The Island of Gorée: The gateway to slavery

2019-06-09 16:30 - Gabi Zietsman
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Just off the coast of Senegal's capital, Dakar, lies a tiny, carless island that has dark roots in Africa's colonial history - but today it stands as a beacon for reconciliation.

But much debate surrounds the island's historical prominence in the slave trade - some historians claim that its status as transit point for slaves has been exaggerated, yet it boasts a World Heritage Site status. 

QUICK GUIDE TO SENEGAL: Visa-free travel for South Africans

Whichever side you believe, the Washington Post pointed out it doesn't really matter. Today it stands more a symbol for the atrocities inflicted upon Africans and the Atlantic slave trade, a physical link that connects the African diaspora with where their ancestors hail from. Not only that, it's become a sanctuary for reconciliation and lost memory. 

The island was one of the first places in Africa to be settled by Europeans, starting with the Portuguese, and over the centuries various colonial powerhouses had conquered and lost Goree Island's strategic advantage on Africa's west coast. 

According to the perhaps embellished records, between the 15th and 19th century it was considered the largest slave-trading post, with millions of lives ripped apart by the seemingly innocuous House of Slaves. Within its walls lies locked memories, all culminating into the Door of No Return - the portal through which slaves boarded ships where hope died, and left their homeland forever. 

But there's more to the island than its gut wrenching history. It's a beautiful stroll through its quaint streets, where time is lost on beach wanderings and dining on Senegal's oceanic cuisine. The island is also an artistic haven, filled with small art studios where artists are ready to part with their work as tourist souvenirs, some even situated inside old war bunkers.  

However, it remains a pilgrimage destination for history disciples and those looking for a deeper connection to their ancestry. 

WATCH: A pilgrimage of memory to Robben Island 

How to get there

You can take a 20-minute ferry from Dakar's main harbour, but note that accommodation is limited on the island so most people visit it as a day trip.

A ticket will cost you around R124, and if you want to make the most out of your trip try to get there as early as possible. 

What to see

La Maison des Esclaves

The House of Slaves is the biggest attraction on the island, filled with tiny rooms that held dozens of slaves in squalid conditions before being shipped off.

Inside is the Door of No Return, and today is a museum that showcases the chains shackles used to herd humans like cattle. Outside, a statue of a man and woman breaking his chains takes on the sombre atmosphere and fills it instead with hope and strength.

Fort St Michael

Also known as the island's castle, its high vantage point not only offers the best view of the island, but also of Dakar city far in the distance.

Used as a defense against invading hordes, it saw its last battle in World War II. Today, its the best place to buy artwork and craft from the vibrant creative community on the island.

IFAN Historical Museum

The history museum lies inside Fort d’Estrées built in the 1850s and served as a prison until the 70s, similar to Robben Island.

Now the museum covers a range of exhibits from the Paleolithic times to Senegal's independence from France.

WATCH: This new Senegalese museum pays homage to Africa's civilisations outside of colonialism 

Relais de l'Espadon

This is an old colonial hotel right on the beach, and at one time the home of a French governor.

It stands abandoned and derelict, but there are plans to potentially turn it into a small luxury hotel.

William Ponty School

A prestigious teacher's college, it occupied a 19th century building originally built for pirate slave traders. 

While it's no longer a working school, it holds a special place for Senegalese as many of its struggle heroes for independence were graduates of the school.

Villa Castel

This is the top-rated guesthouse on the island, tucked away in its heart.

It has beautiful terraces, a stunning pool and it has its own boat that you can hire to take you to the mainland.

L'Epicerie

A popular restaurant with French and Senegalese cuisine, many online thinks this is the best place to have brunch.

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