23 APRIL 1977, Page 19


'Roots' and the Sunday Time

Richard West

Roots Alex Haley (Hutchinson £5.95)

As long ago as the mid-eighteenth century, a Negro slave from North America who had been given his freedom by a considerate _White man, returned to his home by the Gambia river, afterwards writing a book about his experiences. Until well into the nineteenth century, some of those freed slaves who went to the settlements at Sierra Leone and Liberia were able to find their relations or at least their kinsmen. Perhaps the majority knew to which tribe or language group they belonged. For instance the famous West Indian scholar, Edward Blyden, was conscious and proud of his I bo ancestry, although he preferred to live in Liberia. Ry the present century, most of the descendants of African slaves in the United States, the West Indies and Latin America had lost any memory of their African ancestors. During the period of slavery, the White masters forbade their blacks to speak African languages, to worship Islam or Pagan gods, even to call themselves by their African names. Over the generations, black girls were forced to breed from white roasters; families were dispersed, and slaves sold and resold all over America. Many slaves did not even know their fathers, let alone their family trees. When the 'Back to Africa' movement recommenced during the 'twenties, its !eaders like Marcus Garvey were wholly Ignorant of the place to which they wished to return. In Liberia and Sierra Leone (the latter by then just an ordinary English, e°1°oY), the descendants of the 'American settlers remained quite separate from the ,native Africans whom they exploited and despised. Again, the Negro Americans who fl-ngrated to Africa in the 'sixties showed an ignorance of the continent that waS both Pitiable and ridiculous. Some studied Swahi.11., the east coast language, before going to ilve in Ghana or Nigeria; some had tribal tscars cut in their cheeks, without knowing which tribe they might claim member"LIT; they found themselves laughed at and ',,windled by Africans, who also often re(erred to them as 'white men,' now a generic

name for visitors from across the sea. i It s thus a sensation when a mixed-blood

American Alex Haley claims in his book _Roots to have traced his Mandinka ancestor, ..Kunta. Kinte, not only back to a farm in _virglnia but to the very village Juffure, in atribia, from which he had been kidnapped ;,11 1767. Undoubtedly Roots owes much of 4vidts. huge s success to the author's personal link r With his actual ancestor. But is Mr Haley

had Kunta descended from Kunta Kinte? And "ad Kunta Kinte been kidnapped from Juffure in 1767?

It must be said at the start that Mr Haley has made things hard for himself.Whatever its basis in fact, the book is really a novel until its concluding pages, where Mr Haley offers a breathless account of how he did his research. Even here he does not name all his informants or offer sources for the material he claims to have got from museums and archives. It is clear that he did long research without having obtained any background knowledge about the slave trade, so that when he was told that his ancestor must have come from the Gambia, he had not heard of that mighty river. We are told that Mr Haley is now writing another book called Search to explain these things; he would have been wiser to put some of Search into Roots.

The book is based on the family history that Mr Haley heard (or claims to have heard) from his grandmother and other old relatives. The farthest-back person they talked about was a man they called 'the African,' who had been taken by ship to a place called •Naplis,' and bought by a 'Massa John Waller' who had a plantation in `Spotsylvania County, Virginia.' The African used to tell his daughter, who told her own children, who told theirs, and so on, that the African who had been named by his master 'Toby' was really called `Kintay' and came from a river called `Kamby Bolongo,' from which he was kidnapped by four men and sold into slavery. This, less a few smaller details, was what Mr Haley claims to have heard as a child. I say 'claims,' not because

distrust Mr Haley, but simply because there is no evidence to support what he says.

In the course of his researches, but not till after he went to the Gambia, Mr Haley discovered two documents that appear to verify his story. The Maryland Gazette of October 1767 describes the arrival at Annapolis, from the Gambia, of the ship Lord Ligonier, whose cargo included slaves. A deed filed in Spotsylvania County a year later, shows that a John Waller had transferred to William Waller land and goods 'and also one Negro man named Toby.'

Until the appearance of Search, we cannot know how Mr Haley traced his ancestry back to Kinte/Toby. But it seems very probable that he did, since only a few of his ancestors were sold and even they (apart from Kinte's daughter) remained a tightly-knit family. It seems perfectly natural that the family should have wanted to pass on to succeeding generations the story of ,the African,' and since modern America is obsessed with genealogy, it seems unlikely that Mr Haley could ever have forged his family tree and gone undetected.

No sceptic has so far suggested that Mr Haley does not descend from 'Toby' or that 'Toby' was not a `Kinte' who had been brought the previous year to 'Naplis' from the `Kamby Bolongo.' What has been suggested, by Mark Ottaway in the Sunday Times (10 April 1977) is that Mr Haley was misled in the Gambia and that Kunta Kinte did not come from the village of Juffure in 1767. Here 'is the front page précis of Mr Ottaway's very long article: I. The man who provided Haley with the vital link to Kunta Kinte was a man of notorious unreliability who probably knew beforehand what Haley wanted to hear, 2. The Juffure of 1767 was not the remote village described in Haley's book, but a white trading post.

3. It is highly unlikely that a resident of Juffure could have been captured by slavers in 1767.

4. Haley chose the year 1767 because it fitted in with his researches in the United States, although there was no supporting information in Gambia.

5. Nobody knows what happened to the Kunta Kinte who apparently once disappeared from Juffure.

The case against Roots sounds bad unless it is pointed out that : 1. The man who told Mr Haley about his ancestors was a 'Griot,' a local cross between a court jester and an oral historian. He has died and so cannot answer the slurs on his character, but it is hardly surprising to hear him described as a 'playboy.' G riots are comedians but nevertheless faithful repositories of the clan's history. According to Roots, this Griot recited two hours of history before even reaching the disappearance of Kinte. It is entirely likely that any clan or village along the Gambia would know details and the approximate date of incidents hundreds of years ago. The Griot may have told Mr Haley what he wanted to know but then so may Mr Ottaway's informants have told him what he wanted to know—that the world's bestseller was a phoney.

2. The Juffure of 1767 was indeed pretty remote. Few Europeans ventured inland and at that time there were no Europeans at Juffure at all, although it provided water, food and a laundry service to James Island. In any case, the description of Juffure in Roots is by Alex Haley not Kunta Kinte, who passed on to his daughter only a few facts about `Kamby Bolongo' and not a learned treatise about the • European presence in the lower Gambia. However, Mr Haley is no doubt correct in Roots that Juffure village at that time was some way back from the trading posts on the river because of the danger of slavers. It was precisely in places like Juffure, near to the trading posts, that Africans were in most danger.

3. It is highly likely that a Juffure resident might have been captured by slavers in 1767. It is true that the 'King' of Barra, a village at the river mouth, had a treaty with the English forbidding the kidnap of people, as did most

West African 'kings' who wanted to safeguard their own monopoly on the sale of slaves. These treaties were however, con stantly broken by slavers who kidnapped a man or woman and sailed off without any_ one knowing. The venal company agents at James Island winked an eye at such goings on. It is doubtful if the King of Barra then, or at any time had any real control over upriver villages like Juffure, being content to exact a toll from every ship leaving and entering the Gambia mouth.

4. TheGriot said that Kunta Kinte was kidnapped 'about the year the King's soldiers came,' which Mr Ottaway suggests could not be a reference to the arrival in April 1766, ofa unit commanded by one Colonel 0' Hara. Why not '? He suggests that this must have been 1661, when King Charles's men arrived, apparently on the sole grounds that this would conflict with Mr Haley's story. Obviously Mr Haley, having worked out the approximate time of his ancestor reaching America, would expect him to have been kidnapped not long beforehand.

5. Africans kidnapped by slavers seldom were heard of again.

There is a further reason why I believe that Mr Haley's Griot was rather more plausible than his denigrators: the whole affair has got mixed up in Gambia's turbulent politics. In British times, the African middle class in Bathurst (now Banjul) was almost entirely composed of `Akus'— descendants of people from down the coast who had been rescued from slave ships captured by the Royal Navy. The Akus are Christians, speak English, wear Eulopean clothes and have always been much disliked by up-country Gambians, most of whom are Mandinka Muslims, As Sir Richard Burton wrote in the 1860s: 'The liberated Africans, principally Akus and lbos, have begun the "high jinks" which we shall find at their highest in Sierra Leone. They have organised "companies," the worst of trading unions, elected head men who will become their tyrants, effected strikes, and had several serious collisions with the military. They are in missionary hands, which disciplines and makes them the more dangerous.'

When independence came in 1965, the Mandinkas swept into power in Banjul, taking most of the jobs from cabinet minister to cabby. Their old hostility to the 'Akus' now extends to all detribalised Africans, such as Mr Haley. They would not be pleased, either, that Mr Haley has grown very rich out of the Gambia. Some two years ago, when the story of Roots was already well known, the Gambia became one of the few West African countries that does not give residence permits to black Americans wanting to settle in Africa.

Having a great respect for West Africa's oral historians, I find it possible, perhaps even probable that Kinte/Toby actually did come from Juffure. And unless Mr Haley is a colossal cheat, then Kinte/Toby was also his ancestor. May I conclude this review with the afterthought that I found Roots a moving book ?