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Senegal's Door of No Return Dispute

Senegal's Door of No Return Dispute

On Senegal's Goree Island outside of its capital Dakar, an important historical site sits as a memorial to the human toll of African slavery. But, at what point does the symbolism overshadow the reality? 

 In 1978, UNESCO officially named The House of Slaves a world heritage site.
Statue of captured slaves on Goree island
The House of Slaves and its door of no return is a museum and memorial opened in 1962 but many believe Senegal's Goree Island is marginal to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The House Slaves in Goree is the former home of the merchant Nicolas Pépin, built on ancient walls in the late eighteenth century.

From 1501 to 1866, an estimated 12 million slaves from Africa were captured, bought and enslaved thru the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; of these, 33,000 came from Goree Island.  That means only 0.27 percent of slaves ever actually stepped through the door of no return. The House of Slaves plaque states millions of slaves passed through its walls and the door of no return. In 1978, UNESCO officially named The House of Slaves a world heritage site.

Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, curator of The House of Slaves claimed that more than 15 million slaves passed through the door of no return. Senegal in 1958 acquired the House of Slaves and Ndiaye was appointed the first curator in 1962 when it opened its doors. In June 2006, he was officially a  "living human treasure".

The House of Slaves and its door of no return is a museum and memorial opened in 1962
The house of slaves and the door of no return

In the 1989 Philip D. Curtin, a historian of the African slave trade stated the door of no return is an exaggerated truth. Curtin and a colleague started the department of African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin, which the American Historical Association said was the first in the United States. 

Since realizing Goree Islands past, historians have been struggling with the island's actual significance to the trans-Atlantic slave trade vs people’s emotional and cultural perceptions. 

UNESCO states, “The Island of Goree testifies to an unprecedented human experience in the history of humanity. Indeed, for the universal conscience, this memory island is the symbol of the slave trade of suffering, tears, and death.”

Island of Goree

The island of Goree lies off the coast of Senegal. From the 15th to the 19th century, it was the largest slave-trading center on the African coast. Ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, its architecture is characterized by the contrast between the grim slave-quarters and the elegant houses of the slave traders. Today it continues to serve as a reminder of human exploitation and as a sanctuary for reconciliation.

Goree is centrally located between the North and the South, and to its excellent strategic position offering a safe haven for anchoring ships. Thus, since the 15th century it has been prized by various European nations that have successively used it as a stopover or slave market. 

The Island of Goree is an exceptional testimony to one of the greatest tragedies in the history of human societies:  the slave trade.  The various elements of this “memory island” – fortresses, buildings, streets, squares, etc. – recount, each in its own way, the history of Goree which, from the 15th to the 19th century, was the largest slave-trading center of the African coast.

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