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The brighter side of Senegal: Dakar’s Île de Gorée

Dakar is surprising for its lack of obviously colonial architecture, but it’s more than made up for by the delights of Île de Gorée. This pretty little island sits 3km off the capital’s east shore and has more colonial atmosphere in its little toe than Dakar does in its entire hoof. It’s little wonder that Gorée is one of Senegal’s most popular tourist attractions; it’s an easy and refreshing day trip away from the sweat of the city.

If Dakar were a western city, Île de Gorée would be a millionaire’s paradise, packed with exclusive condos and signs describing exactly how rare the hired Dobermans like their calf meat. This being Senegal, though, the island manages to exude charm in a wholly run-down way, and if there are any millionaires hiding behind the bougainvillaea they’re well disguised. Gorée feels far from exclusive, and that’s all part of its attraction. Shaped like the strange ¶ character that seems to pop up whenever I use a French computer keyboard, the island is packed with a surprising amount to see, despite it being less than 300m wide at its waist and under 900m from tip to tail. As a day trip it’s simply wonderful.

Île de GoréeThe thing that strikes me most is how similar Île de Gorée feels to the islands of French Polynesia, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why. The architecture is classic French colonialism at work, and the palm trees frame attractive balconies while glimpses of the blue sea contrast prettily with the red and blue hues of the peeling stonework. The island is beautifully faded in the way that only genuine antiques can be, and the touts are less insistent than in Dakar, adding to the atmosphere of relaxation. An old fort sits at the northern point of the island, its roof dotted with cannons in a display of colonial might that looks positively quaint these days, and from there the view of the narrow streets, pretty harbour and milling tourists is picturesque, to say the least.

Less pleasant is the island’s major draw card, La Maison des Esclaves. According to the curator, the House of Slaves was used as a port for processing slaves on the way to the Americas, and it’s an atmospheric little spot for such tales. A small door leads out from the basement onto the rocky shore of the island, and the small cell-like rooms in the ground floor are lit by solitary lanterns which pick out signs pointing to the storage rooms for male, female and child slaves. Upstairs on the first floor the rooms are large and airy, catching the sea breeze beautifully and ensuring a cool existence for the slave traders, but down below in the slaves’ quarters it’s a marked contrast. It’s hard not to be moved.

Île de GoréeJust in case your imagination isn’t inventive enough, there are signs everywhere to prick your conscience for you. ‘Innocent children, unsmiling and crying for their mothers’ says one, while another, signed at the bottom by the curator, lays it on thick with ‘Today, those who claim that nothing happened in Aushwitz and Dachau will tomorrow be the same people who claim that nothing happened at Gorée.’ It’s powerful stuff.

The problem is that there’s considerable historical disagreement about the Maison’s actual role in the slave trade. There’s no doubt that some slaves were housed there, but whether it was used as a major shipping point for slaves is simply not known. Gorée is too small an island to support such a major trade and it doesn’t have enough water to make a good stopping-off point for masses of humans, and although the island undoubtedly saw some trading in slaves, the doorway to the Maison des Esclaves would be practically impossible to reach by boat, as it’s surrounded by rocks and has no jetty. It’s much more likely that the harbour just round the corner would have been the genuine trading point for slaves, if there was any trading at all, and visiting the house with this in mind transforms the experience from one of horror at the slave trade to one of horror at the ease by which we blindly believe what we’re told by museum displays. It’s easy to picture the Maison as a completely a normal house with nothing more than storerooms in the basement, and given the shaky historical credentials of its past it’s a credit to the inventiveness of the curator that it’s such a popular destination for those seeking the roots of the slave trade. As an atmospheric attraction it rates highly, even if it’s quite possibly a fake.

But who cares whether it’s real? Gorée reeks of history, and it’s important that nobody forgets the horrors of the slave trade, even if that means stretching the truth a bit. The island is a pleasant day out from Dakar, it’s authentically colonial, and it’s well worth the 20-minute ferry ride. Besides, it’s not every day you get to play in a millionaire’s playground without any millionaires around.

Much more excellent travel writing by Mark Moxon on his various websites. In no especial order; and

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