Reminders of the Slave trade: The House of Slaves on the Île de Gorée in Senegal and Woold House in Agbodrafo/ Togo

20081130 Ile de Goree Maison des Esclaves 0294

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.

20081130 Ile de Goree street 0280

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.

20081130 Ile de Goree waterfront 0225

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.

20081130 Ile de Goree Statue des Esclaves 0298

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).

20180128 Agbodrafo Maison des Esclaves P1490948

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.

20180128 Agbodrafo Maison des Esclaves P1490961

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).

20180128 Agbodrafo Maison des Esclaves P1490958

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. +++


  1. Thank you for sharing the horrors of the slave trade. It’s our planets dark history that we should next forget.

  2. Fascinating and very sad history. I cannot believe they would keep slaves chained up like that, with 100 people in one room.
    This is a side of travel that is often missed, but is crucial to share as if history like this is forgotten we will keep falling into the same horrific patterns.
    Thank you for sharing

  3. If you travel through West Africa you will be confronted with the history of the slave trade in many places. Of course everybody knows about this sad chapter of history, but it is different to see the places with your own eyes.

  4. Sad story from history…I could imagine how they would had been chained and tortured as I had seen these stories filmed onscreen in movies like “Django Unchained”. But it is really different experience to see such places from dark past with our own eyes. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks for this. I love learning about the past. Such a shameful, disturbing history. It does however need to be experienced and talked about so history does not repeat itself. I would have to be in the right frame of mind to do this, but l hope l get to.

  6. No matter how your frame of mind is before your visit – it will be disturbed after it! We knew, but never actively thought about the fact that it were actually other tribes that sold the slaves in most cases…they had good guides at all these places! In Togo only in French though…

  7. Wow! An emotive topic and what must have been a very emotional experience, so beautifully articulately described here. I couldn’t help but think of the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi when reading this post.

  8. I’d agree that this is such a thought-provoking place to visit, indeed. Such a unique way to understand and see a glimpse of what it was like to be a slave during this time – heartbreaking and eye-opening. How inhumane they were treated (concealed in a dark basement.. killed.. traded). Too bad about the place not being well-maintained. This may be a disturbing place but it plays such an important reminder for us today.

  9. Brilliant piece of truth telling and astute and detailed recordings of the sites. I would have loved to read more about your experience in such a context – state of mind, thoughts before and after the fact, and how an encounter with such sites is both necessary and positive.

  10. I’d never heard of Île de Gorée, looks like a fabulous place! I have learnt a lot from your article, such an interesting part of history on the Slave Coast. Thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *