This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
Few choose to holiday on Gorée. But if you do find yourself on an overnight stay, be on your guard: drunken, unruly soldiers, disease-carrying bugs and a violent governor all await you. Abolitionists be warned: the impact of the slave trade is impossible to avoid.
When to go
Atlantic breezes keep the temperature on Gorée bearable throughout the year; by west African standards, it’s a relatively healthy place. You may have little choice in timing your visit – chances are that it will only be a necessary stopover on a voyage to somewhere else – but if possible avoid the rainy season, from July to October, when the bad, damp air can foster deadly outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever.
Dangers and annoyances
Like most of west Africa, Gorée is plagued by an assortment of insects whose sole purpose in life seems to be to drink as much of your blood as possible. The wise traveller always brings some kind of protective net – thin cheesecloth works well – to keep bugs at bay. If you like to read, be on the alert for termites: they’ll make short work of any books left on the ground.
But hazards on Gorée aren’t confined to the insect variety. Be wary of the soldiers of the British garrison – most are unruly servicemen or criminals here only because they were offered the option of serving in Africa as an alternative to a flogging, or worse. If you hear that it’s pay day, stay indoors – the streets will be crammed with drunken soldiers, all on the lookout for trouble.
Colonel Wall, the governor, isn’t much better. A tall, foul-mouthed Irishman, he rules the island with a rod of iron. Don’t get on his wrong side: dark rumours are already circulating in England about his violent temper and scant regard for legal niceties in dealings with soldiers and civilians alike.
Eating and drinking
Expect to dine on rice shipped over from the mainland, as well as an amazing variety of fish caught by the locals from their pirogues – boats made from hollowed-out tree trunks.
Judging by the deplorable state in which the garrison troops can often be found, alcohol is never in short supply. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for water. The island has only two tiny springs, so most drinking water has been collected during the rainy season and stored in cisterns for use in drier periods.
Accommodation on Gorée leaves a lot to be desired. Though a few comfortable two-storey stone houses are now being built on the island, you’ll probably end up sleeping in a straw hut.
Sights and activities
Gorée owes its importance to the sheltered anchorage at the north end of the island – indeed, its name is derived from the Dutch for ‘good harbour’. In 1779, Britain regained control of Gorée, which offered a superb base from which to dominate trade along this stretch of African coast.
Much of this commerce is based around slavery; during your time on Gorée you may well see shackled groups of enslaved Africans being forced on board the ships that will transport them to a life of cruel servitude in the New World.
However, many enslaved Africans on Gorée are not sent overseas. Instead, they are kept on the island as domestic servants and labourers for the merchant community, many of whom are signares – mixed-race women who make the most of their links with both African and European communities.
Look out for baskets of gum arabic being loaded onto ships. Used in cooking, printing and the preparation of paint and cloth, it’s probably Gorée’s most important export. Other trade goods include hides, ivory, cloth and huge bundles of ostrich feathers for London’s milliners.
What social life there is on Gorée is dominated by the signares. You’ll probably see them promenading around the island in their colourful robes. Try to get yourself invited to one of the balls occasionally thrown in their newly built houses – lively, vibrant events that are very different to the staid affairs you’ve encountered at home.
The island is less than two-thirds of a mile long and one-third wide, so you can walk round most of it in no time. The climb up to St Michael’s Fort, on the rocky hill at the south end of the island, is rather taxing but rewarded with wonderful views.
Pay a local fisherman to take you over to the two Madeleine Islands, three miles west of Gorée. The larger island is famous for its baobab trees, many bearing the names of European visitors carved into their thick trunks; some date back to the 15th or 16th centuries.
Julian Humphrys is development officer for The Battlefields Trust
Gorée today is laid-back and languid, car-free and calm – a contrast to its tragic past, though modern visitors learn that comparatively few slaves were shipped from here. No matter: this symbol of a brutal phase of colonial history is somewhere to come and think, and to learn about the Atlantic slave trade. The only disturbance comes from enthusiastic touts and would-be guides eager to make some money from the day-trippers who arrive on regular ferries from mainland Senegal.
It’s easy to explore the island independently; don’t miss the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), with its ‘doorway to nowhere’ opening directly to the sea. Also of interest are the historical museum and the Castel (the old St Michael’s Fort). From here, visitors can look across to the city of Dakar, departure point for boats to the island, which is as lively, colourful and of-the-moment as Gorée is lost in time. The Senegalese capital makes a thrilling introduction to west Africa. For another African island with history, aim for Zanzibar, a flight or ferry ride from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For a fast-growing city with an interesting colonial history, try Shanghai, China.
Tom Hall, travel editor, lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of his articles at the website