Friday, June 28, 2013

The Victory of Emotion Over History

The June 27, 2013 Minneapolis Star-Tribune carried this AP news story about President Obama's visit to Goree in Senegal -- one of those places that everyone visits because it is such a powerful symbol of the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade -- but appears to be something of a fraud:
The problem though is that historians say the door faced the ocean so that the inhabitants of the house could chuck their garbage into the water, the preferred means of waste disposal in preindustrial Senegal. No slaves ever boarded a ship through it, they say, because no vessel could have sailed through the rocky shoal that surrounds that edge of the island.
And while the house may have housed slaves, they were likely those belonging to the family who lived there, rather than slaves intended for the trans-Atlantic passage, according to numerous publications as well as three historians of the slave trade interviewed by The Associated Press.
Even though historians have debunked the memorial, calling it a local invention, and despite reams of scholarly articles, treatises and books discussing its dubious historical role, the pink building has become the de facto emblem of slavery. It's the place where world leaders go to acknowledge this dark chapter and in addition to Obama, the museum has hosted former Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush and Pope John Paul II. Its guestbook is bursting with the emotional messages from African-Americans who made their own pilgrimage here in an effort to make peace with their ancestors' roots.
This has been a subject of discussion the History of Slavery list that I am a member of for a long time.  Even Senegalese historians have pointed out the fraud involved with the House of Slaves, although making themselves unpopular in the process, because this is an important tourist attraction.

There might be a good case for a memorial to the Atlantic slave trade (along with one to the even larger Arab slave trade, or the Europeans enslaved by Arabs -- fat chance of those happening), but the House of Slaves purports to be something that it is not.


  1. People always rag on White Europeans for having engaged in the slave trade, but the one significant fact they miss out on is they're the only ones who voluntarily gave it up.

  2. In Sierra Leone, in the capital, Freetown, is a huge Kapok tree, called the freedom tree. Here they say the slaves freed from British captured slaveships were freed. This would be a more logical symbol of the destruction of the slave trade.

    In any case, Senegal couldn't have been a center for slavers - its too far from the major slave center of Nigeria. Slaves were from all over (even Madagascar on the other side of the island) but the "rich" source of slaves were the Nigerian people, especially the Yoruba people - exemplified by the strong Yoruba influence on the Krio language spoken in Sierra Leone by the descendents of the freed slaves.

  3. The odds of official recognition of the role of Muslims in the slave trade -- as takers and the primary costumers -- will not happen with the current crop of politicians. They're more likely to come up with some sophistry about how Muslims should be allowed to take and own slaves than condemn it for STILL permitting slavery.