Gorée is a small island 900 m in length and 350 m in width sheltered
by the Cape Vert Peninsula. Now part of the city of Dakar, it was a
minor port and site of European settlement along the coast. Being
almost devoid of drinking water, the island was not settled before
the arrival of Europeans. The Portuguese were the first to establish
a presence on Gorée (c. 1450), building a small stone chapel there
and using land as a cemetery.
Gorée is known as the location of the House of Slaves (French:
Maison des esclaves), built by an Afro-French Métis family about
1780–1784. The House of Slaves is one of the oldest houses on the
island. It is now used as a tourist destination to dramatize the
horrors of the slave trade throughout the Atlantic world. Well known
in the West because of this museum, Gorée was actually relatively
unimportant in the slave trade. The claim that the "house of slaves"
was a slave-shipping point was refuted in 1959 by Raymond Mauny,
shortly afterward the first professor of African history at the
Probably no more than a few hundred slaves a year departed from
here for transportation to the Americas. They were more often
incidental passengers on ships carrying other cargoes rather than
transported on slave ships. After the decline of the slave trade
from Senegal in the 1770s and 1780s, the town became an important
port for the shipment of peanuts, peanut oil, gum arabic, ivory, and
other products of the "legitimate" trade. It was probably in
relation to this trade that the Maison des Esclaves was built.
The island of Gorée was one of the first places in Africa to be
settled by Europeans, the Portuguese setting foot on the island in
1444. It was captured by the United Netherlands in 1588, then the
Portuguese again, again the Dutch — who named it after the Dutch
island of Goeree, and the British took it over under Robert Holmes
After the French gained control in 1677, the island remained
continuously French until 1960, when Senegal was granted
independence. There were brief periods of English occupation during
the various wars fought by France and England between 1677 and 1815.
Gorée was principally a trading post, administratively attached
to Saint-Louis, capital of the Colony of Senegal. Apart from slaves,
beeswax, hides and grain were also traded. The population of the
island fluctuated according to circumstances, from a few hundred
free Africans and Creoles to about 1,500. There would have been few
European residents at any one time.
In the 18th and 19th century, Gorée was home to a Franco-African
Creole, or Métis, community of merchants with links to similar
communities in Saint-Louis and the Gambia, and across the Atlantic
to France's colonies in the Americas. Métis women, called signares
from the Portuguese senhora, were especially important to the city’s
business life. The signares owned ships and property and commanded
male clerks. They were also famous for cultivating fashion and
entertainment. One such signare, Anne Rossignol, lived in Saint-Domingue
(the modern Haiti) in the 1780s before the Haitian Revolution.
Schley, Jacobus van der, 1715–1779. Island of Gorée and its
In February 1794 during the French Revolution, France was the
first nation in the world to abolish slavery. The slave trade from
Senegal stopped. However, in May 1802 Napoleon reestablished slavery
after intense lobbying from sugar plantation owners of the Caribbean
départements of France. The wife of Napoleon, Joséphine de
Beauharnais, daughter of a rich plantation owner from Martinique,
supported their position.
In March 1815, during his political comeback known as the Hundred
Days, Napoleon definitively abolished the slave trade to build
relations with Great Britain. (Scotland had never recognized slavery
and England finally abolished the slave trade in 1807.) This time
As the trade in slaves declined in the late eighteenth century,
Gorée converted to legitimate commerce. The tiny city and port were
ill situated for the shipment of industrial quantities of peanuts,
which began arriving in bulk from the mainland. Consequently, its
merchants established a presence directly on the mainland, first in
Rufisque (1840) and then in Dakar (1857). Many of the established
families started to leave the island.
Civic franchise for the citizens of Gorée was institutionalized
in 1872, when it became a French “commune” with an elected mayor and
a municipal council. Blaise Diagne, the first African deputy elected
to the French National Assembly (served 1914 to 1934), was born on
Gorée. From a peak of about 4,500 in 1845, the population fell to
1,500 in 1904. In 1940 Gorée was annexed to the municipality of
Gorée is connected to the mainland by regular 30-minute ferry
service – pedestrians only; there are no cars on the island. It is
Senegal’s premier tourist site and became a UNESCO World Heritage
Site in 1978. It now serves mostly as a memorial to the slave trade.
The built-up urban core of the island is geared to tourism. Many of
the historic commercial and residential buildings have been turned
into restaurants and hotels.