La Maison des Esclaves – the French term for ‘slave house’ – is quite sobering. The building itself is quite small, it was built in the late 1700s, and it is sole remaining slave house on Gorée that wasn’t converted to a regular house after the abolition of the slave trade. Due to Senegal’s geographic location and its importance in French colonial Africa, European traders involved in the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade quartered hundreds of thousands of slaves in the Goréen slave houses. As I have said in other posts, Dakar – and by extension, Île de Gorée – is located at the western-most point of Africa, and ships have fairly easy access to the African coast. So you can see why the majority of the slaves captured in the West African region were sent here.
As you can see from the pictures, the walls are at least 3 feet thick, the rooms are especially small, dark, and there are no bathroom facilities. The slaves were separated by age and gender. Small children were packed into a tiny room, teenagers were in another, and the adults were sardined into their own rooms. The guards and traders viewed them and treated them like merchandise, and their captors thought in terms of who would survive the long and dangerous journey across the ocean. Adult males garnered the highest prices, teenage virgin girls fetched the second highest prices, and women (those considered non-virgins) and children were the cheapest. The old, infirm, and ill were often beaten to death or left to die in the cells. It makes you wonder why, if those types of individuals weren’t even going to be loaded onto the ships, did the slave traders even bother to take them from their homes and villages? The answer, of course, is because the traders didn’t recognize that the Africans were just as human as they were. Every slave wore neck, hand, and ankle irons and each person was chained to another person. They were yoked together, kind of like oxen. According to the docent, the guards only unlocked the irons once a day, if at all. Any individual who was deemed a nuisance or a trouble-maker was shoved into tiny crawl spaces beneath the stairs that led to the guards’ quarters. The docent reminded us that absolutely no consideration was given to how many people should have been or were packed in there. As long as they could shut the doors, the guards kept piling them in. Sometimes they were in there for days and weeks on end. I went into one of those crawl spaces, and even at 5’3”, I had to double over to even get in. The space is about 2 feet wide by 6 or 8 feet deep, and the height of the ceiling diminishes with the angle of the stairs. I’d say that the highest point, only a 5 or 6-year old child could stand up in there, and at the lowest, a very small toddler. Can you imagine cramming 20 or 30 full-grown adults into such a tiny space? And then can you bear to think about how uncomfortable those people were in the relentless heat, piled on top of one another, in shackles, and the humiliation of not be allowed out of the cell to relieve themselves? How can humans do such horrible things to other human beings??
Slaves were brought in from various regions of West Africa and therefore, their ethnicities and languages were all different. Likewise, they were all shipped to different areas of the Americas depending on what flag the ship sailed under. The French ships went to the Caribbean, the Portuguese and Spanish to Latin and South America, and the British to North America. Families were separated, and the infants and small children were separated from their mothers. I imagine that the majority of the babies were killed. When the traders documented how many slaves they were taking from la Maison des Escalves, they gave all the men the same name – and it was a common name to the language of the country. For example, the men shipped on French boats were all “named” Robert. I don’t know if the women were given names or not. The slave ships anchored as near to the rocky shore as possible, and then they sent little boats to the island. The slave houses were located right on the shore to facilitate the quick and “easy” loading of slaves. Traders shepherded the slaves from their holding cells to the back of the slave house, and they forced the slaves to cross the threshold of this door, which is so aptly named “the door of no return.”
A long, narrow, rickety bridge arched from the door of no return, over the sharp rocks, and to the boats waiting on the waterfront. If one of the slaves slipped and fell off, no effort was made to help him. If, in response to a slave’s resistance or solely due to the whim of one of the sailors, when one slave was shoved overboard on the row back to the slave ship, the slave chained to him went over, as well. The same occurred if one fell off of the bridge. Instead of losing one slave, you lost two. But the slave traders didn’t care. They figured they could always get more slaves. The docent taught us that because mercilessly shoving slaves overboard to was such a common practice, the waters surrounding the slave houses were filled with sharks. Therefore, if the slaves weren’t lucky enough to drown first, they were attacked and eaten by sharks. And it was all done in the name of “good sport” on the part of the Europeans. If the slaves survived the short row from Gorée to the slave ship, he had a 1 in 4 chance of surviving the sail across the Atlantic Ocean. 75% of the slaves loaded on those boats never made it to the Americas. About 2 million slaves eventually populated the Americas. That’s 25% of the total number of slaves captured on the African continent. You do the math.
Like I said, la Maison des Esclaves is a sobering place. But it, and by extension all of the slave houses located on the African shores, holds an integral place in the history of Africa and the Americas. It is a must-see for anyone visiting Senegal.