A tall black man in a fluttering white garment is folding his hands in prayer, then sweeping them over his face. He stands still for a while looking out over the sea from the back corridor of the historic house on the Île de Gorée in Senegal, from the “House of Slaves”. Next to him some other traveller is unwrapping a baguette sandwich.
The Île de Gorée is a tiny island not far from Senegal ‘s capital, Dakar. Today, the small island measuring only 300 by 500 m has a population of about thousand people, but in the 17th and 18th century, at the height of the slave trade, as many as 5000 would have lived in the confined space. In fact, some more confined than others: The “House of Slaves” on the Île de Gorée, today a museum, is one of the few still existing testimonies to the realities of the slave trade on the West African coast. And as such the whole island with its houses and fortifications was listed as a UNESCO World heritage site as early 1978, in the very first batch of sites recognised.
The island with its convenient location right on the shipping routes between Europe, Africa and the Americas where slave labour was in high demand, and its sheltered haven, made it a strategic and therefore much coveted location for European slave traders. Accordingly, the Île de Gorée changed hands repeatedly, from the Dutch to the French, then to the English and back again. The slave traders built stately houses on the island, with representative, comfortable rooms on the main floors for themselves. Today’s “House of Slaves” used to belong to a wealthy Signorée, a half-blood daughter of a white European merchant who could have a business in the colonies but was barred from a social standing in European society, due to her race. Her house on the Île de Gorée had wide, sweeping staircases and looked out onto the sea.
In the basement, however, rooms with low ceilings functioned as compartments for the slaves, with up to 100 chained slaves being held in one room. Some male slaves were held in smaller rooms to reduce the danger of riots. From the backward corridor, a door led directly onto the sea: At least in theory, slaves could be shipped directly from the house to the colonies (although the island had a jetty more convenient for taking the slaves directly to the larger, sea-going ships).
Some years after our visit to the Île de Gorée in Senegal, we are back travelling in West Africa but on its southern coast – what used to be called the slave coast. The remains of a similar slave trader’s house, the Woold House (maison des esclaves), have been rediscovered in Agbodrafo, a small coastal town in Togo, and turned into a modest tourist attraction. Compared to the wealthy Signorée’s house on the Île de Gorée, the house in Agbodrafo is a simple and functional affair. The traders lived on the ground floor, and as they were smuggling the slaves to maximise profits, the slaves were concealed crouching in a dark basement only about 50 cm high.
Their confinement was similar to what the ship passage would be like – and it was also a test of their endurance, and of their proneness to rebellion. The space in the ships was costly, and the traders would rather kill their victims straight away than risk them dying during the passage (or even inciting rebellion!). The Woold House has made it on the Tentative World Heritage List.
Is it worth visiting the House of Slaves on the Île de Gorée/ Senegal?
The House of Slaves is a rather touristy and much-visited place – but nevertheless (and partly because of its worldwide appeal and the motivations of the fellow-tourists) quite impressive and moving. Apart from the empty, but restored house itself, there was not so much to see when we visited, but there are some more sights and museums on the island.
How to travel to the Île de Gorée
Île de Gorée is only a short ferry ride away from Dakar’s harbour, and makes for an easy half-day trip from the city (or, by taxi, from the airport of Dakar).
Is it worth travelling to Agbodrafo / Togo to visit the Wools House?
Wools House is not particularly well maintained, but there are a few original furniture items left from the time of the traders (including an old safe), as well as the one trap door leading into the basement, where you can enter and crouch. Staff provide a short introduction and guided tour. The sightseeing experience can certainly be thought-provoking, and the house would deserve a better upkeep.
How to get to Woold House in Agbodrafo
Agbodrafo is a village about 40 km from Togo’s capital, Lome, on the main coastal road by shared taxi, and a visit to the house is possible as a half-day trip from Lome. Agbodrafo itself is walkable and there are other tourist sights such as Lake Togo and Togoville nearby that make staying a few days quite worthwhile. We stayed for two nights at the Hotel Ecole Safari, run by a Swiss woman, and enjoyed it very much.
+++ We were not in any way sponsored for these trips to Senegal and Togo. We organised the travels ourselves and paid ourselves for the visits and all related costs. +++