Islands of Ireland: Off with his head

Slave House on MacCarthy Island, Gambia, where slaves were imprisoned before transportation to America over hundreds of years.

This week we leave Ireland’s rocky shores and expand this series to take in global islands where Irish people have had a strong influence, whether malign or benign, writes Dan MacCarthy. MacCarthy Island in Gambia, Africa, is one of five or six MacCarthy islands globally and was named after governor Charles MacCarthy who was born in Cork in 1764.

MacCarthy actually served his time in the Irish Brigade of the French army and then the Dutch before receiving a commission to the British army in 1799. He was regarded as a reformer and in 1807, when the British parliament abolished the slave trade, he arranged a base far up the Gambia river to protect British commercial interests, as well as enforce the act. They settled on Lemain Island, which was later renamed after him.

In west Africa, the British Empire competed mainly with French colonialism with pockets of German, Spanish, and Portuguese invasions. The British sphere of influence extended from Nigeria westward to take in Ghana, the Gambia and Sierra Leone where he was governor.

Unfortunately for him, MacCarthy came up against the powerful Ashanti tribe in 1824, who over-ran his position in present- day northern Ghana. After his force of 600 were surrounded by 10,000 Ashanti warriors, the game was effectively up. The Ashanti forded the River Pra, overran the British position, and killed everyone bar one soldier who had previously done a favour for an Ashanti chieftain.

MacCarthy was decapitated and his brains were scooped out of his head. The skull was lined with gold and used as a ceremonial drinking goblet. One of the highest honours the Ashanti paid the vanquished foe. Ahem. As I arrived in the village of my namesake (Charles Daniel), a group of village elders assure me that, despite sharing the name of the governor, my head would stay on its shoulders. Suitably reassured, I have a look around this fascinating place. 

The island was named after Corkman Charles MacCarthy.
The island was named after Corkman Charles MacCarthy.

At the Slave House, curator Alagie Sidibeh gives an impassioned run through on the history of the island and its place. The Portuguese established the island as a trading post in the 15th century. It was sited here as escape was impossible. It was the Alcatraz of its day, surrounded by hippopotami and crocodiles. Hundreds of thousands of people were brought here from the African interior and coast before being shipped to Europe or the Americas.

The slave house is a mere shell and Alagie says there are no funds to preserve the building or mount an exhibition. He demonstrates a body manacle that ensured slaves had to crouch in a foetus-like position when standing. He shows leg-irons manufactured in Bolton, England, and manacles for children over nine years.

The slaves were forced to sit in the underground slave dungeon. When the river level rose the prison flooded leading to cholera epidemics, he says.

But all was not doom and gloom, for just up the road was the freedom tree and if slaves touched that tree they would gain their freedom. Trouble was, to reach it the weakened and probably diseased slave had to overcome armed troops and savage dogs. This was essentially a game for the captors.

MacCarthy Island is nestled in a crook of the meandering Gambia river, which is more than 1,100 km long. To get there necessitates a 270km, three-day river trip or a 450km road trip from Gambia’s capital Banjul in tropical heat. The impoverished country of 2m people finally wrested its independence from the British in 1965.

The island is also known as Janjanbureh Island and previously was called Lemain. Georgetown is the name of the village on the island, after King George.

Today, MacCarthy Island is home to about 1,600 people. There are schools and a market, but very little employment. A fairly lively passenger ferry brings people to the villages on the far bank. One of Gambia’s main prisons is sited here and prisoners under armed guard can be seen doing public works in the streets.

The birdlife is extraordinary. Exotically-plumed birds settle in the trees unflustered by humans: the African paradise flycatcher; the blue-bellied roller; the yellow-crowned gondlek to name but a few. More next week.

How to get there: adventuregambia. com

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