The sincere fiction of Goree Island, Africa’s best-known slave trade memorial

July 1, 2013

President Obama looks out of the "door of no return" during a tour of Goree Island. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Obama visited one of Africa's most famous memorials to the slave trade on Thursday, the House of Slaves on Senegal's Goree Island. The official story is that millions of African slaves passed through the house's Door of No Return, which faces West across the Atlantic; countless visitors have come to contemplate the slave trade and to pay heartfelt tribute, including Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II and the last three U.S. presidents.

Except that the official story turns out to be largely a myth. Historians have agreed since the 1990s that the house was likely just a private residence that had nothing to do with the slave trade. Earlier, we explored this long-standing disconnect between the reality and myth of Goree Island, why it's proven so resilient and what it says about the world's struggle to deal with this dark chapter in history.

University of Chicago historical anthropologist François Richard, a West Africa scholar who has studied the slave trade, has some thoughts about that disconnect between the myth and reality of Goree. Richard emphasizes the house's value as a sort of manifestation of slavery's legacy, which is still so big today that it demands this sort of totem. He reproduces a term that seems to capture the phenomenon well: it is a "sincere fiction." Here's Richard:

1) Yes, there has been heated academic debate around Gorée, but in the mid-90s (following a controversial article written in 1996 in Le Monde). The debates have largely been on the revisionist side, and most historians today would argue that the scale of the slave trade in Gorée was likely much lower than in many other parts of western Africa (for a variety of reasons. I should note, however, that turning the question of international slavery into a statistical exercise is not the most useful way to think about it, and sadly that legacy has clouded academic debates more than it has helped). So, Gorée was a transit point, though the volume of trade there was 'fairly' low (square quotes are important here) and that it ebbed and flowed over time, probably decreasing over time, especially after the 1750s, as captives were increasingly retained in Senegal to work in food production. [Max here: When Richard says 'fairly' low, he is referring to estimates of, for example, 33,000 slaves, a huge number by every possible standard except for the actual trans-Atlantic slave trade of several million.]

2) Yes, there was slavery on the island, but of a much different kind than the chattel slavery that was established on plantations in the Caribbean and Americas.

3) The House of Slaves holds a huge amount of symbolic value as a 'place of memory,' a testimony to a not-so-savory part of global history. In this sense, the house was erected into a 'myth' (or perhaps, a term I'd prefer, to follow sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, a sincere fiction) and mobilized as memento.

As far as archives will go, the house was built probably in the 1770s, thus rather late in the era of the Atlantic trade, at a point when the commerce in slaves was diminishing and when the gum trade was gaining ascendance. What's more, it was a residential structure, upper floor were living quarters, lower sections were probably for merchandise and magazine. And yes, the enslaved people living there were probably attached to the house (cooks, domestics, laborers, traders, etc.).

Some people use the history/memory couplet to parse the problem of Gorée's house of slaves (i.e., history concerned with facts and memory with symbolic value and historical gravity, a mode of affective resonance absolutely central to identities in the African diaspora). It's not the most satisfying or cutting way of analyzing the phenomenon, but it has the merit of offering a point of entry. What 's important to remember, though, is that while the details about the house may not be entirely exact, they do speak to a deeper historical truth - namely, the experience and infamy of turning humanity into a commodity.

A "point of entry" is a nice way to describe Goree's famous monument, which is, after all, a literal entry point – the Door of No Return. As some scholars have written, even if slaves never really exited through the Door, members of the African diaspora created by slavery have since used the site as a way to engage with that legacy, making it sort of like a Door of Return to a past that was very real even if the symbol's official history is not. President Obama, in his solemn visit there Thursday, seems to have had a similar experience, even if it was based on a small myth within a much larger truth.

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Max Fisher | July 1, 2013