I did not sleep well the night before we landed in Dakar, Senegal. I knew the reason. We were going on tour to Ile de Goree. So many of my friends had visited and told of the emotional toll it took as they walked through the House of Slaves.
The House of Slaves on Ile de Goree is a Museum and UNESCO World Heritage site that commemorates the darkest period of man’s inhumanity to man – The Atlantic Slave Trade.
Goree was the holding port for slaves. Of the approximately 45 million human beings who were torn from their homeland to be sold in the New World, nearly 20 million left from this place to face the treacherous Middle Passage crossing. First begun by the Portuguese, this trade in human ‘cargo’ went on for three centuries from 1536 to 1848.
At the entrance to the Museum stands a statue depicting a female and a male slave. They are bare breasted. The woman holds onto the man her face uplifted. The man’s hands are lifted high holding two parts of a broken chain. He too looks upward. There was an involuntary hush as we walked from the statue and through the doors of the Museum. The slave house had rooms measuring eight feet by six feet in which up to twenty persons, shackled by their necks and arms were held. They were allowed one daily bathroom break. Families captured together would most likely be separated here as they would be once they arrived in the New World. If you came to this holding pen you had already lost everything including your name. After all cargo was a numbered commodity not a person. You got a number and your next official identity would come from the person who would buy you and therefore owned you.
Dare to show resistance, to rebel and you would be relegated to two small cells, so small you were unable to stand up. You would be shackled, seated, with your back against the walls. A hopelessness seemed to emanate from these two cells. Doom, bleakness, darkness, defeat, despair hovered in the air. My stomach knotted. I gasped audibly interrupting the guide.
“Sorry,” I said.
“It is OK. Many people cry in this place. In fact Nelson Mandela was almost in the same place you are when he wept.”
We continued the tour and came to the Door of no Return or ‘last look’ door. I took a picture, the same place President Obama had had his picture taken. I cried. I could not help it. I imagined the heartbreak as each one realized that once they passed through this door to descend to the waiting slave ship it would be the last look they had of their homeland. Now they were losing the last vestiges of belonging, of home.
They had lost their personhood when they were traded for guns, trinkets, food. There was a formula to assess the value of this human ‘cargo’. Children as tall as a man’s leg, females tall enough to reach a man’s chest no matter their ages were desirable, even more so if they were virgins. Men were assessed according to their weight. If a man weighed less than 60 kilos they would be taken but kept in a special holding room at Goree and ‘fattened up’ with beans to ensure a better price when sold.
The strongest, fittest, tallest men were the most valuable. They may be worth a gun or two or more. No problem, as these were going to bring a high profit when re-sold in the New World. Also, they were the ones most likely to withstand the rigours of the Middle Passage crossing.
I struggled for breath as I listened to the atrocities, to the barbarism. I was ashamed at the description of the ‘cargo’, the ‘goods’, the ‘numbers’. They were human beings, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, princes, princesses, chieftains, innocent children. There was no nuance or balance to my emotion. What I felt was raw, rough, deep anger. This was beyond cruelty. And this abominable trade lasted for over 300 years!
I had studied this bit of history; I had watched the movies and documentaries, seen the depictions in books and listened to erudite speakers. No cinematographer, no author, no speaker or history scholar could capture the emotion of seeing this up close. Walking through the Stygian gloom of The Slave House shook me to the core. This was evil, pure and not so simple.
The tour did not end there though the rest seemed immaterial until we visited St Charles Church, built by the Portuguese in 1658 and the place where you got the best view of the House of Slaves and Ile de Goree. I could just envision the pious and devout congregants leaving mass and looking at the island, maybe see a ship loading the ‘cargo’ and mentally counting the profits the ‘cargo’ would bring.
The Meander: I wept when I first visited The Berlin Wall and wept with joy as we were at the re-opening of the Brandenburg Gate by President Bill Clinton. I wept at Auschwitz and said a prayer for my late brother-in-law, Theo, who was held in Dachau. I weep for sadness and weep for joy but my tears at Ile de Goree were the deepest most hurting tears I ever shed. I was weeping not only for the 45 million but also for the current 20 or 30 or 50 million living in slavery. For these the chains remain unbroken.
Oh, by the way, we are Celebrating Black History Month!