Kunta Kinteh Island

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November 2, 2019: The Roots of Alex Haley

After a day exploring the coast of The Gambia, I signed up for a tour to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kunta Kinteh Island and the town of Jufereh. The tour is known around The Gambia as the Roots tour due to the locations’ connections with the popular 1970´s mini-series.

My ferry

My guide picked me at 6:30am up in a Mercedes Benz. I was surprised to see a Mercedes until I read the odometer: 390,000 km and an import sticker from Poland. Yes that makes more sense. We drove 30 minutes into the capital city of Banjul. There, we parked the car and boarded the Kunta Kinteh ferry to cross the river Gambia, namesake of the country.

The ferry was a mix of tourists headed to various locations north of the river and locals. A colorful mix of salespeople politely harassed the tourists. The ride took 25 minutes to reach the town of Barra. As crazy as it sounds, I actually felt a little cold on the ferry.

Arriving in Barra on the north bank of the Gambia River

In Barra, some guy grabbed the cooler of drinks out of my hand and insisted on carrying it…for a tip obviously. Another guy tried to sell me sweets to give to the kids. When I refused he tried to sell me pencils for the kids. Pencils are probably a good thing to bring but he was trying to charge me a price equal to 25 kilograms of rice (I learned the true price of rice yesterday)! I am not even sure if these schools could even use the pencils- I wouldn’t be surprised if the schoolkids sold the pencils right back to the salespeople. I politely refused – which in Africa means saying no 10 times.

We got into a taxi and headed towards the countryside. Our driver happened to be the most popular man in all of Barra. In town we stopped at least 4 times so he could say hi to friends including the policeman at the checkpoint (the police in The Gambia have actually been very honest and fair).

We drove on a rough dirt road for about 45 minutes before reaching the village of Jufereh.

There. I boarded a wooden boat along with my guide, a local guide and a policeman. We motored for about 10 minutes across the Gambia River to Kunta Kinteh Island.

Boating on the Gambia River towards Kunta Kinteh Island

Kunta Kinteh Island may look like a tiny speck of land, but it has a long and dark story to tell. It was first inhabited by Polish-Lithuanians in the 1600’s (the island was never inhabited by the locals due to its lack of… anything). Then known as St. Andrews’ Island, the Europeans drank rainwater to survive. The post was first used for the gold and ivory trade, but quickly also became the main base for the slave trade due to its position near the mouth of the enormous Gambia River.

Over the years it changed hands to the Dutch, British, and French before permanently reverting back to British hands in 1702. They renamed it James Island. It was during the British control that the slave trade was at its peak.

Conditions on the island for the captives were dreadful because they were treated like commodities. The Europeans did not care if a captive lived or died. They were branded, beaten, given minimal amounts of food and kept in tiny pens with no place to use the bathroom. As a result, the captives could barely stay alive on the island. The slave pens smelled of human excrement that was so bad the Europeans could barely walk over there. The number and severity of what we would call human rights abuses are astronomical.

“Beach” on Kunta Kinteh Island where the men’s slave pens once stood.

In 1807, the slave trade became illegal in the British Empire and the British government ironically built a fort on the island to stop the slave trade. Unfortunately, slave trading was still being done by pirates. In total over the 200 years, an estimated 600,000 slaves were taken to James Island. About half of them died either on the island or in transport to the New World. By comparison, this is 10x the number of deaths as the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

The island was abandoned in 1870. In 2011, the Gambian government renamed it Kunta Kinteh Island as a tribute to the famed ancestor of Alex Haley and subject of the mini-series Roots. The real Kunta Kinteh lived in the nearby town of Jufereh and was taken to this island prior to his journey to America.

On the island, I learned many interesting facts about the slave trade. For example, most slaves were actually captured by fellow Africans because the Europeans feared catching the then incurable malaria. The local chief actually received money in exchange for the opportunity to enslave the person. Mandinka chiefs became fabulously wealthy and were able to eliminate political rivals by selling off their own. The high risk of being captured made life for the average person in Senegambia (the region between the Senegal and Gambia rivers which today covers northern Senegal and The Gambia) during this period terrifying. People feared falling asleep because they could be captured at any time, night or day.

The island looks quite different than it used to. Baobab trees cover the once treeless sandbar. The fort of the British- the final colonial power- lays in ruins. The slave pens have disintegrated beneath the grass. It is hard to believe that 300,000 people were killed on this tiny island.

Kunta Kinteh Island today

Back on the mainland, I noticed a large white pole stuck into the ground. This was the freedom pole. Anyone who could swim from the island and touch this pole was granted freedom. The catch was that the island was 5 miles away, the slaves were severely malnourished, and the island was full of crocodiles. Many tried but nobody successfully made it to the pole.

Monument in Jufereh

After getting lunch in a local restaurant, I headed over to the slavery museum in the village of Jufereh. Alex Haley’s distant relative Binde Kinteh is the current chief of Jufereh. Outside the museum, I was approached by shirtless 3-year-old kids begging for candy. “Minty sweety”. It was hard but I ignored them and walked into the Slavery Museum, housed in a UNESCO-listed British-built building.

The permanent collection, entitled: The Voyage of No Return was quite informative and well-curated, quite surprising since the town of Jufereh had absolutely no money.

The slavery museum

The first room was explained the “triangular” logistics of the slave trade: slaves moved from Africa to the Americas, gold and other raw materials moved from the Americas to Europe, and textiles moved from Europe to Africa (although I am not really sure how many textiles came to Africa or what that even means).

An important but not-well-known fact is that Brazil received more slaves than anywhere else in the Americas. This was followed by British Caribbean islands. The United States received relatively few slaves when compared to these other areas. In the US, Charleston, South Carolina was the most popular destination. It just so happened that the slave traders and plantation owners in South Carolina had a preference for Senegambian slaves. Many African Americans could therefore trace their ancestry back to the Senegambia region and to Kunta Kinteh Island. That included Alex Haley, the creator of Roots.

One room in the museum was dedicated to Senegambians in early Americans history. Something not mentioned is that many of the Senegambian slaves were Muslim and had a working knowledge of Arabic and Muslim culture. A few slaves even completed the Hajj to Mecca. Once in the New World, most slaves were forced to convert to Christianity and took on European names.

The final room of the museum was dedicated to successful members of the African diaspora in the United States. Pictures of Condoleezza Rice, Eric Holder, astronauts, Oprah, lawyers and doctors graced the walls of the room. Not one actor, singer or athlete was there. I was told the purpose of the room is placed to inspire local children to use their minds and become productive global citizens. While I was quite inspired by the room, I questioned how many locals actually visit.

Final room dedicated to the successful members of the African Diaspora

With that, the tour abruptly ended. My guide and I got into the cab and drove back to Barra then across the ferry to Banjul.

I found the trip to Kunta Kinteh Island and Jufereh to be extremely worthwhile. I learned about the Atlantic slave trade. Growing up, the subject was taught but it was severly watered down because I was a kid. The truth is far more harsh; millions of Africans died, were enslaved and were subjected to the worst forms of torture imaginable. Additionally, millions more were affected by losing a relative, spouse, parent or friend to slavery. Without a doubt the Atlantic slave trade as one of the deadliest human tragedies in our history and it is an absolute shame that it does not get the recognition it deserves.

Kunta Kinteh Island and Jufereh is just one of many memorials to the Atlantic slave trade. Ile de Goree near Dakar, Senegal and Cape Coast Castle in Ghana are other places that I have heard are worth visiting.


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