Gambia is a mere silver of a country with a generous heart, and James Island is a constant reminder of its more turbulent past. This minute island bears witness to the dark days of the slave trade, and sitting as it does in the middle of the River Gambia, about 2 km (1.2 mi) south of Jufureh and Albreda, it was once at the centre of struggles between Africa and Europe. As the river formed the first trade route into the African interior, it also became an early corridor for the slave trade.
On the island are the remains of Fort James – a Dutch nobleman, Jacob Duke of Courland, built the fort in about 1651. The English captured it in 1661 and the island became known as Fort James or James Island, after James, Duke of York. The fort was used as a trading base, first for gold and ivory then for slaves such as Kunta Kinte, who was portrayed in the film Roots. The English and French fought over the fort for more than a century.
The fort remained a slave collection point right up until slaving was abolished. Over time it was completely destroyed, then rebuilt at least three times. Now only ruins remain. The island is so small that it had to be ‘extended’ to accommodate other buildings, which was achieved by creating embankments supported by stakes. Even these are being slowly eroded – and the river is encroaching on the ruins. Now only groves of hefty baobab trees stand to attention beside the old walls.
James Island is a stop-off for enthusiasts. Continuing up-river by boat you are drawn into mangrove creeks and mud-hut villages. The Gambia is a vivid, laidback country and James Island is a small yet stark reminder of another life and times.
When to go: Best time to visit is between November and February when it’s dry and relatively cool. During the wet season (June to October) it’s less crowded and cheaper but roads may be inaccessible and malaria is more widespread. Migratory birds visit between October and April – peak tourist season.
How to get there: Pirogue (dugout wooden canoe) from the shore.
Highlights: The history of the island and the River Gambia, and their part in the slave trade.
Gambia’s unspoilt beaches.
Abuko Nature Reserve and Bijilo Forest Park.
Fort Bullen in Barra, at the mouth of the river.
You should know: Around November to February dry, dusty ‘harmattan’ winds do blow off the Sahara.