A Polish-Lithuanian Colony in Africa: Kunta Kinteh Island

What you’ll find in this article

  • Early History
    • First European settlers are arriving
  • Polish-Lithuanian Period (1651-1661)
    • Attempts to establish a Polish-Lithuanian foothold in Africa
    • Decline of Polish-Lithuanian Power
  • New European Powers in Kunta Kinteh
    • The English and French battle for the island
  • Kunta Kinteh Island Today
    • It’s now 1/6th of its size due to heavy erosion

Kunta Kinteh, also known as St. Andrew’s Island or James Island, is a small island located on the Gambia River. What makes this island unique is that it was the only Polish-Lithuanian colony in Africa. Moreover, Kunta Kinteh is one of the three short-lived colonies of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the world.

Aerial view of the island (kuntablog.com)

Early History

First European settlers are arriving

Two Italians, Antoniotto Usodimare and Alvise Cadamosto, who served under the Portugese Crown were the first Europeans setting foot on the island in May 1456. Upon arriving at the island, they buried one of their sailors, Andrew, which subsequently gave the island the name St. Andrew’s Island. In 1458 the famous Portugese sailor, Diogo Gomes, also landed on the island during his expedition to the West African coasts.

Kunta Kinteh today (orhue.com)

Polish-Lithuanian Period (1651-1661)

Attempts to establish a Polish-Lithuanian foothold in Africa

The first Europeans who settled in Kunta Kinteh Island were from the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, one of the vassal states of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Jacob Kettler, the Duke of Courlandia, ordered his subjects to build a fort on the island, which was named Fort Jacob after him. What made life hard on the island was the lack of water supply which had to be provided from the mainland.

Duke of Courlandia, Jacob Kettler wanted to establish a permenant settlement in Africa. He sent families to live on the island. Even a church was built on the small island and a priest was assigned to the island to lead the community. Subsequently, the duke ordered further expeditions to lands surrounding Kunta Kinteh. Two expeditions in 1653 and 1654 resulted in two unsuccesful attempts by two foreign sailors who served the Polish-Lithuanian Crown. Following this, in 1955, Otto Stiel, a Courlander captain, was to Kunta Kinteh as the new governor of the island.

The island is covered with many baobab trees (pinterest.com)

Decline of Polish-Lithuanian Power

In 1658, the Duke of Courland Jacob Kettler was captured by Swedish soldiers. Kunta Kinteh became forgotten by the Courlandian Crown. All communication between the island and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was cut for 2 years. Meanwhile, the Amsterdam office of the Dutch West India Company attempted to take the island from the Governor Otto Stiel who battled the Dutch at first. Afterwards, the Dutchmen bribed him and Otto Stiel handed the island to them in 1660.

In the same year, a French privateer arranged a suprise attack on the island and drove the Dutch away from Kunta Kinteh. The privateer attempted to sell the island to the Groningen office of the Dutch West India company which was a seperate one from the Amsterdam office that owned the island before. The Groningen office refused to get back the island and told the French privateer that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is the rightful owner of the island.

The map of Kunta Kinteh (worldheritagesite.org)

They contacted Otto Stiel, who back then had been residing in Holland in order for him to take him back to Kunta Kinteh Island. Ex-governor Otto Stiel accepted the offer and sailed back to the island.

A few weeks later, a small fleet of the Amsterdam office surrounded the island and ordered him to surrender which Otto Stiel declined. Dutchmen faught hard and defeated Otto Stiel. However, unexpected help came from the native African kingdom of Barra and a few other small kingdoms. They demanded that the island be given back to the Governor Otto Stiel. The Dutchmen resisted for a month then accepted the terms. As a result, the second short era of the Polish-Lithuanian presence in Africa had started which would last until 1661 when the English captured Kunta Kinteh, ending the Polish-Lithuanian era in Africa.

Ruins of the colonial buildings (dichtbijenverweg.be)

New European Powers in Kunta Kinteh

The English and French battle for the island

After capturing the island, the English renamed the it James Island after King James II of England. They established trade routes for gold, ivory and subsequently slave trade.

In 1695, the French occupied the island after a battle with English troops. In 1702, the English gained back the control of the island. During these occupations and wars, the fort and the other structures on the island were destroyed and re-built many times. On 13 June 1750 the island was consigned to African Company of Merchants.

In 1807, slavery became an illegal act in the British Empire and subsequently the slave trade in Kunta Kinteh ended. The island was abandoned in 1870.

Kunta Kinteh Island Today

It is now 1/6th of its size due to heavy erosion

In 2003, Kunta Kinteh was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its importance in African slave trade and active European colony history. Unfortuntely, due to heavy erosion and changing levels of water, Kunta Kinteh is now 1/6th of its original size. There are some ruins of the castle and other colony buildings. Despite its small size, the island attracts many tourists and is seen as one of the top attractions in Gambia.

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