Wabash Blogs Tim Lake in Senegal, Gambia

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Goree Island Has An Impact

“Welcome to Goree Island,” is the phrase that meets every visitor upon arrival to Senegal’s important national treasure. It seems that all one thousand residents of the Island is excited to have you visit the place they call home. A 20 minute ferry ride from Dakar will get you a piece of land, created by two volcanoes, that once housed enslaved Africans awaiting ships to carry them to various destinations in the New World – most ended up in America. 

While the exact number of Africans forcibly removed from the continent may never be known, some scholars put the number somewhere between 10 and 20 million with about 25 percent dying in the middle passage (i.e., the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean). European slave traders found Goree Island an ideal place to ready captured Africans for exportation via the Transatlantic Slave Trade because the surrounding water ensured that there would be no escaping.

In fact, no one escaped from Goree (from the Dutch Goe-ree which means “good harbor). Once on the Island, it was the last piece of African soil that the captured person would ever set foot on. 
At its peak, Goree Island boasted 38 slave houses.  Today the Island is an international historical landmark (UNESCO classification in 1978). Most of the slave houses have been demolished or converted into homes, administrative buildings, schools, or shops. However, one slave house (La Maison des Esclaves) still remains. Built in 1786, it is a place where visitors can get a glimpse of what it was like to operate a system of global exchange in black bodies - the first global commodity exchanged in the modern world.
Walking through the former slave house that once held 250-300 women, men and children captive was an emotional experience. While this is not my first “slave castle,” I’ve been to both Elmina and Cape Coast castles in Ghana, West Africa, I was impressed by the haunting presence of an enormous and enduring violence that took place between these walls. The scale of suffering permitted, in part, by the collusion between secular and scared institutions is a source of great shame even today. It was this sense of guilt that prompted Pope John Paul II, upon his visit to Goree, to apologize for the role that the Roman Catholic Church played in the slave trade.
To be sure, there is more to Goree than slave houses. At the heart of the Island sits Mariama Ba School. A boarding school for girls, the school is named after Senegal’s great writer Mariama Ba. Ba’s novel, So Long a Letter, has been taught at Wabash College. The girls who attend the school are among the best in the country. Students live at the school during the week and go home for the weekend. The school has an exchange program with a sister school in the US. All graduates of Mariama Ba School have gone to university.