A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The untold story of Gorée Island
A short ferry ride from the busy capital
city of Dakar, Gorée Island was, from
the 15th to 19th centuries, a prominent
location in both the transatlantic and
domestic slave trade. (Roger Atwood)
Sitting like a moored barge in Dakar’s harbor,
Gorée Island lies so close to the mainland that,
on quiet nights, people there can hear the busy
capital city’s car horns. A 25-minute ferry ride
and a world away, the car-free island’s 1,000
residents live in rambling old houses made of
clay and timbers, and stroll through alleyways and shady plazas.
In 1853, Senegalese-born French-educated priest David
Boilat wrote about Gorée, “Its location is most agreeable,”
noting the island’s uninterrupted view of the African coast
to the north and east, and “to the south, the immense ocean
stretching unbroken to the horizon.” Yet Gorée’s scenic appeal
and relaxed pace has an uneasy, haunting edge, for everywhere
there are reminders of its much darker past.
For four centuries, from the mid-1400s to the time of the
American Civil War, this 42-acre island off Africa’s westernmost
tip was a port of call for European slave ships and a
bargaining chip among the nations that controlled the slave
trade. The very first Europeans known to have sighted Gorée
were Portuguese explorers who came in search of slaves
and other commodities. Among these was ship’s captain
Lançarote de Freitas, who arrived in 1445. De Freitas sent a
crewman ashore in a canoe to leave some tokens of friendship:
a cake, a mirror, and a piece of paper upon which was
drawn a cross. When a crewman ventured back to the island,
the inhabitants had destroyed the cake, broken the mirror,
and ripped the paper in two. The two sides then exchanged
fire—the islanders with poisoned arrows, the Portuguese with
guns—according to Portuguese colonial accounts cited today
at the island’s historical museum.
Thus began the islet’s traumatic relationship with the West.
Around 1627, the Dutch bought Gorée from local fishermen
in exchange for bags of trinkets and nails. And later, the British
and the French swapped rule over the island at least nine times
before the French took definitive control by 1800. A jumpingoff
point for the Atlantic slave trade, the island was the last
stop for what archaeologists estimate were tens of thousands
of enslaved African men and women. They were a small portion
of the roughly 9.5 million people sent against their will
to the Americas from all over Africa between 1451 and 1870,
according to a widely cited census published by Johns Hopkins
University historian Philip Curtin.
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Roger Atwood is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.