Kunta Kinte Island sits at the mouth of the Gambia River. Though tiny — it is barely big enough to house some ruins of its past and a baobab grove — the role it has played in world history has been large indeed. Because the Gambian river runs like an artery from the Atlantic into Africa, it was a crucial passageway for the slave trade. At its height, an estimated one in six West Africans slaves came from this area. The island is also famous for its namesake: Kunta Kinte. Kinte was a character in Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Roots, and later of a miniseries by the same name. Haley claimed his book was based on a real-life man who was captured into slavery in the nearby village of Juffureh, and that he himself was Kinte’s great, great, great, great grandson. In Haley’s story, Kinte, who was sold to an American slave owner, resisted both his enslavement and the name “Toby” that his owner imposed on him. After his fourth attempt at escape, the slave catchers gave him a choice: Be castrated, or lose half a foot. Kinte chose the latter (a fortunate choice for the descendants who would later immortalize him).
There have been disputes over Haley’s claims of descendancy and his account of Kinte’s life, which he claimed were gleaned from research and his family’s oral tradition. Expert genealogists have pointed to records that show “Toby” died at least five years prior to the birth of Kizzy, Haley’s great, great, great grandmother. After a legal battle, Haley also admitted that some of the material was sourced from Harold Courlander’s book The African. Regardless, Kinte’s story hit a nerve on both the West African and American coast. The mini-series based on his life attracted a record-breaking 170 million viewers, and is credited by some as invoking a change in American attitudes to slavery — a turning point in the post-civil rights struggle. For locals on the island, Kinte was very much a real man. Gambian historian Lamin Ceesay showed Inside Africa host Soni Methu around the island, pointing towards a faded ad selling slaves from the vessel the Lord Ligonier. “That was the boat that took Kunta Kinte from James Island to Goree (Senegal) and then crossed to Annapolis,” he told her.
There are others that claim descendancy with Kinte. Aja Mariama says she is Kinte’s seventh-generation grandchild. “When Kunta was captured, his father wrote on a piece of paper that until the end of times, his son’s name will not be forgotten. He was a warrior. He was brave,” says Mariama. Last month, A&E Networks announced it will reboot Roots, with Laurence Fishburne playing Haley and LeVar Burton — who played Kinte in the original series — co-producing. Lamin Jatta, supposedly a ninth-generation descendent of Kinte, is working as a series advisor. The series will ensure that another generation know the story of Kunta Kinte. It looks like Kinte’s father was right.