Kunta Kinteh Island
Kunta Kinteh Island (James Island) and Related sites represent the first African-European trade route to the inland of Africa and the beginning and the conclusion of the West African slave trade.
The designated area consists of 7 separate locations:
- James Island
- Six-Gun Battery
- Fort Bullen
- Ruins of San Domingo
- Remains of Portuguese Chapel
- CFAO Building
- Maurel Frères Building
They are located along the Gambia River.
Map of Kunta Kinteh IslandLoad map
The Lady Jaclene, out of Ramsgate, pushed slowly up the river, red ensign flapping in the hot salt-scented breeze. The River Gambia here was so wide I could see nothing of land save for a hazy grey-blue smear on the horizon on either side. Time crept past. I felt adrift in a strange land with no way to get my bearings. Then, around noon, a smudge in the river ahead began to come into focus, resolving itself slowly into the outline of a speck of land. The skeletal outlines of trees rose above the skeletal outlines of a low stone fort, its ramparts crenellated like the teeth of a jaw, its empty windows staring out sightlessly towards the African mainland. Anyone who knows their Joseph Conrad would have had the exact same words form in their head as I did: “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth…”
Kunta Kinteh Island and its related sites is the easiest of The Gambia’s two World Heritage Sites to visit. It is the furthest downstream, making it the nearest to the tourist resorts of the Atlantic coast. And it is widely available as a set day trip. We booked for the following day via a tourist agency on the Senegambia Strip. It is commonly referred to as the ‘Roots’ tour, after Alex Haley’s book chronicling the abduction of a young man – Kunta Kinteh – from his village of Juffureh, his enslavement, his shipment via James Island to the slave markets of the United States of America, and the lives of his descendents. The fact that the government formally renamed the midstream lump of rock after the locally-born Kunta Kinteh, away from a name given to it by the European slavers (James Island), shows the power of names. It signifies the reclamation of that heritage by recognising the victim, not the oppressor.
The north-bank town of Albreda, a huddle of white buildings gathered around a long jetty, serves as a first introduction to the site. A local guide, Lamin, employed by the community, showed us the ‘Never Again’ statue and a Royal Navy cannon installed to suppress the slave trade. He also showed us three buildings that are key parts of the World Heritage Site – the Portuguese chapel (the first church in West Africa), the remains of the Compagnie Francaise d'Afrique Occidentale warehouse (being renovated at the time of our visit), and the Maurel Frères factory (‘factory’ being used in its original context of a warehouse and trading depot). The latter houses a small, rather basic but still informative museum on the slave trade. The exhibits mainly seemed to be reproductions or on loan from Cape Castle, Ghana. While these sites certainly document the encounter of Europe and Africa their link to the slave trade is, as best, tenuous. The Maurel Frères factory was not constructed until 1840, some 33 years after Britain had abolished the slave trade. The CFAO warehouse is of uncertain date, but a building stood on that site by 1847. Only the Portuguese chapel, constructed in the 15th century, is clearly coterminous with the era of the slave trade.
The tours then detour up the road to Juffureh. We were introduced to the female village chief and then the compound of the Kinteh family. Binta Kinteh, who greeted us along with her daughter and nephew, is, we were told, eight generations down from the sister of Kunta Kinteh. We were permitted to take photos with her, or to buy a certificate or a book. Proof that the main attraction of these tours is the link to the book and TV series of Roots rather than because of WHS status.
Kunta Kinteh island is less than a third of the size it was in its 18th-19th century heyday. Originally the tumbledown fort was almost pentagonal with a central keep surrounded by four angular bastions. Now only the built-up curtain walls and the northern wall of the keep still stand. There was one underground room. Unlike Ian we were told that this was the ‘slave dungeon’, though only for the more truculent captives as those more resigned to their fate would have been housed in specific slave-row houses outside the fort itself. The narration provided a certain mordant irony about European senses of propriety while dealing in human flesh. Women and children were never chained together – because that would have been inhumane! And the first anti-slavery campaigners did not object to the institution of slavery per se, just its cruellest aspects like branding and thumbscrews. The initial anti-slavery campaigners were the animal rights activists of their day: they didn’t mind the cow being eaten as long as it was looked after prior to its trip to the abattoir.
So: a crumbling fortress being eaten away by the river, a couple of warehouses that post-dated the slave trade and an old Portuguese chapel. None of these in and of themselves possess OUV in my view. But they represent the encounter between civilisations, an encounter where one party preyed upon the other (before finally paternalistically coming to ‘protect’ them). The buildings – much like the Kinteh clan you meet in Juffureh – are symbolic of the human cost of slavery. The truth of the story of Kunta Kinteh as related in Roots is highly debatable. But it is still a story that needs to be told to underline the human impact. The Roots tour to me had the air of a medieval indulgence. For those of a western European background the journey is a form of atonement for the original sin of slavery. For African-Americans it is a search for a symbolic fountainhead. But while the incurious can ease their conscience, it certainly made me consider whether my family, hailing partially from the cotton-weaving towns of Lancashire carried any guilt for slavery. In that respect, a visit to Kunta Kinteh Island was a much more uncomfortable experience for me than, say, our later visit to Zanzibar (where the British are hailed for ending the Arab slave trade).
World Heritage-iness: 2.5
My Experience: 2
(Visited January 2013)
Having spent five days in The Gambia in early June 2018, it’s easy to appreciate why the smallest nation on the African continent has been nicknamed The Smiling Coast of Africa. I organized two full-day tours with Arch Tours. Since I traveled during shoulder season, I wasn't able to join group tours, so Arch Tours graciously charged me the same price for an individual tour as I would have paid for a group tour -- and traveling in June allowed me to have each site to myself. Each tour company runs a variation of a tour to visit several sites in one day. On Arch's Four Tours in One Day, I visited Serekunda Market, the country's largest (although I later visited Albert Market in Banjul, which seems just as large, better organized and more photogenic); Kachikally Crocodile Pool, a popular destination for women struggling with getting pregnant, who come from around The Gambia to douse themselves in its supposedly curative water; Abuko Livestock Market, the largest cattle, sheep and goat market in The Gambia; and a fishing beach, where the daily catch is smoked or salted under the hot sun.
In 1976, Alex Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, where he traces his genealogy back to Kunta Kinte and The Gambia. According to Haley, Kunta Kinte was born around 1750 in the village of Jufureh on the north bank of the River Gambia. Since the success of the 1977 miniseries, Jufureh has become one of The Gambia’s primary tourist destinations. During my visit, the local guide basically recited as fact the somewhat fictional plot of Roots and shared the stories of his “ancestors” Fiddler, Kizzy and Chicken George. I also met Binta Kinteh, the family matriarch, claiming to be a distant cousin of Alex Haley, who met with him during his first visit to Jufureh in 1967. From Jufureh, I traveled to the river and hired a pirogue, a long wooden boat, to reach Kunta Kinte Island, which was used by the British in the slave trade. According to Roots, Kunta Kinte was among nearly a hundred slaves brought from James Island to Annapolis by the slave ship Lord Ligonier in 1767.
I stayed at Luigi's Complex, which is much nicer and personal than any of the large hotels on or near the touristy Senegambia Strip -- but is only a $0.15 bush taxi ride from the strip.
Our last full day in the Gambia was spent on a very interesting river cruise that took us to James Island. The island itself is quite small and getting smaller all the time. Erosion by the river has already shrunk the island considerably since the fort became derelict with the outlying buildings all but gone. There are some efforts to protect the banks of the island but the erosion does seem like a very real and pressing concern for the people trying to protect it. The remains of the fort are reasonably substantial; however the British bombarded the fort when they stopped using it so it is in ruins.
The island was used as a holding pen for captured slaves before they were transported to Gorée in Senegal and then onwards to the Americas. It was an incredibly small area that was set aside for the slaves; however the Barracks in which they were held was the first to be washed away by the encroaching river. Therefore whilst it is still quite a harrowing site the full gravitas is somewhat lost as you can’t see the conditions in which they were held. The one complete room that is left on the island is commonly referred to as the slave dungeon, it seem that this wasn’t the case and it was a store room, however it is very indicative of what the barracks would have looked like so gives some idea of the miserable conditions.
The ‘associated sites’ that are also included in this site actually add quite alot to it. Four of them are located on the north bank of the River Gambia in the twin villages of Juffreh and Albreda. They show help to show the administrative and mercantile background to the slave trade. They are easy to visit as you will have to get to these towns to get out to James Island. Most of them are in ruins; however the Manuel Ferres building contains a good small museum about the history of the transatlantic slave trade.
The sites at the mouth of the River Gambia, Fort Bullen and Six Gun Battery illustrate efforts that were made to limit the Slave trade following its abolition in Britain. This again adds another dimension to the site.
It is actually a pretty easy place to get to as it is on the highly popular ‘Roots’ tours that are run from the touristy areas of Western Gambia. I was a little sceptical on how good these would be but they were actually very interesting and the guides we had for the trip as well as in the villages of Juffreh and Albreda. It was a very relaxing way to spend the day cruising along the river. Many tour operators offer the trip however you will probably end up on the same boat so it pays to shop around. We went with Tilly’s Tours who turned out to be very good and the cheapest we could find. The guides were very friendly and informative and have a fairly ethical outlook.
This was a great day trip and a very interesting WHS, the inclusion of the ‘associated sites’ show the many different facets of this awful and hugely important part of human history. Certainly worth a trip even if it is the only one you make from the touristy parts of the Gambia.
As Paul states this is a bit of an oddity. It is already inscribed as one of the "Associated sites" of the James Island WHS.
It is located in Barra, which sits opposite the capital Banjul and is connected by a very busy ferry route. The fort is located a short distance from the ferry port but the road is quite poor and very sandy so it is tough to get nearby motorised transport, so it is probably best to approach on foot is you have a wait for the ferry. There is not a huge amount to see at the fort just the old walls and a few scattered cannon.
This actually is really good addition to the James Island site. It transforms this from being just a holding pen for slaves into one that shows the evolution of the Slave Trade and also the battle to control and eradicate it. Fort Bullen was built in 1827 at a similar time to the six gun battery in Banjul. This enabled the British to control ships coming in and out of the River Gambia and help to enforce the abolition of the slave trade. Whilst Fort Bullen is not a massively impressive site its incorporation into the Wider James Island WHS helps to illustrate the evolution of slavery on the River Gambia.
2011 Name change
From "James Island and Related Sites" to: Kunta Kinteh Island and Related Sites
Includes Former TWHS Fort Bullen (1996)
Bureau - want comparative study of early colonial trading settlements in West Africa
The site has 7 locations
The site has 19 connections
WHS on Other Lists
World Heritage Process
46 Community Members have visited.