Tribal Relationships to Slavery in Gambia:
All ethnic groups were affected to
one extent or another by the Atlantic Slave Trade and
They are the
descendents of European traders and their African wives [Mulattoes],
as well as of liberated slaves from Sierra Leone. Liberated slaves
also intermingled and inter-married with other groups of freed slaves
from the New World and Britain who were already exposed to different
cultures. As a result the Aku developed their own distinctive culture,
encompassing both African and European characteristics and language.
Most are Christian and have European names and continue to figure
prominently in Gambian commerce and the civil service.
Portuguese Mulatto traders were the middlemen between African
producers and European merchants during the height of the
Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
The Fulas were traditionally mainly cattle herders originating in the
area north of the Senegal River, though it is thought by some that
they originally came from much further north. The Fulas who first
immigrated into The Gambia were non-Muslim pastoralists.
There are many sub-groups of Fulas based on different places of origin
and modes of making a living. The Firdu Fulas for example, because of
their semi-sedentary nature and ethnic intermarriage were often looked
down upon as being of slave origin. Another sub-group, the Fulbe Futa,
formed warrior bands and preyed upon other Fula groups and Mandinka
Amongst the earliest people in the Senegambia region were the
who had migrated from Casamance in Senegal. A Colonial Office report
in 1929 described the Jola tribe as mainly pagan.
The Jolas were the only tribe never to have had a tradition of keeping slaves, although they
did sell their own prisoners of war to merchants. The Jolas were
themselves often victims of slave takers and were particularly
subjugated by the Mandinkas.
The Mandinka were the first of a series of
invaders to the Senegambia region. Gradually
the whole of Gambia
valley came under Mandinka control and they were firmly
established by the 15th century.
Trade was important in Mandinka states and long distance
trade routes were established. During the period of the
Transatlantic slave trade, slaves and firearms became the most
important articles of trade.
As well as being victims of slave
takers, some Mandinkas carried on extensive trade in slaves.
Even well into the 19th century it was "well-known and admitted
fact that Mandingos... are in the practice of obtaining and
carrying off liberated slaves from Freetown".
Those found in The Gambia
arrived during the 19th century as refugees from the
religious wars in Senegal and are therefore the most recent
arrivals of all the Senegambian ethnic groups. They hired
land from Mandinka chiefs and, by the middle of the century,
had proved themselves useful to the kings of the river
states, acting as mercenaries.
The Serrers are among the oldest ethnic group in the
Senegambia region, having migrated into the delta regions
from the north of Senegal.
According to traditions passed on by nineteenth century European
writers, the Fulas drove the Serer out of the Futa Toro region
of Senegambia and enslaved them.
The Wollofs are thought to have originated in Southern
Mauritania where droughts and raids forced them south into
the area north of The Gambia in western Senegal.
Early descriptions of Wollof chiefs are found in the writings of
a 15th century Portuguese explorer. He described how
forced some of their subjects and those of neighbouring
provinces into slavery, part whereof they employed in
cultivating the lands assigned them, with the rest sold to the Azanaghi
[Moors] and Arab merchants. For protection, the kings would
surround themselves with warriors, often of slave origin
operated within Wolof society. Household or domestic slaves could not be sold except for
serious crimes such as murder or witchcraft. In fact many
enjoyed greater power than freemen, with some acting as trusted
advisors and agents to their masters. Slaves were valuable
property and ownership of many slaves generated prestige within