By Dan MacCarthy
ONE of the most famous names from the modern TV era is that of Kunta Kinte, whose fame in television land, for a certain audience, may only be surpassed by JR Ewing of Dallas fame. Kinte’s story was told in the TV series Roots and was adapted from the novel of the same name. The island prison where he was held in the Gambia, Africa, before his transportation to the US has strong Irish connections.
In researching his family tree, US author Alex Haley traced his lineage to west Africa and the minute country of the Gambia — one of the major locations of the slave trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries along with Ghana, Benin and Senegal. Millions of people were ripped from their towns and villages leaving behind a disintegrating society. The further enrichment of the West, of course, ensued.
As a boy, Kinte was taken prisoner in 1767 from the village of Jummureh and from there incarcerated on James Island in the Gambia River in utterly ghastly conditions before being transported to the US. Haley claimed to be a seventh generation descendant of Kunta Kinte but the reliability of some of the sources he used were later called into question.
Kunta Kinteh Island has been much bigger than its current two-acre size, my guide Dembo informs me. When he was a boy, he says, he can remember it being about twice the size “but now the sea threatens it”. In its heyday it was around six times its current size but has been seriously eroded by the mighty river. This world heritage site has the remnants of a barracks, cells and horrific slave pit. Today, a modest tourist trade trickles from the riverbank to see one of the key sites of the infamous slave trade.
The British sojourn in the Gambian slave trade began in the late 16th century when The Royal African Company, effectively a buccaneering outfit, received a royal decree to establish trading routes from west Africa to England. Their interest was in gold, ivory, and, surprise surprise, slaves. Crucial to the control of the Gambia was the Gambia River which penetrated deep into the African continent. The strategic site meant whoever controlled James Island controlled the river, the hinterland but also the vast interior from where any trade had to pass the island.
The English seized control of the island in 1661 and it was to change hands many times in the succeeding centuries between the French and English. Even under the nominal protection of the navy of any of the major powers the island was constantly attacked by pirates.
Cannon on the former slave fort of Kunta Kinteh Island. Picture: Dan MacCarthy
Irishman Robert Plunkett was chief agent for The Royal African Company and later governor of James Island around the 1720s. He is described in A History of the Gambia by JM Gray as “an excitable and over-tactful person”. However, he deployed no little tact and nerve in extricating himself from arrest by a pirate called Bartholomew Roberts who laid siege to the island in 1720.
“Roberts swore heartily at him for his Irish impudence in daring to resist him. Plunkett fell a-cursing and swearing faster than Roberts which raised much laughter among the pirates…It is said by mere dint of swearing old Plunkett saved his life.
The unfortunate Plunkett later died in an explosion on the island when poorly stored gunpowder ignited and sent him to his maker. The blame was ironically attributed to himself.
Other Irishmen with connections to the island were Corkman Charles MacCarthy who, as governor of Sierra Leone, advised his government to retake James Island from the French in 1815 — decades after Kunta Kinte’s presence there. Another Irish connection was the infamous governor of Goree island in Senegal, Dubliner Joseph Wall ,who was also governor of James Island and who disgraced this page last week.
The English banned slavery with an 1807 act of parliament. James Island fell into decline after they abandoned it in 1830. It was renamed Kunta Kinteh Island in 2011 and the Gambian government is now hoping to develop its tourist potential.
How to get there: Ferry from Gambian capital Banjul across Gambian river to Barra. Taxi from there to Albadarr. Ferry to Kunta Kinteh.
Other: Alex Haley, Roots; History of the Gambia, JM Gray