To be fair, at least Obama managed to make it to the right part of Africa, unlike Clinton. But his fake “Forget the scandals, look at slavery” tour, conducted for the same reason as Clinton’s “Forget Monica, look at slavery” foundered on a fake tourist trap slave fort.
Yet as the president toured the 18th century building and later spoke of how the visit had allowed him to “fully appreciate the magnitude of the slave trade”, historians pointed out that it was probably never used for that purpose at all.
Pictures on Thursday showed Mr Obama standing with his wife Michelle at Gorée’s so-called Door of No Return, a dark passageway from where the fort’s human cargo is said to have been loaded via gangplanks onto ships.
However, despite the claims that millions of slaves passed through the door, its most likely use is now thought to have been for disposing of rubbish. Likewise, the waters it overlooks are too rocky and shallow for a slave ship to have used it as a loading bay.
The slave fort and its ominous Trash Door of No Return is a tourist trap that is more about good marketing than history.
“There are literally no historians who believe the Slave House is what they’re claiming it to be, or that believe Goree was statistically significant in terms of the slave trade,” said Ralph Austen, a professor at the University of Chicago who has researched the subject.
Mr Obama is not the first international statesman to have made a pilgrimage to Gorée, which lies a short boat ride from the Senegalese capital, Dakar, and which has long been a draw for both foreign tourists and African Americans seeking to discover their historical roots.
Others who have visited in recent years include Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II and Mr Obama’s predecessors in the White House, Bill Clinton and George W Bush.
The fort’s museum was opened in 1962 by the late Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, a Senegalese who was a passionate advocate of the belief that it had been used to transport slaves in great numbers. Its reputation spread worldwide thanks partly to the powerful symbolism of the Door of No Return, which was said to have offered slaves a final view of their homeland before the Atlantic crossing.
Yet its historical claims to be at the epicentre of the slave trade have long been in question. Most agree now that while slaves were indeed kept at the fort, they were there not for mass onward transport but for use by the fortress’s own residents. A more likely point of departure was another fort nearby, although records suggest that at most, some 26,000 slaves were sent there – a fraction of the claims of up to 15 million touted by the museum staff.
Considering that Obama’s ancestors were likely more on the selling side of the slave trade, which makes his ascension as the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of African-Americans that much more ironic, I doubt he cares. Clinton certainly didn’t care. On these trips, history has long since given way to the dread muse of symbolism. It’s not about what happened, but how you can use it in a speech and a photo op.
From 1501 to 1866, an estimated 12 million slaves from Africa were sent to North America, according to a database created by scholars using shipping records and plantation registers. Of these, only 33,000 came from Goree Island, an insignificant portion of the overall total, the database shows.
Unlike postcard-ready Goree Island, which still has its aging 17th and 18th century architecture, there isn’t much to see at the slave depots that played a critical role. “One of them is the port of Luanda in Angola, where the real majority of Africans left — nobody goes there,” she said.
Other slave forts along the West African coastline, such as at Cape Coast in Ghana, have much more substantial claims to being major slaving centres. However, historians who have questioned Gorée’s claims have often been accused of attempting to “deny” the extent of the slave trade. Given the amount of tourist income that the island generates for a country still living in poverty, there has been little incentive in Senegal itself to put the record straight.
That point was likely lost on Obama, who arrived Thursday with his wife and daughter. He peered out of the Door of No Return. Alone for a brief moment inside the doorway, he stared out across the water, as the waves crashing on the very rocks that would have prevented a ship from docking could be heard.
When he spoke to reporters waiting for him outside, he said visiting the site was a “very powerful moment,” which has allowed him to “fully appreciate the magnitude of the slave trade.”