The River Gambia was vital, forming the first trade route to the inland of Africa, and the location of Kunta Kinteh Island in the middle of the river made it a strategic place to control the waterway. Visited by explorers and merchants searching for a sea route to India, it became one of the first cultural exchange zones between Africa and Europe.
The transatlantic slave trade began in the fifteenth century when Portuguese ships sailed down the West African coast. The intention was to trade for gold and spices, but the voyagers found another more valuable commodity—human beings. Over time, the trade in men and women bypassed other commerce, and the slaves' destination changed from Europe to America.
Fort James was used to temporarily keep captured slaves in caves and prisons and weaken them with dehumanising treatment to ensure the journey to America would go without resisting or possible coups.
Between the 15th and 19th centuries, eleven to twelve million African men, women, and children were captured and shipped across the Atlantic in conditions of great cruelty. They endured the horrors of the "Middle Passage", where they spent weeks and sometimes months locked in the holds of stinking slave ships. Many died en route, and those who survived spent their lives in bondage. At its height, an estimated one in six West African slaves came from this area.
By 1456, the Island had been acquired by Portugal from local rulers and a fort constructed on it. It was subsequently built by Baltic settlers from Courland in 1651 under the name of St Andrew, conquered a few years later by the Dutch and finally by the British in 1664, who renamed it James Island after James, Duke of York. In 2011, the Island was renamed Kunta Kinteh Island to honour the 10th International Roots Homecoming Festival.
Kunta Kinteh island is close to Albreda and Juffureh villages - about 30 km upriver from the capital Banjul and inhabited by Wolof and Mandinka peoples. Albreda is famous for its old fortified trading post, also known as a slave factory. There is a museum on the slave trade with a section dedicated to the Roots connection.
Juffureh became famous after Alex Haley's bestseller book Roots, based on the story of a strong-willed Mandinka man, Kunta Kinteh, who was taken as an enslaved person during the slave trade. Since then, many people have been coming to Albreda and Juffureh to find their roots or reconnect with the land of their ancestors. Albreda and Juffureh villages lie so close that visitors find it difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
As an important historical site in the West African slave trade, Kunta Kinteh Island (or James Island as it was known back then) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, along with related sites, which include a ruined Portuguese chapel and a colonial warehouse in Albreda, the Maurel Frères Building in Juffureh, the remains of the small Portuguese settlement of San Domingo as well as Fort Bullen and the Six-Gun Battery. Fort Bullen and the Six-Gun Battery are at the mouth of the Gambia River, whilst Kunta Kinteh Island and the other sites are some 30 km upstream.
All the sites except the CFAO and Maurel Frères Buildings are ruins. The CFAO Building has been restored and provided with adequate sea defence. The Maurel Frères Building was restored in 1996 and is in good conservation. The Portuguese chapel and San Domingo are in ruins, but these have been stabilised, with the most endangered parts reinforced during 2000.
Kunta Kinteh Island, Fort Bullen, and all the significant historic buildings in the Albreda-Juffureh complex are legally protected as National Monuments (1995) under the National Council for Arts and Culture Act, 1989 (revised 2003).
The specific, important role of the site in the slave trade, both in its propagation and conclusion, makes Kunta Kinteh Island and its Related Sites an outstanding memory of this important, although painful, period of human history.
Today, on a visit to the Island, the ruins of colonialism and slavery can still be seen. There are caves and prisons on the Island where slaves were imprisoned before being shipped to the American colonies. There are also some cannons standing in their military attack positions.
Kunta Kinteh Island is suffering heavy erosion and is now approximately 1/6 of its size when the fort was active. It seems as if the river Gambia is finally ready to let go of a painful stain in history.
A visit to the Kunta Kinteh Island and the twin villages of Juffureh and Albreda is a must when you're in The Gambia. If you're interested in getting a guided tour with our expert Guide Buba, please get in touch with us!