Goree Island: Obama visits site of transatlantic slave trade

America's first black president visits the infamous slave transport center off Senegal's coast.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Barack Obama looks out of the 'door of no return' during a tour of Goree Island, Thursday, June 27, in Goree Island, Senegal. Goree Island is the site of the former slave house and embarkation point built by the Dutch in 1776, from which slaves were brought to the Americas. The 'door of no return' was the entrance to the slave ships.

US President Obama is visiting a piece of America's grim past with Africa today.

Obama began his weeklong trip to Africa in Senegal yesterday, where he met with Senegalese President Macky Sall in Dakar to talk about the country’s – and the continent’s – future with the United States. Today's stop is Goree Island, which served as a transport center for human slaves from Africa to the Americas for more than three centuries. 

While his visit to the site may be intended to symbolize democratic progress and historical vindication, for many of the islanders it represents inequality between the US and Senegal.

Located approximately two miles off the Senegalese mainland, the first Europeans to visit the island were Portuguese sailors in 1444. Europeans settled the island soon thereafter, driving out the local population and building what would become part of the slave trade infrastructure. Some of the buildings and fortifications still stand today, including the old Slave House, which Obama will be visiting.

Between 1536 and 1848, Goree is believed to have housed slaves before their long trip west to the Americas, chained to the bottom of ships gallows.The slave trade was abolished in Senegal in 1848, then under the control of France. In 1960, Senegal gained its independence and in 1978 Goree was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (For another take on the history of Goree Island, see this Associated Press story on the disputed importance of the island).

Obama is not the first US president to visit the island. His predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both made visits there during their time in office, but they did not leave a good impression on the local population. According to the Guardian, the disruption to everyday life and disregard for the needs of locals caused by the presidents’ visits are still a source of indignation.

"The residents on Goree still talk about Bush's visit, and they are still angry about it," said Sophie Ly Sow, a resident in Dakar. "They were confined to their homes, forbidden from even standing on their balconies to watch."

"They suffered all of the disruption but gained none of the benefit."

On mainland Dakar, the entire capital city was on lockdown for several days before Bush's visit, with secret service agents springing up in restaurants and nightclubs, and a virtual telecoms blackout.

Understandably, Obama’s visit has been a source of apprehension and tension for the islanders. Last week, confrontations between the police and locals broke out after 18 people were arrested, even though they “followed protocol for security operations,” reports Think Africa Press.

During the visits of French presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, the police “didn’t even touch us”, says [Ibou] Gueye [one of the arrestees], “but this time with Obama, we were really mistreated. I know that American presidents require security. America is the number one most powerful nation in the world. But it should have been done differently. This was pure injustice.”

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