The image I have chosen to be the icon of TZR is of what people call “the Door of No Return.” In fact, there are several sites in present-day Atlantic Africa that have this name. This image is looking outward from a rock-hewn opening in a slave depot, commonly known as “the House of Slaves,” on the harbor island of Gorée in modern-day Senegal.
Gorée is one of many slave depots from Atlantic Africa in the early-modern period. These depots were called barracoons by the Spanish, feitorias by the Portuguese, and factories, castles, or forts by other European powers. They were cruel and inhumane places. In was here, in courtyards of cold stone, that African prisoners were marched from the interior of the continent in caravans known as coffles. They were bounded in wooden yokes and chains imported from Western Europe known as corrientes. They were questioned, inspected, branded, fondled, stored, worked, and shipped across the Middle Passages to provide labor for the burgeoning colonies of the New World. It was also here, in prisons of ledgers, log books, account books, and company manuals, and supplied with bottles of rum and palm wine, that African chiefs, European traders, and their mixed-race descendants explored the worst potential of the human soul. In the approximately 425 years that the Transatlantic Slave Trade was in operation, some 12.5 million Africans were shipped from the coast of the continent at points of embarkation like Gorée.
But these slave depots were more than just sites of international crime. They were also key points of unprecedented cultural contact. Mande chiefs, Susus drivers and grummetes, Sape commoners, Portuguese lancados, Slatee merchants, Italian pilots, Dutch investors, Fulani translators, English merchants, Bullom servants, and many more came together from across vast distances–cultural, racial, ethnic, linguistic, and even geographic–in order to discuss something that is unthinkable for most of us today: the international trade in human bodies. For over four centuries, these people conducted one of the oldest forms of commerce in ways that were strikingly new. But, while the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade are something that we do not frequently like to remember, the significance of its history in the making of the modern world is something that we cannot afford to forget. For these reasons, the depots have become World Heritage Sites in the West African nations where they reside.
The slave trade changed everyone that it touched, not only those who were unfortunate to pass as chattel property to the New World. On the one hand, the slave trade ensured that the history of the West would be built upon a strong foundation of racism, violence, inequality, and moral compromise. It would be built on a mingling of commerce, power, and action. Among other things, the capital for the industrial revolutions, and the capital for the United States of America, would be partly coerced from the labor of black bodies. The inherited wealth of untold generations would be cultivated in the blood of the plantation complex. Modern day police systems, prison systems, and education systems in America are among the institutions that cannot be understood without knowledge of the slave trade. On the other hand, the slave trade also ensured that the history of the Western world would be a shared one. It would be a multi-ethnic history whether we liked it or not; it would be based on many experiences, fundamentally different and yet dependent upon each other. In that sense, one of the great legacies of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is the ongoing struggle for racial co-existence in the Western World today.
Of course, we still live with the legacies of slavery and the slave trade. Every so often, an event passes through the news and, in doing so, abruptly reminds us that we are still struggling to understand the radically different origins, experiences, and perspectives that shaped and continue to shape our history. When I look at this image of the grotto in the stone slave castle at Gorée, I wonder, “Who am I, and which way am I facing?” Can I try and see the world from the perspective of one of the African slaves, one of the African slavers, as well as one of the European traders or slave ship sailors? More importantly, can I see the world as one of the many individuals who was caught somewhere in between, trying to survive, trying to make a profit, or simply trying to navigate or understand the strange forces that were at work, guiding my circumstances? As a citizen of today, can I understand the past from the viewpoint of someone facing Africa as well as someone facing America?