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Senegal Gorée (8).jpg
Statues and plaque at the Maison des Esclaves Memorial (2006).
What is now the House of the Enslaved, depicted in this French 1839 print as the House of signare Anna Colas at Gorée, painted by d'Hastrel de Rivedoux.
A wall in the Museum: a mural depicting slaves being herded in the African bush by Europeans, a photo of Joseph Ndiaye with Pope John Paul II, a certificate from a US travel agency, and an aphorism -- one of many that cover the walls -- by Ndiaye. This one reads Moving and sad memory / Night of times / How will it be erased from the memory of Men?.
Door of No Return

The House of the Enslaved (Maison des Esclaves) and its Door of No Return is a museum and memorial to the Atlantic slave trade on Gorée Island, 3 km off the coast of the city of Dakar, Senegal. Its museum was opened in 1962 and curated until his death in 2009 by Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, is said to memorialise the final exit point of the slaves from Africa. Historians differ on how many, if any, African slaves were actually held in this building, as well as the relative importance of Gorée Island as a point on the Atlantic Slave Trade,[1] but visitors from Africa, Europe, and the Americas continue to make it an important place to remember the human toll of African slavery.[2]


Boubacar Joseph N'DIAYE, the curator of the Museum of Slavery in Island of Gorée, Senegal, 2007

The House of the Enslaved was reconstructed and opened as a museum in 1962 largely through the work of Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye (1922 – 2009).[3] He was an advocate of both the memorial and the belief that slaves were held in the building in great numbers and from here transported directly to the Americas.[2] Eventually becoming curator of the Museum, Ndiaye claimed that more than a million slaves passed through the doors of the house. This belief has made the house both a tourist attraction and the site for dozens of state visits by world leaders to Senegal.[2]

Academic controversy

Since the 1980s, academics have downplayed the role that Gorée played in the Atlantic Slave Trade, arguing that it is unlikely that many slaves actually walked through the door, and that Gorée itself was marginal to the Atlantic slave trade.[2] Ndiaye and other Senegalese have always maintained that the site is more than a memorial and is an actual historic site in the transport of Africans to British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies of the Americas, and thus undercounted by Anglophone researchers.[4][5]

Built around 1776,[2] the building was the home in the early 19th century to one of a class wealthy colonial Senegalese Métis woman trader (the Signares), Anna Colas Pépin. Researchers argue that while the houseowner may have sold small numbers of slaves (kept in the now reconstructed basement cells)[2] and kept a few domestic slaves, the actual point of departure was 300m away at a fort on the beach. The house has been restored since the 1970s. Despite the shrine-like status of Gorée Island, historians have argued only 26,000 enslaved Africans were recorded having passed through the island, of the 12 million slaves that were exported from Africa.[2] Ndiaye and supporters have argued that there is evidence that the building itself was earlier built to hold large numbers of slaves, and that as many as 15 million people passed through this particular Door of No Return.[5]

Academic accounts, such as the 1969 statistical work of historian Philip D. Curtin, argue that exports from Gorée began around 1670 and continued until about 1810, at no time more than 200 to 300 a year in important years and none at all in others. Curtin's 1969 accounting of slave trade statistics records that between 1711 and 1810 180,000 enslaved Africans were transported from the French posts in Senegambia, most being transported from Saint-Louis, Senegal and James Fort in modern Gambia[6] Curtin has been quoted that the actual doorway memorialised likely had no historical significance[7] In response to these figures, popularly rejected by much of the Senegalese public, an African historical conference in 1998 claimed that records from the French trading houses of Nantes documented 103,000 slaves being from Gorée on Nantes-owned ships in a single year in the 18th century.[8]

Even those who argue Gorée was never important in the slave trade view the island as an important memorial to a trade that was carried on in greater scale from ports in modern Ghana and Benin.[2]


Despite the controversy, the Maison des Esclaves is a central part of the Gorée Island UNESCO World Heritage site, named in 1978, and a major draw for foreign tourists to Senegal. Only 20 minutes by ferry from the city centre of Dakar, 200,000 visitors a year pass through the Museum here.[9] Many, especially those descended from enslaved Africans, describe highly emotional reactions to the place, and the pervasive influence of Ndiaye's interpretation of the historical significance of the building: especially the Door of No Return through which Ndiaye argued millions of enslaved Africans left the continent for the last time. Before his death in 2008, Ndiaye would personally lead tours through basement cells, out through the Door of No Return, and hold up to tourists iron shackles, like those used to bind enslaved Africans.[10][11] Since the publication of Alex Haley's Roots in the 1970s, African-American tourists from the United States have made the Museum a focal point, often a highly emotion laden one, of pilgrimages hoping to reconnect with their African heritage.[12]

World leaders include the Maison des Esclaves on their state visits: Pope John Paul II, two Presidents of the United States, and Nelson Mandela have all made high profile stops.[9] Mandela was reported to have broken away from a tour to sit alone in a basement cell for five minutes in silent reflection upon his visit here.[8] On June 27, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama, with First Lady Michelle Obama, visited "The Door of No Return."[13]


Specific citations
  1. Tiny island weathers storm of controversy. CNN Interactive, Andy Walton. 2005. Note: the link is to a reprint on the Historian's discussion list which was a prime source for the article's quotes.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 "Through the Door of No Return", TIMEeurope, June 27, 2004
  3. "B. J. Ndiaye, Curator of Landmark in Slave Trade, Dies at 86". Agence France-Presse. The New York Times. 18 February 2009. Retrieved 19 February 2009.
  4. Role of Gorée Island in slave trade now disputed by historians. Laurie Goering, Chicago Tribune. 1 February 2005.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Senegal's island of pain. Sue Segar. News24(SA)/Panapress. 18 August 2004.
  6. UNESCO (2001)
  7. The World; Slavery's Past, Paved Over Or Forgotten. ADAM GOODHEART, New York Times. July 13, 2003
  8. 8.0 8.1 Goree Island Journal; The Evil That Was Done Senegal: A Guided Tour. HOWARD W. FRENCH, The New York Times. Friday, March 6, 1998
  9. 9.0 9.1 Powerful symbol, weak in facts. Slavery: A thriving tourist trade has been built around the dubious historic role of a Senegal island.. John Murphy. Baltimore Sun. June 30, 2004
  10. See the images of Ndaiye in NYT (2008) and UNESCO (2002)
  11. In the haunting confines of a slave portal, a pilgrim confronts his ancestors' past. Rohan Preston,Minneapolis Star Tribune. January 10, 2007.
  12. see Ebron (1999), Nicholls (2004), and Austen (2001)
  13. Nakamura, David (June 27, 2013). "Obamas visit Door of No Return, where slaves once left Africa". Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-06-27.
General references
Ralph A. Austen. The Slave Trade as History and Memory: Confrontations of Slaving Voyage Documents and Communal Traditions. The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 58, No. 1, New Perspectives on the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Jan., 2001), pp. 229–244
Steven Barboza. Door of No Return: The Legend of Gorée Island. Cobblehill Books (1994).
Maria Chiarra. Gorée Island, Senegal. In: International Dictionary of Historic Places. Trudy Ring, Robert M. Salkin, Sharon La Boda (eds.). Taylor & Francis (1996) ISBN 1-884964-03-6 pp. 303–306
Paulla A. Ebron. Tourists as Pilgrims: Commercial Fashioning of Transatlantic Politics. American Ethnologist, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Nov., 1999), pp. 910–932
Saidiya Hartman. The Time of Slavery. South Atlantic Quarterly 2002 101(4) pp.757–777.
Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye. Histoire et traite de noirs à Gorée. UNESCO, Dakar (1990).
David G. Nicholls. African Americana in Dakar's Liminal Spaces. in: Monuments of the Black Atlantic: slavery and memory. Joanne M. Braxton, Maria Diedrich (eds.). LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg-Münster (2004) ISBN 3-8258-7230-0 pp. 141–151

External links

Coordinates: 14°40′04″N 17°23′50″W / 14.66778°N 17.39722°W / 14.66778; -17.39722