are signs that among the first people to settle in The Gambia were the
Jola. The banks of The River Gambia have been inhabited continuously for
many thousands of
years. There are indeed pottery fragments that have been found and
have been dated to about 5,500 year old. There is some historical
evidence that some of the ancient peoples of Europe were in continuous contact with
the West Africa region.
The first known written record about The
Gambia is a notation
in the writings of Hanno, the Carthaginian, of his voyage down the
west coast of
Africa in about BC 470. These links came to an end with the decline of the Roman
Empire and the rise and the subsequent expansion of Islam from North Africa.
As far back as AD 500, towns and villages based on agriculture and the
knowledge of iron were scattered across West Africa. As we move into
first millennium, trade and commercial activities increased substantially between the areas north and south of the Sahara. It is assumed that between the
5th and 8th centuries most of the Senegambian area was populated by
the tribe of the Serahule, and their descendants represent about
9% of today's Gambian population.
In the 14th century, the (Manding)
Mali Empire of Mali - established by
Keita, leader of the Malinké people - encompassed the areas from the
edge of the Sahara to the forests of the south in what is now Liberia
& Sierra Leone. From East to West, it covered all the regions
between Takedda beyond the Niger Buckle covering Senegambia on the
Atlantic Ocean. This vast empire controlled nearly all the
trans-Saharan trade, and contact with the rulers of the Arab states to
the north led the Mali rulers to embrace Islam with great enthusiasm.
Though the rise of the Mali empire was swift its decline was slow.
By the beginning of the 15th century, the empire had lost its hegemony
over the affairs of the Western Sudan and had been reduced into the
small area of Kangaba, where it had first originated. By the middle of
the 15th century
a group of Mandingos drifted into the area of the Gambia River basin
and with them came Islam.
The first Europeans to reach the river were the Portuguese in 1455.
Captains Luiz de Cadamosto and
Antoniotti Usodimare traveled a few
kilometres upstream before being repulsed by the angry local
inhabitants. In 1456 the same group returned and this time managed to travel 20 miles up-river
and came across what was later re-named
James Island. It is said they
had named the island St. Andrews Island after a sailor who had passed
away and was buried there. The name was later changed by European
In the early 15th century, Prince Henry of Portugal began instructing
navigators to sail along the west coast of Africa, trying to circumvent
the Arab and Muslim domination of the trans-Saharan gold trade, which
by that time was at the centerpiece of Portugal's public finances. Although the
Portuguese didn't establish a settlement, they continued to monopolise
trade along the West African coast throughout the 16th century. In
their trading posts, salt, ostrich feathers, iron, pots and pans,
firearms and gunpowder were exchanged for ivory, ebony, beeswax, gold
and slaves. (It's been suggested that the Gambia River's name
from the Portuguese word cambio, meaning 'exchange,' or, in this
By the 1600s the large agricultural and commercial estates owned by Portuguese, in
Brazil, needed more labour, which the Portuguese began to transport from
West Africa. Although slavery had existed in Africa for many
centuries, the Portuguese developed the trade on a large scale and had
a virtual monopoly on it until the mid-16th century, when Britain
joined the trade. The success of Portuguese exploration encouraged
other Europeans to enter The Gambia River and trade with the local
inhabitants. James Island which was to become the main settlement of
the Europeans, frequently changed ownership. Thus from the Portuguese,
its ownership switched to the Duke of Courland, the Dutch and finally
the British. By the 1650s, Portugal had been largely ousted by the
French and British.
The first European settlement in Gambia was made by Baltic Germans,
who built a fort on James Island in 1651. Ten years later, they were
ousted by the British, who were themselves ever under threat from
French ships, pirates and the mainland African kings. Fort James lost
its strategic appeal with the construction of new forts at
Bathurst (now Banjul) at the mouth of the Gambia River, which were
better placed to control the movement of ships, though Fort James
continued to serve as a slave collection point until the trade was
The first British traders in the Gambia came in 1587. They began to
explore the river in 1618. They eventually got control of St. Andrew's
Island 1661. It was renamed James Island after the Duke of York, later
King James II, a name it has retained to this day. Trading companies
were set up and they tried to control the trade of the river. The
companies, such as the Companies of Merchant trading in West Africa,
The Royal Adventurers and the Royal African Company traded and
controlled the area. By the mid-seventeenth century, the slave trade
had over-shadowed all other trade. The British and French competed for
the control of the trade of the area.
In 1765, the forts and
settlements were vested in the British Crown and for eighteen years
what is now The Gambia, formed part of the British Colony of
Senegambia, with headquarters in St. Louis at the mouth of the river
Senegal. However in 1783, the greater part of the Senegambia region
was handed to France. The Gambia section ceased to be a British colony
and was again placed under the charge of the African Company.
With the British abolition of the Slave Trade in their settlements in
1807, they tried to look for a suitable location in The Gambia from
where they would be able to monitor the river and stop ships from
entering and leaving with slaves. Alexander Grant, sent out from Goree
for this purpose, found the fort at James Island to be too far inland
and in ruins. He therefore entered into a
treaty with the Chief of Kombo in April, 1816 for the cessation of
the detached sand bank known as St. Mary's Island. Originally called
Banjulo by the Portuguese, Grant named the new settlement, Bathurst
Colonial Secretary of the time Lord Bathurst.
Britain declared the Gambia River a British Protectorate in 1820 and
for many years ruled it from its administrative base in Sierra Leone. In 1886, Gambia became a
crown colony, and the following year France and Britain drew the
boundaries between Senegal (by then a French colony) and Gambia.
With the slave trade at an end, the British were forced to come up
with a new source of wealth to support the fledgling protectorate,
which led to the planting of groundnuts. The groundnuts or peanuts are
originally South American, were they were grown by Indian communities.
(It was introduced to West-Africa (first the Senegambia area) by the
Portuguese in the 16th century. Here it spread quickly, though faster
in the interior of Africa than along the coast). The harvested nuts
are crushed to make oil, which is exported to Europe for use in food
manufacture. In the 1950s, Gambia's groundnut production was beefed up
as a way to increase export earnings and make the country that much
more self-supportive, and today groundnuts remain the chief
both Gambia and neighbouring Senegal.
The desire of the people of The Gambia to rule themselves gradually
developed after the World War II. Political parties were formed in the
colony and some later extended to the Protectorate. On the 18th of
February 1965, The Gambia gained political
independence from Britain.
Although Britain's Queen Elizabeth II remained as titular head of
state. It was strongly felt that The Gambia would not be able to stand
on her own and there were talks of forming a federation with Senegal.
But this did not materialise at the time.
Around the same time, two events occurred that enabled the tiny nation
to survive and even prosper. For a decade after independence, the
world price for groundnuts increased significantly, raising the
country's GNP almost threefold. The second event had an even more
resounding effect - Gambia became a significant
On April 24, 1970, The Gambia became a republic following a
Until a military coup in July 1994, The Gambia was led by President
Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who was re-elected five times. The relative
stability of the Jawara era was broken first in a violent coup attempt
in 1981. The failed 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 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 result, the Senegambia
Confederation, aimed eventually to combine the armed forces of the two
nations and unify economies and currencies. The Gambia withdrew from
the confederation in 1989.
A protest by soldiers over late salaries in July 1994 turned into a
coup d'etat, led by a young lieutenant, Yahya Jammeh, who appeared in
public wearing combat fatigues and dark sunglasses - a look that did
little to endear him to the international community. A new military
government was formed, and Jammeh announced that he would remain in
power at least until 1998. After suffering the fiscal repercussions of
the British Foreign Office's advice to British tourists to avoid the
country, Jammeh decided to switch tack and announced that elections
would be held in 1996. A new constitution was introduced, ushering in
the Second Republic, and Jammeh was the winner of the election (though
the election was disputed by some).
Jammeh remains in power and has brought some degree of stability to
the country. Tourism is back in a big way, and the Gambian
infrastructure is improving, as evidenced by the modern
International Airport and new roads. Expectations among Gambians are
high, though it may prove difficult for the government to implement
all of its promises.
There was civil unrest in Banjul and
Brikama in early 2000 as Gambian
security forces were put on full alert following violence in the
streets of the capital, Banjul. According to Amnesty at least 14
people were killed as a student demonstration called to protest
against police brutality degenerated into a pitched battle between
demonstrators and police forces. Schools and colleges were temporarily
closed and riot police patrolled the streets. More recently things
have calmed down.
President Jammeh has also spent large sums on public works projects: renovating
the airport and building hospitals,
roads, a TV station, new schools
and a huge monument to his revolution on Independence Drive in
• Recent Political Events:
In October 2001, President Jammeh defeated human-rights lawyer Oussainou Darboe
and won a second five-year term. The National Assembly elections were
held in January, 2002 and was boycotted by the UDP opposition party.
As a result therefore, the APRC won all but three of the 15
constituencies contested and also their candidates went unopposed in
the rest of the 33 constituencies.
In April 2006 the regime
was unsettled by a coup attempt, following which 27 people were
arrested and the former chief of staff of the army was accused
of being behind the attempted coup.
Preparations for elections were controversial and the
independence of the Independent Electoral Commission was
called into question by the dismissal of its last 3 Chairmen by
the President. The opposition coalition (the National
Alliance for Democracy and Development), which had undertaken to
field a single candidate against Jammeh, split in February 2006. This
weakened the ability of the opposition to launch an effective
challenge to Jammeh in the one-round election, which was held on
22 September 2006. In the event, 3 candidates were accepted:
President Jammeh, Halifah Salah of the National Alliance for
Democracy and Development and Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party. President Jammeh won the elections on September 22
with 66% of the vote to Darboe's 27%. Legislative elections were
held on 27 January 2007. The ruling APRC re-enforced its
overwhelming dominance of the political scene, winning 37 of the
43 elected seats, with a voter turn out of 41%.