Delving into Family History Narratives on Slavery and Emancipation from Maccarthy Island (The Gambia)

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 9:30 AM
Clark Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Alice Bellagamba, University of Milan-Bicocca
Consisting of thin strip of land about 300 kilometers from the mouth of the River Gambia, MacCarthy Island became a British commercial outpost in 1823. The settlement was a sanctuary to refugees escaping the ravage sof war and of the slave trade on the mainland. The process continued in the first decades after colonization. Not all immigrants were either former slaves or slave descendants, of course. But the Island offered opportunities of upward social mobility to those engaged in the difficult task of shaking off the stigma of enslavement and slave ancestry. Social recognition, here, was based less on origins than access to commercial networks, missionary and government education, as well as positions in the local colonial administration.

Today, visitors can see the place where the British flag stood. Quickly, they learn than MacCarthy was a place of freedom. It is also evident that the Islanders are trying to recover part of their past in order to link with the industry of ‘Roots’ tourism. Yet, to uncover the ways in which slavery and slave emancipation intertwine with the history of this locality is far from being an easy task.  Early colonial and missionary sources permit a reconstruction of major events in the 19th century. Another matter is to address the development of the  community, which the British found on the Island in 1823. This paper presents a set of narratives relating to the history of one of MacCarthy Island’s most prominent families. In so doing, it assesses both the potential and limits of this kind of source for the analysis of slavery and emancipation.

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