GOREE ISLAND, Senegal (AP) -- Soon after being released from his 27-year incarceration in South Africa, apartheid icon Nelson Mandela made a pilgrimage to this small island off the Senegalese coast.
He came to pay homage to a salmon-colored house which locals claim was used to hold slaves before herding them onto ships bound for America. When the curator showed him a hole underneath the staircase used to punish disobedient slaves, who were left to die in the crawlspace, Mandela himself climbed in.
He re-emerged, his face wet with tears, says Eloi Coly, the museum's chief conservator, who recalled the impact the experience had on Mandela, just hours before showing the building to President Barack Obama, who visited the structure on Thursday. For Coly, Mandela's emotional response underscores the role that this building, known as the House of Slaves, has had on crystalizing the stain that slavery left on humanity.
The hole is one of the features Coly planned to show Obama. The other is the door facing the open water, the so-called Door of No Return through which the shackled men, women and children left Africa, inching across a plank to the hull of a waiting ship. Like with previous tour groups, the curator planned to ask Obama to stand before the open door and contemplate the view, the slaves' last glimpse of Africa, he claims.
The problem though is that historians say the door faced the ocean so that the inhabitants of the house could chuck their garbage into the water, the preferred means of waste disposal in preindustrial Senegal. No slaves ever boarded a ship through it, they say, because no vessel could have sailed through the rocky shoal that surrounds that edge of the island.
And while the house may have housed slaves, they were likely those belonging to the family who lived there, rather than slaves intended for the trans-Atlantic passage, according to numerous publications as well as three historians of the slave trade interviewed by The Associated Press.
Even though historians have debunked the memorial, calling it a local invention, and despite reams of scholarly articles, treatises and books discussing its dubious historical role, the pink building has become the de facto emblem of slavery. It's the place where world leaders go to acknowledge this dark chapter and in addition to Obama, the museum has hosted former Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush and Pope John Paul II. Its guestbook is bursting with the emotional messages from African-Americans who made their own pilgrimage here in an effort to make peace with their ancestors' roots.
"There are literally no historians who believe the Slave House is what they're claiming it to be, or that believe Goree was statistically significant in terms of the slave trade," says historian Ralph Austen, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago who is the author of several articles on the issue. "The debate for us is how loudly should we denounce it?"
From 1501 to 1866, an estimated 12 million slaves from Africa were sent to North America, according to a database created by scholars using shipping records and plantation registers. Of these, only 33,000 came from Goree Island, an insignificant portion of the overall total, the database shows.
Yet the plaques which grace the stone walls of the Slave House speak of the "millions" of slaves that passed through its halls.
In the 1990s, Philip Curtin, an emeritus professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of two dozen books on the Atlantic slave trade, became one of the first scholars to question the authenticity of the Slave House. In a discussion on an online forum for historians, he said he believed the "hoax" was perpetrated by the charismatic Joseph Ndiaye, who preceded Coly as the museum's curator, and who ushered generations of visitors through the house, recounting the alleged horrors perpetrated there with theatrical pomp. Ndiaye initially claimed that 20 million had passed through the house, upping it to 40 million by the time Curtin visited in 1992, four times the total figure of slaves exported from Africa overall.
"A lot of people have been taken in by the Goree scam," Curtin wrote. "Though Goree is a picturesque place, it was marginal to the slave trade."
The debate over the house's place in history has become emotionally charged and politically treacherous in Senegal, due to the high-profile role the museum plays in attracting tourists to the island, including celebrity visitors like Obama.