Monday, July 7, 2008

La Maison des Esclaves - The House of Slaves

On Gorée Island, a short ferry ride from Dakar, one can visit the Maison des Esclaves, the House of Slaves. The building, a merchant's house, is small and pink. A series of cells on the ground floor held a variety of cargo, including slaves.

This is the view from outside one of the mens' cells. There's nothing in it now. As a guess, at its most crowded it held 20 to 25 adult men. The slit in the back is a window.

Here I am standing in the corner of the men's cell, looking into the courtyard. The room is very small. I also went into different, essentially identical chambers reserved for women, and for children. I did not take any pictures of those. Squeamishness?

Yes, quite possibly. Under the two central, symmetric, staircases are storage holes that were used as punishment cells, perhaps for up to six slaves. I took a photo of the stairs, not of the cell itself. A guide told us that Nelson Mandela entered one of the cells and fainted. The guide was subtly warning us away from the punishment cells. If you have endured the sufferings of Nelson Mandela, feel free to enter. No one did.

The punishment cell just to the right has air slits. This one does not.

The way out. One has to imagine the now absent dock, and a longboat, and, further off, a one- or two-masted ship, possibly a slaver, but more likely an ordinary cargo vessel, picking up a few slaves for the trip to Brazil or Bermuda or Georgia. One must also imagine the packed bodies, the odors, the chains, the misery. The relief of the air and sun, the bewilderment of the ride to the ship, the horrors of the trans-Atlantic passage, the lifetime of chattel slavery.

The House of Slaves is itself an act of imagination, created by its "conservateur au chef" Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye. He has pasted messages, admonishments, penseés, here and there throughout the building. A strange kind of historical curation. But the House of Slaves is now as much a memorial to the human costs of the slave trade as a historical site. The building itself was part of the slave trade for less than thirty years (off and on from 1780-1810, say), and Gorée Island was never an important slaving center. Maybe a few thousand slaves passed through this building, perhaps many fewer.

The smaller scale is probably useful for most visitors. This is just a house. Yet how much suffering was there at this minor outpost of the slave trade? Then try to imagine the giant slave markets on the banks of the Gambia, or in Ghana. Impossible, but we keep trying.

Every American should visit the House of Slaves - it is part of our heritage. Every citizen of Brazil, Holland, Jamaica, France, etc., as well, I suppose. I know, the list of places we should all visit is an unfeasibly long one.

Oddly, the island itself is one of the most charming places in Senegal, a great relief from the activity and bad air of Dakar. It's also the symbolic center of Senegalese feminism because it was the home of Mariama Ba. There is now a free boarding school for girls that bears her name, and a Museum of the Woman. A complicated place.

Gorée Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site. So click the link for better photos than mine.


  1. What a comforting colour that shade of pink is.

  2. Nigel, agreed. The odd pink symmetric stairways have become an iconic image of Senegal, in part because of the symbolism of the House of Slaves, and in part because the image is aesthetically pleasing. A paradox.