Goree Island and the slave trade

On Goree Island you can learn about Dakar`s dark history while enjoying this little island lush and idyllic atmosphere

Typical French inspired architecture on Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
Typical French inspired architecture on Goree Island / Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.

Only a short ferry ride from Senegal’s capital Dakar lays the tiny island Ile de Gorée, Goree Island. The island is a popular destination for anyone visiting Dakar and Senegal and tells the story of the slave trade across the Atlantic. The entire island was listed on UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978. House of Slaves is today a museum. It was built around 1780 and opened as a museum in 1962. The ferry trip costs 5200 CFA per person both ways and takes about 20 minutes.

Lady on the ferry to Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
Lady on ferry to Ile de Gorée
Lady on ferry to Ile de Gorée
Lady on ferry to Ile de Gorée

Already in the waiting room to the ferry, beautiful ladies in colorful traditional clothing will most certainly address you. They aim to get you to promise to visit just their little shop out on the island. They will give you a lot of compliments and be particularly pleasant. Most of them speak some English. But when number 3 and 4 wanted me to promise to visit, I just said maybe. That is taken as a yes. But they only use a possibility, as competition out there on the island is hard. I can understand why they must be creative and take the initiative itself. I exploited the situation as well and took the opportunity to take photos of these lovely ladies.

During the 1500s the Portuguese arrived on this island, 3 km east of Dakar. Shaped almost like a banana, 900 m long and 300 m wide, the island is in the entrance to the great harbor of Dakar. Portuguese baptized the island; Ila de Palma. Pretty soon followed by the Dutch and they baptized the island Goe-ree, which means good harbor. The Netherlands bought the island for some iron nails in 1627 and built two forts, one in the north and one south on the island to protect their trade on the way to and from the West Indies. From then on Goree Island became a warehouse for trading of goods and slaves.

The fort Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
The fort D`Estrees on Goree Island / Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.

The first building you spot as the ferry approaches the island is the northern fort, Fort D`Estrees. The fort is circular and built between 1852 and 1856. Today The Historical Museum of Goree is here. The natural harbor on the eastern side of the island also has a beautiful sandy beach with a breakwater for the ferry to dock at.

It gave us a special feeling to walk across the breakwater and up the sandy beach toward the French-inspired buildings. Beautiful, but kind of sham beauty. Tall palms and ocher and maroon buildings with touches of warm amber characterize the island. Buildings are close and we were surprised how densely populated this island is. Festivity consists most of quite so insistent souvenir sellers. Goree Island might be Dakar’s main tourist attraction, so no wonder if many will try to make a buck.

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Typical French inspired architecture on Goree Island / Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
Beach on Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
Beach on Goree Island / Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.

We pulled ourselves away from souvenir sellers and wandered into the narrow streets. Here residents had pulled out into the street and sat around a large platter with rice, vegetables and fish. We step carefully around them and were greeted with smiles even though we almost walked right across their lunch table.

The beautiful buildings, picturesque alleyways without cars and floral was a stark contrast to the island’s history with cruel slave trade. This became especially strong while visiting The House of Slaves, built around 1786. It cost 500 CFA per person to get into The House of Slaves.

The door of no return, The Slave House on Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
The door of no return, The Slave House on Goree Island / Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.

We went through the stately gate and entered a courtyard where two curved, beautiful stairs went up to 2nd floor. The roof of this clean beautiful building where held up by four classical columns. Around the courtyard on the ground floor was small, cramped room in a row. There were cells for slaves waiting to be sent across the ocean with sailing ships. Many narrow, dark and claustrophobic rooms. The legendary Gate of no return is here as well. It is said that slaves went through this door in order to get in the boats. But others argue that it is most likely that dead slaves were thrown into the sea through this door. The sea is shallow outside the door and the ships could probably not enter the shore at this point.

I have a hard time to understand how the conditions must have been 2-300 years ago when all the rooms were filled with people who were seen as animals. As we ended the tour in the narrow cells downstairs, we went up one of the two great stairs to the house 1. floor and saw the large rooms with large windows and terraces, and we understood that the slave trader had lived here with his family! How could that be possible? Just a simple wooden floor between degradation and luxury.

I try to imagine the smell the family on 1. floor had to live with. Perhaps they thought the same way as industrialists in Europe when explaining all the toxic gases from the industry in the 1900s? It smells money!

I wanted to cry. Not only because I stood on this historic cruel place, but because we humans, after all these years, have not changed at all, we are still so cruel. It is many reasons to weep.

There is disagreement among scientists about how big role Goree Island played in the slave trade. Many believe that only a few thousand slaves were shipped out from here while others believe that there were millions of slaves who were sent from Goree Island and across the Atlantic to the colonies on the American continent. Whatever disagreement, it is a reminder of a dark time in history. Some thousand slaves will always be some thousand slaves too much!

Typical French inspired architecture on Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
West fortress on Goree Island / Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
West fortress corner made into a great apartment on Goree Island / Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
Typical French inspired architecture on Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
West fortress on Goree Island / Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.

We walked on to the western part of the island. Here the French have built cannon batteries to protect Dakar, both before and after 1st World War. There were not many cannons back, but the bunkers and trenches is today turned into more or less permanent housing for poor people.

On the way back through the narrow streets, we discovered a beautiful restaurant called Cafe restaurant L`Amiraute in Rue Saint Germain x rue de Boufflers. The place is located almost next door to the Slave House. We got a place on a beautiful terrace facing the sea and could cool down with a Flag beer and got served a delicious meal with fish and seafood. Simple and wonderfully well prepared.

Goree Island is a beautiful island without traffic and an oasis just outside Dakar. The island has a terrible history and it is important to convey this story further. It was a day of great contrasts just as real life for good and bad.

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Typical French inspired architecture, but not very well preserved! Goree Island / Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.
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Goree Island / Ile de Gorée, Dakar Senegal.

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