Village des Bambaras: An Archaeology of Domestic Slavery on Gorée Island, Senegal, A.D. 16-19th Centuries
by Raina Croff
The site of my dissertation research is Gorée Island, located off the coast of bustling Dakar, the capital of Senegal. This tiny 17-hectare island, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is most known for its role as a slave port and trade nexus of the burgeoning transatlantic economy in the 16th –19th centuries. The trades’ lucrative return was imprinted onto the landscape in a florescence of urban expansion and reflected in material culture in the diversity and quality of the objects that illustrated the lives of Gorée’s free and enslaved peoples. Through the material perspective of archaeology and coupled with archival research (Photos 1 and 2), my dissertation project examines how the quality of life changed for enslaved Africans through this urbanization and how this cultural, economic, and spatial urban metamorphosis was driven by Gorée’s increasing access to Atlantic trade networks. The specific questions I am asking are: (1) Settlement trajectory: What was the spatial, architectural, and material nature of settlement trajectory for enslaved Africans brought to labor on Gorée Island from the 16th –19th centuries? (2) Urban integration: How did slave settlement patterns, architecture, and material culture change in relation to intensified urbanization as European and Afro-European occupation increased in the 17th –19th centuries? (3) Economic interaction: How did the quality and diversity of slave material culture change consequential to Gorée’s increasing access to and interaction within global trade economies?
Following two months of archival research in Aix-en-Provence, France, five months of excavation on Gorée Island began in February with a crew of 11, a truly diverse group whose origins spanned the globe from South Africa, India, Guinée Conakry, the U.S., and Senegal (Photo 3). The remaining six months of the year were dedicated to analysis of recovered materials. We investigated three sites based on their proximity to areas referred to by two 18th century maps as Village des Bambaras, spaces possibly reserved for Gorée’s enslaved population and depicted in cartographic sources as clusters of small thatched dwellings in an otherwise sparsely developed colonial island. By 1784, maps depict Gorée as a densely built, Europeanized planned city grid. The Villages des Bambaras appear to have been disbanded and absorbed into the urban upwelling, the captive population dispersed into the private homes of their masters as the institution shifted exploitation from group labor to domestic slavery.
Photo 3. The Gorée Island Archeology Project 2005 Team.
Left to right, back row: Mboussiriou Diallo (UCAD), Chriselle Koortzen (Univ. Pretoria), Raina Croff (Yale, director), Stephanie Richardson (Bryn Mawr), Abu Deme (Gorée). Front row: Jamie Martin (Yale), Samba Gaye (UCAD), Yaya Diallo (Gorée), Adjacent Photo: Gulobi Fernandes (India). Absent: Samba Deme (Gorée), Sidath Diop (UCAD), Omar Diallo
While archival documents suggest these Villages des Bambaras were once zoned for enslaved peoples, it is ultimately the signs in the soil that fill in the quotidian aspects of the lives that were forcibly attached to this land. Excavation at all three sites (Photo 4) exposed stratigraphy (Photo 5), or cultural levels, with long-term habitation later capped by the cement floors and stone foundations that characterize Gorée’s late 18th century urban intensification (Photo 6).
These early-mid 18th c. pre-stone-foundation levels were tightly sequenced clay floors pitted with post-holes. The high frequency of post-holes represents a palimpsest of numerous vernacular dwellings, not unlike those depicted in 18th c. maps, which were built, rebuilt, modified, and repaired over time so that their clay floors bore the imprints of their structural maintenance. While clay floors were largely free of cultural material, intermittent trash levels that accumulated during brief periods of abandonment were materially rich and yielded abundant food refuse (Photo 7) and local pottery, but relatively few European ceramics. Earlier levels produced artifacts like debris from stone-tool working and personal items like bone-buttons, smoking pipes, and glass beads (Photo 8). Later levels coeval with Gorée’s rising stakes in the global market and consequential intensified urbanization yielded few local pottery but imported ceramics from France, England, Holland, and Germany were abundant (Photo 9, 10). Other artifacts recovered from later contexts included religious pendants, gun flints, a two-pronged fork with bone handle, and European glassware.
In sum, excavation in these areas once called Village des Bambaras confirmed the presence of what might indeed be called villages – long-term and well-established concentrations of post-supported, vernacular architecture. It also verified that these village clusters met the end of their lives with the 18th century population explosion and fluorescence of European stone housing prompted by Gorée’s growing role in trade networks. Recovered artifacts testify to the presence of an African population in the area prior to the increased development of European stone housing. Though it is difficult to say for certain if these Africans were captives or not, what we can say at this point is that they largely exploited local ceramics over European, they used a combination of metal and impromptu, make-shift stone tools for daily tasks, and they disposed of food refuse that bore marks indicative of West African ways of food preparation.
Research should serve to enrich and inform the wider public. Making the crucial connection between academic research and public dissemination is a core obligation of my doctoral project on Gorée. An example of this is the bilingual exhibit I proposed and curated for Gorée’s Historic Museum entitled “Recherche Archéologique à Gorée : La Porte du Passé et du Présent” (Archaeological Research on Gorée: Door to the Past and Present). The exhibit showcased this year’s excavations and explained basic archaeological method and theory with the aim of promoting archaeological interpretation in Gorée’s local and touristic historical narrative (Photo 11).
The 2005 field season was a complete success. Intense daily field and lab work (Photo 12, 13,14) over the five month period, six days a week, eight hours a day with a crew of ten enabled us to excavate three different sites and process and impressive amount of artifacts.
Our team’s presence on the island was warmly welcomed by locals and the public in general was very supportive, investing much interest in our work (Photos 15 and 16). Locals often brought us artifacts they had uncovered during building reconstruction, or from diving along Gorée’s shores.
The crew’s dedication to the success of the project and their pride of work was paramount toward making this project an all around positive and memorable experience for all involved. We gelled together very well as a group, despite the fact that we often operated in six different languages, and came from vastly different cultural and religious backgrounds (Photo 17).
Our results from archaeological testing and larger-scale excavations were overwhelmingly positive. I owe this success and many thanks to the network of institutions, professors, colleagues and friends who surrounded me with their support. Some of those on this lengthy list include the Social Sciences Research Council who provided me with an International Dissertation Research Fellowship and the U.S. Department of Education who awarded me a Fulbright-Hays grant; Dr. Ibrahima Thiaw for his invaluable mentoring and guidance; my dissertation committee for their patience and strong support; and my enthusiastic and dedicated crew. Due to their involvement in my project, my dissertation will potentially be able to say a great deal about past island spaces and settlement patterns on in the vicinity of the Bambara Quarter.