Colin Freeman, Telegraph (London), June 28, 2013
For a black American president on a tour of Africa, it seemed an obvious opportunity for a speech about the evils of slavery. When Barack Obama visited Senegal on Thursday, he headed for Gorée Island, where a crumbling fort is said to have been the key departure point for millions of slaves shipped across the Atlantic.
Yet as the president toured the 18th century building and later spoke of how the visit had allowed him to “fully appreciate the magnitude of the slave trade”, historians pointed out that it was probably never used for that purpose at all.
Pictures on Thursday showed Mr Obama standing with his wife Michelle at Gorée’s so-called Door of No Return, a dark passageway from where the fort’s human cargo is said to have been loaded via gangplanks onto ships.
However, despite the claims that millions of slaves passed through the door, its most likely use is now thought to have been for disposing of rubbish. Likewise, the waters it overlooks are too rocky and shallow for a slave ship to have used it as a loading bay.
“There are literally no historians who believe the Slave House is what they’re claiming it to be, or that believe Goree was statistically significant in terms of the slave trade,” said Ralph Austen, a professor at the University of Chicago who has researched the subject.
Mr Obama is not the first international statesman to have made a pilgrimage to Gorée, which lies a short boat ride from the Senegalese capital, Dakar, and which has long been a draw for both foreign tourists and African Americans seeking to discover their historical roots.
Others who have visited in recent years include Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II and Mr Obama’s predecessors in the White House, Bill Clinton and George W Bush.
The fort’s museum was opened in 1962 by the late Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, a Senegalese who was a passionate advocate of the belief that it had been used to transport slaves in great numbers. Its reputation spread worldwide thanks partly to the powerful symbolism of the Door of No Return, which was said to have offered slaves a final view of their homeland before the Atlantic crossing.
Yet its historical claims to be at the epicentre of the slave trade have long been in question. Most agree now that while slaves were indeed kept at the fort, they were there not for mass onward transport but for use by the fortress’s own residents. A more likely point of departure was another fort nearby, although records suggest that at most, some 26,000 slaves were sent there – a fraction of the claims of up to 15 million touted by the museum staff.
Other slave forts along the West African coastline, such as at Cape Coast in Ghana, have much more substantial claims to being major slaving centres. However, historians who have questioned Gorée’s claims have often been accused of attempting to “deny” the extent of the slave trade. Given the amount of tourist income that the island generates for a country still living in poverty, there has been little incentive in Senegal itself to put the record straight.
The US president was visiting Senegal as part of a week-long tour of Africa, and was due to land later in South Africa, where the country’s former leader, Nelson Mandela, is now critically ill. On Friday Mr Obama, travelling with a White House press pack on Air Force One, the presidential jet, insisted he would not be seeking a “photo op” with Mr Mandela.
“The last thing I want to do is to be in any way obtrusive at a time when the family is concerned about Nelson Mandela’s condition,” he said.