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Saturday, September 23, 2023

An awesome note from Gorée Island, Senegal

patrickiaBy Patrick Sylvain

Special to CSMS magazine

Many of you may have never heard of Gorée, but all of you have certainly heard of the slave trade. Well, Gorée is an island off the coast of Senegal. More than 400 years ago, this place was infamously known to be the dreaded transit for captured Africans before they were chained and forcefully shipped to the Americas as slaves. Professor Patrick Sylvain is currently doing research in Senegal as a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow. While there, he traveled to Gorée, where he filed this report exclusively for CSMS Magazine. Thanks to Prof. Sylvain, we’ve come to know the whereabouts of Haitian expatriate Gérard Chenet, one of the student leaders of the 1946 movements that led to the fall of President Elie Lescot. Chenet currently lives on Gorée Island. Please, read Patrick Sylvain’s note below.  


The past few days have been extremely eventful to me, and I had some wonderful experiences. On July 31st, I had the privilege to watch an asteroid exploding at 11:40 pm and then, in less than a minute, scintillating like a star at the level of the ocean before it disappeared. ….Additionally, I was enchanted by the architectural design of Hotel Sobo Badè, which Gérard [Chenet] had slowly built into a rhythmic and poetic material of beauty.

I was in Toubab Dialao and then went to Gorée, which, if I may say so, was the craziest thing to do, although it was important for me to undertake this journey. I took a pirogue from Toubab Dialao, a fishing village where many slaves were forcibly taken by pirogue to Gorée. Also, that’s where Gerard Chenet lives.  And Gérard was a part of the 1946 student’s movement in Haiti. By the way, I had a great interview with him and, at 85, he is extremely sharp. In any event, the crossing with a single motor took about 1hr30 and the distance is about 50 kilometers off the Atlantic Ocean—high seas, and I do not know the measure in leagues.

During slavery, the same size pirogues (see pictures), with about 20 people in each, would have taken 4 hours to get to Gorée. Before Toubab Dialao (TD), they were pre-selected in Rufisque, a small colonial town, which is about 10 km from TD.  The numbers of slaves drown from that point of the first crossing is unknown.  

My clothes were mostly wet, even my wallet, and it was a bit scary with the vastness of the ocean, the size of the pirogue and, in retrospect, no life-jacket. Fortunately, I have impermeable bags, so my electronic equipment were safe.  Well I know, I shouldn’t, but it was the once-in-a-lifetime experience that no one wants to miss. Even the chief of police in Gorée, Officer Faye, told me that it is forbidden to make such a long crossing with a pirogue. Oh well!  The fishermen who took us, Samba and his son, Ibrahim, are known to be among the best sea captains. They made it back to TD in less than an hour.

As for Gorée, although a beautiful “colonial” town, I have mixed feelings. Partly because of the sheer volume of tourists who made it to Gorée just to relax at the “Lover’s beach”; and, of course, the Slave House, which kept and processed (including fattening) many of the captured slaves who were sold to the Americas. Keep in mind, Gorée was a small processing center. The remaining building was built in 1776, and the first slaves arrived in Haiti in 1503.

From there at the Slave House, families were divided: the father would be sent to Louisiana, the mother to Brazil and the child to Haiti or the French Antilles. The males who did not make the 60 kilo weight requirement were sold as domestic slaves. Only the fittest, including virgins made the crossing (if they made it!). It was emotionally tough to be there. 

Note: Professor Patrick Sylvain is also doing research on Senghor, the slave trade etc… He will be meeting to writers like Racine Senghor and others. More than two dozen of his pictures could be seeing on our Facebook fan page: www.facebook.com/csmsmagazine

Patrick Sylvain is a poet, writer, translator, scholar, and a faculty at Brown University’s Center for Laguage Studies.  Sylvain is also a 2014 Robert Pinsky Global Fellow at Boston University Creative Writing Department. He is published in several anthologies, academic journals, books, magazines and reviews including: Agni, Callaloo, Caribbean WritersSX SalonHaiti Noir, Human Architecture: A Sociology Journal, Poets for Haiti, Fixing Haiti and Beyond, The Butterfly’s Way, Tectonic Shifts, The Best of Beacon Press, The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. Recently featured in: PBS NewsHour, NPR’s «Here and Now» and «The Story», he was also a contributing editor to the Boston Haitian Reporter. Sylvain’s academic essays are anthologized in several edited collections, including: “The Idea of Haiti: Rethinking Crisis and Development,” Edited by Millery Polyné; “Politics and Power in Haiti,” Edited by Paul Sutton and Kate Quinn.

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