He was captured, tortured, chained and restrained by white slave captors, before being taken to James Island awaiting the passage to the New World.
The severe inhumane treatment followed him up to the plantation, thousands of miles away from home, where he was forced to work for his masters as a slave.
Kunta Kinteh was denied his rights, values and dignity as a human being. The legacy of such denials still linger and resonate with his descendants even though they have forgiven.
Hailing from Juffureh, north of the coast, the small village is 45km (approximately 1 hour and 36 minutes) away from the capital of Banjul.
The Portuguese traders and the British were among the European forces behind the brutal slave trade in the region in the mid-15th century – 1456 to be precise.
One important place during this time was James Island. James Island was used as a holding cell for slaves until the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade by the British in 1807.
The island has now been renamed Kunta Kinteh Island to preserve his legacy and legacy of the countless others with similar stories. It sits about 30km from the estuary – off Juffureh, where Kunta and others were arbitrarily held for weeks as they awaited the long passage to the New World.
“We were very sad about this and that’s normal because Kunta Kinteh descended from us, even though I did not witness it, neither my mother nor my father did. But when we were told about it, we must feel sad just like any other human being would have,” Mariama Fofana, the eldest descendant of Kunta Kinteh told The Chronicle at their family home on Juffureh.
According to Fofana, they were relieved a bit after the reunion with Alex Haley, an African-American writer who claimed to have been a seventh generation descendant of Kunta Kinte.
In Haley’s visit to The Gambia in 1967, as part of his 12 year search for his familial roots, Alex discovered the village from which his great-great-great-great-grandfather Kunta Kinteh hailed from as well as James Island where Kunta was held captive.
Upon his return, he published a book entitled: ‘Roots: The Saga of an American Family’. The popular book was turned into a television mini-series played in homes across the world especially in the United States and The Gambia. The series depicted the life of Kunta Kinte and that of his subsequent descendants in America.
Eight generations since Kunta’s death, the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade is not forgotten as the history of it is well kept and fresh in the community through learning and sharing. Many of his descendants justified that they cannot forget the history because the enslavement of their relatives has cost them eternal disconnection. But they all demonstrated the act of forgiveness.
“In the beginning, we were always very sad and angry about the slavery of Kunta Kinteh, but now we’re fine for the fact that people are visiting us, his descendants here in the village. History has cemented and diversified our relationships with many people in different parts of the world and this is why many people are visiting this community,” Mariama said.
She added: “This happens thanks to Kunta Kinteh’s history. We are now satisfied with this new experience. In the end, it’s all peaceful here and we will continue to pray for Kunta to rest in peace”.
Mariama preached the importance of forgiveness, the belief she said the family has been so consistent on, to ensure that they hold no grudge against anyone.
Kunta Kinteh’s legacy and tourism
Tourism is among the leading sectors that contributes to the growth of Gambia’s economy, and providing employment opportunities. A tour guide for Juffureh/Albreda Youth Society, Lamin Trawally, said Kunta’s legacy has a positive impact on the country and his community.
“Jufureh and Albreda are very important communities in the country because these were the major settlements of Europeans in The Gambia during the period of slavery, right down to the abolition of slavery,” he told The Chronicle.
“Today they serve as one of the most visited excursion centres for tourists who are coming to visit the Kunta Kinteh Island and other historical sites in the village here.”
As a tour guide, Lamin’s job is take visitors around to the historical sites and narrate the history of each site. Among the important sites are the Kunta Kinteh Island, the Museum in Albreda and Kunta Kinteh’s family home in Juffureh.
Source of income
“Tourists coming to The Gambia are contributing to these communities through their companies or the individuals who bring them here. Each tourist is paying D200 which goes to the welfare of the village development. It also provides employment because people like myself and my colleagues are working because of the tourist visitations,” Lamin told The Chronicle.
Today’s Juffureh and Albreda have become economically viable communities, while the youth employment has increased significantly due to the booming tourism industry.
A ticket seller for the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC) at Albreda, Binta B. Jallow, said the income generated has been significant to the national coffers.
For local organisations like the Juffureh Albreda Youth Society (JAYS), they have become more vibrant as they embark on creating development in the community thanks to their collections from visitors.
In the group’s annual turnover, JAYS has collected, on average, D300, 000 (Three Hundred Thousand Dalasi) annually from the site visitations as each visitor pays D50. The fee has now been increased from D50 to D200 per person, according to Bakary Fofana, the senior revenue collector of the association.
“This is helping our communities a lot. We are now offering worthwhile pay to our tour guides; we are renovating some areas in the communities and we have also taken charge of the payment of the village taps every month. We are doing all these thanks to the revenue we are collecting from these visitations,” he told The Chronicle.
“The sites are very important for the visitors, because it is new to them. Some of these visitors will come to realise how their ancestors brutalised our forefathers and it’s very important for them,” NCAC’s site attendant in Albreda, Bakary Jabang explained.
He said Black Americans who believed that their forefathers are from The Gambia are usually shocked by the narrations they would hear and they become attached to the stories.
“We say we can forgive, but we cannot forget about the history because it has been done…But that’s the beauty of it and we hold no grudge. This is why we said we can forgive but we cannot forget.”
Kunta’s story, a sense of identity
The story of Kunta Kinteh told through ‘Roots’ has impacted those in the African diaspora since it’s release 44 years ago several, providing a sense of identity to those it was stripped from through slavery.
Daron McDonnaugh, a West Indian American told The Chronicle that Kunta’s story has given him a sense of identity.
“The impact it has on me is that it gives me a sense of identity, it feels good to know that someone like Kunta was able to beat the odds under the circumstances he and his tribe were under.”
“In doing so, he paved the way for the next generation of storytellers. To name a few, Diane Ferlatte, Maya Angelou, and Steve McQueen, and generations after them like myself,” Daron is currently on a visit to The Gambia.
Despite the marginalization of Blacks due to slavery and such institutions, he states that Kunta managed to retain his freedom through the passing of stories to his people.
Like many others, Daron commends the family of Kunta Kinteh for leaving room for forgiveness.
“It is important to forgive because it can lead you down a path of healing and peace, and in a way that is what the tribe has done till this day…they continue to beat all odds considering what has happened to them during the period of slavery,” he said.
America’s point of view
The United States has attached a great importance to the history of the transatlantic slave trade. The U.S. government officially recognized the observation of Black History Month in February to celebrate the achievements of the African diaspora in the 1970s.
Earlier this month, the U.S. delegation visited Kunta Kinteh Island, Albreda Slave Museum and Kunta Kinteh’s family in Juffureh as part of the commemoration of the month.
“Gambian-Americans are the natural bond between us – the two countries,” Ambassador R. Carl Paschal, who led the delegation told The Chronicle.
He recalled his childhood when he read and watched ‘Roots’ on the television, which he said had opened up a whole new world for him. According to Paschal, the series helped him understand how such a tragic history of slavery had existed.
“It’s important we never forget that, but also important we celebrate from that tragedy the strong sense of connectedness (sic) between the people of Africa and others. Of course, we have many great Americans that have African descent – both descendants of slaves and freemen – and their contributions to our nation’s history will always be remembered.”
The U.S. Ambassador suggested the need for the Gambia government to make efforts to help Black Americans and Gambian-Americans alike reconnect with their roots – stating that the Roots Homecoming Festival in December will be of great help.
R. Carl Paschal believes that both Black Americans and Gambian-Americans are enthusiastic about coming to the “New Gambia” in a different era of economic opportunities and freedom.
Trade based on violence
Michael J. Quinley, U.S. embassy’s legal advisor for West Africa International Financial Investigations was also part of the trip and said the site visits gave him a real experience from what he watched in ‘Roots’ film.
According to him, the visit made him understand how different European countries were involved in the horrible trade as well as some powerful chiefs.
“They were capturing people and selling people on the coast and the chiefs were cooperating with European traders who built these forts because really it’s a trade based on violence,” he said.
Like the Ambassador, Quinley recalled watching ‘Roots’ when he was younger.
“It’s my visit for the first time and I have learned a lot through the story told in that drama that traced the history of Alex Haley’s family. Coming here to James Island and here in the north bank of The Gambia is very moving.”
For John Gravely, this visit has shown him a different view of the tragedy from what he watched and read.
“I watched the movie and I read the book– ‘Roots’ and actually coming here seeing the villages that were written in the book and in the movie is touching,” he told The Chronicle.
“It’s a whole lot of experience and I will surely recommend our people to be coming here to experience it because it’s a huge difference from the book. I have a different mindset when watching it and coming here makes you actually see the places they are talking about. It’s really a cool experience. I definitely recommend it.”
Meanwhile, the parched-looking trees and brick ruins that occupy the Kunta Kinteh Island, including the whole sections of the slaves’ quarters have already been reclaimed by the river’s waves and high winds.
The Director General of National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC), Hassoum Ceesay said restoration plan is underway to preserve the island.
“The NCAC has applied for funding to the American government through the ambassador’s fund for cultural preservation to restore the island. The application process is on progress and there’s a lot of hope because the embassy is very helpful and the ministry also is very supportive,” he told The Chronicle.