GOREE ISLAND, Senegal — Calling slavery "one of the greatest crimes of history," President Bush on Tuesday launched a five-day African visit with a pilgrimage to this onetime staging area for traders who dispatched their manacled captives to the New World.
Under a punishing midday sun, with the shimmering Atlantic Ocean at his back, Bush spoke of redemption and the triumph of the human spirit as he recalled "one of the largest migrations of history."
"By a plan known only to Providence, the stolen sons and daughters of Africa helped to awaken the conscience of America. The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free."
Bush added, however, that America's "journey toward justice" was not over.
"The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation," he told several hundred attentive Senegalese. "And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destination is set: liberty and justice for all."
During his tour of five countries, including South Africa, where he arrived late Tuesday night, Bush intends to stress his message of economic development and democracy for a continent that has been racked by poverty, disease and war.
Bush told reporters in Dakar that he has assured West African leaders that the U.S. would "participate" with members of the Economic Community of West African States to restore order in Liberia, which was founded by former American slaves.
Bush dodged a specific question about whether he would commit U.S. troops to that West African nation.
"The United States will work with ECOWAS," the president said. "We are in the process of determining what is necessary to maintain the cease-fire and to allow for a peaceful transfer of power."
Bush repeated his call for Liberian President Charles Taylor to step down before any U.S. troops are sent. Charged with war crimes for his role in Sierra Leone's civil war, Taylor has said he will go but has given no date.
The Bush administration has sent a military team that was greeted by thousands of Liberians in the capital, Monrovia. However, the troops were blocked from touring a refugee camp by Taylor's soldiers.
Taylor told CNN that the incident was a mistake. "We welcome the troops here and we will take them wherever they want to go," he said. The team resumed its work later.
There were also questions about the U.S. role in Liberia on Capitol Hill, where Vice President Dick Cheney was questioned during a closed-door GOP luncheon.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) summarized the mood of fellow lawmakers after the meeting. "I think most members ... are very much open-minded about it and have some concerns," Santorum said, adding that he was concerned about "stretching our forces too thin at this time," given U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"We're not going to send our troops into harm's way without asking a lot of questions," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). "I will want to see if it is a peacekeeping mission, and are we going to bring in other countries to be helpful .... And if it's not a peacekeeping mission, I'm going to have to know what the United States' security interest is."
On Goree Island, Bush spoke at precisely the same spot that his predecessor, Bill Clinton, did on his 1998 visit to this bucolic island, just offshore from Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
"At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold," Bush said. "Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice. A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions."
Yet, the president said, "all the generations of oppression under the laws of man could not crush the hope of freedom and defeat the purposes of God."
Bush ended his remarks with a pledge to help Africa end its civil wars, combat terrorism, fight hunger and conquer disease.
"We know that these challenges can be overcome, because history moves in the direction of justice," he said. "This untamed fire of justice continues to burn in the affairs of man, and it lights the way before us."
Accompanied by First Lady Laura Bush, the president arrived in Dakar early Tuesday morning, after an all-night flight from Washington. He delivered his speech after meeting with Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and then with the leaders of seven other West African democracies: Benin, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Sierra Leone.
Upon reaching Goree Island in Wade's yacht, the president and Mrs. Bush first toured the rouge-colored Slave House, built in 1776 by a slave-trading Dutch family.
For millions of slaves between the 16th and 18th centuries, that house -- and others like it here -- was the final stop before being forced onto ships for what Bush called "a voyage without return," separated from their loved ones and bearing only a number.