June 2016 Volume 13

Fortis Greetings from the Land of our Ancestors

Michael O. Walters
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During 2012 and 2013, I wrote a series of articles entitled “Fortis Greeting from the land of Your Breadfruit Ancestors….” in reference to my stay in the South Pacific from which the breadfruit in Jamaica originated. This time, though, I write from the land of our ancestors in reference to a trip to West Africa where many of our Jamaican ancestors came from as slaves. The country I visited was The Gambia, a narrow country in West Africa along the Gambia River and encircled by Senegal as shown on the map (Yahoo maps).

Although I proudly carry the flag of a Black Jamaican, the difference in features and skin color (Photo_Features) reminded me that I also had non-African ancestors.

Many slaves were removed from The Gambia and transported to the Americas and Caribbean including Jamaica. One of the places I visited was the Underground Slave House, a place where slaves were imprisoned before they were shipped (Photo_underground_Slave_House). Our local guide gave my wife and me a historical perspective of the slave trade and showed us some of the tools and chains that were used to restrain the slaves. He said that the slave trade in The Gambia was started by the Arabs, but it was the Portuguese and British who industrialized it and shipped large quantities of slaves to the west.

In fact, The Gambia was controlled by the Portuguese https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gambia#Gambia_Colony_and_Protectorate_.281821.E2.80.931965.29 before it became a British colony. The country, as it is now, was carved by Colonizers, is along the river and provides easy access for ships to get to the interior and yet remain in one country. The slave ships would travel up the river in the center, and smaller boats would take the human cargo from the shore to the ships. The shipping point up the river started from Barra, a point near Sakuta Island (Map). Prior to the shipping and imprisonment in the Underground Slave House (Photo_underground_entrance), slaves had to be caught.

Our guide told us that this was accomplished with the collusion of local Africans. The local people knew where to go to capture potential slaves. For example, since they were a part of the community, they knew when and where the circumcision rites of puberty-aged boys would occur (usually a remote area in the woods) and they would pounce on them. They often took other tribes they had disputes with or people they didn’t like. Our guide took us underground and showed us some of the torture tools, and chains used to restrain the prisoners. He demonstrated the way a prisoner was forced to drink water with his hands in chains (Photo_Drink). Here he showed us a water-filled hole which has a direct connection to the Gambia River, this meant that if the river was in spate, then the underground slave house would be flooded with people in it and as always, only the strong survive. For sickly or dead prisoners, the crocodiles in the river provided a handy disposal service.

Another very interesting place we visited was Wassu, a point near Kass Wollof (Map) to see the Historic Wassu Stone Circles (Photo_Wassau).


The sites are burial sites and body adornment is often limited to a bracelet and the individual is often buried with a weapon such as a spear. Burials are pre Islamic based on the way the body is laid out. Dating techniques were used to date the sites to 450 to 750 AD. Generally 10 to 24 stones are placed standing around the burial area (Photo_Burial_Display). Stones used in the building of the stone circles were quarried form the nearby local Lateritic Sandstone. The stone had a unique quality in that it is quite soft and easy to carry. The stones have the same height in each circle but vary from circle to circle.

In general, we were surprised by the lack of a tropical jungle in The Gambia. In fact, only the large trees were green while the grasses were brown (Photo_brown_area) and were apparently awaiting the once per year rainy season before they would be green. There were some trees that were familiar to us like mango, coconut and cashew (Photo_Cashew) there were others we had only read about like the Baobab and the Kapok.

The Baobab looked like it was planted upside down with the root in the air, and it is called the Upside Down tree (Photo_Baobab_Tree). The fruit is used for a refreshing drink or can be roasted and made into a coffee-like drink. The Kapok tree (Photo_Kapok_Tree) is huge and the trunk covered with thorns while the fruit has a cotton-like fiber that is often used to stuff pillows. The land was dusty, from sand blowing in from the Kalahari Desert and out to the Atlantic Ocean where the hurricanes that we get in the Americas and the Caribbean, are formed each year off the coast of The Gambia.

We could see how that area earned the name, the “Smiling coast of Africa.” The Gambians greeted us warmly as the women transported babies in back sacks (Photo_Baby_on_Back), but the smiles were really turned on when they learned of our Jamaican heritage. However, they seem to believe we can all sing like Bob Marley, so we had no choice but to decline several invitations to sing and prove that we were no Bob Marley.

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