Entrance to hell-For 400 years, Goree was a concentration camp

“… People talk a lot about the Jews in concentration camps, but those camps lasted only 12 years, while black slavery lasted for 350 years, yet people never talk about it! During these 350 years 15-20 million black slaves were taken via Goree… ”


Entrance to hell – For 400 years, Goree was a concentration camp. Here the past comes alive for thousands of ‘pilgrims’ seeking their African heritage

By Garba Diallo

For the third time in four years, I visit Goree. Each and every time I feel that there is hardly any other place on earth where I can live the past this close and vividly like here.

Of course, the most disturbing and yet fascinating thing about Goree is its history. For four centuries, from 1444 to 1848, Goree Island was a concentration camp for slaves. On this slave depot the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British fought and killed each other over the flesh of the blacks. Here they detained, tortured, raped and humiliated between 15 to 20 million Africans before shipping them to the Americas. Six million of them perished on their journey. As Jo Ndiaye insists, “they took away the youngest, the strongest, the healthiest, separating mothers from their children, and drastically disturbing the equilibrium of the continent’s population”.

All these crimes were committed in the name of profit.

The slave house

From his collection of quotations about Goree, Jo Ndiaye quotes “Only those who have dwelt within these walls have cherished liberty”.

Here the most basic human rights were denied the Africans. Without any empathy or shame, it was here emerging European powers competed to commit the worst and most durable crime against humanity. Here merchants and priests raped captive women whose feet and hands were chained. Built in 1780 by the Dutch, the living symbol of this crime is the Slave House. This house of shame was especially designed for the detention of slaves waiting to be sold or shipped.

150¬250 slaves were held in this house at a time. They normally spent 3 months here, before being shipped off to different destinations. Sometimes entire families were held here before they were taken to different countries: the father might be shipped to USA, the mother to Haiti, some children to Brazil. They left Goree with registeration numbers only, and never with their African names. Once they reached the plantations, they were given their master’s name. In the US they received British names, in Brazil Portuguese, on Cuba Spanish and in Haiti French. Therefore African-Americans do not have African names now, but slave names given to them by the slave masters.

Jo Ndiaye reminds the pilgrims that “Only a wooden floor separated the lustful behaviour of some people from the miserable decay of others.” Having taking care of the Slave house since its inauguration in 1962, Jo Ndiaye still wonders: “How could they live upstairs with everything that was happening downstairs?” How could they tolerate the smell of the slaves which the French writer Boufflers complained about. He could smell them wherever he was on the island.

These merchants of shame could not avoid hearing the groans and cries of their suffering captives. These masters were guarded and attended to by one-time captives who had been domesticated and totally brain-washed. They had the status of dogs and obeyed the orders of their sinful masters with pleasure.

Survival of the fittest

“Those selected to be shipped off to America were the most beautiful of the African race. Today, African-Americans are the best athletes in the world,” Jo Ndiaye assures the visitors. Just imagine. They were forced to stay here for three months and then spend three to four months crossing the Atlantic, making it seven months to reach the Americas. You had to be very strong to survive, both physically, mentally and culturally as human beings. Could the immoral slave merchants have survived this ordeal without loosing their lives or humanity?

As M. Renaudeau writes, “Just before being packed into the cramped and stinking holds, every slave was branded with the emblem of the company or the master. At such times, the whole island reeked with the nauseous odour of burning flesh”. The period was one of total absence of shame or scruple. Indeed, by a morbid twist of irony, one vessel named ‘The African’, was commanded by a certain captain Le Noir.

The slave trade had grave consequences on both the slave masters and the enslaved blacks. According to Jo Ndiaye, the slave trade inevitably led to the moral ruin of the West and the political downfall of Africa.

“Perhaps, the most obnoxious effect of slavery is the persisting myth of superiority or inferiority linked to the colour of one’s skin”.

But is it possible for one people to enslave and colonise another people for over 500 years without the former feeling superior to the other?

The magic of Goree

On this island, you cannot avoid being charmed, seduced and frightened by the past. The magic and the beauty of dignity, the warmth, colours and the light of the ship-shaped buildings, the narrow streets, the smell of incense, the laughter of children, the gracious walk and talk of the women and the constant sound of music on this tiny and barren island, combined with its history of suffering, make Goree very special. With its 1,500 inhabitants, and just 900 meters in length and 300 meters in width, Goree is small but beautiful. Goree is so tranquil. There are no cars, no crime, no noise from drunken tourists. Those who visit the island behave more like pilgrims visiting their holiest shrines than tourists.

Most visitors don’t even spent the night on Goree. There are only two hotels, one of them is the ‘Chevalier des Boufflers’. Many people are afraid of Goree. They are afraid of the memory of the past, especially because, Mr. Jo Ndiaye continues telling the visitors: “Two things ¬ the concentration camps for Jews and the Slave House ¬ must remain for the coming generations to see, so that the past will never be repeated.”

People talk a lot about the Jews in concentration camps, but those camps lasted only 12 years, while black slavery lasted for 350 years, yet people never talk about it! During these 350 years 15-20 million black slaves were taken via Goree.

During his visit to Goree in 1981, former French prime minister, Michel Rocard, confessed: “It is not easy for a white man, in all honesty, to visit this Slave House without feeling ill at ease”.

As Michel Renaudeau puts it: “One cannot take a single step along the streets of Goree without being reminded of that abominable trade”.

Jo Ndiaye summarizes the horror with the following words: “The toll of miseries and lives which the negro slave trade claimed, is beyond anything one can imagine. Uprooted from their native land, driven to foreign countries, without a common language, sold to their masters at random, overburdened with hard labour and without any education except obedience or flogging, these blacks were reduced to stray individuals who could not reconstitute families.”

Goree was ideal for the slave merchants, because geographically the Senegalese coast faces and points to the Americas. Therefore, Goree played an important part in the triangle trade between Europe, Africa and America.

The island is just three kilometers off the Senegalese coast. Its tiny size made it easy for the slave merchants to control their captives. The waters surrounding the island are so deep that any attempt to escape would mean sure drowning.

With a metal ball weighing five kilo permanently attached to their feet or neck, the victims knew far too well what jumping into the deep sea meant. They had often seen how quickly the resisting slaves, after being thrown into the sea, sank down to the bottom. The local people say that this attracted a lot of sharks to the shores of Goree.

World heritage

Since its designation as world heritage by UNESCO in 1978, Goree has become a center for meetings and exchange of ideas on tolerance. Despite its sad history, Goree has managed to keep its African hospitality and spirit.

Already before the turn of the century Goree hosted the first teachers’ training college, William Ponty, in French West Africa. From this school some of the first West African intelligentsia graduated.

Now, there is a school for 30 of the smartest girls who achieve the highest mark for the annual secondary school exams in Senegal ¬ Mariama Ba, named after the internationally famous female author who died at an early age. There is also a center for development and democracy with its base at the Sudan House.

In fact, the whole island is a museum. It hosts the historical museum of Senegal, the maritime museum, the women’s museum and above all the Slave House. During his visit to Goree in 1991, the Pope knelt for 30 minutes and asked Africa for forgiveness. Among the personalities who have made a pilgrimage to Goree are Jesse Jackson, Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela.

A major project to build a memorial to Goree on the main land is planned. This will help Africa forgive without forgetting the crime of slavery.

As Jo Ndiaye ‘insists’: “Those two things ¬ the concentration camps and the Slave House ¬ must remain for coming generations to see, so that the past will never be repeated.”

Goree gives me strength

“I come to Goree because I think it is important to remember our history. It is very important for me, because I take it back home and share it with young people who don’t know anything about this ¬ or have very little idea about what it was really like for the Africans who were enslaved here and in America.

They should understand what we went through then, so that they feel there is a reason to continue to be and to continue to struggle. We know that they can. I mean, if anybody can survive this, you begin to understand that there is a strength in you that can make you survive. You can do things in this world that are beyond what you have been made to think you can do,” says Sandra Louis, African-American pilgrim from New Jersey.

Cultural base

“Slavery is something that I think about almost every day of my life. To be here, in this part of the world which was such an important place of transition, is very special. I want to be here and learn more about it.

Some African-Americans come here and see people who look just like them, but I haven’t. So I can’t tell if my ancestors originate from Senegal. I know that I have some European ancestry and some Native American, but people tell me that I look Fulani. But I don’t know if that is because I am mixed or what.

I think Goree could serve as a cultural base for intercultural communication, because I believe that the spirit of our ancestors is still here. I think it should be kept as a testimony to them and as an enshrinement of their spirit , to study, preserve and understand it,” says Lise Witten, African-American, third time pilgrim from New York.


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