I visited Goree Island, home to ‘The Door of No Return’, is a tiny 45-acre island that is located approximately 3 kilometers (2 miles) off the coast of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The Island is home to one of the oldest sites of European settlement on the African coast, and once the center of the West African slave trade with an estimated 20 million Africans passing through the Island between 1536-1848 to work on plantations in Europe and the Americas. But before the arrival of the first European settlers, the Portuguese, the Wolof people were the first to settled on the Island. They named the Island Ber. The Wolof started fishing activities on the Island.
In 1444, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to colonize the island and made it their settlement and renamed it Ill de Palma/Palma Island. The Portuguese used the Island as a docking port for their ships and trade routes to India, Brazil, and Mexico. The building of houses on the Island by the Portuguese began in the early 1500s. In 1536, they built the first slave house on the Island and started the slave trade. The size of the Island made it easier for the Portuguese, Dutch and French slave merchants to control enslaved Africans.
During the transatlantic slave trade period, many Europeans fought and killed each other to claim the Island due to its strategic geographical location – the nearest point to the Americas by sea. The Portuguese were the first, but not the only Europeans to occupied the Island. There was a tougher ownership competition between the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English. Between 1588-1814, ownership of the island changed hands seventeen times between the Dutch, Portuguese, French, and English. In 1n 1588, the Dutch arrived. The Dutch officially owned the Island and renamed it, Goede Reede. The Dutch built their settlement to protect their slave trade business. The Dutch, Portuguese, French, and the English built a combined twenty-eight (28) slave houses that were used to keep slaves before being put in wooden slave ships with a 5kg metal ball permanently attached to their necks or feet. In 1677, the island became and remained predominantly occupied by the French after several British incursions. The French involved in the production of gold, wax, gum, hides, and ostrich feathers, which Goree Island was used as a port for such trades. Hundreds of enslaved Africans from West Africa were forced to work in terrible conditions before being sent to the Americas to other slave masters.
From 1677 to 1814, 200 to 400 enslaved Africans are said to pass through the Island annually, usually through the famous “Door of No Return”, which is inside the last slave house on the island, House of Slaves.
THE DOOR OF NO RETURN
Maison des Esclaves, they called it French, and in English, The House of Slaves is the last standing slave house of the 28 slave houses built in 1776 by the Dutch, and now serves as a museum. The House of Slaves was a slave-holding warehouse. Africans from West Africa were brought to the island as slaves, held in tiny cells until they were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to their different destinations in South America, Europe, the Caribbean, and North America to work in plantation fields to create a new world. They were naked, except for a piece of cloth around their waists. They were put in a long narrow cell used for them to lie on the floor, one against the other like sardines. The children were separated from their mothers. They had slave rooms for men, children (boys and girls), women, and the rebellious Africans that resisted, were locked up in an oppressive, small cubicle cell under the stairs; while seawater was sipped through the holes to step up dehydration.
The House of Slaves played a major, but terrible role in the trade-in African men, women and children, taken against their will.
In one of the slave rooms, more than 30 African men and women would sit in a 2.6 meters (8.5 ft.) by 2.6 meters cell with no window. Once a day, they were fed with beans to make them gained weight (the heavier they are, the higher the price) and allowed to attend to their needs. Before being put inside the cells, the slaves were put inside a room called “The Weighing Room”. The Weighing Room was used to weighed 150 slaves before being taken to their cells. For the men, they needed to be weighed at least 60kg. For this to be achieved, they would feed them with beans for a period of 2-3 months, then they would wait for 2-3 weeks inside those tiny cells with chains on their necks and feet before transported to the Americas and Europe. Due to this atrocious living conditions of Africans, the first case of yellow fever was recorded in 1779 in The House of Slaves.
In another tiny cell made for African children who were held as slaves, more than 130 African children would lie side by side; they were packed like a sardine. Young African girls, on the other hand, were rated according to virginity and breast size; the larger the breasts, the more expensive she is. It was common for these young African girls to be used by the traders living on the island for sexual pleasures. They got raped, and if got pregnant, they were freed by the slave traders and their children provided with French citizenship, which provided an opportunity of freedom for these girls in an evil, twisted way. Their kids are termed as “mulattos”.
Inside The House of Slaves, there is a small courtyard where African men, women, and children were put on display for sale. The prospective buyers and traders, from Europe, North and South America would not lower themselves to standing on ground-level with the merchandise; they watched and chose their goods (slaves) standing on upper-floor balconies. A lot of catholic missionaries were involved in the slave trade on the Island. In 1992, Pope John Paul II visited the Island and asked for forgiveness.
Above the heads of our ancestors, the slave owners had their dealer’s apartments, balls and festivities that were going on. But even more terrifying and heart wrenching than those tiny cells and the chains was the small “Door of No Return” through which every African; man, woman and children walked to the wooden slave boats, with a 5kg metal ball on their necks and feet, catching the last glimpse of their homeland knowing fully well they would never come back home.
My visit to Goree Island was made possible by Dal Ak Jamm, Africa’s best traveling and rental website.