Went to Goree today.
Goree is a small island just a few miles out to sea from Dakar. There are ferries every hour; the ride is just fifteen minutes or so.
Back when Europeans were first cautiously tiptoeing down the coast of Africa, they developed a particular fondness for offshore islands. Islands could be easily defended from hostile natives. Better still, they were subject to cooling breezes. (I can testify that Goree felt a good ten degrees cooler than Dakar, which in turn was ten degrees cooler than inland Kaolack.) Best of all, they were somewhat protected from the devastating fevers that tended to kill Europeans wholesale whenever they ventured inland. So, for centuries these offshore islands -- Goree, St. Louis, Bathurst down in the Gambia -- were the outposts of Europe-in-Africa.
As a result, Goree has more history-per-square-meter than pretty much anywhere. It was a center of the slave trade for almost four hundred years. It was swapped back and forth between the European powers a bewildering number of times -- Portuguese, Dutch, French, British.big (The French kept it the longest, almost three centuries, but the British took it away from them five different times, in five different wars.) Pierre Loti, the French Kipling (if Kipling had sex a lot, and wrote about it) lived there for a while, as did the great British naturalist Adanson. The shipwreck of the Meduse happened on the way there. The local primary school educated most of the first generation of anti-colonialist nationalist leaders, not just for Senegal but all across West Africa.
I'm a big old history nerd, so obviously I'm going to like this. But I don't want to turn this into a travelogue post. So, let me pick just a few things about Goree.
Gorgeous architecture. Possibly the single most positive legacy of French colonialism. Yes, they shipped half a million doomed slaves to the New World, but great houses! Think old New Orleans: lots of shuttered windows and scrolly ironwork balconies. Cars have always been prohibited on Goree, so the streets are stone or sand. It's a great place for walking.
The guns of Vichy. History nerds will recall that in the autumn of 1940, Dakar was the site of a pitched battle between De Gaulle's Free French forces and the colonial authorities, who stayed loyal to Vichy. The Free French lost, but it was a damn'd close-run thing. Afterwards, the Vichy government went to a lot of trouble to make Dakar invulnerable. They put gun emplacements and pillboxes and trenches all over Goree's single hill.
Two years later, Vichy collapsed. Senegal's colonial government promptly switched sides and joined the Free French. Alas, De Gaulle was not the forgiving sort; he had the governor, one Pierre Boisson, fired, and then after the war had him prosecuted and executed for treason. I'm no fan of the Vichy regime but this seems perhaps a bit harsh... Anyway. The guns and trenches are still there, but they're full of Senegalese selling art now -- the underground galleries are now, well, galleries. I find that neat.
Colonial death. There's a memorial to eighteen doctors and pharmacists who lost their lives fighting a yellow fever epidemic that struck the colony in 1878. The epidemic killed more than half of the island's European population.
1878 is not that terribly long ago; across the ocean in Jamaica, my great-grandfather was a little boy. But Europeans dying in large numbers from infectious diseases has become the stuff of science fiction. That's a good thing, a very good thing, but... people forget, you know?
High school kids. If you live in the DC area, you know that every spring finds downtown DC packed with thousands upon thousands of high school students on field trips. Turns out that the Senegalese equivalent is a Saturday tour of Goree. There must have been a thousand high school kids wandering around, which is a lot on a small island. They packed the ferry solid. I found this slightly wearying, which worries me a bit -- what will I do ten years from now, when my own kids are there? On the other hand, I didn't really like high school when I was there myself.
Anyway. I spent a few minutes watching some boys, and one girl in a bikini, playing soccer outside the old French fort. The girl wasn't very good. You could see the boys were torn between irritation that she wasn't very good, and OMG THE CUTE BIKINI GIRL IS INTERACTING WITH US.
I guess I should note here that Senegal is an Islamic country, but it's mostly very laid-back Islam. (Mostly. I still need to post about the Mourides.) Headscarves are rare. Beer is drunk openly. Bikinis are common at the beach; tight tops and miniskirts are, not that I'm paying close attention, far from unknown. Men and women mingle socially without much restraint. And casual observation suggests that interactions between young people are much more Muscle Beach, Santa Monica than Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Baobab tree. There's a big damn baobab tree in the square in front of the Mayor's office. It's hard to overstate just how big baobabs can get. 20 feet in diameter and 60 feet around is middlin'. You don't consider a baobab "big" until it's approaching 100 feet around, big as a two-car garage.
Anyway, the baobab was used for over a century to post notices. Like, formal proclamations and new laws? Went up on the baobab. They don't do that any more, but the baobab is still there. Baobabs live a really long time.
Slavery. Kind of the elephant in the room. There's a lively debate over just how important Goree was to the slave trade. The consensus seems to be that it was more of an administrative center -- relatively few slaves were actually shipped from there. St. Louis, 300 km up the coast, was much more important. But Goree has become fixed in the world's imagination as the center of slavery; the Pope, Nelson Mandela and President Bush have all visited Goree to meditate and pronounce.
And "only a little slave trading" is sort of like "a very small death camp". Here's a quote:
Not a lot to add to that. But if you happen to be in Dakar, definitely visit Goree.