Kunta Kinteh Island (James Island), Gambia’s Fortified Isle

The Island as seen from afar, dominated by its baobab trees

photography by: Ikiwaner/ Wikimedia Commons

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The narrow sliver of land along the eponymous river that is Gambia has been a witness to the ebbs and flows of human civilization, from ancient empires to colonial dominions. Yet it is the dark epoch of the transatlantic slave whose echoes still resonate on its shores. Once a bustling hub for the ignominious slave trade, Kunta Kinteh Island now serves as a somber reminder to the hardships this long-abolished practice.

Perhaps no other country in the world is as synonymous with a river as Gambia, with its identity and history deeply intertwined with the mighty waterway that bisects it. Within this river, which shares its name with the downstream country through which it flows, one can find a tiny speck of land whose historical significance far exceeds its claustrophobia-inducing size.


Formerly known as James Island, Kunta Kinteh Island is nestled roughly 30 kilometers from the mouth of the Gambia River, encompassing an area of a measly 0.35 hectare, which due to incessant erosion is a mere sixth of its original size.


Since its discovery by intrepid explorers, the island’s strategic location made it a focal point for European powers vying for control over the lucrative trade routes and copious resources in West Africa. While the place was initially captured and fortified by the Portuguese in the mid-15th century, over the ensuing centuries, it changed hands multiple times among various nations, including the Polish, the Dutch, the French, and the British, each leaving a prominent mark on the island’s architecture in their wake.


This pint-sized landmass held a major role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 17th to the mid-19th century. It was in the Island’s Fort James that enslaved Africans were kept before their forced passage across the Atlantic. The conditions within the facility were harrowing, with men, women and children often being confined in cramped, unsanitary quarters.


Today Kunta Kinteh Island stands as a memorial to the millions of African lives affected by the slave trade. The ruins of Fort James, along with the remnants of barracks, gunpowder magazines, and slave-holding cells, all providing a glimpse of the island’s dark past. Efforts to preserve the site and its smattering of baobab trees have been ongoing, with UNESCO’s designation helping to raise awareness and funds for conservation.


By far the easiest way of getting here is with a “Roots” tour from Banjul, involving a journey on board a small boat or a pirogue, during which passengers are often greeted by packs of river-dwelling dolphins before reaching the island’s sole jetty. Alternatively, visitors can also reach the island from the town of Juffureh on the southern bank of the river, where local guides and experienced skippers readily provide their services.