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Kunta Kinteh Island in Gambia. Source: s-aznar / Adobe Stock

Kunta Kinteh - The African Island at the Heart of the Slave Trade

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Not many people know of the Gambia. The smallest country of mainland Africa, this small nation can seem quite unremarkable at first glance, being confined only to the length of the Gambia River and surrounded entirely by the much larger nation of Senegal. But once you take a glimpse into this small nation’s history, you begin to understand that there is so much more than meets the eye.

Sadly, Gambia’s history has a tragic and dark period, due to the Gambia River having been the pulsating artery of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. One island in particular stood out as the central port and a strategic spot where ships arrived for centuries - often to carry away slaves. Today the island is known as Kunta Kinteh, and it remains one of Gambia’s most visited locations, as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site .

History of the Gambia and the Kunta Kinteh Island

The Gambia River runs the entire length of the small Republic of the Gambia. Since it flows out into the Atlantic Ocean , this river and its wide mouth were always the main entry point for the large trans-oceanic ships of the European explorers. Just 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the river mouth lies Kunta Kinteh Island.

Positioned at the center of the river, it was always a strategic position from which the waterways were easily controlled, and as such it soon became the focal point of early European activity in Africa. As the great maritime voyagers of Europe sailed the oceans in the search for a sea route to India, they inevitably stumbled upon the shores of Africa. It soon became obvious to them that this continent had so much to offer.

The first explorers to reach Kunta Kinteh island were Portuguese. In May of 1456, two Italian explorers leading a Portuguese expedition discovered the island. They were the Genoese trader Usus di Mare, and the Venetian explorer Alvide da Ca' da Mosto. They moored off the island in order to bury one of their deceased shipmates, whose name was Andrew. Since that point on, the island was known to all as St. Andrew’s island.

Just two years later, the famed Portuguese navigator, Diogo Gomes landed here as well. And soon after, the Portuguese managed to acquire the island from the local rulers, starting the construction of a strategic fort almost at once. Opposite the island, they began building a settlement known as San Domingo. Soon enough the island became the focal point of the cultural exchange between Europe and Africa. Trade routes were established, and contact bloomed. Alas, it would soon take on a menacing facet that would scar the world for centuries to come.

This grim characteristic was the slave trade . The Gambia River is one of Africa’s most navigable rivers. As such, it allowed quick and easy access to the continent’s deep hinterland, and many trade goods that were in abundance there. Once Kunta Kinteh Island became established as a fort and trading port, it soon became the central point for the drop-off of slaves.

The vast majority of African slaves that were shipped out across the Atlantic from this island were actually delivered to the European traders by other Africans. They were either captives from the numerous intertribal wars, were sold due to unpaid debts, or were simply kidnapped and then sold. Either way, the European settlers had stumbled upon a complex network of warring African tribes, most of which were eager to sell their compatriots and sentence them to a grim fate across the world’s oceans.

Plan of Kunta Kinteh Island, once known as James Island, in Gambia. (Public domain)

Plan of Kunta Kinteh Island, once known as James Island, in Gambia. ( Public domain )

A Strategic Position in Africa’s Best Navigable River

Of course, slaves were not the only thing to be traded from this island. Africa’s finest goods were also shipped off from here: ivory, gold, precious stones, ores, and many other prestigious goods were constantly sent to Europe and elsewhere. Soon after its discovery by the Portuguese, St. Andrew’s island - as it was called - had its name changed. With the later arrival of other Europeans, it became known as James Island. That name would stick with it until 2011, when it would receive a new name - Kunta Kinteh Island. After many centuries, this finally gave it a Gambian name.

The island’s next owners came from the distant Baltic region of Europe. It was acquired by a company belonging to the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia (today identified with Latvia). Around 1651, the Courland traders began the construction of a stronger fort and used the island as a base to establish trade routes between Africa and the Baltic.

Ultimately, it was the goal of the Courlanders to establish a permanent settlement here. Soon a pastor was shipped to the island, as well as married couples. The fort that was erected followed the traditional construction methods of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to which the Duchy belonged. It was rectangular, with powerful bastions at each corner. Alas, the fort was hampered by the lack of fresh water supplies, so the Courlanders were often at the mercy of local leaders.

From this point on, everyone wanted a piece of the storied wealth that lay in Gambia. The Duke of Courland was determined to launch a full-fledged serious expedition to colonize the land - but lacked the men and experienced commanders. For that reason, he was forced to rely on foreign navigators. His first expedition, commanded by a Dutchman, failed. The second one had a Danish man at the helm - yet it failed as well.

In the ensuing events, due to the political instability in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the garrison at James Island lost contact with the homeland in Europe. The Dutch were quick to exploit this instability, offering to help supply the island in exchange for full control of it. Due to the lack of involvement from the Duke of Courland, the island soon passed into Dutch hands.

Barred window at Fort James Island, now Kunta Kinteh Island in Gambia. (virginievanos / Adobe Stock)

Barred window at Fort James Island, now Kunta Kinteh Island in Gambia. ( virginievanos / Adobe Stock)

A Source of Wealth That Changed Hands Repeatedly

In the following period, there were a lot of conflicts between the Courlanders and the Dutchmen over the control of the island now known as Kunta Kinteh. The island was plundered and damaged, and the garrison was reduced to just seven Europeans. In the end, the Dutch had brief control of the island from 1659, until the arrival of the English. They too wanted a piece of the riches, and thus the Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa (later to be known as Royal African Company), seized the island in 1661.

The company was given a Royal charter by Charles II, and was dealing principally with gold, ivory, and slaves. In 1664, the Dutch were officially forced to cede the island to the English. The latter quickly renamed it to “James Island” and began the construction of a larger fort. However, over the following decades, the French and the British repeatedly feuded over the possession of the island, often resorting to battles.

Still, the English maintained a firm hold on James Island, since this was their first outpost in West Africa and a great source of income. But over the next two centuries, the island changed hands several times. In 1779 French troops wanted to deal with the British once and for all, and thus launched a full-scale attack on the island fort managing to oust the British and plunder the island.

By 1815, James Island was abandoned for good, and the fort was no longer rebuilt. Today, the ruins of the fort can be observed. Extant are the remains of the fortress walls, the slave house, a store, blacksmith’s shop, and the governor’s kitchen.

Some remains of Fort James as they stand today. (virginievanos / Adobe Stock)

Some remains of Fort James as they stand today. ( virginievanos / Adobe Stock)

Both the island and the ruins on it are under the threat of erosion and rising water levels, and flooding is a serious issue. Heavy rains and windstorms that occurred in August of 2016 affected local communities, historic buildings and the villages of Albreda and Juffureh, both of which lie across from Kunta Kinteh Island. These violent storms caused destruction of property, including the damage to the fragile ruins of a French colonial warehouse named the Compagnie Francaise d'Afrique Occidentale (CFAO). Due to these events, Kunta Kinteh Island had shrunk in size. In its colonial past, it was considerably larger.

Nowadays, Kunta Kinteh Island owes a great deal to the American writer Alex Haley. His 1976 book Roots was a major success and brought the island to the mainstream attention. The book purported to trace the author’s ancestry back to Juffureh, the historic Mandinka village that lies across Kunta Kinteh Island.

The novel’s protagonist, a slave called Toby, was a direct ancestor of Alex Haley. The novel reveals that Toby’s real name is Kunta Kinte, and that he once belonged to an Islamic Mandinka family living in Juffureh. As a boy he was captured by African slavers, sent to James Island, and from there shipped off to America.

In fact, it was the highly popular name of this character that gives the island its modern name - Kunta Kinteh. However, after the author’s death it was revealed that much of the contents of the Roots novel was pure fiction and that he did not in fact descend from Kunta Kinte. Furthermore, the historical authenticity of this character has been widely debated ever since.

History Brought to Light by Alex Haley’s Novel

Nevertheless, Kunta Kinteh Island and the surrounding historic cities of Juffureh, Albreda, and Fort Bullen - all of which were closely related - have a lot to thank to Alex Haley’s novel. Today they are at the forefront of Gambia’s tourism. The place has become a small pilgrimage site for fans and tourists, and in the 1990s it was visited by 80% of all tourists that came to Gambia.

Still, considering that the Gambia is a struggling African nation, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Kunta Kinteh Island compound is still rather unremarkable. Nevertheless, a small museum dedicated to the trans-Atlantic slave trade opened in 1996 in the village of Albreda. Together with its location, its rich history, and a strong colonial character, the Kunta Kinteh island survives as one of the focal points in a painful but nonetheless important part of human history.

Kunta Kinteh Island was crucial in the development of trans-Atlantic slave trade, showcasing the complex relationship between European explorers and settlers, and African slave traders that profited from African inter-tribal warfare. For that reason, the island has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and continued efforts are being made for its preservation. Today, there is a struggle to preserve the isle from erosion and sinking, and to maintain the fragile ruins of colonial buildings.

Remembering the Unfortunate Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Another similar island is the famed Île de Gorée (Gorée island ), which lies just off the Dakar peninsula in Senegal. Not too far from the Gambia river mouth, this island was - together with Kunta Kinteh - the second most important site for trans-oceanic shipments of slaves to Europe and America.

These two remarkable historic sites are today very much alive in the hearts and memories of all African people, especially of those in diaspora. And even though there are no accurate numbers of people that became human cargo at Kunta Kinteh and Gorée Islands, they were nonetheless at the forefront of African slave trade for centuries.

Today, it is time to once more take a deep, investigative glimpse into the history of the African slave trade in order to understand the background, the instigations, and the consequences of that grim part of world’s history. It’s important to understand this facet of human nature and to learn more about the owners of the slave ships, the African slave traders and the inter-tribal warfare, and to try and preserve the memory of the many unfortunate souls that sailed off towards a new and uncertain destiny from Kunta Kinteh Island .

Top image: Kunta Kinteh Island in Gambia. Source: s-aznar / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Briggs, P. and Fenton, S. 2017. The Gambia. Bradt Travel Guides.

Monks, K. 2017. “Gambia Fights to Stop Kunta Kinteh Island to sea” in CNN. Available at:
https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/03/africa/kunta-kinteh-island/index.html

Various. 2017. Lonely Planet West Africa. Lonely Planet.

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