of paint. Just look at the shoe below!
Others of his works are filled to the brim with paint. Filled even to overflowing — I wasn’t the only person to audibly exhale in front “Apples and artificial flowers B.” So gloriously too much.
Wouters loved Cézanne, and the kinship between their work is clear — but their paintings have different personalities. Where Cézanne is meticulous, Wouters is fervent.
Wouters is all intensity.
A woman’s face recurred in these paintings over and over. With romantic naivety, I found myself thinking “please let it be his wife!”
It was. Nel Wouters appears in her husband’s works again and again and again. Sleeping, waking up, ironing, looking out the window, ill with tears in her eyes, dancing, hugging herself tight — in all the motley instants which held her husband’s gaze.
And reading. “Woman reading” is warmer than any painting I’d ever seen. Nel is perfectly self-contained, wrapped in her own shoulders mirroring the curve of her engrossing book. I come closer, scrutinize her face, and am startled, almost upset to find that it reveals nothing more. There is only the instant.
In “Woman reading,” Wouters painted love itself. I can’t put it any other way.
As I look at yet another portrait of Nel, I have an epiphany. Love is the missing link, the glue which holds all of Wouters’s paintings together. In the empty canvases and in the overfull ones, the soft and the jagged — everything is there because it’s loved. Everything is seen with the lover’s intoxicated eyes. Not just Nel, but the mushrooms, the furniture, the light. And, of course, the paint.
Wouters painted not so much the impression of things as their atmosphere. In one work, he depicts only the feeling, the glow of furniture in a living room. He painted domestic life as it is — suffused with meaning.
I stand in front of “Domestic cares” — a monumental sculpture of Nel, strikingly intimate despite its grandeur, which Wouters sculpted in his basement in 1913–14 — listening to the audioguide. The accumulation of portraits of Nel in the room, witnesses to love, becomes almost unbearably moving. The larger-than-life “Domestic cares” in front of the miniature “Woman reading.” In their opposite ways, each doing exactly the same thing —giving off the same love.
The audioguide informs me that “Domestic cares” was supposed to represent the overcoming of financial hardship. Rik and Nel had been living in poverty for years, but this was the turning point after which everything would get better.
This was the turning point after which the war started. The days of domestic cares, the audioguide tells us, had been their happy days.
I don’t quite know what’s coming— but behind my eyes, tears are getting ready.
The last room cut me with the abruptness of death. One minute —love’s kaleidoscope. The next — a handful of dark paintings, “Self-portrait with an eyepatch” — and the exit door.
Wouters was conscripted in 1914. He couldn’t bear the horrors of war. On top of that, he started suffering from horrible headaches. It soon turned out that he had sinus cancer. He had to have several operations, and in 1915 he lost his eye and part of his jaw. He died in 1916.
He was 33. Nel was 27.
I can’t do justice to what Wouters’s paintings did to me. I’d hit the highest notes of praise too soon, in posts about puny Munch and Matisse, and I ran out of notes for Wouters. I’d lied about Munch — it turns out that was nothing like seeing a painter for the first time. With Wouters, there was no bewilderment — just instant connection.
Why hadn’t I heard of Wouters before? Maybe universal renown is too much to ask for a painter who spoke to me on such a personal level. After all, he’s famous enough in Belgium, and not many are privileged to be remembered outside of their homeland.
Still, I think art history has been unfair to Wouters. He puts more famous painters to shame. Why did Matisse have to buy all those antiques, if there is so much to shimmer in Wouters’s humble interiors? Just look at Wouters’s paintings of Nel — did Gaugin really have to leave his wife and kids? What good are Munch’s tormented mirages when there is so much color in a plate of mushrooms?
I like those famous guys — but Wouters is mine like they never will be.
As critics emphasize, Wouters’s work is touchingly simple. But these words have to be carefully cleaned of misguided associations to be recognized for what they are: the highest possible praise.
It’s a simplicity that doesn’t give up anything that matters. A refusal to give the viewer empty riddles, to show off your personality, to be part of a movement. An homage to the beauty ordinary people and things exhibit not despite their ordinariness — but because of it. An exuberance rather than a calm contemplation. A cutting open of the smallest things to reveal the jewels inside. A fervent polishing of surfaces till they shimmer from all angles — with their own natural light.
It’s a simplicity that manages to paint love itself, over and over. Without a trace of boredom or sentimentality — only earnestness.
Simple, but not easy — like all great art.
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