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Africa Island Symbol of Slave Trade

March 31, 1998

ILE DE GOREE, Senegal (AP) _ This notorious symbol of the African slave trade, the final stop on President Clinton’s tour of the continent, is a mecca for American blacks in search of their roots.

The stone pathways and colonial-style homes in pastels of yellow, orange and pink off the westernmost point of Africa make it seem more like a quaint vacation spot.

It’s also a symbol of war and peace: ``The Guns of Navarone″ was filmed at a fort here, and atop the cliff Gregory Peck scaled to attack Nazi troops is a colony of Baye Falle. The Muslim counterculture sect, stressing music and art, lives amid the gun turrets.

For centuries, this now-peaceful retreat was a living hell for waves of humanity enslaved and packed off to the Americas in crowded ships.

The reddish-colored House of Slaves is now a deeply moving pilgrimage site for many black Americans, especially after the 1970s TV series ``Roots″ and the new Steven Spielberg film ``Amistad.″

Visitors take the half-hour ferry ride from the port of Dakar to discover this rocky 50-acre island with portside cafes and schoolchildren playing under baobab trees.

Clinton and his wife, Hillary, were flying to Senegal today from Botswana and are scheduled to visit Goree Island on Thursday. Mrs. Clinton visited here last spring without her husband.

Red bougainvilleas and vines cover the cracked white walls winding along the pathways. The only transportation is foot power.

As the museum’s guides explain, slaves were stuffed into pens, inspected, priced and branded like animals. Fed once a day, they were held there for months on end.

Those who struggled were chained to the walls and their rooms partially flooded with seawater as punishment. Others were kept in solitary confinement in a dark, cone-shaped cubby hole.

Through the green ``Door of No Return″ leading to the sea flowed a stream of enslaved humanity, forced onto ships headed for another world. The sight of the sea is strangely foreboding, a terror that echoes from the past.

Outside that door, raw meat was thrown into the water off the rocky shore to attract sharks that would frighten slaves from jumping off the vessels.

There’s some debate on just how large the slave trade was on the island, but the symbol remains.

``You see it on the movie screen, but when you’re up close to it, you really feel it,″ said Akua Pokua, a 36-year-old mother from Ghana, after touring the house. ``It’s mind-boggling.

``We Africans weren’t particularly blameless,″ she said. ``The collaborators here sold the slaves. I think everybody’s to blame, I guess.″

Across the island, at the fort that attracted Hollywood’s eye, the Baye Falle hung their laundry on clotheslines strung across empty gun turrets turned into small dwellings.

One turret was turned into ``Cafe Touba.″ A multicolored plastic tricycle sat atop a munitions bunker inhabited by artists.

``May peace prevail on earth,″ read a signpost in several languages, planted in another turret at the fort called Le Castel.

``It’s founded on tolerance. You really feel at home,″ said Ousman Fall, 25, in a black New York Yankees beanie, a stone necklace and a sweatshirt urging the legalization of marijuana.

Even the marketplace is far more relaxed than the aggressive atmosphere in Dakar, where merchants hustle for business and where street kids buzz around tourists to gently lift their wallets.

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