In 1807 the British government abolished the slave trade, with the result that it was outlawed in all British colonies. In 1815 the end of the Napoleonic Wars made the resources of the British army and the Royal Navy available for stopping the slave traders.
In 1816 the settlement of Bathurst (modern day Banjul) was founded at the mouth of the river Gambia, which was an important slave-trading route. Bathurst was begun as a military base to stop slavers from using the river. There was a battery facing over the river.
However, the six 24-pounders in this battery did not have the range to cover the whole of the river mouth, so slaving ships could still get past by keeping close to the north bank.
To close the river effectively, the British needed to be in control of both banks, so they decided to fortify Barra Point, opposite Bathurst. Initially, the king of Barra refused to sell the land, but in 1826 Commodore Charles Bullen arrived with two warships and he was "persuaded" to sell a mile-wide strip of land along the coast.
Bullen had two guns brought ashore and Fort Bullen was born. Although it was called a fort, it only consisted of the guns and some wooden huts as accommodation for the small garrison.
In 1831 some members of the garrison were attacked by the Niumi (local tribesmen) in Essau and the British abandoned Barra Point. Several months later, a Franco-British force stormed ashore and retook the point, forcing the Niumi into submission.
To secure Barra Point it was decided that a more permanent fortification should be built there. The resulting fort was square with four round bastions'at the corners.
The walls linking the bastions were loopholed'so that they could be defended by muskateers. Angular bastions were not used because the fort was not expected to face an attack by an enemy with artillery, so flanking fire and dead ground were less important.
In the event of an attack by the Niumi, the fort's garrison would have tried to shoot them down in the open ground before they reached the fort, rather than in the crossfire from the bastion flanks.
The fort had four guns, one mounted in each bastion. The guns were on traversing carriages so that they could be turned easily to face new targets, or to follow moving ships. Round bastions may have been used to facilitate these traversing carriages.
Inside the fort were various buildings, used as barracks and stores for the garrison. There were magazines'underneath two of the bastions.
The fort was never attacked, although it did shelter a large group of Niumi civilians when the nearby town of Essau was attacked by a Muslim force in 1862. However, despite its relatively quiet history, Fort Bullen was instrumental in putting a stop to the slave trade on the river Gambia.
After 1826, with both banks of the river under British control, the Portuguese and French slavers that had been trading upriver could finally be stopped. Fort Bullen is unique amongst the forts on the coast of West Africa in that it was built to help stop the slave trade, rather than as a base for slave traders.
Visiting Fort Bullen
The fort was abandoned in 1870, but was briefly reoccupied during the Second World War, when a Vickers anti-aircraft gun was installed. It was bombarded, but little damage was done. Fort Bullen was made a monument in 1978 to protect it from development.
In recent times, the Gambian army reoccupied the fort and for some reason whitewashed its walls. This may have been an attempt to restore it to its original appearance (19th century colonial architecture was often whitewashed).
Despite the Second World War bombardment and the construction of a modern navigation light, the fort is in good condition. It is normally possible to visit the fort, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although the custodians seem rather unofficial.
The fort stands next to the town of Barra, which is a short ferry-ride from Banjul, where the Six-Gun Battery still exists. For the more adventurous, a trip upriver to Fort James is highly recommended.