There was cheerful chaos around us as we walked from the crowded pier towards the fort-like structure made of reddish stone. We followed the women carrying large baskets filled with fish on their heads, walking with their children bundled neatly on their backs.
We were on Goree Island, off Dakar, Senegal’s capital, on Africa’s west coast. At first sight, the island, three kilometres off Dakar, offers bucolic images of peace and tranquillity, with its fort, public buildings and pink and red houses blending with the sand. Senegal is one of those sliver-shaped countries that dot the African coast, the continent’s gateway to the Atlantic. If you head deeper inland, north towards the Sahara, you reach flatter land and sandier towns. To the east is the lush landscape of tropical Africa, with its rivers, swamps and thick forests.
A blunt plaque at the entrance of a house reads: Maison des Esclaves, or the House of Slaves, built in 1776 by the Dutch. Since 1989, when this house opened as a museum to slavery, it has been a regular point of pilgrimage for visiting dignitaries, like Dakar’s Raj Ghat. Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been here. Last month, as Britain celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, there was renewed interest in these once-thriving, but now forgotten ports, from where millions of African men, women and children were herded like cattle and worse, and placed in disease-filled wooden ships, taking them to the New World. There was no Lady Liberty with her flame welcoming the “wretched refuse” of teeming shores, saying: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...”
What struck me about the house was the utter narrowness of its interiors. You have to bend low to enter and the rooms in which the inmates were kept are bare and tiny—up to 20 men would be huddled in a room that was 2.6m x 2.6m. You see iron hooks on the sides of each room where people were chained, bound together, their arms and neck tied, with their faces to the wall. The walls were pale, and each room had a small opening, often too high to look through, which let in light, from which you can see a hint of sky, within grasp and yet remote.
There were separate rooms for men and women. The guide tells us that men were allowed out only once a day, to perform their “daily functions”, resulting in a messy, stinking area, where disease was rampant. To walk, they had to carry an iron ball that was tied to the chain. Underweight men were fattened, because only men weighing more than 60kg were considered strong enough to work on plantations. Many died before even boarding the ship, and many diseases that spread in Senegal originated in this house.
There was a separate enclosure for girls not yet women. They were relatively well-looked after, not out of any sense of compassion, the guide hastens to add, but because they knew that shapely virgins commanded a much higher price. If, however, the slave trader made the girl pregnant, she and the child were usually set free: the girl, then, had the incentive to attract a trader’s attention, to avoid the long journey into serfdom. These girls, called signare, a corruption of the Portuguese segnora, and their mixed race children became part of Goree’s aristocracy.
The commodification was total: Often, in a family, the father would go to Louisiana, the mother to Havana, and the children to Haiti, never to meet again.
In the end, what’s remarkable about that house is how unexceptional it seems. We find slavery revolting, even though, in many modern forms, it persists in various parts of the world. And yet, it was a legitimate, accepted part of global economics barely two centuries ago. Campaigners argue that some forms of global trade today perpetuate slavery in a different manner. Yes, thousands of people cram themselves into ships and barges and try to make it illegally into Europe for a better life. But the key difference is choice.
The men and women who were herded in this house did not choose to go to the West, chained in ships, crossing the Middle Passage, across the dark ocean. No sight is more heartbreaking than the shaft of sunlight that greets you as you walk through the narrow corridor and face the ocean. There is a light breeze, the smell of saline water, and rocks on the ground. It seems idyllic, and you expect seagulls. That door is called La Porte du Voyage sans Retour, or the Door of No Return. And the vast ocean and the azure sky, after days in the dingy cells, represented a false dawn of freedom, for across that ocean lay a lifetime of plucking cotton. A few desperate men tried to escape, only to be shot, or swallowed by sharks hovering around the house.
Goree’s dark past is over. Today, when you come out of the house, you see children splashing in the cool waters of the Atlantic. They are free, and there are no sharks anymore.
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