- Historic Sites
“That Hell-hole Of Yours”
In 1943 Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Britain’s poorest, most dismal African colony, and what he saw there fired him with a fervor that helped found the United Nations
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
Through it all FDR had good fun. Most commentators described him as having been gay and light-hearted, in a “holiday mood.” He enjoyed his cigar-smoking British counterpart—to the point of accompanying the prime minister on a final impromptu 150-mile drive for a night in Marrakesh, one of Churchill’s favorite exotic spots. The two heads of state got on so well that when Roosevelt’s party left for the airport at Marrakesh on Monday morning, January 25, Churchill tagged along. He had lingered in bed, so he wore only his red robe and slippers as he bade the President farewell on the runway. At approximately eight o’clock the C-54s roared into the air and headed south for a return visit to Bathurst.
Roosevelt came down hard from the excitement of Casablanca. He was tired when the plane landed Monday afternoon and complained to McIntire of a head cold. He spent Monday night and most of Tuesday resting on board the Memphis. On Tuesday evening he and four members of his party joined Great Britain’s resident colonial minister for Gambia, Lord Swinton, for a tug trip on the Gambia River. The boat passed some of the colony’s wharf towns as it churned upriver toward the old British slaving post on James Island, in ruins since the late eighteenth century. At 7:15 P.M. Roosevelt addressed the crew of the Memphis and then turned in.
The President rode through Bathurst twice more before recrossing the Atlantic, and each time his negative impressions were reinforced. On Wednesday the twenty-seventh, he made the early drive to Yundum for a flight seven hundred miles south to Liberia. This republic, colonized by emancipated slaves from the United States before the Civil War, was important to the Allied war effort. Roosevelt visited a sixty-nine thousand-acre Firestone rubber plantation worked by twenty thousand Liberians and reviewed a United States Army detachment of five hundred black troops that secured the port of Monrovia, through which passed millions of pounds of raw latex. Then he was back on the plane and soon, before dark on the twenty-seventh, riding a last time down Bathurst’s bumpy streets. At about 10:30 that night he was once more strapped into his seat aboard the Dixie Clipper for the long flight across the Atlantic. The hard-traveling party reached the quiet siding in Washington on Sunday evening, January 31, just over three weeks after its departure.
Roosevelt spent four days in bed in the White House, resting and taking sulfa to recover from what he wrote Churchill was “sleeping sickness or Gambia fever or some kindred bug” that “I picked up…in that hell-hole of yours called Bathurst. It laid me low…and left me feeling like a wet rag,” he complained. To recuperate further, he retreated for five days to Hyde Park, where “glorious zero weather” returned him to “feeling like a fighting cock.” But the fighting cock was unable to get the sights and smells of Bathurst off his mind.
The American President had witnessed the worst situation British colonialism could present. Everyone familiar with British Africa in the war years agreed with Roosevelt that Gambia was a miserable little place full of sick, unhappy people. Even friendly visitors called it “deplorable,” an “open sore,” or “one of the worst tropical slums in Africa and a disgrace to the Colonial Empire.”
Bathurst had been a difficult place to live in since its beginning. The British Colonial Office in 1816 selected the site, on Banjul Island, a flat sandspit jutting into the Gambia River on the south side of its five-mile-wide estuary, for what then seemed good reasons: It was defensible, had a deep-water harbor, was nicely situated near the river’s mouth to help the Royal Navy halt the slave trade, and was convenient for private traders who might wish to set up business in the river. But it was a miserable site for human habitation.
Gambia’s latitude meant the river’s banks harbored vectors of some of the worst tropical diseases. Bathurst’s low, sandy base flooded easily and held puddles and swamps that were perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. In 1939 Gambia’s colonial secretary wrote of Bathurst’s regular floods: “I have seen their fowls and pets drowning, their houses and compounds flooded (in places to a depth of three and a half feet or more), their beds under water, no means of cooking food till the flood waters subside.…” The British learned early how unhealthy Bathurst could be for Europeans. They brought out 199 soldiers in May 1825 and by Christmas 160 of them were dead. That end of Bathurst where Roosevelt’s party would begin its motorcade over a century later was called—optimistically, it seems—“Half Die.”
As the British halted slaving on the river, their substitute economic endeavors brought changes to Gambians’ way of life. It was always fundamental in British thinking that colonial peoples should pay for their own administration. From the mid-1830s, when Gambian farmers began selling peanuts to British traders, peanut exporting became almost the sole source of funds for Gambia’s colonial government. With British encouragement Gambian farmers often grew and sold peanuts at the expense of their food crops, millet and rice. In years when world prices for peanuts were high and for rice low, Gambians had enough to eat and maybe even something left after paying colonial taxes to buy a few imported goods. But when peanut prices dropped and imported-grain prices rose, Gambians did not have enough to eat.