Roots: dark history or tourist trap?
As our boat neared the jetty some village children ran to meet us. Whether in excitement at the break in the routine of the day, or in expectation that tourists meant tips, I wasn’t sure; probably a mix of the two. I couldn’t help but reflect how differently the boats docking here would have been greeted in the past.
We were on an organised tour from our base in Fajira (the beautiful Ngala Lodge). We had never read or seen Roots, and tend to shy away from large group tours. But I didn’t want to visit The Gambia without acknowledging, and learning more about, the history of slavery in West Africa. And with limited time this seemed as good a way as any of visiting some key sights.
After two hours on the Gambia River we had arrived at the small fishing village of Albreda on the north bank. In less happy times this was one of the embarkation points for slaves being transported to the Caribbean and Southern states plantations, and the village contains several memorials of those days. Today, like its neighbour Juffureh, it is benefitting from the money generated by hosting groups of tourists interested in finding out more about those terrible events – hence the enthusiastic welcome.
Whether the numbers of tourists now visiting this part of the country risks ‘sanitising’ the past is arguable; but on balance I felt that visitors were respectful and were here, like us, with a genuine desire to learn. And if the villages are cashing in to some extent, I for one won’t blame them. This is a poor area and the money badly needed.
Albreda was formerly a French outpost, having been given to the French by a local ruler, Niumi Mansa, in 1681 to strengthen trading ties with Europe. This gave the French a foothold in the otherwise British-owned territory in this region. This led to regular skirmishes, with nearby Fort James changing hands between them several times, before settling down under British control from 1702 onwards. Albreda itself was transferred from French control to the British Empire in 1857.
Today the village survives on fishing and tourism, the later sustained by these memories of its dark past. Down by the river where the boats dock is a dramatic statue of a human figure, part black and part white, with broken chains hanging from its wrists and a globe for a head. On the plinth are inscribed the words, ‘Never again’.
Nearby are the ruins of a ‘factory’ or fortified slaving station, and the so-called Freedom Flagpole. We were told this gets its name from a story that if a slave managed to escape from James Island and swim here, and to touch the pole before being caught, he would gain his freedom. However none ever did because they feared the river and never learned to swim. I am not sure how true this is …
The cannon next to the flagpole dates from the 19th century. It was used by the British to deter slaving ships from sailing further up river.
The local guide who had met our boat led us on a stroll through the village with its dusty football pitch and shady baobab trees. As we walked we were ‘serenaded’ by local children with drums, singing and some rather bizarre costumes and dancing. Every group had a bowl for tips; we were encouraged instead to make a single donation to the village in a box outside a small council office.
The Slavery Museum
Our walk brought us to the slavery museum, housed in a wooden building dating from the mid 19th century, known as the Maurel Freres Building. This building seemed somewhat ramshackle, despite being described in a sign on the outside wall as ‘one of the best structurally preserved historical buildings in the James Island and related sites world heritage complex’. It was built by the British in the 1840s and is named for a Lebanese trader who later used it.
According to the same sign, the James Island and related sites present:
a testimony to main periods and facets of the encounter between Africa and Europe along the River Gambia, a continuum that stretched from pre-Colonial and pre-slavery times to independence.
That could be said to be the aim of this little museum too.
Outside the museum was a moving sculpture in a naïve style depicting a slave family. The father is standing and is manacled to the mother who kneels at his feet, her baby on her back.
There was also a replica slaver ship which we could climb inside to see the cramped conditions suffered by the slaves.
We were left by our guide to walk around three rooms. These tell the history of the slave trade (both in this region and more generally), describe the appalling lives of the slaves, and, more positively, celebrate the more recent achievements of black African-Americans.
A number of artefacts such as manacles, chain neck-locks, and foot-locks bring the gruesome history to life, as do quotes and posters from contemporary sources. It is somewhat cramped, and the artefacts not imaginatively presented, as they might be in a more sophisticated museum. But they are perhaps all the more telling for that reason.
We walked to the neighbouring village of Juffureh along what appeared to me to be a wide sandy track but could equally as easily have been a dried-up river bed. Only the ‘Welcome to Juffureh’ sign gave any indication that we were entering another village.
And Juffureh would be just that, ‘another village’, were it not for one black American man, Alex Haley, and his search for his African ancestors. He told in his semi-fictionalised account, Roots, how he traced his family back to a certain Kunta Kinte who originated from Juffureh. From there he had been captured and sold into slavery in the plantations of the American South. Haley came here to see if any of his relatives could be found.
He discovered the descendants of Kunta Kinte’s brother still living here in the family compound. Alex Haley himself claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte and here he met a woman also of that generation. She has since died but other members of the family remain. They take it in turns to represent the rest (‘sit for the family’, as our guide put it) when tourist groups visit. We met the daughter of that seventh-generation woman who had welcomed Alex Haley, and another family member whose relationship was not explained. The women greeted visitors and posed for photos. In return they sold small booklets about the story or simply accepted a small donation for their time.
There have been some challenges to the authenticity of Haley’s account. He himself admitted that he took some details of Kunta Kinte’s story from another book. And papers found after his death cast doubt on his claim that he was descended from him. But there is no denying that these villages, like most others in the region, suffered terribly from the impacts of the slave trade; impacts felt by both those who were taken and those left behind.
A village chief
Not having read ‘Roots’, I was more interested in the general history of slavery than this one man’s story. For me, the more memorable encounter in Juffureh was not with the Kinte family but with the village chief. This just happened to be, at the time of our visit, a woman – still an unusual and remarkable occurrence here.
She sat in the village banaba to receive visitors and welcomed us through a translator. She spoke a little about her appreciation of the efforts we had made (truly not that considerable!) to leave our hotels for the day and travel to see something of village life. Meeting her was one of the highlights of the day out for me.
Kunte Kinte Island
After our visit to Albreda and Juffureh we returned to the boat to travel the short distance to Kunta Kinte Island (known as James Island until 2011). This small island in the River Gambia is home to the ruins of a fort that once belonged to colonial Britain. For many slaves, this would have been the last patch of African soil that they saw before being transported in the bowels of transatlantic slave ships to the Americas.
Prior to coming into British hands in 1661 it had been occupied by first the Portuguese and later the Dutch, among others. For the British it represented their first imperial exploit on the African continent. They renamed the island James Island and the fort Fort James after James, the Duke of York, who was to become King James II of England. The island subsequently changed hands many times, particularly between the French and British. The fort was destroyed and rebuilt several times during this period, both in these conflicts and by pirates.
If stones could talk…
Today you can see the ruins of the fort and some of its outbuildings; but many of the latter, including the slave houses, have been lost due to erosion of the island. It is now apparently only about one sixth of the size it was at the time of the slave trade. Much of what has been lost was artificial island that had been built up around the natural water’s edge to enable more buildings to be constructed here. Without constant maintenance, it is not surprising that these reclaimed patches of land are again being lost to the river.
Our guide, Ibrahim, bemoaned the fact that his government is doing so little to protect this part of the country’s history; and this despite the fact that it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with related sites including Albreda and Juffureh. You can still see the ruins of the main fort building and enter one of the cells where recalcitrant slaves were imprisoned. And there are still cannons in place on the crumbling bastions. But the outlying quarters where most of the slaves were housed are no longer standing, so we got only a partial idea of the conditions they suffered. It was left to my imagination, Ibrahim’s explanations and my own reading of history to fill in the rest.
Despite its gruesome history this is quite a peaceful spot. I loved the shapes made by the ancient baobab trees against a backdrop of sparkling river water. So I wandered away from Ibrahim, informative though he was, to take some photos. A welcome note of tranquillity at the end of what was at times a taxing, if fascinating, day.
I visited The Gambia in 2014
I really enjoyed reading that Sarah. I’d have defo gone on that tour myself. I remember as a teenager being totally glued to Roots on TV and was an early education for me into the slave trade. And I can still remember Kizzy. Kunta’s daughters name. It got me thinking too of how when we travel many things we visit come with a price and I hope the income did help the local community. OOOOhhhh to get away and travel………………
Not sure who I’m talking too, as you’ve posted anonymously, but I’m very grateful for the feedback 🙂 I’m glad my post brought back memories of the TV programme for you and got you thinking about travelling – although that’s a bittersweet exercise at the moment, isn’t it?!
I am not an Alex Haley fan – I haven’t read the book, nor have I seen the TV show. The latter because has been some years since I watched dramatic shows on TV or in theatres. The good that I see in the story is that it gives some income to the local people. They would be of more interest to me.
I don’t know if I’m an Alex Haley fan or not, having not read the book or seen the TV series (even though I do watch TV). But I agree with you Rosalie about the income for the local people
An uncomfortable subject that has been brought to the fore recently, and no matter how uncomfortable it was, I would have to do the same as you, and find out more from somewhere that bore the brunt of the suffering. I have to ask though Sarah, was there any mention of how the slaves were sold and by whom?
Thanks Malcolm. To be honest I can’t remember all the details of what we were told, six years on. I don’t recall anything specific on that subject but I could be wrong. The emphasis seemed to be more on the conditions they suffered on the island and on board the ships.
One thing I remember from Haley’s book is his explanation of how oral traditions were passed on from one generation to the next, mainly by the women. In his family, the stories of earlier generations were preserved partly by lucky accidents, such as enslaved families not being broken up when they were sold by one slaveowner to another.
That’s interesting Don. After our visit here I intended to read the book but then I came across articles partly discrediting his research and it out me off a bit. I may yet come back to it however!