First settled in 1651 by traders from Courland (in present-day Latvia) on an earlier native site, James Island on the River Gambia was a cultural crossroads from the late fifteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. In 1661 the fort that the settlers had built passed into the hands of the English who renamed it Fort James. The fort has a square plan with polygonal bastions at its four corners. There were formerly curtain walls between the north and east bastions, a large stone cistern for collecting rainwater, ancillary fortifications, and a service building at the end of the island. However, in 1778 the fort was taken by the French and severely damaged during military maneuvers. The site remained in ruins after the attack.
1998 World Monuments Watch
Limited stabilization work was done in the twentieth century, but because of its relative inaccessibility the site was not heavily visited and continued to deteriorate. Through support from American Express, WMF aided the conservation of the site. Masonry of the wall around the island was restored, as were smaller walls within the fort. In order to help visitors identify the remains, locator maps were designed and made available to visitors. Tourist revenue was allocated to regular maintenance of the site. WMF also assisted in the restoration of other James Island structures, including Fort Bullen and the building that served as the headquarters of the Compagnie Francaise d'Afrique Occidentale.
The site is directly associated with the early mercantile encounters between Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. It is primarily associated with the slave trade and is comparable both in scale and duration with that of Île de Gorée in Senegal. Fort James is a provincial example of a type of baroque fortification common throughout the region, built to protect the enterprises of European trading companies. Because of Alex Haley’s book Roots (1976), James Island and nearby Juffureh have become symbols of African ancestry for the African-American community. Both in the book and in its preserved state, the village is presented as a link between the slave trade and people of African descent living in the Americas. As such, the site annually attracts thousands of American and other international visitors.