2006-09-01 / Travel

Slave Trade Expedition to Africa

Part 19: Isles de Los, Paradise Lost

After our work was done on the Rio Pongo, we decided to spend a day on Isles de Los, three islands five miles off the coast of Guinea. They were never inhabited by Africans but were one of the early Portuguese stops on their way down the coast of West Africa. The origin of the name is unclear. The islands appear in old documents and maps as The Edlesses, The Idols, Las Idolas, and the Isles of Loss.

Rhoum and Fotoba, the outer islands, are both eight miles long and about a half mile wide. Both have four or five villages. Tayire, the central island, is much smaller and is uninhabited.

Rhoum, the closest to the mainland, is famous as a tropical resort for expats and the elite of Guinea. There are hourly taxi boats to the island. On the northern tip of the island is an active bauxite mine. Several of the villages provide fresh fish for the markets in Conakry, the capital city five miles away.

Fotoba was much more attractive to our expedition team. It was the site of an early outpost of the British Sierra Leone Company, a place from which slave traders stocked their ships for the Middle Passage to America, then after abolition of the slave trade in 1808, a base for the British Navy.

Isles de Los are three islands off the coast of Guinea, West Africa.
Isles de Los are three islands off the coast of Guinea, West Africa. Even after the French took Guinea and Conakry into French West Africa, Britain maintained control of Isles de Los. Finally, in 1904, Britain ceded the islands to France. Since 1962, Isles de Los have been an integral part of the nation of Guinea.

I was especially interested in the islands because Capt. Styles Lightbourn and his wife, Queen Niara Bely, dealt with the British authorities on Isles de Los. The Captain negotiated with the Sierra Leone Company and European merchants on the islands for imported goods and deals on slave trading. After Capt. Lightbourn died in 1833, the Queen used her influence on Fotoba many times to thwart the British Navy from bombing her slave factory in Farenya.

We rented a motorized canoe at the dock in Conakry at nine on the morning of January 20, 2006. There were nine of us: Dr. Ken Kelly, archaeologist; Andrew Hoose, cameraman; Bah Oury, our ERA/GUINEA coordinator; Dr. Mohamed Baldi, professor at the University of Conakry, Moussa Fofana, our Farenya guide; Ahmed Soumah, our interpreter; Ali the boatman; and Abdul the mate. The cost for the full day was $28 not including food. We brought our own bottled water.

We left the dock at Conakry for Isles de Los. In the background is the National Stadium which was burned during a coup attempt in the 1980s. Seated in the boat are Andrew Hoose, Moussa Fofana, Dr. Ken Kelly, and Ahmed Soumah.
We left the dock at Conakry for Isles de Los. In the background is the National Stadium which was burned during a coup attempt in the 1980s. Seated in the boat are Andrew Hoose, Moussa Fofana, Dr. Ken Kelly, and Ahmed Soumah. It was a bright sunny day, temperature in the 80s, with a smooth ocean. Halfway to Rhoum, we passed three rusting freighters languishing on their sides and several fishing boats. At 10:30 we passed a steam shovel tearing bauxite from the hillside of Rhoum. Thirty minutes later, we reached Fotoba. The 200-year-old dock was deserted.

(Next week:

Fotoba, village lost in time)

On the way to Isles de Los, we passed an overturned, abandoned freighter.
On the way to Isles de Los, we passed an overturned, abandoned freighter.


On the northern coast of Rhoum, a steam shovel tears bauxite from the side of a hill.
On the northern coast of Rhoum, a steam shovel tears bauxite from the side of a hill. We went ashore at Fotoba on a 200-year-old dock once used for unloading slaves. It was deserted. 
We went ashore at Fotoba on a 200-year-old dock once used for unloading slaves. It was deserted.

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