Old Slave Trade to Americas May Not Have Started Here

Thousands of tourists journey each year to the quaint buildings and cobblestoned streets of Goree off West Africa to delve into the island's notorious past as a major slave trading post.

The problem is that an international newspaper says the story simply isn't true. And many Senegalese have reacted angrily to claims that the island was not the final gateway to the cotton and sugar fields of North America and the Caribbean.

The furor erupted in December, when the French daily Le Monde published an article suggesting that Goree, near Dakar, was not the last stop for the millions of Africans taken to the Americas.

"This is like those who deny the ... Holocaust ever existed," says Mohammed Faye, a schoolteacher in Dakar. Many call the article an attack on their cultural heritage.

UNESCO lists Goree as a "world historical site," and every year thousands of tourists - many the descendants of slaves in the United States - make pilgrimages there.

The crux of the controversy is the so-called maison de eslave, or house of slaves. It is one of the many elegant merchants' homes that line the streets of the tiny island. And while it is no larger than the other buildings, its curator, Joseph N'Diaye, estimates up to 40 million slaves passed through it.

The highlight of the tour is a small doorway facing the sea where rowboats are said to have taken the slaves to nearby ships for the Atlantic voyage. Above the door, a curatorial sign reads: "Voyage With No Return."

Le Monde's article quotes Abdoulaye Camara, curator of the History Museum of Goree, and Pere de Beniost, a French historian and Roman Catholic priest, as saying the house of slaves, is "a myth." The "dungeons" were mostly used to store the owner's produce. Perhaps some rooms were used for "domestic slaves, but certainly not slaves for trading." The article also says the building was built in 1783, toward the end of the slave trade.

Some slaves were traded elsewhere on the island, says Emmanuel Roux, the article's author. But he estimates that number to be at most 500 a year.

Historians have expressed doubts about Goree's importance in the slave trade since at least the 1950s. But it took Le Monde's article for the French-speaking Senegalese to become aware of the claim.

Johns Hopkins University Prof. Philip Curtin, who has written numerous books on the slave trade, says he has long believed Goree is a "hoax." "A lot of people have been taken in by the Goree scam.... Meanwhile, the house of slaves has become an emotional shrine to the slave trade, rather than a serious museum."

Mr. N'Diaye, however, continues to insist his history is accurate. Government television is supporting N'Diaye, recently re-airing a documentary in which he details Goree's role in the slave trade. And most Senegalese seem to support him, too. "Three out of 4 people here know that Goree is where most of the slaves left from," a taxi driver says. "And the 1 in 4 are just trying to deny their past because they are ashamed."

Those who question the history say the island is just too small to have coped with the massive volume of slaves. Also, they say Europeans would not have been comfortable living so close to a slave warehouse.

SENEGALESE officials seem concerned that the findings will endanger millions of tourist dollars. Mr. Camara, one of Mr. Roux's sources, now says he never called the house of slaves a myth. And Environment Minister Abdoulaye Bathily, who is also a history professor at Dakar University, is unequivocal, although he can offer no independent proof: "The house of slaves existed. From there, slaves were sent to the Americas. I am positive about it."

Achille Mbembe, head of the Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa, agrees the house of slaves "may not be a matter of historical record." But, he says, "it isn't possible to comprehend the significance [of slavery] ... if one considers it only as a matter of numbers.

"One can never truly know how many people suffered in this deadly commerce."

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