Memories of a dark era

Published : Jan 14, 2005 00:00 IST

Millions of slaves were exported from the shores of Goree Island off Senegal in the Atlantic Ocean. Today the beautiful island is a pilgrimage spot for those who trace their roots to Africa.

GULLS flapping their expansive wings fly in unrestrained freedom over the blue vastness of the North Atlantic Ocean. Hidden behind this ocean-calm and abundant bird-life is a story of shackles and human depravity, engraved on the sands of a tiny island, a mere 10-minute ferry ride from the dock in Dakar, Senegal.

Goree. That is what the Portuguese called it when they first landed on its exquisite beaches in 1444. They praised the beach but prised able-bodied African men off their homes to work as slaves in the sugarcane plantations they started on the many islands on the West African coast. The usefulness of the hardy helps increased with the expansion of European colonies in America in the 15th and 16th centuries. Other settlers, the Dutch, the English and the French, in that order, soon caught on to the idea of chained labourers for their mines and plantations that would stimulate the Industrial Revolution.

For 300-odd years, millions of helpless men walked, against their will, into slave ships docked at Goree to be carried to shores across the Atlantic. Despite the horrifying memories of brutality that is part of history now, the 900 by 300 metre island, with its quaint narrow lanes and Senegal's sacred Baobob trees, is today a haunt of tourists. Besides, it is one destination that thousands of African-Americans reach in a bid to trace their roots. They touch its soil in reverence.

One loses sense of time walking through the narrow lanes lined with baobab trees until, after a few bends in the path, suddenly one is standing at the entrance to the `La Maison Des Esclaves', or house of slaves, built by the Dutch in 1776. Probably the last of such slave warehouses on the island, it is now a museum with cells, chains and all. History stands still as Pape Muhammad, a guide authorised by the Government of Senegal, narrates the events of the past.

A huge wooden door opens into a small courtyard that leads to a two-storey structure. The ground floor has small cells and the top portion spacious rooms. Men, women and children brought from other parts of Africa were displayed for sale in the courtyard. Traders (mostly from Africa) and buyers from America or Europe observed them from the top. They preferred the strong, stout and muscular men among them. The market looked for slaves weighing 60 kg or more. The trader got a gun in exchange for a healthy man. The bargainers were choosy about women; wine was given in exchange according to the size of the breast. Children were bartered for mirrors.

The slaves thus chosen for the journey to the "promised land" had to wait until there were enough of them to fill a ship. They were kept hostage in a cell measuring 2.6m x 2.6 m on the lower floor until the time of journey. Shackled at their necks, chains with iron balls hanging between their arms and legs bearing them down, the men's mobility was further curtailed. They were allowed to use the toilet once a day. Men who did not weigh 60 kg were stall-fed like pigs to satisfy the customer. Any disobedience resulted in the slave being pushed into a chamber where he could neither sit nor stand.

It was in one such cramped chamber that former South African President Nelson Mandela spent half an hour in 1991 when he visited the island, informs the guide. Traders and buyers sexually exploited young girls on the top floor even as someone played the piano to drown the screams and cries emanating from the ground floor. Pregnant girls got a reprieve; they were freed and their children received French citizenship. (France gave up possession of Senegal in 1960.)

At the back of the house, a dark narrow lane ends in a small door that opens into the Atlantic Ocean. Almost 20 million slaves passed through this narrow door, ominously called the "the door of no return". Some jumped into the ocean in a desperate bid to escape but they invariably fell victim to the traders' bullets or sharks. As many as six lakh people died in this slave island between 1536 and 1848 (when slavery was abolished).

ELI WHITNEY'S invention of cotton gin in 1793 resulted in large-scale production of cotton. This fibre was the raw material most sought after by the American and British industry. The high demand for cotton led to the establishment of cotton plantations. The slaves played a major role in the economic development of America. They helped build infrastructure such as canals, railroads, and roads. The cotton they picked and the cloth they manufactured became America's most valuable export item.

Goree became a slave port at a crucial juncture in history, when the economy shifted from agriculture to industry. More and more slaves were needed to feed the North's industrial march. Thus the North generated tremendous wealth with the sweat of the men it imported. These sentiments are reflected in Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade's message on a poster near the House of Slaves: "Very soon, you will experience a place haunted by the memories of the millions of men and women who have passed; men and women torn from their homes and used to irrigate with their blood the fields of more prosperous nations."

It was a savage era in human civilisation. Slaves were in the fields from sunrise to sunset. Women worked the same number of hours as men. Pregnant women were expected to work until they delivered. The death rate among the slaves was high. In order to replace the loss of men, plantation owners encouraged the slaves to have more children. The settlers made girls produce children, so that before they attained womanhood there would be more slaves to export. Child-bearing started around the age of 13, and by 20 the women slaves were expected to have four or five children. In order to encourage child-bearing, some slave owners promised women slaves freedom if they produced 15 children.

GOREE ISLAND was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and is maintained by the Government of Senegal. August 23 is observed as `International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition'. "This infamous spot is now a universal shrine, where all of us, from every continent, may come and commemorate, in sorrow, the tragedy once inflicted by human beings like us on so many of our own kind. Goree's significance and symbolism directly concern us all," says UNESCO chairperson Koichiro Matsuura in a brochure on the slave house.

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