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Kunta Kinteh Island and Albreda - A view from our expert author
The North Bank opposite Banjul is the focal point of a UNESCO World Heritage Site commemorating the horrors of the slave trade and its eventual abolition.
Huddled so close together that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins, the historic twin villages of Albreda and Juffureh (also known as Albadarr and Gillifree, or other variants thereof) sit on the North Bank of the River Gambia about 25km upriver of Barra and Banjul. Together with nearby Kunta Kinteh Island, 3km across the water, these villages played a pivotal role in the slave trade that dominated the economy of the lower River Gambia from the late 15th to the early 19th centuries.
At various times, the Portuguese, British and French all maintained trading posts in the vicinity, while Kunta Kinteh Island was revived as a strategic British naval base in the abolition era. Today, the area is the focal point of a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose seven components include Fort James on Kunta Kinteh Island and four separate buildings in and around Albreda. Juffureh, meanwhile, leaped to international prominence in 1976 with the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots, which claimed it as the place where his ancestor Kunta Kinteh was captured by slave traders. All in all, it’s a fascinating area, contrasting with the south coast resorts in almost every conceivable way, and well worth visiting, whether you do so independently or as part of a tour.
The remains of Fort James on James Island on the Gambia river. It was built in the 1650s and used as a slave collecting point until 1820 © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, www.africaimagelibrary.com
Kunta Kinteh (James) Island
Renamed in honour of Kunta Kinteh in 2011, this small rocky outcrop in the River Gambia, 3km to the southeast of Albreda, was formerly called James Island and is still most widely referred to by that name. It was one of the first landfalls made by the 1456 expedition led by the pioneering Portuguese sailor Luis de Cadamosto, who named it St Andrew Island after a shipmate they buried on the island. The first fort was built there by Latvians in 1651, only to be seized ten years later by the wonderfully named Royal Adventurers of England, who renamed the island in honour of James, Duke of York. Ideally placed to provide strategic defence for English interests along the river and as a staging post for the shipment of slaves, James Island and Fort James were captured by the French then recaptured by the English several times over subsequent decades.
The location of James Island ensured a clear passage downriver for whichever power controlled it at the time. Hence it was subject to frequent attacks. In 1719, a group of Welsh pirates overran Fort James, and carried off all the goods and slaves. It was attacked less successfully in 1768 by a regiment of 500 Niumi men. In 1779, the French seized the island one last time, without firing a shot, and destroyed the fort. In 1816, Grant also entered into an agreement with the King of Niumi, allowing the British Royal Navy to reoccupy the abandoned fort in exchange for an annual payment of 300 iron bars. Later, however, the British claimed that the king reneged on the deal, so they abandoned their plans for James Island and withdrew, concentrating their future efforts on Banjul. The island was abandoned altogether in 1829.
A few cannons line the shore, while the beaches are littered with beads, once the main form of currency in this part of Africa.
Almost 200 years later, the extensive ruins of Fort James, centrepiece of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, form the most important relict of the slave trade in this part of The Gambia. Despite its ruinous state, the fort is a poignant site. What remains of the thick stone walls are held together by bulbous baobab roots and scampered across by rats and lizards. The base of the dungeon in which up to 140 slaves were once impounded also survives. A few cannons line the shore, while the beaches are littered by beads, once the main form of currency in this part of Africa. The island is not sinking, as is often stated, but it does require regular maintenance to remedy erosion caused by wave action. However, the eroded shores in fact consist of artificial embankments, built of earth and rock and supported by piled stakes that were created to extend a natural area so small it barely allowed room for anything other than the fort.
Most if not all Roots Tours include a boat trip to James Island. It can also be visited independently by boat from Albreda. This will cost around £11.50 for a party of up to five, and can be arranged through any of the guides who hang around the main square and jetty. All visitors need to pay the entrance fee of £1.65, which also allows for entrance to the National Museum of Albreda. An hour is more than enough time to see everything the island has to offer.
Rented to French merchants by the King of Niumi in 1681, Albreda was probably the busiest slaving post on the River Gambia until the trade was legally abolished in 1807. Most tour groups arrive at the Albreda Jetty, which extends almost 300m into the river, and leads to the main square via a short footpath flanked by the relatively modern Welcome Arch and Emancipation Statue.
A large shady silk cotton tree lies at the heart of the square, and below it is a 19th-century cannon, presumably used by the British to bar slaving ships from sailing further upriver. Here, independent visitors will be approached by a representative of the Juffureh–Albreda evelopment Fund, which was established in 2008 with the dual aims of ensuring that the local community benefits collectively from tourism, and of reducing the hassle to visitors presented by pushy guides and children. All visits must pay the community fee (£0.85 per person), which includes the (optional) services of a guide, who will expect a fair tip.
Albreda was probably the busiest slaving post on the River Gambia until the trade was legally abolished in 1807.
Two buildings inscribed as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site flank the square. To the left, behind the Rising Sun Restaurant, the substantial ruin of a late 15th-century Portuguese chapel is probably the oldest extant structure of its type in West Africa. To the right, reached via a 50m footpath, is the timeworn doublestorey warehouse once occupied by the Compagnie Francaise d’Afrique Occidentale (CFAO). The link between the CFAO Building and the slave trade is somewhat tenuous, as it was probably built in 1847, more than a decade after the twin fortifi cations at Bathurst and Barra closed the river to unwanted traffic. The ground floor, entered through an open arcade, served as a shop and warehouse, while the upper floor comprised the residential quarters of the CFAO management and agents.
A 500m dirt track leads from the right side of the main square to the National Museum of Albreda (http://www.ncac.gm/welcome.html; open: 08.00–17.00 daily; entrance fee of £1.65 includes Kunta Kinteh Island), which is housed in the Maurel Freres Building, a British-built 1840s construction that later served as a warehouse of the eponymous Lebanese trader. Small but harrowing, this well-organised museum has several detailed displays relating to the slave trade out of West Africa and to the harsh treatment meted out to its victims aft er their arrival in the Americas. It also has a room full of paraphernalia relating to Alex Haley and the Roots phenomenon.