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Gorée Island

A former slave trade enclave

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Gorée Island, Dakar, Senegal

GPS: 14.668102145127, -17.398668198146

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Located in the Bay of Dakar, south of the Cape Verde Peninsula, Gorée Island is a former important centre dedicated to the slave trade from Black Africa to the “New World”. For 300 years, between the beginning of the 16th and the middle of the 19th centuries, this small island of 0.28 km² served as a transit point for the Atlantic slave trade. This practice in Gorée officially ended with the abolition of slavery in France in 1848. However, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that labour and slavery ceased throughout the African continent.

Threatened today by marine erosion, the island of Gorée was discovered by Europeans in 1444, by the Portuguese navigator Dinis Dias who named it Ilha de Palma. The Portuguese founded a first slave market and a slave factory a century later, where men, women and children waited to be transported by ship to the American continent in appalling detention conditions. Colonised by the Dutch, Gorée Island changed flags several times between the English and the French in the 17th and 19th centuries. Its population reached 6,000 inhabitants, but fires and several epidemics of yellow fever and cholera decimated the demography. This island of memory is endowed with an incredible charm despite the imprint and the weight of the past. Its colonial houses, cultural museums and historical monuments stand next to flowery alleys in a decor of warm colours. Local artists, praised for their creativity, participate in the dynamism and influence of the archipelago which is now inhabited by about 1,200 people.

A precious asset for humanity, the island of Gorée has become an international symbol of reconciliation. In 1978, the Senegalese archipelago was one of the first 12 sites in the world to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List for education, science, and culture. It is officially recognised as the symbol of the slave trade in Africa. However, the extent of the slave trade is disputed by several historians, who question whether the small size of the island was appropriate for its capacity to hold millions of slaves. For example, access to the “Door of No Return” of the House of Slaves on Gorée Island (opening directly onto the Atlantic Ocean) appears to be difficult to reach by boat, due to the large number of rocks and the absence of a jetty.

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  • A small island paradise steeped in history and a place of remembrance
  • The pink building of the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves), its double spiral staircase and its Door of No Return (Porte du non retour)
  • The Historical Museum in the Fort d’Estrées, the Sea Museum, the Women’s Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Castel Memorial and its fortifications, the former Governor’s Palace, the Statue of the Liberation of Slavery (a symbolic monument donated by Guadeloupe), the birthplace of Blaise Diagne (where the first African deputy elected to the French Chamber of Deputies was born in 1872)
  • The church of Saint-Charles-Borromée (1830) and the mosque of the island (1890), among the oldest in Senegal
  • The old colonial style houses decorated with bougainvillea and hibiscus; the narrow streets of the island
  • The craft market, the artistic creations (paintings, sculptures and works made from recycled objects) and the musical inspiration of the archipelago
  • The absence of roads and traffic; the island’s beach and rocky coastline; the archipelago’s football pitch with a large baobab tree in the centre (considered sacred by the village elders, it cannot be cut down, much to the chagrin of the footballing children)
  • The Gorée Diaspora Festival (an annual event held in November)
  • An island destination easily accessible by boat from Dakar (20 minutes crossing)
  • According to a local legend, the island of Gorée is adorned with a protective genie, a djinn, named Coumba Castel.
  • The name of the archipelago is derived from “Goedereede” which means “good harbour” in Dutch.
  • The symbol of the island, the Maison des Esclaves, is said to be the last slave house to have been built on Gorée. Its main function as a captive house could nevertheless be called into question. For a long time, it was believed that the Dutch were responsible for its construction in 1776, but recent research tends to affirm the contrary. It was the Frenchman Nicolas Pépin who had the house built in 1783. This notable Bordeaux merchant became rich thanks to the gold and gum Arabic trade, which was in great demand in the colonial trading posts of Gorée and Saint-Louis (they were regularly smuggled). The Maison des Esclaves would not have served as a place of transit for the black slave trade from Africa to the New World, but rather as the private residence of the founder’s daughter, Anna Colas Pépin, a signare from the island of Gorée (a black or mixed-race woman living with a white man or from a mixed-race relationship). This bourgeois house, in the Provençal style, nevertheless had slaves working as servants who stayed in the dark rooms on the ground floor (these were also used as storage space for goods).
  • The Door of No Return (Porte du non retour) may in fact have been used as a latrine for captives. According to some highly revised estimates, the island of Gorée saw between 200 and 500 slaves per year. Some of them were sold or exchanged in the transatlantic trade by African empires and kingdoms not far from the Atlantic coast. In total, about 15,000 people are believed to have been deported to the Americas between 1761 and 1848 via Gorée.
  • The highest point of the archipelago is occupied by the Castel and a colonial cannon with a range of several kilometres (it was responsible for protecting Gorée and the city of Dakar). This site contains a network of underground tunnels and former bunkers, some of which were transformed into art galleries or makeshift housing for local artists from Gorée.
  • The archipelago is home to the dispensary and the Senegalese headquarters of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta. The presence of this order dates to the 18th century when the governor of Senegal and the colony of Gorée (Stanislas de Boufflers) was already a knight of the Order of Malta.
  • Opposite the island of Gorée, a real estate project plans to build a 55-storey building in Dakar, called the Gorée Tower. Intended to promote the development of international tourism in Senegal, it is financially supported by Indonesia (which is contributing $250 million) and will include a complex composed of a hotel, a marina, a museum, residences, and shopping centres.
  • According to official figures, Senegal recorded 1.7 million foreign tourists in 2019. It is aiming for the ambitious target of 5 million annual visitors by 2025.
  • A Dakar-Gorea maritime link provides regular service to the island by boat (about 10 crossings are made daily). It takes about 20 minutes to reach Gorée from the Dakar Port Authority (no reservations are possible).
  • Take time to spend a night on Gorée Island to fully enjoy its peaceful and relaxed character, far from the stifling activity of the Senegalese capital (remember to book your accommodation in advance).
  • Most of the museums, including the inevitable Maison des Esclaves, are closed on Mondays.
  • If you want to learn more about the history, art and culture of the people of West Africa, be sure to visit the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar.
  • Negotiating prices is a common practice in Senegal, especially when it comes to buying art, crafts or souvenirs in tourist locations such as Gorée.

Where to eat

  • Chez Tonton
    (fresh and cheap)
  • Ann’Sabran
    (varied cuisine)
  • L'amirauté
    (beautiful setting)

Where to go

  • Tilène market
    (typical food market)
  • Oceanium Dakar
    (for diving enthusiasts)
  • Magdalen Islands National Park
    (rich in birdlife)

Where to stay

  • Fiirek Guest House
    (tastefully decorated)
  • Hotel Madou
    (quiet and spacious)
  • Villa Castel
    (characterful)

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