History of the Gambia

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Map of Gambia

Early history[edit]

A map of James Island and Fort Gambia

It is possible that the Carthaginian explorer Hanno the Navigator sailed as far as the Gambia on an expedition in the sixth or fifth century BC.[1]

Mali and Songhai empires[edit]

The first verifiable written accounts of the region come from records of Arab traders in the 9th and 10th centuries AD. In medieval times the area was dominated by the trans-Saharan trade. The Mali Empire, most renowned for the Mandinka ruler Mansa Kankan Musa, brought worldwide recognition to the region due to its enormous wealth, scholarship, and civility. From the early 13th century, the Kouroukan Fouga, Mali's constitution, was the law of the land. The North African scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta visited the area in 1352 and said about its inhabitants:

The negroes possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.[2]

The Songhai Empire, named after the Songhai people whose king assumed formal control of the Empire, came to dominate the region in the 16th century.

Colonial history[edit]

As time went on the area began to suffer from continuous Arabic and Portuguese invasion and looting. By the end of the 16th century, as the raids continued, the empire collapsed and was claimed by Portugal. The name Gambia comes from the Portugues word for trade, cambio.[3]

In the late 16th century the British started travelling to the river Gambia, and in 1588 English merchants purchased from the Portuguese the exclusive right to trade between the rivers Senegal and Gambia.[4] The transaction was confirmed for a period of ten years by Letters Patent issued by Queen Elizabeth I. Letters Patent conferring exclusive trading rights in the River Gambia were granted in 1598, 1618 and 1632.[4]

XVII century[edit]

Throughtout the 17th century, the coast of Senegal and Gambia was the theatre of a quest for influence and presence between British, Dutch, and French trading companies, who fought each other to control the strategic islands at the mouth of the river Gambia. For Britain, these were the main outpost in the region and a vital link to its colonies and trading settlements along the Gold Coast, in Sierra Leone and Ghana. Britain though never controlled the land on the riverbanks, merely the mouth islands and few small settlements.[3][5]

The first British settlement was established at Fort James on Dog Island (then called St. Andrew's Island) by a British chartered company, the Adventurers of London Trading with Africa, the grantees of the Letters Patent of 1618.[4] In that year, an expedition commanded by George Thompson was exploring the River Gambia when the crew of the ship were massacred by the Portuguese.[4] The grantees then lost interest in the Gambia.

In 1651 the Government of the Commonwealth of England granted a further patent to London merchants, but they in their turn abandoned the enterprises when Prince Rupert sailed into the Gambia and captured their vessels.[4] In 1651 native chiefs ceded Dog Island, Half-Die (then called Banyon Point), Jufureh and Gasson to the Duchy of Courland under Jacob Kettler, the Duke of Courland.[4] Merchants and missionaries were then sent out and forts were erected at Dog Island and at Half-Die.

In 1662 new Letters Patent were granted to another British company, the Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa.[4] They dispatched an expedition which, after occupying Dog Island, compelled the Duke of Courland's small garrison to surrender, took possession of Kunta Kinteh Island (then named James Island).[4]

XVIII century[edit]

A period of competition with France followed. Albreda was established as a French settlement. However, by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the French recognised the British title to Kunta Kinteh Island and settlements in the River Gambia.[4]

By an Act of Parliament in 1765,[6] the forts and settlements belonging to the Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa were transferred to the Crown. From 1765 until 1783 the Gambia formed part of the Crown Colony of Senegambia. In 1783 Senegambia was abolished.[4] The Gambia was again transferred the Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa. However, the Royal Adventurers made no attempt to administer the Gambia.[4]

XIX century[edit]

1881 map of Senegambia     Full resolution

In the 19th century the competition between Britain and France on the region became stronger. France sought to take control of the inland, moving south from its northern settlements by the Senegal river. This pushed the British to strenghten its control over the Gambia river.[3]

The exact date on which Banjul, then called St. Mary's Island, was ceded to the British is not clear. It is on record that in 1806 it was purchased by the British Government.[7] On 23 April 1816, a British officer called Captain Grant made a treaty with the King of Kombo for its cession to the United Kingdom.[8] A further treaty made in 1827 confirmed possession of the island "and adjoining territory", as the earlier treaty could not be found.[9]

In 1823 MacCarthy Island was ceded to the United Kingdom by King Collie and others.[4] In 1826 MacCarthy Island was established as a settlement for liberated slaves. In 1826 a one-mile strip[3] on the north bank of the River Gambia was ceded by the King of Barra. The town of Fattatenda, with the surrounding district, was ceded to the United Kingdom in 1829.[4] In 1840 and 1853 there were cessions of areas of the mainland adjoining Banjul by the King of Kombo. In 1850 the King of Barra ceded sovereignty over the French enclave of Albreda, subject to French rights, which were, however ceded to the United Kingdom in 1857.[4]

In 1887, the Emir of Betente ceded his territory and a number of treaties of protection were concluded with the principal chiefs living along the banks of the River Gambia.[10] In some small cases small tracts of land were ceded but it was not practicable to administer them as part of the Colony, and beginning in 1895, there was a series of Ordinances bringing them under the Protectorate system of administration; but this local legislation could not, of course, nullify the cession. From 1902 the whole of the Gambia was administered as a Protectorate, except St. Mary's Island (Banjul) and, from 1947, the Kombo St. Mary Division of the Colony.[4]

During the period 1821 through 1888, there was constant merging and separation of the Colony of the Gold Coast, Colony of The Gambia, Sierra Leone and the Colony of Lagos. In 1821 the Gambia along with Gold Coast became part of Sierra Leone.[11] In 1843 the Gambia became a separate colony under Letters Patent dated 24 June 1843. A final severance of the Gambia from Sierra Leone took place in 1888 under Letters Patent dated 28 November 1888.[12]

An 1880 stamp from Gambia

Gambia Colony and Protectorate[edit]

Flag of the British colony of Gambia

On numerous occasions the British government had attempted to exchange control over the Gambia with France for other territories, such as on the upper Niger River.[13]

In 1888, Britain made the Gambia a protectorate and separate colonial entity in order to establish a formal claim to the area and protect it from potential French claims.

The boundaries of the territory were an issue of contention between the British and French authorities due to the proximity to French Senegal;.[14]

France and Britain agreed in 1889 in principle to set the boundary at six miles north and south of the river and east to Yarbutenda, the furthest navigable point on the river Gambia. This should have been followed by the dispatchment of a joint Anglo-French Boundary Commission to map the actual border. Yet, at its arrival on place in 1891, the boundary commission was met with resistance by local leaders whose territories they were coming to divide. The boundary commission could nevertheless rely on British naval power; British ships bombed the town of Kansala to force the Gambians to back off, and according to the 1906 The Gambia Colony and Protectorate: An Official Handbook men and guns from three warships landed on the riverbanks “as a hint of what the resisters had to expect in the event of any continued resistance.” [3]


Yarbutenda circa 1904

As many as three million slaves may have been taken from the region during the three centuries that the Atlantic slave trade operated. It is not known how many slaves were taken by Arab traders before and during the transatlantic slave trade. Most of those taken were sold to Europeans by other Africans; some were prisoners of intertribal wars; some were sold because of unpaid debts, while others were kidnapped. Slaves were initially sent to Europe to work as servants until the market for labour expanded in the West Indies and North America in the 18th century. In 1807, slave trading was abolished throughout the British Empire, and the British tried unsuccessfully to end the slave trade in the Gambia. They established the military post of Bathurst (now Banjul) in 1816. In the ensuing years, Bathurst was at times under the jurisdiction of the British Governor General in Sierra Leone.

XX century[edit]

Gambia 1 1/2-pence stamp of 1944
Royal Air Force fitters assisted by native helpers change the engine of a Lockheed Hudson aircraft at a West African base (probably Yundum) using an improvised hoist (1943)
A. M. Jobe, the Postmaster of Georgetown, transmits a telegram containing a message of allegiance from the Chiefs to His Majesty the King (1944)

The Gambia received its own executive and legislative councils in 1901 and gradually progressed toward self-government. A 1906 ordinance abolished slavery.

During the Second World War, Gambian troops fought with the Allies in Burma. Banjul served as an air stop for the US Army Air Corps and a port of call for Allied naval convoys. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped overnight in Banjul en route to and from the Casablanca Conference in 1943, marking the first visit to the African continent by an American president while in office.

After the Second World War, the pace of reform increased. The economy of the Gambia, like other African countries at the time, was very heavily orientated towards agriculture. Reliance on the groundnut became so strong that it made up almost the entirety of exports, making the economy vulnerable. Groundnuts were the only commodity subject to export duties;[15] these export duties resulted in the illegal smuggling of the product to French Senegal. Attempts were made to increase production of other goods for export: the Gambian Poultry Scheme pioneered by the Colonial Development Corporation aimed to produce twenty million eggs and one million lb of dressed poultry a year. The conditions in the Gambia proved unfavourable and typhoid killed much of the chicken stock, drawing criticism to the Corporation.[16]

The River Gambia was the principal route of navigation and transport inland, with a port at Bathurst. The road network was mainly concentrated around Bathurst, with the remaining areas largely connected by dirt roads. The only airport was at Yundum, built in World War II.[17] Post war it was used for passenger flights. Both British South American Airways and the British Overseas Airways Corporation had services, the former moving its service to Dakar, which had a concrete runway (as opposed to pierced steel planking).[18] The airport was rebuilt in 1963 and the building is still in use today.

In anticipation of independence, efforts were made to create internal self-government. The 1960 Constitution created a partly elected House of Representatives, with 19 elected members and 8 chosen by the chiefs. This constitution proved flawed in the 1960 elections when the two major parties tied with 8 seats each. With the support of the unelected chiefs, Pierra Sarr N'Jie of the United Party was appointed Chief Minister. Dawda Jawara of the People's Progressive Party resigned as Minister of Education, triggering a Constitutional Conference arranged by the Secretary of State for the Colonies.[19]

The Constitutional Conference paved the way for a new constitution that granted a greater degree of self-government and a House of Representatives with more elected members. Elections were held in 1962, with Jawara's Progressive Party securing a majority of the elected seats. Under the new constitutional arrangements, Jawara was appointed Prime Minister: a position he held until it was abolished in 1970. Following general elections in 1962, full internal self-governance was granted in the following year.

Independent Gambia[edit]

Jawara in 1979

Following agreements between the British and Gambian Governments in July 1964, the Gambia achieved independence on 18 February 1965 as a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth.

Shortly thereafter, the government held a referendum proposing that an elected president replace the Gambian monarch as head of state. The referendum failed to obtain the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution, but the results received widespread attention abroad as testimony to the Gambia's observance of secret balloting, honest elections, and civil rights and liberties.

Jawara era[edit]

On 24 April 1970, the Gambia became a republic within the Commonwealth, following a second referendum, with Prime Minister Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara as head of state.

The relative stability of the Jawara era was first shattered by a coup attempt in 1981. The coup was led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang, who, on two occasions, had unsuccessfully sought election to Parliament. After a week of violence which left several hundred people dead, Jawara, in London when the attack began, appealed to Senegal for help. Senegalese troops defeated the rebel force.

In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Senegal and the Gambia signed the 1982 Treaty of Confederation. The Senegambia Confederation came into existence; it aimed eventually to combine the armed forces of the two states and to unify their economies and currencies. The Gambia withdrew from the confederation in 1989.

Until a military coup in July 1994, the Gambia was led by President Jawara, who was re-elected five times.

Jammeh era[edit]

Arch 22 monument, a memorial of the 1994 coup

In July 1994, Yahya Jammeh led a coup d'état that deposed the Jawara government. Between 1994 and 1996, Jammeh ruled as head of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) and banned opposition political activity. The AFPRC announced a transition plan for a return to democratic civilian rule, establishing the Provisional Independent Electoral Commission (PIEC) in 1996 to conduct national elections. After a constitutional referendum in August, presidential and parliamentary elections were held. Jammeh was sworn into office as president on 6 November 1996. On 17 April 1997 the PIEC transformed into the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

Jammeh won both the 2001 and 2006 elections. He was re-elected as president in 2011. The People's Republic of China cut ties with the Gambia in 1995 after the latter established diplomatic links with the Republic of China (Taiwan). The Gambia was elected to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council from 1998 to 1999.

On 2 October 2013, the Gambian interior minister announced that the Gambia would leave the Commonwealth of Nations with immediate effect, stating that they would "never again be part of a neo-colonial organization"[20]

In December 2014, an attempted coup was launched to overthrow President Jammeh.[21]

In December 2016, Adama Barrow was elected president of Gambia and received international recognition. President Jammeh refused to acknowledge the results, but was forced to relinquish power after military intervention by ECOWAS states, with the backing of the UN Security Council.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harden, Donald (1971) [First published 1962]. The Phoenicians. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  2. ^ Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325–1354 pg323-335
  3. ^ a b c d e Atlas Obscura
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Commonwealth and Colonial Law by Kenneth Roberts-Wray, London, Stevens, 1966. Pp. 782-785.
  5. ^ Historical Dictionary of The Gambia, By David Perfect
  6. ^ 5 G. 3, c.44
  7. ^ The Map of Africa by Treaty, Vol. I. p. 7
  8. ^ Gambia Annual Report, 1960 and 1961, p. 70
  9. ^ The Map of Africa by Treaty, Vol. I. p. 11
  10. ^ The Map of Africa by Treaty, Vol. I. p. 18
  11. ^ The West Africa Act, 1881 (1 & 2 G. 4, c. 28)
  12. ^ Letters Patent, No. 28, 1888; State Pp., Vol. 81, pp. 140 and 145
  13. ^ Thomas Pakenham (1991), The Scramble for Africa. London: Abacus. p. 675
  14. ^ "Hansard HC Deb 18 August 1887, vol 319, cols 944–955". 
  15. ^ "Hansard HC Deb 25 March 1959, vol 602, cols 1405–1458". 
  16. ^ "Hansard HC Deb 13 March 1951, vol 485, cols 1317–1375". 
  17. ^ "Yundum". Britannica Online encyclopedia. Retrieved 10 August 2012. 
  18. ^ "Hansard HC Deb 29 January 1947, vol 432, cols 202". 
  19. ^ "History of the Independence Movement". Gambia Information Site. 10 August 2012. 
  20. ^ "UK regrets The Gambia's withdrawal from Commonwealth". BBC News. 3 October 2013. Retrieved 4 October 2013. 
  21. ^ Rice, Andrew (21 July 2015). "The reckless plot to overthrow Africa's most absurd dictator". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 July 2015. 

External links[edit]