Dakar and Gorée Island: Linking history, tourism and local economies

With its just over one thousand residents, Gorée Island sits two kilometers (1.2 miles) off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. For tourists, the small island is a recognized cultural destination and UNESCO World Heritage site, based on its famed history as a slave-trading station as part of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. But for island’s residents and businesses, it’s a small economic magnet for a local economy.

A view of Gorée Island, an island just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal, home to the House of Slaves and a small indigenous local economy.
A view of Gorée Island, an island just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal, home to the House of Slaves and a small local economy.

The only way to get to Gorée is by ferry, which goes between Dakar and Gorée half a dozen of times each day. It was a brisk morning in April, and it seemed that almost as soon as the ferry set off from the port, the island resident “cultural guides” went into action. These island residents regularly travel back and forth on the ferry, approaching tourists and starting up conversations that casually segue to highlight their stall of necklaces or clothes at the island, or their extensive lived history of Gorée with an offer to serve as a tour guide. By the end of the short 20-minute boat ride, they could have secured a group of tourists willing to pay 8000 CFA (US$16.80) per person for a tour of the island, or  promises by tourists intent to explore their stalls.

The boat that morning was teeming with tourists, some  cultural guides, as well as regular merchants who transport merchandise and goods from Dakar to sell in Gorée. It seems it’s the tourists heading to Gorée who sustain much of the local economic activity on the island. But these waves and interactions demonstrate the intricate levels of economic activity between Gorée Island and Dakar, the city to which its part: The tourists  come in throngs to visit the island and explore its history, the vendors  sell goods and services targeted at the tourists, and merchants  transport goods to the island for use and for sale. Formally a part of the city of Dakar, the Gorée Island is the smallest and  least populated of the city’s 19 communes d’arrondissement.

Bread, fresh off the ferry, to be sold to businesses and customers at Gorée Island.
Bread, produced in Dakar, is fresh off the ferry in Gorée, to be sold to businesses and customers on the island.

The island’s historical settlement

There is a strong European influence on the island; political control changed hands over the centuries. The Portuguese were the first to settle the island in 1444 (research shows there were no indigenous inhabitants due to the lack of available drinking water). Control changed to the Dutch (1588), back to the Portuguese and back to the Dutch again, before the British seized control (1664). The French gained control in 1677 and retained it until Senegal’s independence in 1960. The island’s residents were mostly free Africans, Creoles/metisses/mixed race individuals. The remnants of these different European influences are is still apparent; the people have painted the French-constructed buildings white (a hospital), the Dutch yellow and the British white; there is one building with the facade of black stones, constructed by the island’s Creole population.

A fruit vendor sells bananas and oranges to residents and tourists.
A fruit vendor sells bananas and oranges to residents and tourists.
Fishing boat, Gorée Island.
Fishing boat, Gorée Island.

The island’s history of economic activity

For the most part, research shows that for centuries the island was principally a trading post. Economic activities included the production and trade of beeswax, animal hides and grains. Walking the island, it becomes clear that the island in many ways is stuck in the past — to today, there is a strong economic focus on attracting tourism to the famed House of Slaves, the holding depot for slaves before being shipped off to the Americas. This translates into the island space – the colonial and historic architecture is maintained and renovated, residents and businesses rely on tourism. It’s like an island forever stuck in the past, despite the passage of time.

La maison des esclaves (House of Slaves) on Gorée Island.
Tourists visit the historic House of Slaves at Gorée.
Part of the tour of the House of Slaves includes seeing the “authentic” chains in which slaves were placed during transport.
An artisan demonstrates sand painting. A resident of Gorée, he sells his painting at the House of Slaves to tourists.
Former visitors to the House of Slaves.
Ferry is the sole transport option to and from the island. Here, a woman waits for the ferry, which comes back and forth between Dakar half a dozen or so times a day.