The first Europeans to reach the Gambia River were the Portuguese explorers commissioned by Prince Henry the Navigator to look for a sea passage to India. They didn’t pass up the opportunity to use their new discovery for trade purposes, though. They introduced the ground-nut to the river-banks, and started the export of what was, for many years, to become the main commodity from the area. Slaves.
The end of the slave-trade in the early years of the 19th Century, though, left the Gambia with just the ground-nut as its sole tradeable commodity. So, they’re looking to tourism to give a boost the country’s economy. It could be an uphill job, for there’s not a lot to display on this particular stall. Although very rich in bird life, birds aren’t everyone’s thing, and Gambia isn’t particularly rich in the kind of wildlife for which the rest of Africa is noted.
Then, in 1976, Alex Haley published his novel, Roots. Haley claimed that his book was fiction, but based upon actual events. It tells the story of how his ancestor, a young man named Kunta Kinte, was taken from the village of Juffure in 1767 and transported to America. There has been some controversy about this book; at one time, Haley was even accused of plagiarism of another work.
But, nevertheless, Gambians took advantage of it, and many people liked to take the ‘Roots’ cruise. A modern sea-going cabin cruiser took visitors about 20 nautical miles up-river from Banjul, the capital and visited the former slave station at Albreda, and James Island as well as Juffure.
The Royal Navy took over James Island to use as a base for anti-slavery patrols after England outlawed the trade in 1807. Before that it had been a slave station, changing hands regularly between Portuguese, German, French and English slavers. The fort was badly damaged by an explosion in the powder room; it is said that blue glass beads for trade, stored in a nearby warehouse, were scattered by the blast, and can still be found on the riverbank to this day.
These destinations seemed to be an honest attempt at minimum-impact tourism. The boat could only carry about two dozen passengers, so the villages are hardly swamped.
At Albreda, there’s the ruin of a former French slave station, a cannon, bearing the cipher of King George III, for the English held Albreda at one time and the ‘Freedom Flagpole’. When Albreda was under English rule, it is said that liberty was guaranteed to a slave escaping from the French who was able to reach it.
Between the two villages, there was a small museum, ‘The Exhibition on the Slave Trade’ and a ‘tourist market’, consisting of half a dozen souvenir stalls. Apart from these, they’re just two African fishing villages, trying to get on with their own leisurely affairs. Two dozen people, staying for not much longer than a couple of hours, didn’t seem to affect them too much. I had a feeling that, as soon as we left for James Island, it wouldn’t be long before the slight ripples we’d made in this particular peaceful pond were stilled for a while.
We visited the compound of Alex Haley’s distant kinsmen, the Kinte family, to hear from them the story of their common ancestor, Kunta Kinte. Before this, however, the Chief had to be called upon, as the courtesy of the country demands, to ask permission to visit the village.
That’s a good check. Maybe, in a future time, if visitor pressure gets too heavy, and begins to affect the village adversely, the Chief will have the courage and good sense to say ‘no!’ occasionally?