For many Senegalese, Gore'e Island is an escape zone from the hot bush, from villages set on land the African sun has beaten to death, from landscapes so parched and fiery-looking that their forests of baobabs -- the giant trees animists believe house spirits -- appear to be rigid in their thirst.
About two miles west of Dakar in the Atlantic, Gore'e today is a Senegalese resort where more than one government minister has a summer home. Covering about 65 acres, it has no asphalt, no cars, no bicycles. It has ankle-deep sandy lanes, houses with cool courtyards shaded by acacias. And it has a good beach which swarms with bare-breasted girls and lean boys who wear only their underwear and dive off the seawall into the greenish-clear water. Pleasure craft, moored in Gore'e's harbor, are protected from the rougher open ocean. A gentle breeze blows steadily, a reprieve from the boiling sun. People doze off in the sand, tanning as on any tropical island retreat. Or they hide in the shade trees, reading French magazines, making puzzles, playing Scrabble and cards. Joking.
But Gore'e itself is no joking matter. For all the island's charm -- which, one Senegalese swore, could "latch onto you" -- Gore'e is best known for its tragic role in the slave trade that marked Senegal's first indirect contact with America. It is a history islanders and other Senegalese know about but won't let spoil their holiday.
Gore'e's very walls bring to mind images of slaves in shackles. And I have seen these walls -- which today form schools, museums, private homes -- move visitors to tears.
Europeans discovered and settled Gore'e long before they colonized the mainland and before Dakar, now the capital of Senegal, existed. The island was uninhabited when discovered in 1444 by the Portuguese explorer Diniz Diaz for Prince Henry the Navigator. The Wolof tribesmen on the African mainland had no interest in settling the island, which they called Ber, because their crops would not grow there. Gor'ee was, for the most part, waterless rock.
But the Europeans found it attractive because it was a natural fortress with an inward-curving coastline that provided safe anchorage and protection from the ocean swell. A later Portuguese expedition built a stone church, a cemetery and an unfortified trading post. From Gore'e and the Cape Verde Islands further west, the Portuguese and mulattoes called tangomaos established a network to supply the Atlantic trade with slaves, ambergris, beeswax, hides, grain, fuel and fresh water.
Over the centuries, Gore'e changed hands among the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the French. (Senegal gained its independence from France in 1960.) But always the island's strategic location as the westernmost point in Africa made it an important entrepo t in the slave trade between Europe, Africa and the New World.
From the late 15th century to 1848, when the French abolished slavery in Gore'e, about 40 million Africans were shipped out of West Africa. Half of them passed through the island, where they were stripped of even their names and given registration numbers before their two-month passage to the Americas and the Caribbean.
Most of the slaves came from West and Central African tribes: Yorubas from Nigeria and Benin; Wolof, Serer and Fulani tribesmen from Senegal, and others from up and down the western coast of the continent.
In 1619, American colonists in Jamestown, Va., bought their first shipload of slaves. Those slaves were West Africans shipped from Gore'e, then a Dutch trading post.
The island was declared a historic site in 1944 by the French authorities. And although a few other areas of West Africa transshipped more slaves, they don't have the same vestiges of that era that remain on Gore'e: The cells of imprisonment. The forts. The infamous Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) built by the Dutch in 1776. It is a house black Americans like myself journey to today to get a sense of what it must have been like for their luckless forefathers.
Gore'e is about 22 minutes from Dakar via a ferry with a mythical-sounding name, the Mber. As you approach the island, you notice it has no dominant features other than the black basalt boulders strewn along the beach and black cliffs in the distance. Its old buildings look deserted. Then the ferry swings around the tip of the island -- which is shaped like a boomerang -- passes an old, circular fort and some palms, and docks at a long narrow jetty. The jetty leads to an open sandy square surrounded by sun-bleached buildings. Tourists come here mainly to see the House of Slaves and, if time allows, to stand atop the highest point of the island and look toward Dakar.
The first time I visited the island I was charmed by the long flowing grand boubous (robes); the headwraps; the chewsticks drooping casually, like cigarettes, from the corners of mouths; the easy elegant gait of the blue-black-skinned Le'bous, a tribe of very tall and slender Senegalese with regal postures. It all looked as wonderful as any costume ball I had read about as a child -- like something out of the Arabian Nights.
But then I entered the House of Slaves. It once held 400 slaves at a time. They spent three months there, waiting to be transshipped. Now, the Senegalese government has restored the house, and with a group of tourists I saw one dungeon after another, each more cramped and damp than the last.
The custodian, Jo Ndiaye, who is something of a local celebrity because he has made the House of Slaves and the history behind it his life's work, explained how slaves were manacled and stuffed by the dozens into pens often no bigger than 20 by 30 feet. He showed us where they were cruelly inspected, as if they were sides of beef, and priced accordingly. One room on the ground floor was reserved for the more recalcitrant. There, slaves were chained to the wall and sea water was piped into the room to keep them partially submerged and constantly wet.
We were shown rooms where slaves were bred and fattened. Ndiaye explained how, at feeding time, the stronger slaves stayed alive by muscling the others for food and how the weaker grew hungrier, weaker, until they were certain to be among the 30 to 35 who died during each ship's voyage.
He showed us the breeze-filled quarters of the slave merchants, one story above the dungeons, and the exit for slaves: "The Doorway of No Return." The Africans who passed through it never saw home again. In the past, the door opened onto a 200-foot pier, where slavers docked and sharks lurked. Those slaves who didn't survive the three-month imprisonment in the House of Slaves were fed to the fish.
We were told that slaves were branded with the slave company's emblem, or their master's, and then packed into the holds of ships, leaving the whole island smelling of burning flesh.
Ndiaye's signs and commentaries adorn the sun-bleached pink walls of the house. One says: "Goree -- Dachau -- Le Goulage. What a long route we will travel before we become human beings." Another records what Henry A. Kissinger, then secretary of state, said when he visited the house in 1976. He found his visit "a moving and sad experience." Six years later, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, U.S. delegate to the United Nations, also visited this shrine, and was quoted by a journalist as saying: "No matter what our origins, we are all linked to Africa, cradle of humanity."
After leaving the House of Slaves, I ordered coffee at a street-side cafe' and talked to a Dakarean about the island. "Gore'e keeps you," he said. "I visited there for a weekend and stayed for six years. Gore'e latches onto you. You never want to leave."
Later that day I was reminded of his words when I met Wanda Murphy, a black American who was then living in Gore'e. Two years before, she had been on her way to Ghana to see a friend, but she fell in love with the island as soon as she saw it and told herself that if she could find an apartment there and a job in Dakar, she'd stay.
But she said she could never visit the House of Slaves. "I would get too emotional," she explained. "All these houses held slaves anyway." I wondered at her ability to see only the beauty of the island, to accept its history and not get worked up every night.
But of course the Gore'ens are not unmindful of what went on in their homes. Many islanders make their living from selling tourists whatever trinket or reminder of Gore'e they can barter. (The Senegalese government wants to lure more visitors and is building a hotel.) But islanders don't spend sleepless nights reliving the horrors that took place under their roofs. They go to school, they work, and they leave the tears to tourists -- especially blacks from the New World, some of whom wander the island as if under a spell.
About 1,000 people live on the island today, mostly Puula, an African ethnic group, along with about a half dozen whites (including a retired U.S. ambassador to Senegal). Almost all the native islanders are poor. Those who can find a job commute to work via ferry to Dakar. They live on streets with names like Rue des Dongeons, Rue des Gourmets and Rue Bambara, in dilapidated, chateau-style houses built by slaves who crushed seashells to make limestone and hammered basalt into building blocks.
The island's oldest building is the police office, built in 1482 by Diogo d'Azemba. It was first a Portuguese church, then a warehouse, a forge, a bakery, a guard house, a fish market and a dispensary. Some houses have stucco finishes, fireplaces, raftered ceilings, orange-tiled roofs, balconies, balustrades, arcades that open onto ocean vistas and courtyards paved with polished basalt.
Many of the houses were built during Gore'e's golden age, the 18th century, when many residents got rich from the slave trade. During these years, the island was known for its signares (a corruption of the Portuguese word senhoras), mulatto women who were the mistresses of the French and British. The signares were a privileged class: They owned slaves, ran businesses and, in effect, controlled the island. The homes they built were once magnificent but are now run down. They have discolored, crumbling walls but are still used as residences.
There are a few small restaurants by the beach. People sit outside them, at tables shaded by umbrellas, and eat the national dish, thie'bou diene -- a mixture of rice, fish, peppers and vegetables -- and wash it down with good local beer. In the meantime, boys swim out to meet the ferry, climb aboard and dive off. At the dock, the ferry deposits streams of camera-ready tourists, bargain hunters, pilgrims, French private-school students on day trips and Gore'ens who are back from shopping or a day's work in Dakar.
At night, Gore'e resumes its island-slow pace. Muslim men, beckoned by the evening call to prayer, report to the mosque, one of the first built in Senegal. There they spread a clean white sheet on the floor and after group prayer they put the lights out and chant suras (verses) from the Koran -- prayersongs that course through Gore'e's narrow lanes over loudspeakers to compete with the reggae recordings of Steel Pulse, a popular Jamaican group, wailing from second-floor windows.
Earlier, when I had told a traveling companion that I wanted to spend some time at night in the House of Slaves, he asked, "Are you crazy? They say there are ghosts on Gore'e."
But I found it a romantic notion anyway: To sleep where my ancestors had, to lay my head in perhaps the same spot and feel the passage of time. It would be a mysterious sleep.
Rue St. Germain, where the House of Slaves is located, was pitch-black. I tried the door. It was locked, and I considered how absurd it would be to try to break into the place so many slaves would have given anything to break out of. I shuddered at the thought, and walked away.
Instead, I slept that night in a friend's home -- the sleep of the exhausted, the sleep of the untroubled.