Beginning in late August 1974, I spent eight months in The Gambia, collecting oral traditions. 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. Thus, one of my primary goals was to learn how Gambians remembered the 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. 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.