Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Senegal: history of "Slave House" questioned

More than 200,000 people travel to this rocky island off the coast of Dakar each year to step inside the dark, dungeonlike holding rooms in the pink stucco Slave House and hear details of how 20 million slaves were chained and fattened for export here. Many visitors are moved to tears.

But whatever its emotional or spiritual power, Goree Island was never a major shipping point for slaves, say historians, who insist no slaves were ever sold at Slave House, no Africans ever stepped through the famous door of no return to waiting ships.

"The whole story is phony," says Philip Curtin, a retired professor of history at Johns Hopkins University who has written more than two dozen books on Atlantic slave trade and African history.

Although it functioned as a commercial center, Goree Island was never a key departure point for slaves, Curtin says. Most Africans sold into slavery in the Senegal region would have departed from thriving slave depots at the mouths of the Senegal River to the north and the Gambia River to the south, he says.

During about 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade, when an estimated 10 million Africans were taken from Africa, maybe 50,000 slaves — not 20 million as claimed by the Slave House curator — might have spent time on the island, Curtin says.

Even then, they would not have been locked in chains in the Slave House, Curtin says. Built in 1775-1778 by a wealthy merchant, it was one of the most beautiful homes on the island; it would not have been used as a warehouse for slaves other than those who might have been owned by the merchant.

Likewise, Curtin adds, the widely accepted story that the door of no return was the final departure point for millions of slaves is not true. There are too many rocks to allow boats to dock safely, he says.

Curtin's assessment is widely shared by historians, including Abdoulaye Camara, curator of the Goree Island Historical Museum, which is a 10-minute walk from the Slave House.

[...] No one is quite sure where the Slave House got its name, but both Camara and Curtin credit Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, the Slave House's curator since the early 1960s, with promoting it as a tourist attraction.

[...] That said, Camara believes Ndiaye has played an important role in offering the descendants of slaves an emotional shrine to commemorate the sacrifices of their ancestors.1

1: Murphy, John. (2004, July 27). Senegal Slave House's past questioned. Baltimore Sun.