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February, 2020

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Whilst sailing with “Variety Cruises” on their “Rivers of West Africa” cruise, we took an optional excursion to the port town of Janjanbureh on the island of the same name. The town was previously known as Georgetown and the island MacCarthy Island (after the anti-slavery campaigner, Sir Charles MacCarthy).

I thought we were early leaving our Motor Yacht, Harmony V, at 8am, until I heard that the coach driver had driven 5 hours from Banjul to meet us at the small town of Kuntaur where we’d moored overnight.

After a short drive on the red dust road, we turned off onto a tarmac one, and eventually arrived at the jetty. There was no time to waste, as the ferry already had its allocated quota of 16 cars: there’s no timetable, it waits until it has the required number of vehicles. Onboard, we were surrounded by all forms of life: a horse and cart, goats, tractor and trailer, cars, vans and elaborately dressed women balancing large containers on their head.

On disembarking, we walked a few minutes to a derelict shell of a building which had looked from the ferry as though it was part of the city walls. Here we learned it was a slave market where metal hoops extruded from the walls. However, our Bradt Guide said that the building was actually constructed in the late 19th century and was used for storage and suggested that local guides embellish the town’s connection to the slave trade.

Our guide, Assan told us about the 20 million African slaves which had been captured and transported to America. Gambia and Senegal were mainly affected because they had no other natural reserves or resources (e.g. diamonds) and so the target was people. Around 150 to 200 were taken at a time, often to Virginia where they were sold in the slave market to the plantation masters. He outlined the story of Kunta Kinte made famous in Alex Hailey’s book Roots.

When the slave trade was abolished in 1807, after activities by people like William Wilberforce, 90 slaves were still held on the island. They were told that if they could swim to the mainland and touch the freedom flag, they would be free. All died. Here we stopped at the flagpole, which under British rule, would have flown the Union Jack but now flies the red, white, blue, white and green striped flag of The Gambia with the colours representing the sun, peace, river, unity and agriculture.

The British purchased the island in 1823 to discourage domestic slavery which had been officially abolished but which was still taking place and a military base called Fort George was established.

At the site of an anti-slave cannon, we went into a building which recorded on a board the names of all the commissioners from 1898 to date. We moved on to the Freedom Tree, where slaves had to run to in the face of attack and were told that if it dies, it’s simply replaced: the current tree was planted as recently as 2002.

We walked through the market which was a collection of rather sad looking stalls selling a few onions, tomatoes, vegetables etc. Unfortunately, our timing for the return ferry was not as good, and to avoid a lengthy wait, we took two small boats across the river to our waiting coach.

My cruise was booked through “Seafarer Cruising and Sailing Holidays”:https://seafarersailing.co.uk/.

Helen Jackson

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