Island of Gorée

Since 1978 • Cultural

The island of Gorée lies off the coast of Senegal, opposite Dakar. From the 15th to the 19th century, it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast. Ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, its architecture is characterized by the contrast between the grim slave-quarters and the elegant houses of the slave traders. Today it continues to serve as a reminder of human exploitation and as a sanctuary for reconciliation.

The Island of Gorée is a memorial to the African diaspora. It continues to serve as a reminder of human exploitation and as a sanctuary for reconciliation.

Gorée is a small (18 ha) land mass located off the coast of Senegal, opposite Dakar. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast. An estimated 20 million Africans passed through the Island between the mid-1500s and the mid-1800s. Ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, its architecture is characterized by the contrast between the grim slave-quarters and the elegant houses of the slave traders.

The House of Slaves was built in 1776 by the Dutch, the last surviving slave house in Gorée; the earliest date back to 1536 and were built by Portuguese, the first Europeans to set foot on the Island in 1444. Cells, each 2.60 m by 2.60 m, were reserved for men and contained up to 15 to 20 people, seated with their backs against the wall, chained around the neck and arms. In the middle of the chain, there was a big iron ball which the slave had to carry between his two hands and two legs. They were released only once a day to satisfy their needs, generally within this house. The hygienic conditions were so revolting that the first pest epidemic which ravaged the island in 1779 originated here.

A small house contained between 150 and 200 slaves, who had to wait for very long periods - up to three months - before being carried away on board ship. Their departure to the Americas also depended on the buyers, and family separation was total. There were special cells where children were stored and in these the mortality rate was obviously the highest in the house.

The young girls were separated from the women because they were more expensive. All the houses situated on the edge of Gorée - even the actual presbytery - were former slave houses. Some slave traders had sexual relations with the young slave girls and when they got pregnant they were released in Gorée or in Saint-Louis. It was thus in the young girls' interest to give themselves to the slave traders in order to gain freedom. It was for these young girls the only way to salvation. The mixed-race girls in Gorée, commonly called 'Signare', a deformation of the Portuguese word senhoras, formed the aristocracy in Gorée, like the Creoles in the French West Indies.

There was a cell where they kept the temporarily unfit, because a man's value was based on his weight: the minimum weight for men was fixed at 60 kg. If they weighed less than this these men were placed in cells to be fattened with locally grown beans, very starchy, known in Senegal as niebe.

This sloping corridor is today known as the gate of 'the trip from which no one returned', because once the slaves left through this gate leading into the sea, it was their farewell to Africa. Just outside this gate, there was a wharf of palm wood, which served as a loading dock, and some of the slaves obviously awaited the loading to try to escape by plunging into the sea. They could not go far as they were either shot by the guards or devoured by the sharks, attracted because the sick and injured were thrown into the sea.

Leaning over the balcony on this staircase, the buyers and the European slave traders were able to observe the slaves and to discuss the muscular value of each, because each African ethnic group had its quoted value and specialization. The upper part of the building served as a residence for European traders.

The conservation of the Island of Gorée has as its objective the rehabilitation of the heritage and socio-economic revitalization. The preservation of the architectural heritage is linked to the protection of the natural environment (coastal areas) and the improvement of the infrastructure (water, sewers, refuse disposal, etc.).


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