Today has been nominated Blog against Racism Day and I was wondering how I might contribute. Then a conversation with a friend yesterday (he was deeply irritated by the sanitised depiction of slavery in a US TV drama) provoked me to recall my visit, some 15 years ago, to the Slave House on the island of Gorée off the coast of Senegal.
From the 15th to the 19th century, ruled in succession by Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, this was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast. It’s now a quiet and picturesque tourist resort. Many elegant old houses built for the slave traders still stand. So do some grim reminders of the conditions in which captured men, women and children were held for months before the terrible journey to the “New World”.
UNESCO has an excellent website with pictures and a video guided tour of the Slave House. It evoked strong memories from that visit: heat and dust and sadness and unease and growing horror.
I went to Dakar to help organise an international political conference and visited Gorée with some of the delegates. I had to interpret the guide’s French visit commentary into Spanish for some Latin Americans and struggled with this, I remember [oh shit, what’s the Spanish for menottes (manacles)?…]. In retrospect, I was glad I’d had a task to focus on. Some of ‘my’ delegates were in poor shape by the time we exited the house. Looking at the UNESCO photos, it all came back: the desperate, damp, claustrophobic cells; the view through slits of windows over the endless sea, the dreadful future.
I remember afterwards not knowing where to put myself. Discomfort in the face of my friendly hosts. And one feeling I remember particularly strongly. Senegal, I suppose, is the most ‘exotic’ place I’ve ever visited. Pink and sweaty in my crumpled summer frock, there I was surrounded by tall, good-looking people, many sporting a fashionably updated version of traditional African dress. I really did feel foreign, that the people around me were elegantly, wonderfully ‘different’. But standing in the doorway of those stinking, claustrophic cells and imagining the horror, imagining the feelings of their occupants, I thought: the same as I would feel, the same…