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Jul 2, 2004 9:01 am

The Myth of Goree Island

John Murphy, in the Balt Sun (June 30, 2004):

GOREE ISLAND, Senegal - Standing in a narrow doorway opening onto the Atlantic Ocean, tour guide Aladji Ndiaye asked a visitor to this Senegalese island's Slave House to imagine the millions of shackled Africans who stepped through it, forced onto overcrowded ships that would carry them to lives of slavery in the Americas.

"After walking through the door, it was bye-bye, Africa," said Ndiaye, pausing before solemnly pointing to the choppy waters below. "Many would try to escape. Those who did died. It was better we give ourselves to the sharks than be slaves."

This portal - called the "door of no return" - is one of the most powerful symbols of the Atlantic slave trade, serving as a backdrop for high-profile visits to Africa by Pope John Paul II, President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush and a destination for thousands of African-Americans in search of their roots.

More than 200,000 people travel to this rocky island off the coast of Dakar each year to step inside the dark, dungeon-like holding rooms in the pink stucco Slave House and hear details of how 20 million slaves were chained and fattened for export here. Many visitors are moved to tears.

But whatever its emotional or spiritual power, Goree Island's real role in the slave trade remains a matter of dispute, a contest between history and the power of myth.

Despite the claims by Senegal's tour guides and tourism industry, Goree Island was never a major shipping point for slaves, say historians. No slaves were ever sold at what is known as the "House of Slaves." No Africans ever stepped through the famous "door of no return" to waiting ships, either.

"The whole story is phony," says Philip D. Curtin, a retired professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University who has written more than two dozen books on Atlantic slave trade and African history.

First used as stopover by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century, Goree Island was bought for a few iron nails by the Dutch before being seized by the French and the British.

Although it functioned as a commercial center, it was never a key departure point for slaves, Curtin says. Most Africans sold into slavery in the Senegal region would have departed from thriving slave depots at the mouths of the Senegal River to the north and the Gambia River to the south, he says.

During about 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade when an estimated 10 million Africans were taken from Africa, maybe 50,000 slaves - not 20 million as claimed by the Slave House curator - might have spent time on the island, Curtin says.

Even then, they would not have been locked in chains in the House of Slaves, Curtin says. Built in 1775-1778 by a wealthy merchant, it was one of the most beautiful homes on the island; it would not have been used as a warehouse for slaves other than those who might have been owned by the merchant.

Likewise, Curtin adds, the widely accepted story that the "door of no return" was the final departure point for millions of slaves is not true. There are too many rocks to allow boats to dock safely and a beach nearby that would have been the easiest place for loading ships, he says.

Curtin's assessment is widely shared by historians, including Abdoulaye Camara, curator of the Goree Island Historical Museum, which is a 10-minute walk from the Slave House.

The Slave House, says Camara, offers a distorted account of the island's history - created with tourists in mind....

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