House of slaves

House of slaves, Gorèe island

Being slaves means being born with no rights

One word before we start. We use here the word slaves or enslaved men and women interchangeably. The house we visited is called ‘The house of slaves’, so we used this term, but we are fully aware of the strength of this word. Therefore, we never use it in an insulting or disrespectful way. However, we often use the term sub-humans or scum to speak about the white captors; in this case, we do so with all the disrespect possible. 

All the information we use in this article comes from the House of slaves on Gorèe island and, sadly, is proven true.

The house of slaves, Gorèe island.
The house of slaves, Gorèe island.

1992

So, let’s start with a fact. In 1992, the Vicar of Christ, aka the Pope, said a mess on Gorèe island. Why did a 72-year-old Polish man decide to kneel in a small church on a tiny island in Senegal?

He decided to ask for forgiveness for the atrocities committed by catholic missionaries. Not just that: he excommunicated them.

So, what could make Pope John Paul II, now Saint, so furious?

Mariama Ba could have explained this to us well if she had been alive. She still lives in a way, since she wrote so many books and has a female school named after her on on Gorèe island.

1848

So, let’s take another step back. It was 1848 before European nations started their wars for independence when slavery was officially outlawed in Senegal. You think it was too long ago, right? If you read Guns, Germs and Steel by J. Diamond, you already know the answer. Not too long ago, there was a time when some human beings felt better than others for their skin colour. JFYI, slavery was outlawed in 1962 in Saudi Arabia and only in 1981 in Mauritania.

So, let’s go back to 1992, to that small church. It’s called Saint-Charles Borromée and is connected to a Mosque by Church Street, a street not longer than 300 meters. There is a church because the first Portuguese invaders arrived here in the XV century and were catholic. They controlled not just the land but the human beings living in it. Slavery isn’t a new concept, but they make it to another level. How?

One of the systems was to arrive in a village and start exchanging, for instance, a horse for thirty human beings or a 60 cm metal bar (yes, you read it well) for 6 human beings. Spanish first and French after them didn’t change the course of the events much. If you did the calculation correctly, four centuries passed from the first invaders that started slavery in Senegal to 1848, when it was officially banned. How they could control such a vast territory and enslave the population for so long?

Well, the answer is in the prays and excuses of the Pope in 1992. It’s one of the darkest pages in Catholic history. The priests were the keys to European control over Senegal.

Houses for slaves

In all those years, were built 28 houses for slaves. These are the official ones, but many more unofficial homes are unregistered. 

You had mixed emotions when you entered a house of enslaved people. Today it seems just a quiet place; you can hear only the sound of the waves and the wind. In front of me, there is a stairway leading to the first floor with a large balcony. 

Downstairs there are eight rooms without windows, all except one. When I first glanced at it, I thought there were used to store materials and one was the bedroom. I was wrong and I discovered why they called it “ground-floor hell” the hard way.

The ground-floor hell

Men slaves

The rooms I thought were destined to store food were used to amass people like they were goods, not human beings. The first room on our right was called the “weighting room”. Slaves were weighted as pieces of wood or carrots and had to be over 60kg to be considered a ‘sellable article’. Believe it or not, there was an area for children in this hell, too, but we will speak about it later.

When a human being didn’t reach the minimum weight to be considered sellable, he was closed for three months in a room for ‘fattening’. To achieve that cruel objective, the captors forced the enslaved people to drink oil and eat black-eyed pea (from where the name of the famous band comes).

If the weighing scale reached the infamous 61kg, the next step was to move to the following two rooms. Going inside that room gave me a claustrophobic feeling and made my head spin. It’s hard to believe, but in 3x3square meters, they managed to imprison up to 20 human beings.

Women

The virgins

Enslaved women had a different destiny, but not easier in any way. First of all, from these sub-human captors, how do you think they decide who’s a woman and who’s not? First, they counted a girl as a woman from her first period. Then, they divided women between virgins and non-virgins. Virgins had a bigger room with a window (facing the inside corridor) in the house. If you think this was made with some good intentions, to get the life of these teenagers a bit better, stop there.

Remember when I told you there was a lovely first floor with a nice view and a big balcony? Well, obviously, that wasn’t accessible by the slaves. The first floor was for white, rich people scum only. They often threw some parties upstairs, and then the house owner decided to bring his hosts downstairs through a secondary passage. The passage happened to face the window where the poor virgins used to live. So, the hosts pointed their fat fingers at their favourites, and the owner called the guards and asked them to ‘prepare’ the chosen ones. Sometimes these teenagers were too strong and the guards had to put them in chains to let the white sub-humans rape them. When the guide told us this story, I almost vomited and I felt sick for the rest of the day.

Continue to read the following article about the House of slaves here.

You didn’t read the previous part about Gorèe island? Read it here.

Do you want to read more travel stories? Go to our Travelling page.

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The importance of reading, graphic by Daniele Frau.
The importance of reading, graphic by Daniele Frau.

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