European Powers Vie for Control of Gorée

For more than three centuries, strategically important Gorée Island was a contested base for Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French slave traders. As the transatlantic slave trade became more and more significant over the course of the seventeenth century, the value of the island and the struggles to control it similarly increased.

Summary of Event

A basalt massif sheltered by the Cape Verde Peninsula, Gorée Island lies two miles off Senegal, opposite its present-day capital, Dakar. Called Bir or Beseguiche locally, Gorée was intermittently inhabited by fishermen from the nearby coast. In 1444, a company of soldiers dispatched by Portuguese navigator Denis Dias claimed the island for Lisbon and named it Palma. That same year, the first African slaves exported by Europeans arrived in Portugal from Mauritania. Astride major trade routes, the 45-acre (18-hectare) island was the deepest and safest anchorage on West Africa’s coast, so it became a natural launching point for ships laden with slaves and other cargo. [kw]European Powers Vie for Control of Gorée (1617-1693)
[kw]Gorée, European Powers Vie for Control of (1617-1693)
Trade and commerce;1617-1693: European Powers Vie for Control of Gorée[0740]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1617-1693: European Powers Vie for Control of Gorée[0740]
Social issues and reform;1617-1693: European Powers Vie for Control of Gorée[0740]
Africa;1617-1693: European Powers Vie for Control of Gorée[0740]
Senegal;1617-1693: European Powers Vie for Control of Gorée[0740]
Slavery;trade routes

By 1500, demand for slave labor increased with the establishment of sugarcane plantations on the Canaries, Madeira, São Tomé, and the Azores. Slaves were also sent from Palma to Portugal as domestic servants and agricultural laborers. In 1510, the first slaves were shipped across the Atlantic to South America via Spain. By 1532, slave ships began sailing direct routes to the Americas from Africa. The coasts near Palma are thought to have supplied one-third of all African slaves exported before 1600. However, Portugal’s decline brought the strategically placed island many years of turmoil, as successive European powers sought to control the lucrative transatlantic trade.

In 1588, Palma was seized by the Dutch in the course of a long series of raids on Portuguese trading stations that accompanied Protestant Holland’s assertion of independence. The Dutch renamed the island Goede Reede, meaning “good anchorage,” which a later French corruption rendered as “Gorée.” (An alternative explanation of the name claims that the island was named after the Goree peninsula in Zeeland.)

Around 1594, Gorée became a way station for ships plying routes between Holland and the West Indies, the Gold Coast, and the Indian Ocean. Holland’s involvement intensified with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company Dutch East India Company in 1602. The Dutch bought Gorée from a local chief in 1617. As with Manhattan nine years later, they purchased the island for a pittance, a few iron nails. By 1621, the construction of docks and forts had transformed it into the world’s most important slaving center. The island’s tiny size and deep surrounding waters enabled a small garrison to control hundreds of captives. The Dutch built Fort Orange on Gorée’s southern high ground and Fort Nassau to guard the docks on the island’s northern tip. Falling briefly to Portugal and England, the island increased in value with the advent of Dutch colonization at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Colonization;Netherlands of Africa

Emerging from the Wars of the Reformation as a major power, the Netherlands became embroiled in several of Europe’s dynastic conflicts. In 1677, during a war between France and Holland, French admiral Jean d’Estrées Estrées, Jean d’ captured Dutch possessions in Senegal. On November 1, his fleet seized Gorée after a ten-month battle. Estrées reconstructed the existing fortifications under new names: Fort Orange became Fort Saint-Michel, and Fort Nassau became Fort Saint-François (later renamed Fort d’Estrées). French power in the region increased. The Compagnie Normande had established a post at the mouth of the Senegal in 1638 and founded Saint-Louis on a nearby island in 1659. Over the next half century, France’s Senegalese possessions were governed by numerous companies, including the Compagnie du Cap Vert et du Sénégal (1658), Compagnie des Indes Occidentales (1664), Compagnie de Sénégal (1672), Compagnie d’Afrique (1682), Compagnie de Guinée (1684), Compagnie de Rouen (1710), and the Compagnie des Indes Orientales (1718). Senegal, French colonization of
Colonization;France of Senegal

Successively local director of the Compagnie de Sénégal, Compagnie de Rouen, and Compagnie des Indes Orientales, André Brüe Brüe, André extended French influence into Senegal’s interior and increased slave, ivory, and gum arabic exports. Not only were French colonies in Haiti, Guiana, Guadeloupe, and Martinique supplied with labor, but Gorée also became the transit point for slaves bound to other parts of the New World from Nigeria, Gabon, and Angola. As soldiers, sailors, traders, and bureaucrats were forbidden from bringing wives to Senegal, numerous marriages and other liaisons occurred between European men and African women. As a result, a mulatto class, known as signares, emerged to play an important role in trade and local society.

The British governor of Gambia, James Booker, Booker, James held Gorée for six months in 1693, before French forces reoccupied it, and the island would continue to change hands in the next century. Gorée would prosper, moreover, as transatlantic slaving reached its peak in the 1780’. Seven stone houses, built in 1763, replaced earlier thatched huts. By 1784, Gorée would boast eighty-one stone buildings, which would numbered over a hundred in the early 1800’. The entire island would become covered with trading compounds, offices, and dwellings.


The European struggle for Gorée Island in the seventeenth century was a struggle to seize and hold the single most strategically important base of operations for the exploitation, plunder, and rape of the West African coast. The island’s historical significance has come to be symbolized by the massive eighteenth century edifice, the Maison des Esclaves (slave house). Up to two hundred chained captives were packed in this building’s dark, unpainted, ground floor cells, while slave merchants and signares lived and worked on its spacious upper floors. Sorted like produce, men, women, and children were separated from one another. Held sometimes for weeks, slaves were herded onto ships through the Door of No Return, a portal in the building’s outer, seaward wall. Voyages of indescribable horror and brutal captivity in strange lands followed.

In the nineteenth century, Gorée Island’s function and significance underwent a dramatic reversal. Abolitionist pressure and successful slave uprisings were profoundly affecting public opinion in Europe and America. One European power after another outlawed the slave trade, beginning with Denmark in 1804. In 1831, Gorée became a base for antislaving naval patrols. By then, as many as 2 million slaves had passed through the island’s horrific cells. Britain made slave ownership illegal in 1834. Taken from a captured slave ship and landed on Gorée in 1846, 250 ex-slaves were resettled in Gabon, where they founded Libreville. Slavery ended in Sweden, Denmark, and France in 1848, then in Dutch colonies (1863), the United States (1865), Portugal (1869), Cuba (1886), and finally Brazil (1888).

With the abolition of slavery and the founding of Dakar as Senegal’s capital in 1857, Gorée’s population decreased dramatically. The island once again began a new life, this time as a center for education and remembrance. The Lafitte House was transformed into the William Ponty School, French West Africa’s first teacher training college. Later, the elite Mariama Ba School was founded to educate Senegal’s highest achieving girls. Joined to Dakar in 1927, Gorée was regarded as a historic monument as early as 1944. Part of French West Africa, Senegal gained independence in 1960.

In 1978, Gorée was placed on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which launched an appeal to restore the island in 1980. These efforts and increasing visits by day-tripping tourists arriving on hourly ferries have assured Gorée’s preservation. Often compared to San Francisco’s Alcatraz, the entire island is a museum complex, hosting the Historical Museum of Senegal, a maritime museum, a women’s museum, and, above all, the Slave House, a place of pilgrimage for Africa’s diaspora. Visitors to its somber slave quarters and elegant houses have included Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and three American presidents. Though a physical reminder of past human exploitation, Gorée is also tranquil and beautiful. Its cafés, art galleries, and beach have made it a refuge from Dakar’s urban bustle and the host of numerous conferences, ranging from HIV/AIDS workshops to meetings of the heads of United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Further Reading

  • Clark, Andrew Francis, and Lucie Colvin Phillips. Historical Dictionary of Senegal. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. A good reference to Senegal’s history.
  • Gorée, Richard Harrison. Gorée Island: Island of No Return. Detroit, Mich.: Gold Leaf Press, 1997. These reflections on Gorée by an African American particularly emphasize the signares.
  • Northrup, David. Africa’s Discovery of Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Much material on the slave trade and Gorée is presented in this groundbreaking book on African-European interactions between 1450 and 1850.
  • Renaudeau, Michel, J. C. Blachere, and Maquette S. Coreth. Goree. Paris: Hachette, 1978. A short book of reflections on Gorée.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

The Great Condé; Frederick Henry; Louis XIV; Marquis de Louvois; Maurice of Nassau; Njinga; Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter; Maarten and Cornelis Tromp; Viscount de Turenne. Gorée
Slavery;trade routes