History of Gorée

Published on 13th March 2007

Goree is one of the 19 commune’s of arrondissement (an administrative division) of the city of Dakar, Senegal. Its population as of 31 January 2005 official estimates is 1,056 inhabitants. It is both the smallest and the least populated of the 19 communes of arrondissement of Dakar.

Gorée is best known as the location of the House of Slaves, built by an Afro-French family c. 1780 – 1784. House of Slaves was used as place to hold and at the same time transfer human cargo during the slave trade. The House of Slaves is one of the oldest houses on the island and is now a popular tourist destination. Well known in the western world, Gorée was actually just one of the many places from where slave trade was conducted, and in fact it was much smaller than the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. 

Gorée was one of the first places in Africa to be settled by Europeans with the Portuguese setting foot in 1444. Later, it was captured by the United Netherlands in 1588, then the Portuguese again, then the Dutch — who named it after the Dutch island of Goeree — the British under Robert Holmes in 1664 and then eventually the French in 1677.

With the foundation of Dakar in 1857, Gorée gradually lost its importance. In 1872, the French colonial authorities created Saint-Louis and Gorée, the first western-style municipalities in West Africa, with exactly the same status as any commune in France. Dakar, on the mainland, was part of the commune of Gorée, whose administration was located on the island. However, as early as 1887, Dakar was detached from the commune of Gorée and turned into a commune in its own right. Thus, the commune of Gorée became limited to its tiny island. 

In 1891, Gorée still had 2,100 inhabitants, while Dakar had 8,737. However, by 1926 the population of Gorée had declined to 700 inhabitants, while the population of Dakar had increased to 33,679 inhabitants. Thus, in 1929 it was decided to merge Gorée with Dakar. The commune of Gorée disappeared, and Gorée was now only a small island of the commune of Dakar.

In 1996, a massive reform of the administrative and political divisions of Senegal was voted by the Parliament of Senegal. The commune of Dakar, deemed too large and too populated to be properly managed by a central municipality, was divided into 19 communes d'arrondissement to which extensive powers were given. The commune of Dakar was maintained above these 19 communes d'arrondissement, and it coordinates the activities of the communes d'arrondissement, much as Greater London coordinates the activities of the London boroughs. 

In 1996 the commune of Gorée was resurrected. The new commune d'arrondissement of Gorée, which is officially known in French as the Commune d'Arrondissement de l'île de Gorée, retook possession of the old mairie (town hall) in the center of the island, which had been used as the mairie of the former commune of Gorée between 1872 and 1929.

The commune d'arrondissement of Gorée is ruled by a municipal council democratically elected every 5 years, and by a mayor elected by members of the municipal council. 

Other attractions on the island include three museums, one dedicated to women, one to the history of Senegal and one to the sea; the seventeenth century Gorée Police Station, Gorée Castle and a small beach.



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