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  • The Effect of Alex Haley’s Roots on How Gambians Remember the Atlantic Slave Trade1
  • Donald R. Wright


Beginning in late August 1974, I spent eight months in The Gambia, collecting oral traditions.2 My intention was to use what I obtained to reconstruct the history of Niumi, a precolonial “state” (Mandinka: banko) located at the mouth of the Gambia River. Over three centuries of slave trading in the river, Niumi was a dominant player in the region’s political economy.3 Thus, one of my primary goals was to learn how Gambians remembered the [End Page 295] centuries-long commerce that connected people living along the Gambia River to a vast Atlantic economic system, the heart of which was the sale and transportation of humans.

To my disappointment, with only a few exceptions, Gambian informants did not recall much about the slave trade. In Albreda and Juffure, the two Gambia-River villages where people were most involved in dealings with Europeans during the slave-trading era, the best informants could say little beyond noting ruins of old buildings and mentioning vague doings of “the Portuguese.” In the end, only three informants were able and willing to say anything beyond the most banal generalities about the capture, movement, and sale of slaves that occurred in the Gambia River.4 My assessment was that in the body of stories that Gambians held in their collective memory, a vast void existed between tales of the long-ago, and likely mythical, origins of a clan, village, or state and events that occurred much more recently, in this case after the British settled Bathurst, near the river’s mouth, in 1816.5

That was thirty-five years ago. The circumstance is different now. Never mind seeking out persons reputed to have the greatest knowledge of the past in the former centers of slave trading. Stop just about anyone on the streets of Gambia’s capital, ask for information on the slave trade, and you will hear about the famous capture of a Gambian slave, the notorious fort on James Island that held a “dungeon” for keeping recalcitrant captives, and [End Page 296] how Gambian slaves were sold and delivered to America. What has brought about this great enhancement of Gambians’ memories of activities that occurred several centuries ago? One book: Alex Haley’s Roots, and the television production of the same name that followed, based on Haley’s tale.6 Today, the story of the Gambia-River slave trade in the minds of most Gambians is the story Haley told in Roots.


Permit me to admit to initial naïveté concerning the nature of oral traditions in The Gambia and, consequently, what I expected to get when I set off collecting them. Put succinctly, I believed I would be hearing mostly tales of past events, carefully memorized and handed down through the generations by word of mouth so they could be passed on again later, exactly, in toto. Thus, I anticipated getting something close to a story in its original, pristine form, unadulterated by external influences.

I did my graduate study during the period David Henige describes as “the high tide of the notion that oral tradition was an unimpeded path to centuries of history throughout Africa, and that there was little more to it than going into the field and asking questions.”7 Such evidence, many of my generation hoped fervently, would enable us to write an authentic African history, as opposed to an African history relying on the views European traders, explorers, and colonial rulers left in documents. We had picked up Jan Vansina’s enthusiasm for the use of oral tradition generally,8 had read of Ivor Wilks’s method of dating Asante kinglists using average reign lengths,9 and were eager – primed by the eclipse maps published in the [End Page 297] Journal of African History – to hear tales of astronomical events so we could develop a chronological framework for our individual studies.10

In particular, we had marveled at the memory of Mamadou Kouyaté, the Guinean “griot” (Mandinka, jali, plural jalilu) who, as we understood it (maybe because it was the way we wished to understand...


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