Three quarters of a million people were stolen from the Senegambia region and sent to the Americas between 1500 and 1867. An estimated six in 10 left from the Gambia River, some making a stop at Goree Island in what is now Senegal. Here is an account of that island:
Unlike stark James Island in the Gambia, Goree Island has no feel of evil. Quite the opposite. It has the ambience of a 19th century Italian village. It has cobblestone paths, singing birds, artists, musicians, jewelry makers. It has bougainvillea blooming red and orange.
Maison des esclaves, or the house of slaves, where thousands of men, women and children were cruelly held before transport to the Americas, is almost cheerful. It is painted in terra-cotta, turquoise and yellow. Walk through it and out the back door -- the horrendous gate of no return -- and framed in the archway is the soft blue sea, with its bobbing fishing boats and skyline of downtown Dakar.
From this island in slave days, there was no escape. Those who tried were shot as they jumped or were eaten by sharks.
Goree Island is oddly upbeat. Part of the reason is because it also is an operating village of 1,000 residents with a girls' high school, post office, police station, small hotels and shops. Slavery actually is just a blip in its history. Its museum begins with stone tools and arrow points from 1,000 years ago.
In the slave house, the traders lived on the second floor; the captives were kept on the first. The cold efficiency of the production included separate cells for women, children and men -- and bizarre rules, according to the museum tour guide. If a man fell below 132 pounds, he was fattened up before transport. If a woman got pregnant by a trader, she was sometimes freed on the island. If someone fell ill or died, he was tossed into the ocean.
On this day, I stroll Goree in a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses, doing tourist things. Then I walk up a hill and pass a tiny barnyard. Its dusty pasture holds four cows and one pelican.
The pelican, at least 3 feet tall, is dirty and gray from walking in the sand. It waddles toward me, slightly menacing, slightly pitiful. Then comes a strong breeze from the ocean. The creature turns its back to the wind and flaps and flaps its giant wings and tries to rise, but it cannot rise because, see, someone clipped its wings.