Mr Clinton was standing on Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal, near the infamous slave fort's saddest spot - "the door of no return" where an inscription reads "From this door .... they went their eyes fixed on the infinity of suffering."
As many as 20 million Africans passed through doors like this along Africa's west coast on their way to slavery in the Americas. Today the picturesque Goree Island is a lure for legions of black Americans in search of their roots. Some still blame the failure of African Americans to "make it" in the US on the terrible legacy of this trade in human beings.
While acknowledging the "murderous" passage of African slaves to the New World, Mr Clinton steered away from anything that could be construed as an apology for slavery in the United States. Before the tour Susan Rice, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, had warned there would not be one. First, she said,Mr Clinton planned to look to the future not the past. Her second point was more divisive. Slavery was a trade she said and there were buyers and sellers; a clear reference to the Africans who rounded up their own countrymen for sale.
Noting that the descendants of slaves became American citizens, Mr Clinton said: "The long journey of African- Americans proves that the spirit can never be enslaved." His only direct reference to slavery came in a cautiously worded and ambivalent passage, where he said: "Long after the slave ships stopped sailing to America, Goree Island ... [stands] as a vivid reminder that for some of America's ancestors the journey to America was anything but a search for freedom and yet still a symbol of the bright new era of partnership between our peoples."
He repeated the chorus of this African tour: his administration was committed to building closer trade and security relations with the continent to which one in ten Americans can trace their ancestory. Few who come to Goree leave unmoved. President Mandela visited shortly after his release from his 27-year incarceration. When he emerged from a cramped slave cell he had little to say but his cheeks were wet with tears.
Goree fort guides do not spare the harrowing detail. They recount how captured Africans were treated worse than livestock. They arrived in chains and after inspection, pricing and branding, were crammed together in tiny cells. Fed once a day, they might languish here for months waiting to pass through the "door of no return" to waiting ships. Male slaves were only valued by their weight; females by their breast size, for that was considered an indication of fertility. Some African tribes were particularly valued "breeds" and their men were brought to the fort for studding.
All week Goree's residents and visitors have debated the coming Clinton visit. Some clearly thought it tacky and superficial. "What is this sudden interest in slavery?" asked Rosetta Gainey, whose African Diaspora Concerns Foundation has an office on the island.
Her experience suggests the proffered new American-African partnership may prove one-sided and skin-deep. For years she has been lobbying Washington for US visas for members of the Kunta Kinte family made famous in Alex Hailey's slave novel Roots. Each one has been turned down leaving the Kintes bitter about how their name was "exploited" in the US, though their desire to visit was turned down.
Jacob R Henderson Jr, a visiting African-American investor, argues: "The fact is America owes this continent a debt. This debt has not been repaid and Clinton must explore all means to repay that debt."
But other Goree visitors seem to agree with Ms Rice that in slavery sin was liberally spread. "We Africans were not particularly blameless," said Akua Pokua, 36, from Ghana. "The collaborators here sold the slaves.... everyone is to blame I guess."
The particularly careful wording and subdued delivery of Mr Clinton's speech yesterday, which had been billed as the culmination of his six- country tour, may also have reflected criticism at home over near-apologies for slavery that he had uttered earlier in his tour. In particular, his statement that "European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade, and we were wrong in that" went down extremely badly in Congress, where some Republicans accused him of selling the United States short abroad and impugning the country's dignity.Reuse content