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The House of Slaves

A stark, silent beauty emerges from a place whose hidden past was the setting of heinous crimes against the African people.


THE triangular Slave Trade flourished across the Middle Passage (Atlantic Ocean). Europe exported "cheap junk" such as textiles, alcohol, glass jewelery and munitions for African slaves to become workers in the Americas, in exchange for sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, cotton or mine products (copper, gold or salt) that was sent back to Europe.

The House of Slaves (La Maison des Esclaves) on Gorée Island (Île de Gorée) off Senegal, West Africa, is one of the few surviving memorials left in existence to remind us of the inhuman slave trade which occurred over the last 400 years involving more than 10 million Africans.

Senegal, the most westerly of the countries of West Africa, is strategically located. It is less than 3200 km from South America. What is surprising is that the closest point in North America is Atlantic Canada. It is 5400 km from Halifax, but about 6100 km from New York, and 6700 km from Miami.

Gorée Island is a small island about 45 acres, located in the lee of Cap Vert, about 4 km from the city of Dakar, the largest sheltered bay of West Africa. The island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1444 and named Fia de Palma or "Palm Island". It was later called Gorée or "Good Harbour" by the Dutch.

The island offered several strategic advantages: an excellent departure point for the slave ships, good anchorage, protection against surprise attacks and the presence of a small spring. Gorée, the island of slavery, has become the symbol of slavery which was the disgrace of humanity at the end of the middle ages to the beginning of modern times. It is one of the most widely visited of historical sites in West Africa. Every February and March, thousands of black Americans throughout the Diaspora make pilgrimages to the tiny island.

The House of Slaves, built in 1786, was a slave warehouse which was operated by Dutch, Portuguese, French, and English slave traders. West African men, women, and children were bought, held for transfer in places like this house, and then shipped out to the slave labour markets of the Americas.

At the slave house, a beautiful structure with a double-crescent shaped staircase separates the two levels. On the upper level, rooms housed wealthy European men and their "wives" - Euro-African women known as signares. The lower level contained small rooms housing hundred and hundreds of captured slaves waiting an unwanted transportation across the Atlantic.

The tiny rooms can hold no more than eight or nine standing adults. In the 16th century, up to 75 people would lie on top of one another for weeks. There were so many because the slave catchers expected many to die.

Babies, women, and men were kept in separate, windowless rooms. Men from tribes considered good breeders were most cherished and were separated from the others. Men who didn't meet the required weight of 160 pounds went through weeks of fattening up before they could be shipped.

An estimated 40 million slaves died in transit. Poignantly, enslaved Africans staged innumerable shipboard rebellions. Only a few, such as the famous Amistad Revolt off the coast of Cuba in 1839 led by Jospeh Cinquuez, are known to history.

There is a sense of horror and sadness that grips a visitor when one walks through the courtyard and rooms. The beauty and tranquility of the island contrast strangely to the distant echoes of death, suffering and resistance that occurred here more than 550 years ago.

SLIDE SHOW At one end of the House of Slaves is a doorway overlooking the ocean and jagged rocks ten metres below. Here, captives boarded the waiting slave ships. The door (at right) was known as 'The Door of No Return.'

*This photo essay is reprinted from Shunpiking Magazine, No. 24, 1999 of which Bob Semple was photography editor at the time.

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