One of our first excursions took us to the island of Gorée, a hop and a skip off the coast of Dakar. Boasting palm trees, a sandy beach, a historic fort and picturesque colonial architecture, this tiny outcrop of West Africa could double up as the perfect setting for a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, and yet, it was the site of some of the most prolonged and detestable crimes against humanity.
From the 16th to the 19th century, millions upon millions of African men, women and children were held in captivity here before embarking on their horrific voyage to the plantations of the Americas. Here they were weighed and, if necessary, fattened up to the requisite 60kgs, the weight at which the men were considered saleable merchandise by traders and buyers alike. Here families were split up for good, children priced according to their age (they were more valuable if they had already lost their milk teeth), women picked off by slavemasters if they fancied mistress (an African woman giving birth to a white owner’s child thus automatically gained her freedom). Over 30 to 40 million human beings were trafficked through the “Gate of No Return” giving onto the sea, its calm, warm waters on the day of our visit so at odds with the suffering it once witnessed.
Today, Gorée has become a place of pilgrimage – not only for heroes of African liberation, such as Nelson Mandela, but also for Americans and Brits who trace their ancestry back to slaves, a painful reminder of the violence inflicted on their forebears. But this is not a place of hushed remembrance like the death camps of Germany. There is so little physical evidence left of the horrors that took place here that suffering has to be imagined, conjured up by the narration of our guides. While the harrowing tales of slavery bring tears to some visitors’ eyes, by far the majority snap away with their mobile phones, taking smiling selfies in the torture chambers of the slave trade. The walls are covered in graffiti. Some of it is political (“human beings are not merchandise!”), but the majority is of the banal “I was here” variety.
Soon, our tour had come to and end. We continued on our way, and having dinner on the beach, did not speak any further of the horrors past.