It was thirty years ago that I went to Dakar in Senegal. It was a business trip in respect of an international Shell project that I was managing which, to my great delight, took me literally around the world many times. In Dakar I did some work with Shell Senegal and also chaired a meeting with representatives of many of our African companies. It was a delight.
The GM in Shell Senegal was a Dutch friend of mine Gerrit. He was very able and also he had a growing affection for all things African. An ideal posting. He had arranged a special trip for us all on the final day to the Island of Gorée. UNESCO describes the island as follows:
“The island of Gorée lies off the coast of Senegal, opposite Dakar. From the 15th to the 19th century, it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast. Ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, its architecture is characterized by the contrast between the grim slave-quarters and the elegant houses of the slave traders. Today it continues to serve as a reminder of human exploitation and as a sanctuary for reconciliation.”
We were a mixed party with Dutch, English and French as well as people from English and French speaking Africa and our Senegalese hosts. We were silent during the visit both those like Gerrit and me who could be seen as being descended from the oppressors and our African colleagues who had kinship with those who had been enslaved.
This was not a time for reconciliation – that had in theory happened long ago. But it was a time for reflection. Thirty years on the visit is still very vivid to me. My position on the iniquities of Empire has never been one of hand-wringing. That helps nobody. But I fervently believe, however, that we should confront our past by being more actively open about it.
The Island of Gorée is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are hundreds more around the world. The past may be a foreign country but we can also, surely, learn from it. To stand where once a slave stood in chains is not an act of contrition but a moment of learning. As Einstein said “Once you stop learning you start dying”. Amen to that.