Idea #651 – Exploring James Island and the English forts of the Gambia River
James Island is a small island on the Gambia River that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Its location in the middle of the river has made it a strategic place to control this river route. Frequented by explorers and merchants in search of a sea route to India, it has become one of the first areas of cultural exchange between Africa and Europe. In 1456, the island was bought from the local chiefs by the Portuguese who set about building a fort there. The development of James Island was very different from that of the other forts, castles and trading posts in other parts of West Africa. Indeed, the primary purpose of the James Island site was to control the interior of the land, and not the coast and the trade that passed through it, and to strengthen and control the slave trade and goods.
The “six-barrel” battery (1816), now located within the presidential palace and therefore inaccessible, and Fort Bullen (1826), located on either side of the mouth of the Gambia River, were developed much later than James Island. They were specifically built, however, to fight the slave trade after the adoption of the Abolition Act in 1807, declaring this trade illegal in the British Empire. These sites are the only defensive works known in the region to have been specially constructed to counter the interests of slave traders.
These two military posts allowed the British to take full control of the Gambia River, paving the way for the establishment of the colonial government, a period well illustrated by the presence of numerous colonial buildings in Banjul and the Governor’s residence at the Fort Bullen. Finally, Fort Bullen shows evidence of its return to use during the Second World War (1939-1945) as a strategic observatory and artillery base. This last period illustrates another European rivalry that has spread to the African continent. James Island and the associated sites offer an exceptional testimony of the different facets and times of the encounter between Africa and Europe, from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. As such, the site is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Where is it ?
James Island, Albreda, Gambia