Tue, Jul 08, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Slavery casts long, dark shadow on Bush's visit

PAST SINS The island of Goree is a reminder for the US that the sin of slavery remains the most festering and painful wound on African-American relations


The tiny Senegalese island of Goree was one of the first places US President George W. Bush visited when he began his African tour yesterday.

One of the greatest scars in American history, Goree Island is just 18.21 hectares and sits 4.8km off the West African coast. It was the holding center and shipping point for some of the 12 million Africans who over three centuries crossed the Atlantic to feed the US slave trade.

If opposition to the war in Iraq and suspicion of American empire-building are new furies Bush will face in Africa, the old sin of slavery remains the most festering and painful wound on African-American relations.

Pressure is now mounting at home from African-Americans for reparation payments for slavery and now in Senegal for Bush to apologize publicly for the shameful episode.

It has been five years since an US president visited Senegal and those who demand that the US say sorry for slavery are privately pessimistic that Bush will do what Bill Clinton did not.

In 1998 Clinton stood near the slave fort's saddest spot - "the door of no return" where an inscription reads "From this door. ... they went, their eyes fixed on the infinity of suffering" -- and gave a speech which steered well away from an apology while acknowledging the "murderous" passage of Africans to the New World.

It was noted with bitterness by many Africans and African-Americans -- some who still blame the failure of African-Americans to "make it" in the US on the legacy of this trade -- that he made a clear reference to the complicity of Africans.

Goree fort guides, who lead visitors round the mould-covered dungeons and white-washed buildings, do not spare the harrowing detail or the blame.

They tell how Africans were treated worse than livestock, arriving in chains to be inspected, branded and priced, then crammed together in tiny cells.

Fed once a day, they might languish here for months waiting to pass through the door of no return to waiting ships. Male slaves were valued by weight, females by their breast size, considered an indication of fertility.

Some African tribes were particularly valued as "breeders" and were brought to the fort for studding. Guides talk of the "white man's lies" and few can fail to be moved.

When another president, then-South African President Nelson Mandela, visited Goree Island, he was unable to speak through the tears that coursed down his face.

But while the blame is still focused on the US, there is an increasing awareness of Africa's complicity in the slave trade.

Last month, Benin's ambassador to the US apologized to descendants of African slaves on behalf of his country.

Benin, then called Dahomey and situated on what was known as the Slave Coast, is thought to have supplied 3 million slaves to European exporters.

"The President of Benin, the people of Benin, have asked me to come here and apologize for the government, for the Benin people and for Africa for what we all know happened," Ambassador Cyrille Oguin told a university audience in Baton Rouge.

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