Maison des Esclaves, Goree

  
- darkometer rating:  7 -
 
The most (in)famous dark site in Senegal. It was an especially sinister kind of "trading post", namely where those captured and destined to be sold off as slaves, typically to the plantations in the Americas, were "warehoused" before being "dispatched" off across the Atlantic. The site is accordingly known simply as the Maison des Esclaves, literally 'House of Slaves', and is located on the small, quiet island of Goree, just a short boat trip out from Senegal's bustling capital city Dakar

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

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>Combinations with other dark destinations

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More background info: Of course, one could argue that the topic of the slave trade of the 16th to 19th century falls a bit outside the scope of the more modern concept of dark tourism, which is normally concerned with the period beginning with advent of the 20th century. However, given the high profile of the site as a dark tourism attraction, both within the local tourism infrastructure and in the literature about dark tourism and associated concepts, it cannot go unmentioned here. It may even be considered the Number One site in Africa representing the evil topic of slavery – which is generally regarded as one of humanity's largest scale and longest drawn-out crimes ever.     
 
Goree island has always enjoyed a strategically advantageous location and thus was of particular interest to most of the big European players in the colonial expansions from the 15th century onwards. As so often it was Portugal who got there first and built a settlement on the island as early as in the mid-15th century, then followed the Dutch and the British (who captured and recaptured the island from each other repeatedly) and eventually it fell to France, as did much of West Africa including what today is Senegal.
 
The Maison des Esclaves on Ile de Goree was built in 1776,  and allegedly served its function until 1848, when the then colonial power France finally abolished slavery for good as well. The site was recognized as a memorial of historical importance in 1962, shortly after Senegal's gaining independence. It was subsequently restored and in 1975 declared a national memorial. In 1978 UNESCO lifted the whole of Goree island to the status of a World Heritage Site.
 
The development of the memorial museum at the Maison des Esclaves was largely the work of one man, Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, who functioned as its curator until shortly before his death in February 2009. His memory is still very much kept alive at the site today. It was mostly thanks to this one man that the site became the pilgrimage site and tourist attraction that it is now.
 
Today, however, the alleged importance of the site in the history of slavery is contested; more recent academic research holds that Goree at best played a marginal role in the slave trade. Hence the authenticity of the Maison des Esclaves as a memorial is sometimes challenged.
 
For one thing, it is obvious that Ile de Goree was neither the only place associated with the mass slave trade, nor could it have been the most important one (given its tiny size alone) – there must have been dozens if not hundreds of its kind along the West African coast. And other places most likely played a much bigger role. For example, Ghana has a few such sites, which are also vaguely developed for 'roots' tourism, of quite significantly larger forts that are known to have been slave trading posts (Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle in particular). Other more sizeable and historically recognized slave trade centres existed elsewhere in Senegal as well as in The Gambia, further east in the Guineas, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, etc. (tellingly once also known as the "slave coast") and all the way south down to Angola.
 
It is also argued that the space within the Maison des Esclaves is too small to have held the numbers of slaves that the museum claims went through it, namely upwards of a million – which would be quite a proportion of the estimated total of somewhere between 10 and 20 million. It does indeed seem rather unlikely that the site's "door of no return" could really have handled such numbers. Some contemporary estimates are as low as only a few hundred slaves that may have gone through Goree.  
 
Be that as it may, today Senegal's Maison des Esclaves is arguably the best-known such site in the whole of Africa (and beyond) and therefore belongs firmly on the tourist map of Senegal's capital Dakar. Given that it is both the world's most recognized and at the same time probably the most visited memorial of its type, it is in my view not of such crucial importance how many slaves (if any at all) were indeed held in its reconstructed cells and shipped directly from here or from nearby. The Maison des Esclaves on Goree island may thus be more symbolic than authentic, but that doesn't detract too much from its significance as a memorial.  
 
Owing to its fame and elevated status as the landmark memorial site dedicated to the memory of the Atlantic slave trade, the place is not only popular with regular tourists, but has also seen numerous famous visitors, from US presidents to the Pope, as well as one of the most revered Africans of the 20th century: Nelson Mandela (cf. South Africa and Robben Island).
 
 
What there is to see: Once you step through the gate, into the courtyard and look towards the famous double stairs leading in an elegant curve up to the first floor of this red-painted mansion, you can't help but think: this looks too nice and sophisticated to be the place of such horrors as a slave trade warehouse.
 
Peek into the dark dungeon-like rooms to the left and right of the stairs, however, and the picture changes. These cells of mostly raw stone, without any facilities, and only small, barred, glassless windows were the inhumane "burrows" where the slaves were (allegedly at least) kept before being shipped across the Atlantic. There were separate sections for men, women and children, as labels on the doorways point out.
 
On some of the plastered walls inside the dungeon parts you find the unwelcome sight of scratched "graffiti" no doubt left by visiting tourists. One that struck me though was this: "Rwanda – never again" … now there's a poignant connection to a much more recent African tragedy!
 
One section of cells/dungeon is said to have been for those who did not have the minimum weight for being sold off as slaves when they arrived at the Maison des Esclaves, so they were held back here first and fattened up until they did pass that required minimum threshold on the scales (as if EU norms had already been on the horizon … what an eerie concept with regard to "human trafficking"). There was also an especially small cell under the stairs for "recalcitrants", i.e.: dedicated arrest cells that served as a means of punishment.  
 
Through the centre of the courtyard, between the two wings of the stairs, a dark passageway leads out to the ocean. This is the infamous "porte sans retour" or 'doorway of no return' – i.e. allegedly the place where the slaves destined for shipment turned for a last look at their African homeland before embarking on the arduous transatlantic crossing to their new fate … at least that's the story. In reality, at the other end of the "door of no return" you look out over a rocky coastline where no ship could have docked and not even a boat could have landed on the shore. Instead the human cargo of slaves would have to have been walked down to the jetty in the harbour over a hundred yards away. But again: it's all more about symbolism here than historical accuracy.
 
If you take the curved steps to the upstairs level you'll find an exhibition part inside the rooms (which would have been the living quarters of the masters, not slave rooms). The exhibition is not exhaustive, only about a dozen or so text-and-image panels and very few artefacts in display cabinets or mounted on the walls. These concrete exhibits include mostly shackles, chains and guns. The texts on the information panels are all in French only. Themes covered include the background of the transatlantic slave trade, the "sourcing" of slaves, punishments, the nature of the transports etc.
 
Back downstairs, the curator's quarters contain more exhibits in what at first appears to be a mere jumble room. Amongst the clutter are paintings depicting cruelty towards the black slaves at the hands of their white masters, a chart illustrating how crammed the "cargo holds" on the slave ships were, as well as various mementoes from famous past visitors (notes, photos, plaques) etc. It is also here that visitors can purchase small brochures about the Maison des Esclaves, including one in English. It's the translation of a text that was originally penned for the most part by the museum's long-time curator Joseph Ndiaye (who died in 2009). Unfortunately, the quality of the English translation lets the brochure down over some stretches, where you're often left puzzling what it could have been that the text was supposed to say.  
 
The present successor curator also gave an introductory speech while I was there (in early January 2013). Again it was all in French, but my English-speaking guide interpreted for me. It was basically a summary of the functions of the different parts of the mansion and the fate of the slaves.
 
All in all, the Maison des Esclaves cannot compete with the current state-of-the-art memorial museums worldwide. The commodification of its historical subject matter is quite minimal, and the authenticity of the place is questionable. But that's not so much the point of this particular place. It serves more as a symbolic site for commemoration of the horrors of the slave trade. As such it may have more significance for 'roots' tourists and for those simply wanting to pay homage to the victims; but much less so as a place of education. That you have to get independently elsewhere … In short, the Maison des Esclaves is a pilgrimage site, not so much a place for information.
 
 
Location: on the eastern shores of Ile de Goree, which lies in the bay a couple of miles (ca 3-4 km) east of the harbour of Senegal's capital city Dakar.
 
Google maps locator: [14.6677,-17.3972]
 
 
Access and costs: a bit remote, requiring a short passenger ferry ride to get to Goree island and a short walk from the jetty, but it's easily doable and not expensive.
 
Details: To get to the Maison des Esclaves you first have to get to Goree island. Fortunately that's easily done, thanks to the regular ferry service from Dakar harbour. The boats depart from quite early in the morning (between 6 and 7 a.m.) to late in the evening (up to 11 p.m.) on an hourly to two-hourly basis; the crossing takes 20-30 minutes and return tickets cost foreigners in the region of 5000CFA (ca. 7-8 EUR). Once on the island, everything is easily walkable. There's no alternative to walking anyway, as there are no vehicles or paved roads on Goree.
 
The opening times of the Maison des Esclaves are: daily except Mondays, from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., possibly with a lunch break between noon and ca. 2:30 p.m. (though I am sure that when I was there it fell exactly into that lunchtime-frame but the museum stayed open as normal …).
 
Admission: ca. 500 CFA (less than one euro).  
 
A visit to Ile de Goree including the Maison des Esclaves can also be done as (part of) a guided tour from Dakar. These tours are offered by various companies. The advantage is that you get a guide to point out places of interest on the island, and if you don't speak French you get an interpreter thrown in as well. When I visited the Maison des Esclaves the new curator gave a short speech about the place to the assembled crowd and I was indeed glad that my guide was there to provide me with a whispered interpretation. He also had already reported a good part of the content of that speech himself, as he guided us through the cells and rooms before the curator appeared.   
 
Those who prefer doing it independently and at a more leisurely pace can also contemplate staying overnight on the island. There are accommodation options in the form of a couple of hostelries. These are mostly rather simple guest houses without any Internet presence, so they are not easy to book in advance. You'd either have to go through a Dakar tourist service or simply take your chances and ask around when you get to the island. If you're hungry, there are a few eateries around, especially along the beach by the ferry jetty. Some of the guest houses/hotels also offer food.  
 
 
Time required: Most people only come on short, at best half-day excursions from Dakar, and that's certainly enough for seeing the Maison des Esclaves and a few of the secondary points of interest on this small island. Those who really want to make use of peaceful Goree as a welcome escape from the bustle of Dakar, on the other hand, may want to consider staying overnight and enjoying an evening and morning on the island when the day-trippers are gone … Seeing the Maison des Esclaves alone takes only about an hour – or even considerably less than that if you don't understand French and have nobody with you to interpret for you.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Just a stone's throw from the entrance to the Maison des Esclaves on the corner of a little tree-lined square to the east of Rue Saint-Germain north of the 'slave house' stands a little monument dedicated to the abolition of slavery. Fittingly, if a bit predictably clichéd, it mainly features a black man with his arms held high from which broken chains dangle … as he is embraced by a welcoming bare-breasted black woman. His facial expression, however, isn't exactly a happy one but looks rather pained. Maybe that's because his hands are already quite battered, missing a few broken-off fingers. Just behind this monument a memorial plaque recognizes its donation from Guadeloupe, i.e. one of the destination points of the slave trade in the Caribbean (cf. Curacao).
 
A larger, more modern and more abstract monument on the same theme can be found in the centre of the "Castel" which occupies the high plateau at the southern end of Goree Island. The monument is supposed to resemble a (slave trade) ship – but you need a lot of imagination to make out that resemblance.
 
More intriguingly, the Castel also features 20th century coastal gun batteries. A double-barrel monster of such coastal guns is particularly noteworthy. Its rusty barrels point inland and are chipped at their ends (so that they could not fire any more). I was told a story locally according to which these cannons accidentally sank a British ship, which was mistaken for a German one, off the coast during WWII. I haven't been able to confirm this – I only found reference to the Goree coastal batteries being involved in the "Battle of Dakar"/"Operation Menace", when in September 1940 the British Royal Navy, in support of de Gaulle's Free French ambitions on Dakar, attempted to challenge the Vichy French navy contingent stationed in the bay and in Dakar harbour, as Senegal was one of France's colonies that at first sided with the Vichy regime. But the operation failed and the British Navy almost lost a battleship in the process which was hit by torpedoes (it was, however, saved from sinking, towed away and later repaired). Maybe the story I was told was a somewhat distorted version of the same event … I don't know.
 
At the other, northern end of the island, is an old 19th century French fort with yet more historic cannons on its crescent-shaped battlements. Inside the fort is a "historical museum" which, however, is hardly worth bothering with … I found most of its contents quite boring (but those into African archaeology may disagree).
 
Some of the grand former government buildings are of a beautifully dilapidated nature, almost in ruins now, and certainly nicely, darkly atmospheric … On one corner I spotted a faded plaque labelled "Espace Drancy", obviously in reference to some sort of collaboration between Ile de Goree and the Drancy site in Paris, France. But the faded and broken inscription of the rest of the plaque did not allow any inference as to what the exact nature of this link may be. But it's intriguing.
 
Finally, there are also some more memorial stones, statues and busts celebrating persons not related to Goree's darker history, but rather local artists … as well as people of the medical professions (pharmacists included!). The latter is certainly unusual.
 
Further afield, namely back on the mainland, the city of Dakar also has a few sites that may be of interest to some dark tourists too …
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Goree island is a beautiful spot and well worth an extended stroll through its narrow, car-free alleys lined with colonial buildings, mostly from the French period (little remains of the initial Portuguese or later Dutch and British architecture).
 
Compared to noisy and stressful Dakar, Goree is also an oasis of calm and peace. OK, there is some hassling by local souvenir sellers, but the resident artists who display their works everywhere – and especially on the slopes of the Castel – are comparatively restrained in this respect.
 
In addition to the Maison des Esclaves and the historical museum in the old French fort, tiny Goree features yet two more museums. One is a maritime museum, the other a museum about the role of women in Senegal. But since I didn't go inside either of these I cannot say anything about their quality.
 
The western coast of the island (e.g. by the mosque or the former Governor's House) afford good views over to Dakar, especially from the top of the Castel or fort … not that Dakar has a spectacular skyline to offer … if it is visible at all in the haze (namely when the Saharan Harmattan winds shroud the country in dust).
 
The boat ride from Dakar harbour is in itself one of the most pleasant outings that city has to offer.
   
 
 
  • Goree 01 - approaching the island by ferryGoree 01 - approaching the island by ferry
  • Goree 02 - La Maison des Esclaves and Goree from the ferryGoree 02 - La Maison des Esclaves and Goree from the ferry
  • Goree 03a - La Maison des EsclavesGoree 03a - La Maison des Esclaves
  • Goree 03b - the former curatorGoree 03b - the former curator
  • Goree 04 - cellsGoree 04 - cells
  • Goree 05 - inside one of the dark cellsGoree 05 - inside one of the dark cells
  • Goree 06 - barsGoree 06 - bars
  • Goree 07 - the doorway of no returnGoree 07 - the doorway of no return
  • Goree 08 - looking backGoree 08 - looking back
  • Goree 09 - looking out to the seaGoree 09 - looking out to the sea
  • Goree 10 - upstairs is a small exhibitionGoree 10 - upstairs is a small exhibition
  • Goree 11 - main exhibition roomGoree 11 - main exhibition room
  • Goree 12 - text panelsGoree 12 - text panels
  • Goree 13 - a few artefactsGoree 13 - a few artefacts
  • Goree 14 - older jumbleGoree 14 - older jumble
  • Goree 15 - so tightly were the slave ships packedGoree 15 - so tightly were the slave ships packed
  • Goree 16 - international plaquesGoree 16 - international plaques
  • Goree 17 - slave liberation monument nearbyGoree 17 - slave liberation monument nearby
  • Goree 18 - from the other side of the AtlanticGoree 18 - from the other side of the Atlantic
  • Goree 19- on Ile de GoreeGoree 19- on Ile de Goree
  • Goree 20 - narrow alleysGoree 20 - narrow alleys
  • Goree 21 - idyllicGoree 21 - idyllic
  • Goree 22 - French Fort in the northGoree 22 - French Fort in the north
  • Goree 23 - WWII era gun batteryGoree 23 - WWII era gun battery
  • Goree 24 - they are hugeGoree 24 - they are huge
  • Goree 25 - split barrelsGoree 25 - split barrels
  • Goree 26 - rustyGoree 26 - rusty
  • Goree 27 - another monumentGoree 27 - another monument
  • Goree 28 - colonial legacyGoree 28 - colonial legacy
  • Goree 29 - former government houseGoree 29 - former government house
  • Goree 30 - now detachedGoree 30 - now detached
  • Goree 31 - pharmacists monumentGoree 31 - pharmacists monument
  • Goree 32 - artist monumentGoree 32 - artist monument
  • Goree 33 - the ferry returnsGoree 33 - the ferry returns
  

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