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History of the forts on the Gorée Island

Located on a quiet and sheltered bay, the Gorée Island was discovered in 1444 by Denis Dias, a Portuguese sailor and explorer of Africa's west coast as well as the discoverer of Cap-Vert. Over some decades, the suitable localisation of this island was also valued by another Portuguese sailor, Diogo Gomes, who established beneficial relations with the chief of a nearby tribe. Soon, the indigenous people (Lebou) were significantly pushed back by the Portuguese who made an intermediate place for merchant ships there: they got water, built houses for a temporary stay on land and buried dead sailors.

In 1482 a Catholic church was built on the island, and in the year 1530 the construction of a castle began on the top of the rocky coast. The castle served later as foundations for Fort Saint Michael, the whole island area was called Le Castel (Castle). In one of the remained letters dated from 1529, "Don Gudumel", governor of the island, asks Portuguese King John III to send builders, carpenters and other workers in order to erect a castle on the island, pointing out all benefits for the nation’s coffers. In 1536 a defensive structure was constructed on the island to control the process of slave trade.

At the end of the 16th century and the beginning of 17th century, following the construction of an intermediary base for ships on the islands of Cap-Vert, as well as on São Tomé and Príncipe, the interest in the Gorée Island slightly decreased among the Portuguese. However, then the Dutch West India Company started to grow stronger on the international arena. It saw the Gorée Island as an ideal place for securing their trade business on the South Atlantic. In 1627 the Dutch managed to capture the Gorée Island for the first time where they immediately constructed well-fortified Fort Nassau called after the House of Orange-Nassau. Historians claim that the name of the Gorée Island originates from the Dutch times, from a shortened phrase «Goode Reede» – «a good port» in Dutch.

Fort Nassau was not destined to exist long – as early as in 1629 the governor of Cap-Vert returned the Gorée Island back to the Portuguese Crown and gave order to take down the defensive structures of the fort. However, after a decade, the Dutch made another attempt to settle on the island. They successfully captured it. The Dutch established storehouses on the lower floors of rebuilt Fort Nassau where the merchants of the West India Company kept their goods. Apart from the merchants, the Gorée Island was often visited by pirates and various adventurers who took African tribes’ ivory, leather and musk for peanuts. As a matter of fact, the so-called «human cargo» was increasingly predominating in transactions – the era of slave trade reached its peak. In 1650 the French wanted the Gorée Island. They took control over it for a short period since they were drove out by the English under Admiral Robert Holmes in 1664. During the reign of Louis XIV, the French recaptured the island with Rear Admiral Jean d'Estrées, who arrived on its shore in November 1677. Preparing to another confrontation with England, the French renovated the old fortifications within several years. In that period Fort Saint Michael was built in place of the old Portuguese castle, the governor stayed there, and the rebuilt Fort of Nassau was called in a French style – Fort St. François.

During the Seven Years' War, the Gorée Island was occupied by the English who, according to the provisions of the Treaty of Paris (1763), soon became all-powerful hosts in Senegal. In 1779 Fort Nassau was destroyed and nobody has rebuilt it since then. By the end of the 18th century the conflict between England and France was exacerbated again, questioning the control over the coast of Senegal. In the 19th century France ultimately regained the power on the Gorée Island. Following the ban on slave trade, the island became a resistance place for the further colonization of the African continent. In 1852 Fort d'Estrées, a cannon battery, was erected in the north part of the island, however, the Gorée Island began gradually to lose its significance after the construction of the Dakar port in 1857.

In 1892 a small reconstruction of the west part of Fort Saint Michael was made and the day before World War I all existing fortifications were improved on the Gorée Island in order to increase the defences of the Dakar port. The last fight in the history of Fort Saint Michael did not take place until World War II, when a ship of allied armies was captured using a cannon, while making an attempt to reach the island. After the war Fort d'Estrées served as a prison for a long time until 1978 when the island and all historic buildings located there received protection and were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.