By Herb Frazier


Tuesday, November 15, 2011 6:06 PM EST

EDITOR’S NOTE: Herb Frazier recently traveled to The Gambia where he conducted a four-day election coverage workshop for Gambian journalists, sponsored by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, DC, and the Gambian Press Union.

KUNTA KINTE ISLAND, The Gambia - Before and after the slave trade to America, Africans only used this tiny island in the River Gambia as a rest stop when they fished these waters.

The Europeans, however, took the island as a base from which to hold captured Africans before they were shipped to plantations in the Western Hemisphere, including rice fields in South Carolina.

First settled by the Portuguese in 1456, the island was initially called St. Andrews. Then in 1651, the Duke of Courland, now in modern-day Latvia, built a fort here to establish an empire in this part of West Africa when it was called the Rice Coast.

A decade before Charleston was founded, England seized the fort in 1661 and renamed the island for James, the Duke of York. Then over a period of 118 years, the island changed hands between the English, the French and pirates. The fort was destroyed then rebuilt, whereupon the French seized it again in 1779. After England unilaterally outlawed the slave trade, the island was abandoned in 1829.

From that time on, Gambians didn’t take much of an interest in the island, except for the fishermen, until Alex Haley’s book Roots and the subsequent television series changed things.

When Haley traced his lineage to Kunta Kinte, a boy who is assumed to have been shipped to America from this island, the island gained international fame.

The Gambian government in 1974 began to take an interest in the preservation of the island. The Monuments and Relics Commission was set up then as the tourist industry grew. In 2003, the island was placed on the World Heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Earlier this year, the Gambian government renamed this eroding high ground Kunta Kinte Island.

On the island and at the Juffure Museum on the mainland, Lamin Ceesay tells the story of Kunte Kinte, who lived in the nearby village of Juffure. Ceesay, a tour guide on the island, said he too is related to Kunta Kinte. Visitors follow Ceesay through the fort’s ruins as he recalls the island’s history and describes how captives were treated.

Small boats brought captives to the island, said Ceesay as he stood in the former “slave yard,” a wide area now shaded by towering baobob trees. At this spot, he said, captives were graded as “valid and unvalid.” The valids were branded on their shoulder to identify them on the other side of the Atlantic. The unvalids were tossed into the river to die.

Then the valids were divided again; men in one chamber, women and children in another. As many as 100 people were packed in tight in each chamber. Conditions led some proud women — after they were raped — to commit suicide by repeatedly banging their heads on the brick walls. A tiny room with a small window held rebellious captives like Kunta Kenti, Cessay said.

Although receiving somewhat fewer tourists than the famous Goré Island off Dakar in neighboring Senegal, Kunta Kinte Island remains one of the most visited slave trade-related cultural sites in Africa. During The Gambia’s tourist season, which runs from November to late April, about 90,000 people come to this country, of which 65 percent make the long journey here.

The island sits off the north bank of the River Gambia across a wide harbor from Banjul the capital city. It is 20 miles upstream from where the river spills into the Atlantic. Once a traveler crosses over to the north bank on a slow ferry from Banjul, an hour-long cab ride through a lush tropical landscape ends at the Juffure Museum. But the journey is still not over. A 30-minute ride in a small boat is the final leg to the island. The river is continuously nibbling at the island — which is about 1,500 feet around — half the size it was when the fort imprisoned up to 600 captives.

Baba Ceesay, the country’s director of cultural heritage, who is responsible for interpreting the island’s history and protecting it from erosion, said the island is of special importance to people of African descent in North America, Europe and the Caribbean. (No relation to Lamin Ceesay.)

Ceesay said the slave trade left victims on both sides of the Atlantic. People of African descent in the diaspora tend to blame the Africans for the human suffering slavery caused. “It was you who sold our ancestors into slavery,” he said, referring to comments he has heard. “They say they are the victims of the slave trade, but there were also victims left behind.”

When children, like Kunta Kinte, were taken away to an unknown place and unknown fate it left victims on the continent. “Mothers and fathers were left with graves with no bodies,” Ceesay said. “In their hearts, they are victims too.” The pain still lingers here.

Sainey M.K. Marenah, a 26-year-old reporter for The Point newspaper in Banjul read about the slave trade in high school. Although slavery existed in The Gambia before the Europeans arrived, the two forms have no comparison, he said. Still, he blames Africa’s traditional rulers “who sold thousands of our grandparents. But they were ignorant of what was happening. If they knew about slavery in America and knew the trauma it caused” they might not have committed other Africans into the European brand of slavery.

People of African descent are returning to connect with The Gambia and other African nations with similar cultural sites linked to the slave trade, Baba Ceesay said. During The Gambia’s International Roots Festival in Banjul, Ceesay said, black people are learning about their cultural heritage as they participate in rituals “to integrate them back into African society so they can experience our wisdom and traditions.”

Herb Frazier is public relations and marketing manager at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and author of “Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories of Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, Daniel Island, St. Thomas Island.” It is published by Evening Post Books. 

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