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Door to Journey of No Return 

A visit to Goree Island, the slave transit prison

By Leocadia Bongben — This door opens into the sea– the door of bitter memories — the door through which millions of Africans passed in the House of Slaves in Goree Island, in Senegal, to a journey of no return, in the Americas.
As I entered the house of slaves, passed through this door and looked into the sea, I could not help but shed a tear for suffering for the captives.

In front of this door in the House of Slaves, the Chief Curator, Eloi Cloi has been narrating the ordeal of slaves like a cassette, a rosary, in a loud and raucous voice to the visitors among them science journalists from 35 different African countries this 22 January 2012. None is unaffected by this pitiful story of slaves in this island that is now a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, protected heritage.

Cloi, the curator, begins his narration ominously: “Welcome to the House of Slaves in Goree Island, built in 1776, the latest to be built in the island.”

It is now history, but the ignominy and debasement still grip the heart like a suffocating gag. A whole family is brought into this transit slave holding station – father, mother and children. And then they are separated into different cells in the House of Slaves. Tiny cells measuring 2.60 metres square hold 15 men.

“They were all sitting on the floor, back against the wall, shackles on their neck and arms, fed once a day enough for them to go out once to ease themselves, but most of the time they lived inside in very poor sanitary conditions,” Cloi narrates. They were exposed to epidemics.

Another cell far down the corner on the left was reserved for children aged between 6 and 17. The children lay on the floor “like fish in sardine boxes”.

Yet another cell was for the young girls, particularly for virgins in line with the African custom; the women were separated from girls. In their room, a stone served as a toilet, a kind of privilege. The virgins were more expensive than the other girls. Trade by barter was the form of commerce. They were also sex objects of the white masters and when they got pregnant, they were set free in the island with their children.

The price of a man weighing 60 kg was equal to the price of a virgin girl which corresponded to a barrel of wine or a rifle. The price of a woman was much cheaper than the price of a man or virgin girl.

Given that the minimum weight for men was 60 kg, those who weighed less were kept in a special cell and fed like pigs with a kind of beans called Nyebe in Senegal.

After three months — the time taken by boats to come from Europe to Senegal — if they still did not weigh 60 kg, they were not taken to the Americas. They were sold locally on auction to stay in Senegal to serve as house boys in the island or the northern part of Senegal.

One of the cells was a place of punishment for rebel slaves — no window, just an iron door with bars. Going by Cloi, the problem for the guards was not to know how many slaves went into this cell, but how to shut the door after the captives. “Captives were not considered as human beings but as mere merchandise”. 

Much later, as the abolishment movement gathered steam, the conditions of captives slightly improved. Cloi showed us a cell for rebels that had two windows on the right and left. This was relatively new, introduced after 1848 when the French abolished slave trade in France and in its colonies.

Down the corridor is “the door of the voyage of no return, because when the slaves passed through this door they bade farewell to Africa”. Along this corridor were two columns of guards chosen from among the slaves.

“The slaves were chained two by two with an iron rod in the middle that weighed 10 – 30 kg. This made their escape difficult. Those who attempted to escape did not go far. They either got drowned or eaten by sharks”.

The duration of stay for slaves was long, from three months and more. Captives who were only given numbers in the slave house and they later took the names of their owners in the plantations.

The slave trade lasted 300 years from 1536-1848 during which 15-20 million black people were involved from many African countries. More than six million died because of deprivation, the curator said.

He traced the origin of the slave trade to Europeans who came to Africa with guns and firearms heralding the beginning of African ethnic wars to get prisoners to exchange with guns and alcohol. In the process many died and many became slaves.

Goree Island: Where captives from Africa were shipped to go and work as slaves in the Americas

Slave trade took away the best Africans and it is impossible to talk only about the Goree Island in isolation of what happened everywhere in West Africa.

There was also Cape Coast in Ghana; Lagos, Badagry and Calabar in Nigeria; the James Island in the Gambia; Loango and Cabinda in Angola; in South Africa and other places.

But the 900 m long and 300 m wide Goree Island was important because of its location, closest to the American coast so boats from other areas haboured here to look for food before proceeding to America.

European powers constantly competed for control of the harbour of Goree Island; the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British. Colonisation replaced slavery and slave trade, and the French stayed in Goree Island until 1960 when Senegal became an independent country.

Today, Goree Island is a centre of democracy and human rights and is protected for the coming generations. People now come from different parts of the world to this centre to celebrate reconciliation.

Even the great grandparents of those African Americans who have traced their roots to other African countries such as Cameroon surely passed through Goree Island.

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