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A tragic reminder of the slave trade

Published: Thursday July 27, 2006

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The Senegalese seem to really like Americans, which may seem odd these days, as ninety percent of them are Moslems.

Hip-hop fans, basketball courts and scores of American tourists are common sights in this former French colony. It is not unusual to see the Stars and Stripes in people's taxis, on their clothes, and, more tellingly, fluttering from the back of a warship docked in the harbour of the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

Many Senegalese like Americans because Americans are successful and rich, and they themselves are not. They also like them because many of those who come to the island of Goree, especially African-Americans, are overwhelmingly moved to tears.

550 years ago, the Portuguese began a cruel business in live human beings known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The island of Goree, two miles off the Senegalese coast, was its centre. Pretty soon, the French, the Dutch and the British were involved as well. At the height of the trade, Liverpool (whose streets once boasted a 'Goree Plaza') became Europe's largest slavery port.

Goree was probably the worst place in the world to be at that time if you were African. Shocking accounts survive of sick slaves being thrown alive into shark-infested waters, while others were 'fattened' for their long voyages to places like America, crammed together on overcrowded boats.

Today, 150 years after slavery officially ended, the paradise island of Goree must surely rank, with some irony, as one of the most wonderful places on earth to be African -- or to be anyone, in fact, as the billionaire financier George Soros, who has a house there, could testify.

This wonderfully lived-in, perfectly-preserved 18th century time capsule of Tuscan coloured houses supports its thousand or more soccer-mad inhabitants in a luxurious life of swimming, fishing and skinning the endless tide of tourists ferried in from Dakar every hour or so. All in all, this horrific crime scene (and World Heritage site) is one of the most enchanting places you could ever hope to visit.

Sadly, however, it is no longer necessary to cast your mind back to imagine what it must have been like for the slaves all those years ago, haggled over, crammed onto wooden vessels and set adrift on an endless expanse of sea. These days all you have to do is keep your eyes open.

On Goree island, there is a chillingly-named 'Door of No Return' -- an infamous open portal through which all that is visible is a blank horizon reaching all the way to America. Recently Presidents Clinton and Bush and even the Pope have stood there in order to make their apologies. But if you squint hard enough you may still see ancient wooden vessels go by, packed with cargoes of desperate human beings.

Or, more strikingly perhaps, warships from familiar-sounding countries like Portugal, France or Spain.

For in these same languid waters off Senegal -- and yes, even around Goree island -- an illicit trade in transporting human beings is again a deadly, lucrative business involving both Europe and Africa. Once more, people are being packed like sardines into primitive wooden vessels, to face death or an uncertain future abroad.

They go willingly this time, squeezing onto fragile, exposed, over-crowded fishing boats as they risk everything to head to Europe for the chance of a better life. Forty percent of them are doomed, through dehydration or drowning, never to arrive. That is three times the percentage said to have died during the nightmarish journeys of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

They come from all over the continent and embark from West Africa for the same reason the slave trade was centered here -- its proximity to the Atlantic coast of Europe. But the wooden pirogues built to carry six to eight people and crammed with as many as forty can barely manage the voyage of thousands of kilometers to the Spanish-owned Canary Islands. Although over 10,000 Africans arrived on Spanish beaches this year, thousands more died on the way.

They are eager to work, having lost any hope of finding work at home on a continent shackled by conflict, bad government and global trade protectionism. But the countries that once sent ships to kidnap them (with the zealous assistance of local chiefs), and fought each other for the spoils, have now assembled a joint armada off the coast of West Africa with orders to turn them back.

One of those countries, Britain, this year approaches the 200th anniversary of its abolition of slavery. Britain has a cosy view of itself as firmly abolitionist, and reminders of the past are a bit of an embarrassment. The Liverpool City Council recently debated whether or not to change the street-name of its famous 'Penny Lane' -- the inspiration for the well-known Beatles ditty but also, unfortunately, named after the wealthy slave-trader James Penny.

The fact that the Senegambia region, as it used to be known, is again the scene of human tragedy involving pitiful migrant labour is another embarrassment. But who in years to come will ever apologise for this?

This March, a boat with the mummified bodies of 11 men was found 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from Senegal, drifting off the Caribbean island of Barbados. It is thought that 52 workers originally boarded the vessel last December, after paying up to $2,500 each for the journey.

A note from one of them, believed to be Diao Souncar Dieme from Bassada in western Senegal, read, "I would like to send to my family in Bassada a sum of money. Please excuse me and goodbye. This is the end of my life in this big Moroccan sea."

Adam Alexander writes from South Africa