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Banjul History

Quick Facts:
• The former name of Banjul is Bathurst.
• Named after Henry Bathurst in 1816.
• Renamed Banjul in 1973.
• Prior to 1816 known as Banjulo.
• Acquired city status in 1965.

People have inhabited the area outside of Banjul island for may millennia before the Portuguese navigators Antoniotti Usodimare and Luiz de Cadamosto, entered the mouth of the Gambia River in 1455 before being ejected by hostile locals. They returned in 1456 and managed to reach James Island further upstream.

After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 the British had to find an alternative to James Island, which was situated on the river, to better control access to the river and enforce the Slavery Abolition Act. The first reason was  because the Americans, Portuguese, Spanish and French continued to trade in slaves. Secondly to protect British commercial interest in the interior of the region.

In 1815 Sir Charles MacCarthy (Governor-in-Chief of all the British settlements on West Africa) gave an order to Alexander Grant, a British officer, to sail down from the Senegalese island of Gorée with a 75 strong detachment from the Royal African Corps, to look into the possibility of establishing a military stronghold in Gambia. After a tour and inspection of James Island they settled for St. Mary's Island (then known as 'Banjulo' by the Portuguese).

On the 23rd April 1816 Captain Alexander Grant entered into a treaty with Tomani Bojang, the (Mansa) 'King' of Kombo, for the leasing of the island which was duly leased by the British Government for a yearly payment of 103 iron bars, which was the equivalent of £25 at that time. The island was re-named St. Mary's Island (after Cape Point's St. Mary area) and a settlement was established named Bathurst, after the then Secretary of State for the British Colonies, Henry Bathurst.

Grant proceeded to construct an army barracks barracks which could hold 80 soldiers & house six cannons to guard the entrance to the Gambia River. Their task however, was made extremely difficult as Bathurst was essentially a flat land mass which was mosquito infested  and susceptible to regular flooding. By 1821 a number of official buildings were finished  which included the Barracks, a hospital, and a court house among others.

That same year Bathurst was put on a more formal footing when it was incorporated and administered under the authority of the Governor of Sierra Leone. In 1843 The Gambia became a colony with its own Governor, judicial system, executive and legislative councils. However, in 1866 the settlement was once again bought under the authority of the Governor of Sierra Leone and it was not until 1888 that it reverted back to a colony in its own right.


The British Government's policy was that apart from the cost of defence all other costs of maintaining the colony had to be derived from customs duties on imports. In 1822 Sir Charles MacCarthy, after his tour of the West Africa, commented about the improvement in commerce of Bathurst being greater than any of the other posts occupied by her Majesty's forces on the coast.

After 3 months and a lot of effort by Grant's men and having endured high death rates from malaria and other swamp fevers the island soon became secure enough for it to be used as a trading stronghold which allowed British traders to transfer their base  from Gorée Island to Bathurst. Some of these merchants were the descendants of earlier inter-marriages between British colonists and locals on Goree who were known as the senioras who were Mulatto. These last people eventually owned large estates particularly country homes in the Kombos.

MacCarthy Square (July 22nd Sq.), was named after Brigadier Sir Charles MacCarthy (governor of Sierra Leone and the West African Settlements). It was at the very centre of the cluster of Government buildings. The first public buildings encircled the square. They were the Government House and a six gun battery,  barracks, officers’ mess [now the Government offices in the Quadrangle],  and the Colonial Engineer’s Yard, which later became Albert Market.

In 1818 the total population of the new settlement was around 600. By 1826 this figure had risen to 1,800 (excluding the garrison) of which 30 were Europeans. In the 1830s ship loads of liberated African refugees landed in Bathurst and were transported to the Liberated African Yard. Goderich Village was created near Oyster Creek by the Colonial Government in 1832 to specifically assist these Liberated Africans.  By the middle of the 19th century the local population of Bathurst was 4,000 as well as 190 colonialists.

This growth in the numbers of people was caused by an influx of freed slaves from Freetown, fugitives evading justice and people from the Wolof tribe of Gorée Island & St. Louis in Senegal. Such was the uncontrolled migrations that Lieutenant Governor Mackie tried to put a stop to it. His job was made difficult by the religious wars raging in the region. Over time people from other tribes of West Africa also joined them enabling Bathurst to grow from a fort with a few outlying local villages into a city within 100 years. The reason for this growth was because the deep port allowed large ships to dock and thus propelled Bathurst into one of West Africa's main trading gateways, particularly entrepot trade, to other West African countries.

The settlement's local divisions was reflected by the various people who had come to live there. Bathurst was planned and divided into districts for specific ethnic groups. There was Soldier Town where the pensioners from the West Indian Regiments and Royal Africa Corps resided. There was Jolof Town, which was largely made up of artisans and mechanics from the people of the Wollof ethnic group. There was the poorest sector known as Moka or Mocam Town, which was later re-named Half-Die after the Cholera epidemic of 1869 killed many there, was populated by immigrant labourers from the Kombos and up-river areas. There was also Melville Town occupied by the Akus which had earlier been settled by the Jolas. And finally there was Portuguese Town which was occupied by the Mulatto descendants of mixed African and Portuguese parentage. As the settlement grew street names were given which were from either prominent merchants or generals who served in the Battle of Waterloo. In recognition of his efforts to stop the slave trade along the river a street was named after him called Grant Street.


The settlement was declared capital of the newly established "Crown Colony and Protectorate of The Gambia" in 1889.

The port town  gained the status of a city in 1965 which was the same year The Gambia became independent. In 1973 Bathurst was re-named Banjul.

After a period of stagnation and decay in the 1980's the capital saw a rapid exodus of much of the population from Banjul and out into the Kombos creating the Greater Banjul area. Presently old and decaying residential homes and commercial buildings are being demolished and are being largely replaced by new commercial warehouses and residential apartments.
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