Thursday, January 22nd, 2009
Dakar, Senegal, West Africa is fantastic. What a remarkable, land, country, people and so many cultures all mixed together in one place. We talk about diversity a lot in North America, yet in Africa there seems to be more diversity on one dusty road than we are used to seeing in a month. I am surprised more visitors don’t flock to this country – I guess some do. The people we met are all delightful, gracious and helpful, even elegant.
After a good passage of about 1,000 miles from the Canaries of light winds mixed with fresh winds (and a sweet Christmas and fun New Year’s, and formally crossing into the tropics) we sailed around the headland and anchored the Picton Castle just to the east of Cap Verte in the Baie de Goree, very near the city.
From the ship we can see that this broad bay is surrounded by a lowland and a long semi-circular, beautiful creamy sand beach fringed with palms where dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of big (80′) brightly painted fishing canoes are hauled up and are launched, returning with the day’s catch. At dawn there is always a big colourful crowd around these boats as nets are hauled up on the beach, canoes are unloaded and others set out. This anchorage, about ¾’s of a mile from shore, was to prove good holding and the ship had no hints of security problems here at all.
Soon we got ashore and Lynsey, Corey (formerly in the Canadian Foreign Service and an excellent speaker of French) and I found a resourceful cabby and tore around town sorting out customs and immigration- quite an adventure in itself. Clearing into Senegal was time consuming but a happily painless process, without any problems. The friendly Prefect of Police did not even seem to be terribly concerned with the official Senegalese visas we went to so much trouble to get for three of our crew while in Las Palmas.
While at Dakar many of the Picton Castle crew went out to Goree Island, the infamous slave island, just a mile off the main harbour entrance and a key European outpost for centuries, much contested. With no cars and few buildings less than 100 years old, this island was one of the most notorious slave handling points along the west African coast and later the center for administration of French West Africa. Now it is a heritage destination for Africans and other people from all over the world. We met up with an excellent guide, Ali Drame, and that made a difference when wandering around the island.
As a slaving center, Goree obviously has a lot in common with many other places in west Africa, but it seems to remain a somewhat unique and emblematic overlapping crossfire of a place in that it switched European hands (Portuguese, Dutch, English, French) so many times and was such a focal point of international contention even up until WWII. It is sort of a crossroads of the European power struggle of almost the last 500 years. Goree was the capitol of all French West Africa well into the late 1800s, even 1900s.
Delightfully it is now a pleasant local artists’ colony of sorts with a couple of cafes and small old hotels in former colonial buildings with clean sea waters for swimming in the small cove, sweet breezes and gentle waves. Kids playing in the water or kicking a soccer ball around everywhere. Ladies (and some seriously take-charge ladies, let me tell you, they will make their sale – you are going to buy something) selling crafts. We went all throughout the island, to churches, convents, the Governor Palace, the Police Station occupying what is believed to be the oldest building in the island built by the Portuguese in the mid 1400s, forts dating from ancient times up until the 20th century. When turning the island over to the authorities of the newly independent Senegal in 1960, we were told that the French destroyed the big guns at the fort on the top of the island set up to defend the port. We were told that these guns, under the authority of Vichy France, had fired on and sunk an allied merchant vessel, the SS Tacoma, not nice. The wreck is still marked by a buoy.
Of keenest interest was what they call the “Slave House” which, like many others (8-12 or more as far as we can tell), was a slave holding and processing centre devolving on to the “Door of No Return” which once led out to a narrow jetty towards a canoe and out to the ship to head west for Brazil, the West Indies or North America. Nelson Mandela has visited this place which is now a museum. This house has been preserved and restored pretty well. Apparently most all the houses along the shore, none of them as big as expected, were such holding stations and transit/processing places. Such prosaic terms for such nasty stuff. The guide said that this house was the biggest and most organized of them all and was thus chosen for preservation. The others have simply reverted to attractive seaside villas, which is what they were more or less anyway on the top floors- but, my goodness, the ghosts that live downstairs!
And elsewhere, some crew trundled north to the old city of Saint Louis, some stayed ashore making local friends, all were mesmerized by all we saw and felt. Any French language ability at all got a good workout here in Dakar.
Meanwhile, back at the ship the wind shifted and blew up pretty hard at times but the anchor held fine without setting a second anchor and work goes on – heads are getting stripped down and overhauled, David laid out some sails in a stone court yard ashore, provisioning for fresh produce is under way, chipping, priming and painting is a constant in good weather, decks got oiled and the engineering gang did mysterious things down there…