Book Review: GOREE The Island and Historical Museum


The Island and Historical Museum
Project of Institut Francais D’ Afrique Noire
Publisher: Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar
Year of publication: 1993
Number of Pages: 66
Reviewed by: Hannington Ochwada

The Senegalese are patriotic and a warm people towards visitors to their country regardless of their nationality. They love their cultural heritage which they blend quite easily with the French and other Western styles of life.

They are predominantly Muslim, constituting about 80 per cent while the remaining population is Christian. These two communities coexist and intermarry. Thus, one would assert that it is a relatively peaceful and cohesive society, readily intermingling at different levels of socialisation. Is it a wonder, then, that the City of Dakar, for instance, carries two cultural faces?

This city exhibits architectural designs and cultural aspects of metropolitan Europe and America, and also the features of the legacy of Islamic civilization in West Africa. Some of these aspects exemplify the French way of life while the other attest to the Senegalese immersion in the imposing Islamic culture of most West Africa. This notwithstanding, the people of Senegal will impress upon the visitor to empathise with them in their heritage and history which informs their current state of affairs. That is why while in Dakar as a visitor the Senegalese will inquire whether you have paid a visit to the Island of Goree (ile de Goree). The island derives its name from “Doe – ree” meaning the good harbour.

Indeed, Goree is not only a repository of the modern history of Senegal but that of the entire French West Africa – a historical museum of that region. And as Abdoulay Bara Diop aptly observes: “Goree is an island of contrasts, basalt rocks, a sunny and fine beach, at the ocean front of Dakar, set in the waves, caressed by the sea breeze in full African summer, a touristic island of dreams and legends” (p55). Perhaps these are the positive qualities that attracted European imperialists to the island who using it as a springboard of Africa, turned it into an infamous island of slavery. It became a symbol of slavery which disgraced humanity since the middle ages to the beginning of modern times.

Moreover, Goree, during these obscure and tragic centuries was the site for battles between powerful western maritime powers of Holland, England and France in order to control the trade in spices and human beings reduced to miserable animal status. In fact, a walk around the island reveals an environment dotted with batteries and cannons, the vestiges of the battles that shook the land and sent chills down the spines of the inhabitants of Dakar and its immediate hinterland.

Goree: The Island and the Historical Museum, as a guide book does several things. It leads one through public squares, narrow streets with names evoking personalities, ethnic groups and events of the past. The streets are lined with old houses, a large number of which recall the history of the island, Senegambia and west African Coast up to the Gulf of Benin.

Moreover, on the Island are houses built for directors of companies, traders and governors of the colony. Some of these houses were slave houses, others palaces or residences, home to love affairs of famous historical figures and beautiful signares like that of the chevalier de Boufflers and Anne Pepin.

Who were the Signares? This is a term derived from Portuguese, “Senhora”, cannoting dame.

Until the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Goree was used as a warehouse for slaves, with the mulattos, and in particular the signares playing an important role. For instance, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, business employees civil servants and military personnel were not authorised to come to Senegal with their spouses. This ban favoured liaisons with African women. Initially clandestine, these liaisons were practically made official through the marriage a la mode du pays (traditional marriage ceremonies of the country). (p.36)

Following this arrangement, the signares ob-tained the right of children born of these relationships to bear the name of their fathers, which was instrumental in the formation of the mulatto society and the constitution of the most famous half-caste families in Goree and Dakar. Essentially, the signares were mistresses of the Europeans. In fact, Prelong, the director of the hospital on Goree in 1787 describes them as follows: “…. once married, these women are extremely wise: they lavish their husbands with the most tender care, never go out without them, take care of the housework and their children; they remain faithful (to their husbands) even during long absences; they contribute to the husbands’ wealth through their knowledge of the country.” He adds: “When a husband, having returned to Europe, writes to his wife that his business affairs no longer enable him to return to Africa, they do not wait long to remarry and the children of the second marriage do not harm those of the first (ibid).

Indeed, the text under review is not merely a guide but a summary of the French West African history. It also examines the paleolithic (the first civilisation of human kind). Recent discoveries in the prehistoric archeology place the appearance of the first humans in Senegal at around 350,000 years ago. Also explained is the neolithic period, a cultural stage essentially corresponding with the passage from a hunting economy to a production economy, accompanied by a tendency towards sedentarianism and technology innovations. This civilisation may have occurred between 3,298 and 2,275 BC.

The book has fascinating details about the history of French West Africa. However, it fails to account for the recent influx of powerful capitalist business ventures on the island which although may encourage tourism to Goree, could eclipse its historical significance. Goree, a tourist attraction, could reclaim its historical value by renovating the structures on the island and transferring scattered historical artifacts in Senegal to the museum there. Whereas the historical museum is spacious, it lacks the artifacts that would make it interesting to the visitor.

This book is useful as a tour guide.

Publishers and/or distributors who would like to have their books or videos reviewed are invited to send copies to:

The Editor,
P. O. Box 60286-00200,
Nairobi, Kenya