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McCarthy Island Clocks 200 Years Of Occupation

By Yunus S Saliu

One of the most popular and historical islands in The Gambia that signifies freedom from slavery and played no part in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is McCarthy Island in Central River Region (CRR).

This popular McCarthy Island clocked 200 years of occupation on 14th April 2023 it is one of the local destinations tourists can hardly avoid if they are to claim a productive stay in the country, an island where every moment spent is a moving and memorable lesson.

According to History of Settlement on April 14, 1823, the Island was ceded in a treaty signed by Major Grant. On the same day, Grant took formal possession of the Island and built a fort.

On April 30 two cannons were mounted on the bastions, the British flag hoisted and the royal salute fired. The settlement was named after King George IV (1820-1830) – Georgetown and the Island was renamed after Sir Charles McCarthy, Governnor-In-Chief of British West African Possession (1814-1824) and called McCarthy Island.

This island developed into a wooded environment inhabited by wild creatures and numerous species of birds and reptiles. Before it assumed its present names, early European and Luso, African traders of the 16 and 17 centuries, originally called it Lemaine (Lemania) Island.

McCarthy Island occupies about 1/6 of the 43.2km square land area and is equally called Georgetown, or Janjanbureh, its latest name. The various names appeal to specific groups of people that visit the island.

Among old and today’s students of the island, Georgetown seems to be more favorable, while most of the indigenes (youths) called it McCarthy, and the old ones and the new visitors called it by its last name – Janjanbureh. The Lemania name has virtually lost its place in this generation, except for historical references.

On a historical tour of this famous island, Hassoum Ceesay, a historian and Director General of the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC) reiterated that the settlement itself is one part of the Kingdom of Niani which was one of the Gambia 8th Independence State before the onset of the colonial role and was under the leadership of the Saballys for a long time as they were the leaders of the region.

“In 1823, the British wanted a place in the River Gambia after the destruction of Kunta Kinteh Island (former James Island). The British didn’t want to spend money to clear the island again it was so much destroyed by the French so they decided to have another place along the River Gambia where they will be able to settle, and the Island was negotiated by the same person who had negotiated the transferred of St Kombo Island called Bathurst and now Banjul the capital city of The Gambia today. He got the treaty signed with Sabally, the King of Niani for transfer of the possession of the Island to the British,” he explained

The historian highlighted on few of the important places on McCarthy Island which include the Methodist church. The church is the oldest Methodist Church in sub-Saharan Africa dating back to 1835.

According to him, the Methodist Pastor, Rev Father Morgan established the church to cater to the religious need of the Christian community on the island barely twenty years after the British occupation of McCarthy Island. This also coincided with the arrival of the liberated Africans on the Island so in no time they had a sizeable Christian population on the Island living side by side with the other groups.

And since then till today it’s been in continuous use for the past 190 years.

In addition to the church Father Morgan also established a school to cater to the educational need of the children on the Island where he will do the lesson in the morning and religion services in the evening. “So we can ably say also that the Methodist School here is the first school outside of Bathurst in The Gambia which is of great historic significance.

The school has been in existence and used for over 150 years. So what this tells us is that McCarthy Island has been for a very long time the center of Western Education and also of Christianity in this country.

The school has shaped the community in many ways because it is one of the reasons this island was able to produce some of the elite earliest educated people in The Gambia, people like Alhaji Farimang Singhateh – the first Gambian Governor General from this island.

Among other historical social amenities on the island which cannot find in other parts of the country is the colonial Lamp Pole dating back over 100 years ago still visible. McCarthy Island has public lighting system even before Bathurst and this Lamp Pole is a good example of a public lighting system. It was established as early as 1890 at the main intersections of the town to illuminate the environment at night. This was long before the era of electricity and there was a group of men whose main task was to light the kerosene lamp at 6:00 pm every evening, refill them with kerosene, and put them off at 6:00 am.

Another aspect of the island that is also unique is that it was well-planned. The streets were well laid out after the purchase of the Island in April 1823 Captain Alexander Grant brought ingenious including one Campbell from England to plan the new settlement. They used the layout of the British system that’s why when you are in McCarthy or Georgetown specifically you will see that the streets are quite long and straight, in rectangles crossed from one end to the other. This is one of the rears of urban planning which other settlements in this country can learn a lesson from.

This island in the past has played a great important role in the history of The Gambia especially the riverside wharf which used to be the most important riverside port outside the Bathurst (Banjul) Ocean where moving vessels used to sail from Liverpool, Bordeaux, Malmore direct to McCarthy Island Port to carry groundnuts to Europe.

According to the archive, in 1923, one hundred years ago, 30,000 tons of groundnuts were evacuated from this port alone for direct export to Europe. This is proof of the significant role of this port in the economy of The Gambia.

The Gambia has no road network until 1970 thus the British thought the river is enough to cater to the communication needs, because of that “we depended on boats doing the weekly sail from Bathurst to Basse while the island remain major stop and starting point of Lady Denham – the first riverboat linking Bathurst to Basse for the disembark and embark passengers and goods,” Historian Ceesay disclosed.

Lady Denham sank in 1923 then there come the Prince of Wales that used to carry passengers, animals, cargo, and mail from Bathurst to Basse every week. After it comes to Lady Wright which was commissioned in 1948 with a regular weekly sail from Bathurst still the island remained the major stop.

However, In 1968 Lady Wright was decommissioned because it was too old and for almost a decade the Gambia was not having a regular riverboat service until 1978 when Lady Chilel new boat was commissioned to do the regular weekly sail until it sank in 1985.

McCarthy Island is a community that produced a large scale of wage earners which encouraged a lot of migration into the island; it housed many civil servant officials including the commissioner, assistant commissioner, public works department, medical personnel, and prison staff. The island is like a composite of public servants using the riverboats to do their official duties while all the trading companies were represented on the island. They all have trading houses there so “this was a booming commercial center in addition to the administrative importance of Georgetown it is also a groovy commercial center largely facilitated by this spot,” Historian Ceesay explained the importance of the riverside to the economy of the country.


Yunus S Saliu

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