They call it the House of Slaves, a large two-storey stone building with a wicked past. Inside, at the back, is the Door of No Return. It's a coffin-shaped passageway to hell.
Gorée Island is the place untold numbers of West Africans were collected, wrenched from their families, crammed into cells and put out to sea as slaves. Some 25 to 40 per cent died in transit. Millions died in this slave trade.
The site in Senegal from which these ships sailed is now a museum, a testament to pain and tears and loss. Gorée Island is three kilometres by ferry from Dakar, the country's capital.
As the Free Press worked to produce its Jan. 18 Africa-centric newspaper, I had flashbacks to my journey to Senegal several years ago. That assignment marked me. I saw joy and immense suffering, hope and terrible despair. But it was éle de Gorée, with its terrible place in the continent's slave history, that served as a reminder of how that generation was cleaved and how every migration comes with its own fears and pain.
There is disagreement about how significant Gorée Island's Door of No Return was in the larger scale of the slave trade. Many other African countries have their own tear-stained portals. But Gorée Island, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a way station for the slave trade as early as 1536, when the Portuguese settled there. Some estimate 20 million Africans passed through the island between the mid-1500s and the mid-1800s.
The House of Slaves, the main building where men, women and children were collected and caged as they were brutally stripped of their freedom, was built in 1776 by the Dutch. It is now a renowned museum where tens of thousands of visitors, many of them African-American, come each year. Nelson Mandela visited once and insisted on being left alone in a cell.
It's a place of heartbreak. There are cells for babies, young girls, men and women. The men and women were chained and shackled. Mothers and babies were torn from each other. The evil still radiates from the rough walls and floors.
Modern handwritten signs hang on the stone walls. "Red is the blood of black," reads one in French. "Innocent child away from smiling and crying to your mother," says another.
Visitors speak in hushed voices, moving slowly in the African heat, pausing to press their palms against the walls. Some weep silently.
There was a weighing room, to ensure adult slaves were at least 60 kilograms before they were shipped. Any less and they'd die en route. There were tiny cells for slaves who resisted. They perished within days from hunger and dehydration, their bodies tossed into the shark-filled water.
The slave dealers lived upstairs, holding parties and planning their financial freedom. The walls and floors are thick. There's no way of knowing whether plaintive cries drifted up from the cells. Slave women were brought upstairs and raped. Any children they bore became "house slaves."
The evil is still inescapable.
When people emigrate and leave their homes, their families and their ways of life there is always sorrow. But if you leave to seek economic or political freedom, if you believe you are moving toward a better life for your children, that pain is somewhat tempered. The unknown is salted with promise. Your new home may be unimaginable, with its snow and odd foods and unfamiliar customs. But you hope there is a better life waiting.
That is one of the brutal lessons of Gorée Island. There was no hope there. There was no promise.
Outside the House of Slaves the island is a placid place. There are no cars. Most of the streets are sand. Painted wooden shutters decorate windows. Splashes of bright bougainvillea decorate the streets. People come from Dakar to lie on the beach, grab a snack or wander through the small craft stalls. Time moves slowly here.
But the museum and its lessons stop time entirely. Those who will not allow themselves to forget come here. Some seek a sense of their own history. Others vow to not let this brutal blight repeat itself, understanding there are always new pockets of oppression to fight.
No passage to a new world is easy. No people are displaced without personal loss. But the Door of No Return stands as commemoration of the very worst we can do, and a reminder that each new generation of immigrants comes with deep sadness as well as immense hope and promise.