Ile de Gorée - Senegal's island of shame and beauty

by Jill Brown

The tranquillity of this island is haunted by the story of one of the worst crimes ever committed against humanity - slavery. Makes an ideal daytrip to visit museums or longer for a relaxing holiday

It was turning into a sizzler as I boarded the ferry in Dakar to sail to the Ile de Gorée, and I was grateful for the sea breeze during the thirty minute crossing.

At first sight, the island offered no clues to its dark past. No hint of the abominations that occurred during the three and a half centuries of the slave trade era. On the contrary, its colonial French houses, coloured in soft ochres and reds and dripping with bougainvillea, gave it an air of peace and tranquillity. With its waterfront restaurants bursting with seafood, I could as easily have been on the Mediterranean coast.
Most day-trippers to the island come to visit the island's museum in the Maison des Esclaves (the House of Slaves, Rue Saint-Germain on the east side of the island) which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site ( This was where millions of Africans were brought, after being uprooted and torn from their homelands to be forced into slavery. Only the youngest and strongest were chosen and any man weighing less than 60 kilos was force-fed like a goose. Women too were valued like lumps of meat; top dollar being paid for young girls. 
This particular slave house, one of many on the island, was built by the Dutch in 1776. It now accommodates a permanent exhibition, been set up by Joseph Ndiaye, the curator of the museum. Ndiaye gave us an emotive account of events, gleaned from his collection of books, letters and artefacts. He conjured up such pictures of terror and impotence that it was easy to imagine the cries of anguish and suffering from within these now-empty walls.
In this house alone, around 200 victims at a time were processed in a system of dehumanisation. Over a three month period, men, women and children were systematically transformed from human beings, through torture and humiliation, into anonymous slaves.

The museum's exhibits both fascinate and shock. One picture shows a mother, heavy with child, being forced to squat over a hole in the ground. In the next shot she is being given 29 lashes to bring on a premature birth. The baby was then buried alive.

There are citations of various Africans, and several by the curator himself. One which stood out, said, "Those who claim today that nothing happened in Auschwitz and Dachau, will tomorrow be the same people who claim nothing happened in Gorée". Emotions run high here.                

From their arrival on the island, men, women and children were segregated. This continued into their working life, where a mother might end up in Cuba, her husband in Louisiana and her son in Brazil.
In 1441, the Portuguese began the African slave trade, and for nearly 400 years, up to 20 million Africans were deported to the Americas and the West Indies, where they were resold to work in the sugar cane, cotton and coffee plantations, bringing economic success to the New World.

It was not until the 19th century that the abolitionist movement was put in place. Slavery was abolished in British colonies in 1833. Napoleon prohibited it in 1815 but the French continued clandestinely until 1848.

There is some controversy concerning the number of 12-15 million slaves who are claimed to have passed through the Ile de Gorée, due to its limited water supply; but that is clearly not the point. And it is thanks to the perseverance and charisma of Joseph Ndiaye, that the Maison des Esclaves will continue to stir visitors' consciences and remind us of the fragility of human freedom.

Other places of interest

For a tiny island, it has its fair share of culture and worth a visit is the IFAN Historical Museum (in the extreme north of the island in the Fort d'Estrées) where you can learn all you need to know about Senegal's history. And The Maritime Museum (on the west side of the island) covers its seafaring history. The Women's Museum (Rue Saint-Germain, opposite the House of Slaves) explains the role of Senegalese women in traditional and modern West African culture.

A great many artists live on the island and their work is displayed in various art galleries which you'll come upon as you walk around. If you're like me, you'll wish you had more room in your backpack or suitcase.

Getting around

You can easily find your own way around on foot (the island is only 900m long and 350m wide), although you will bound to be approached by 'guides'. These are mostly French-speaking and less persistent than on the mainland. Some of the houses and gardens you pass on the way are charming and with unbeatable sea views. When the Mediterranean coastline runs out of space, the millionaires would do well to move here.

Where to eat

For a Mediterranean ambience with an African flavour, the best place to eat is the Hostellerie du Chevlier de Boufflers (221 822-5364). What could be better than a glass of chilled rosé, a plate of fresh seafood and a view over the jetty and beach, watching the world slowly slip by?

Where to stay

On the Ile de Gorée: there are numerous small guesthouses that do bed and breakfast. One which is inexpensive but simple, charming and impeccably clean is the Auberge Fiirek, Rue des Donjons, Ile de Gorée. A double room with a shared shower will cost 18,000CFA (£25), or a studio with en-suite facilities 35,000CFA (£49).
In Dakar: if you only have time for a day trip, why not treat yourself to the 4-star luxury of the Hotel Savana, Corniche Est, Dakar, with its pool, gardens and beach, and only five minutes from the city centre. A double room will set you back 80,000CFA (£108).

There are several lower budget hotels, like the smaller, more central 3-star Hotel Oceanic, 9 Rue de Than, Dakar. Expect to pay only 26,000CFA (40€) per double per night.

It is a good idea to combine a visit to the Ile de Gorée with a package tour of Senegal or a beach holiday in the unspoilt south, paradise compared to the more crowded beaches of the north or neighbouring Gambia.