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The Gambia

Summary and Keywords

Oral history tells of an indigenous trader who lived in the middle belts of the River Gambia known as Kambi. His wealth and popularity transcended boundaries, villages, and communities from the interior of western Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. When the Portuguese arrived in the region during the first half of the 15th century, they immediately realized that Kambi wielded economic and social authority because of the frequent movements of traders up and down the river. The traders told the Portuguese that they visited Kambi-yaa (or Kambi’s place in Mandinka) in order to trade, and the Portuguese decided to name the region Gambia.

Whether the above oral narrative is accurate is not of great concern. What is important is that the account provides a glimpse of the history of the region and the changes that were already under way by the 15th century. It is evident that the ancestors of present-day Gambians had arrived in waves, or series of migrations, and were fully established on both banks of the Gambia River when Portuguese explorers first arrived in the 15th century. The Portuguese reported having found Mandinka kings on the river who claimed to be vassals of the king of “Melle.” In 1620, Richard Jobson also reported that the Mandingo were the “lords and commanders” of all the Gambia. These early 15th century contacts, led to a continuous Europeans’ presence in the River Gambia that still persist. By 1816, Bathurst was established as the new capital of the Gambia but it was not until nearly 100 years later that the entire territory we now know as Gambia came firmly under British influence. British rule lasted until 1965, when a new era of self-rule began. The country has since witnessed three republics, the first ending in 1994, the second in 2016, and the third still existing as of 2018.

Keywords: history, culture, politics, society, Gambia

Early History and Settlement

Africa’s smallest mainland country, Republic of The Gambia, is surrounded by Senegal on all sides except on the Atlantic and covers a total area of little more than 11,000 square kilometers. The population of the country is roughly two million, with a birth rate of 24.4 per 1,000. A dominant feature of the country is the Gambia River, which winds like a serpent 300 miles into the interior, sandwiched by a long narrow strip of land up to thirty miles wide. The river provides fresh water that has been used for rice farming along its banks for several centuries. A number of stone circles, believed to be burial sites, can be found mainly on the north bank in the region between Farafenni and Bansang, the main sites being at Wassu and Kerr Batch in the Lower River Region.1 The Gambia is a former British colony that gained its independence in 1965. The president is the head of state, and a fifty-eight-member national assembly holds legislative power. Among these, fifty-three members are directly selected by their constituencies and five members are appointed by the president.2

Much of what is known about the early history of The Gambia comes from oral accounts and early European travelers. Oral history tells of an indigenous trader who lived in the Central River Region of present-day Gambia known as Kambi. His wealth and popularity transcended boundaries, villages, and communities from the interior of western Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. When the Portuguese arrived in the region during the first half of the 15th century, they immediately realized that Kambi wielded economic and social authority because of the frequent movements of traders up and down the river. The traders told the Portuguese that they visited Kambi-yaa (or Kambi’s place in Mandinka) in order to trade, and the Portuguese decided to name the region Gambia.

Whether this oral narrative is accurate is not of great concern, but it does raise a number of issues. Firstly, the account provides a glimpse of the history of the region and the changes that were already under way by the 15th century, and it demonstrates that the Gambia was well established by the time of the Europeans’ arrival. The Portuguese reported having found Mandinka kings on the river who claimed to be vassals of the king of “Melle.” In 1620, Richard Jobson also reported that the Mandingo were the “lords and commanders” of all the Gambia. Secondly, though these oral stories are not conclusive on the early settlements, much scholarship indicates that the Mandinka people were among the dominant settlers of the region, and by the 15th century were fully established on both banks of the Gambia River.3

One of these migration stories links the region with the ancient Manding Empire of Mali. At its height, its leader, Sundiata Keita (c. 1217–c. 1260), sent one of his trusted generals, Tiramakan Traore, westward. This westward movement of significant numbers of the Mandinka, or Manding peoples, resulted in a series of conquests and intermarriages and thus in the predominance of Manding culture and political organization in the conquered lands. According to this version of the story, Tiramakan moved westward during the years of the consolidation of the Mali Empire. In reward for Tiramakan’s suppression of the rebellion of the Jolof Empire in central Senegal, Sundiata gave him the lands of the west. Tiramakan migrated to his new lands with thousands of Mandinka, settling families in villages along the route. Descendants of Tiramakan’s Mandinka invaders are said to populate much of the region from the upper Gambia through the upper Casamance and on into the old Kaabu regions of Guinea-Bissau.4 Mandinka rule by and large was also extended over the conquered territories, greatly influencing the economic, political, and social life of the region.5 Through these westward migrations, conquests, and settlements along the Gambia River and far beyond, a cultural mix occurred, what Donald Wright describes as “cultural transferal.”6

According to some scholars, while population identity was not fixed along ethnic lines, through this mix Mandinka political, cultural, and ritual power came to dominate in the greater Senegambia region. For example, Toby Green suggests that in the Senegambia and Upper Guinea, Mandinka power derived both from their connections to the trans-Saharan trade and from the ritual power associated with it. Green notes that trade and exchange formed a powerful means of extending their influence even among those groups of Upper Guinea who were not politically subordinate to them.7 Walter Hawthorne shows that the Mandinka influence on society was profound on rice production technology as early as the 15th century.8 Green further implies that Mandinka power created a situation where those living under that power coexisted in a large political space that resulted in the sharing and mixing of local cultures.9

This sharing and mixing extended to the lineage and language as well. For instance, Donald Wright, based on extensive research in Niumi, has given us a female anecdote about family lineages in Senegambia. He relates the story of Balaba, a woman whom Mandinka hunters found living in a hole in the ground near the upper Casamance. The hunters lured Balaba out and settled her among the Mandinka. In time, a descendant of Tiramakan stole into Balaba’s dwelling and made her pregnant. From their union came four daughters, to whom Balaba passed on her knowledge of fetishes and other spiritual qualities associated with animist worship. The daughters married the rulers of four major Nyancho (warrior) settlements in Senegambia.10

These migrations produced a settlement pattern that created various geographic spaces, or a process of regionalization, along the north and south sides of the Gambia River. The north bank includes the settlements of Niumi, Baddibu, Saloum, Niani, and Wuli, while the south bank comprises Kombo, Foni, Kiang, Jarra, Niamina, Jimara, Kantora, Wuropana, Tumanna, and Fulladu.11 The settlement patterns reflected the mix of ethnic groups who settled in each of the regions. For example, Niumi was home to Mandinka, Serere, Wolof, and the Fulani; Baddibu was home to Mandinka, Wolof, and the Fulani; Foni was home to Jola, Mandinka, and the Fulani; and Kombo was home to all of the ethnic groups. Though each region developed its own system of governance, they were intricately linked through marriage, religion, and certain traditions and customs. Apart from some ethnic groups in the region of Foni, each of these states had elaborate systems of governance similar to those of states ruled by the Mandinka. For instance, like the Mandinka, the political and social structures of each state comprised three broad classes—the nobles (sulalu or forolu), consisting of kings and rulers, religious leaders, and a warrior class; the artisan class (ñamalolu), consisting of gold, silver, and blacksmiths, and griots (Jali); and the slave category (joŋolu), consisting of slaves and the descendants of the enslaved.12 In addition, each region was ruled by a chief or king and each village by a village head (Alakalo). The villages were divided into wards (kabilo) which were further divided into compounds (kooridaa). The arrival of the Europeans in the 15th century and the introduction of colonial rule in the early 19th century permanently altered the socioeconomic, cultural, and political life of The Gambia.

The Gambia from 1450 to 1900

From the middle of the 15th to the middle of the 20th century, the history of the Gambia was intricately tied to that of Europe in many ways. In some areas, the European presence not only changed the economic, political, and sociocultural configurations but also stimulated new connections between the region and the rest of the world. These contacts led to a permanent European presence along the River Gambia. Among Europeans’ primary activities before the early 20th century was trading in slaves to satisfy the labor demands of the New World. As the slave trade increased, European trading posts began to dot the banks of the Gambia River in villages and towns such as Albreda, Berefet, Bintang, Bwiam, Balangharr, Kaur, Fatatenda, and Kosemarr. The slave trade and slavery continued into the early 20th century as some traditional kings relied on the process of enslavement for wealth and prestige.13 Merchants also traded gold, hides and skins, beeswax, and a host of other products in exchange for European goods. The Portuguese maintained their presence along the river until the early 1700s, a period during which the Europeans competed fiercely for possession of James Island (now Kunta Kinteh Island), situated twenty miles from the mouth of the Gambia River.

The competition between England and France for control of the island continued during the 1700s and did not end until the French abandoned the pursuit in 1779. Control of the island was important because it allowed for the monopolization of trade on the river.14 Before the English took control of the Gambia, European powers (the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English) were involved in a struggle to maintain control over the Senegambia region, which ended with almost half a century of struggle between England and France for political and commercial supremacy in the regions of Senegal and the Gambia. Philip Curtin describes the nature of this struggle as a play in which the first half of the 17th century saw the Portuguese defending against the Dutch, while France and England watched, more or less inactive on the sidelines. Then, as the Dutch became dominant in the 1660s and 1670s, the English and French acted together to dislodge them, just as Holland and England would act together against France from the 1690s to the 1710s.15 The early quarreling over the island ended with its cession to the English in 1713 by the Treaties of Utrecht concluded between France, Spain, Britain and Holland. Also, the British had to leave Gorée to the French, they the British needed a new base for their commercial activities.

After the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade by the British in 1807, British attention was turned to stopping the flow of slaves in and out of the River Gambia region. It became necessary for the British to find an alternative location to James Island that was more suitable to enforcing anti-slavery legislation and to securing British commercial interests along the river. Banjul Island, known to the Portuguese as St. Mary’s Island, located at the mouth of the River Gambia, was chosen as an ideal site for the purpose of guarding the mouth of the river and as a British settlement.16

By the 1814 Treaty of Paris, the British gained possession of the Gambia while the French retained Senegal. Consequently, in 1815, the British Governor General, Sir Charles MacCarthy, ordered Alexander Grant, an officer in the British army, to sail down from the Senegalese island of Gorée with a seventy-five-strong detachment from the Royal African Corps to look into the possibility of establishing a military garrison in the Gambia. Thus, in 1816, Captain Alexander Grant entered into a treaty with Tumani Bojang, King of Kombo, for the control of the island of Banjul for an annual fee of 103 iron bars. A settlement was quickly established on the island, which Grant renamed Bathurst, after then Secretary of State for the British Colonies Henry Bathurst. Grant proceeded to construct an army barracks housing six cannons on the island. The streets were laid out in a modified grid pattern and named after the principal allied generals in the war against Napoleon.17 In 1827, in an effort to completely cut off the salve trade on the river, the British also established Fort Bullen at Barra Point, on the northern bank of the mouth of the River Gambia, from which cannons could reach both banks of the river. Nearly 100 years later, the entire territory we now know as The Gambia finally came under firm British domination.

The late 1800s saw a renewed interest in the Senegambia by the French and the British. Charlotte Quinn notes that “in the Gambia, as elsewhere in the world, a ‘turbulent frontier’ drew the French and British colonists into political involvements along the river. The death throes of the Muslim jihad, as much as European politics, were instrumental in bringing protection and pacification to the river and in shaping the logic leading to European colonial rule.”18 This renewed interest forced both French and British colonial officers to stake their claims by the simple act of marching into territories and villages and raising their flags.19 European rivalries over African colonies were settled during what is known as the 1884–1885 Berlin conference, when the continent was divided up into what have become its present-day states.

In April 1889, the rivalry was further diminished at a conference in Paris, when the British delegation was relieved to discover that France would recognize Britain’s rights to The Gambia. Gailey notes that “the French delegates admitted in principle that the Gambia was a British river and that a certain control of the riverine territory was necessary to maintain this. M. Bayol, the French delegate drew two lines upon a map from the mouth of the river to Yarbutenda and stated that within these lines was the territory that reasonably was assigned to Britain. Instead of pressing for more of the hinterland, Hemming, the British delegate, was overjoyed as he reported that, ‘we have obtained from the French an admission that they ought not to occupy any portion of the actual banks of the river within its navigable limits and we are justified in claiming the exclusive control of the riverine territories.’”20

This agreement had far-reaching consequences, as Britain could now formally exclude the French from the river and assume responsibility for ensuring peace, order, and government in the restricted area allotted to it. The British finally separated the Gambia from Sierra Leone in 1888. Treaties were signed with most of the riverine chiefs, and a protectorate system of government based on these chiefs and supervised by traveling commissioners was declared from 1894 to 1904. As a result, in 1899 the British were able to confirm the borders and place the whole of the Gambia colony and protectorate directly under British control.21 The borders of what we know today as The Gambia were finalized when the temporary markers were replaced by permanent ones in 1904.22

It is important to point out that this British colonial expansion was met with fierce resistance from militant Islamic leaders, who attempted to build theocratic states in the region. For example, in 1891, the international Boundary Commission that was sent to the Gambia was met with a resistance movement led by two of the leaders, Fode Kaba and Fode Sillah.23 These conflicts have gained currency in Gambian history as the Soninke–Marabout Wars (wars between Muslims and non-Muslims), which ravaged the region between c. 1850 and 1901. These crises were important not only because of the suffering they caused among the people but also because they represented a turning point when many inhabitants of the country were forcefully converted to Islam. The defeat of these Muslim leaders also resulted in total British control of the territory.

Islam: Soninke–Marabout Wars, 1850–1901

Clearly, the history of the Gambia cannot be complete without a discussion on the influence of Islam not only in the Gambia but in the subregion as a whole. Scholars believe the region had contact with Islam as early as the 12th century.24 Several notable studies have indicated that the Senegambia region was significantly influenced by the existence of the Ghana and Manding empires and to a large extent by the trans-Saharan trade across the desert.25

Islam was spread through the teachings and travels of renowned marabouts (Islamic scholars) throughout West Africa. Among the major agents of these activities were Alhagie Salim Suware and his Jahanke clerics, who took it upon themselves to spread the Islamic faith in West Africa, particularly in the Senegambia region. According to Lamin Sanneh, the Jahanke are a specialized caste of Muslim clerics and educators, most of whom are Manding speakers, who have over a period of several centuries identified with a vigorous tradition of Islamic scholarship, education, and clerical activity.26 The Jahanke, like many other clerics in The Gambia, have been able to carve out their own identities and establish their own villages, including Meddina Seedia, Meddina Seringe Mass, Kerr Cherno, Darru Rilwane, and Suwareh Kunda, as well as Islamic schools in compounds of notable scholars.

Though the West African region had contacts with Islam much earlier, it was only in the second half of the 19th century that the Senegambia region in particular experienced the forceful spread of the religion. The Soninke–Marabout Wars, waged between 1850 and 1901, were fought mainly between the Soninkes, who followed traditional religious practices, and Muslim reformists. The reformists waged jihad to convert non-Muslims to the Islamic religion and to force them to accept the oneness of God and to believe in the prophet Muhammad as the Messenger of God. As Gailey observes, the Soninke were the traditional rulers who were of a warrior class and had not accepted Islam, or at best were norminal Muslims.27 This period also saw attempts by Muslim fighters to establish Dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) in the region.

By the end of 1851, the fighting had grown more intense, and the situation was made more complicated by the personal ambitions of some chieftains who used the broader issues as masks for their own aims of creating larger political units that would be subservient to them.28 Among the major causes of resentment among militant Muslim leaders towards the Soninke was the latter’s overlordship, which forced the former to pay taxes. The widespread dissatisfaction and disruption could also be viewed in terms of the growing European presence in the area and the responses this intrusion drew from the African population. Gray points out that the religious fanaticism of many of the clerics was motivated by the activities of the Wesleyan missionaries among the liberated African settlers (also called freed slaves—those captured in slave ships and returnees from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Gorée and St. Louis, Senegal) in the Kombo district (adjacent to Banjul on the south bank of the Gambia River, which saw the most colonial activities).29 Charlotte Quinn suggests that the jihad can be studied in the context of religious reform and the currents of restless dissatisfaction sweeping through West African Islam.30 Donald Wright, who has done extensive work in Niumi, the location of some of the most severe fights between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Gambia, recognizes that “the most important period for the religious spread in the state had been in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the wave of Islamic reform, abetted by the social and economic change that accompanied peanut production, swept through, slowed only by the British interference.”31

As a consequence of these disturbances, the fighting spread across the country with the emergence of new Muslim leaders or Jihadists and the involvement of the British, who wanted to bring the Gambia colony and protectorate under their control. From 1853 to 1855 war broke out between the British and marabouts in Kombo, and the British soldiers were defeated, only to be saved by the combined Anglo-French force. At the same time, a Marabout leader by the name of Maba Diahou Ba (1809–1867) waged war in Baddibu and Niumi, the northern districts of the Gambia River. It was reported that Maba met with Sheik Omar Taal when the latter visited The Gambia in 1850, which may have inspired Maba to wage jihad.32 Until his death, almost all the northern parts of the Gambia and bordering villages of Senegal were under Islamic influence and one political authority.33 Maba was succeeded by his son Sait Matti (1850–1897), who, under pressure from the French, sought sanctuary in Banjul with his family and supporters.

Wars continued on the south bank of the river, led by marabout leaders such as Foday Kombo Sillah (1830–1894) and Foday Kaba Dumbuya (1818–1901). Of the two, Foday Kaba, who came to dominate much of the south bank, had the longest reign of all the marabout leaders in the Gambia. Kaba’s religious wars saw him crisscrossing the Gambia River to help beleaguered Muslim groups living in Soninke states and pillaging villages opposed to his rule. While Kaba was trying to establish his rule over the Gambia and parts of Senegal, another Muslim leader, Musa Molo, living in upper south bank states, was also solidifying his rule. Musa and his father had both been exposed to Islam, and in the 1890s Muslim scholars came to live in his court.34 Musa tried to play the British against the French but was captured by the British and sent into exile in Sierra Leone in 1903. He returned in 1923 and died shortly thereafter. The defeat of the marabout leaders marked the end of resistance to colonial rule along the Gambia River as well as the end of confrontations between Muslims and non-Muslims.

One of the apogees of these Soninke–Marabout conflicts was the killing of two traveling commissioners at Sankandi, Lower River Region in 1901. In response the British punished the Muslim militants of Sankandi in cooperation with the French in order to make an example of Fode Kaba.35 Kaba’s death in 1901 saw the end of all fighting in the country and provided Britain with an opportunity to finally justify placing the entire colony and protectorate under direct British control.36

The Gambia: 1900–1965

Towards the end of the 19th century, some meaningful political and economic changes were taking place, despite the ongoing Soninke–Marabout Wars and the extensive control exercised by local kings over the protectorate. Further complicating matters, internal slavery did not effectively end until the 1930s. The rapid colonization of the African continent saw Africans converted from sovereign and royal citizens of their own polities into colonial and dependent subjects.37 According to Michael Crowder, the systems of colonial administration imposed by these powers were ad hoc and greatly influenced by the personalities of the men imposing them and the circumstances under which a particular area was occupied by conquest or by treaty.38 While the French and Portuguese pursued a direct system of administration, the British generally practiced indirect rule. This marked a period of effective colonization of the African continent motivated principally by the need for raw materials for industrial Europe and the need for markets for the sale of Europe’s manufactured goods.39 The French assimilationist policy, or direct system of rule, generally held that the African had to prove her/himself worthy of assimilation by demonstrating to the colonizers that s/he had the attributes of citizenship, qualities that were determined by the colonial power.40 British indirect rule, on the other hand, postulated that British administrators would rule as much as possible “indirectly.” That is, they would allow “traditional” African leaders to maintain their positions when and where possible, applying “African law” to local matters.

Gradually, as dictated by the policies of indirect rule, the British began to administer the Gambia through native chiefs and leaders and by the creation of “native” authorities. The British administration of the Gambia evolved around Bathurst as the colony, and the rest of the country as the protectorate. The governor sat in Bathurst and traveling commissioners served in the protectorate, one for each bank of the Gambia River. The role of the traveling commissioner was as an assessor to the “native” courts and the administration of the area under his jurisdiction. Out of all of Britain’s African colonies, only the Gambia had traveling commissioners due to the colony’s small budget and the geography of the country. Originally the British would only pay for two commissioners, and because Gambia was long and narrow and divided in two by the Gambia River, they had to travel in order to keep in touch with the chiefs.

The Gambia colony and protectorate (Bathurst and the rest of the protectorate), as in many British colonies with Muslim subjects, had two modes of legal administration. In addition to a separate legal system for Muslims in the colony, the British also had a legal system for non-Muslims—systems which were also replicated in the protectorate. In fact, the native courts set up in the protectorate applied a mixture of customary laws, sharia, and English law. To further cement control of the protectorate, the British introduced the Native Tribunals Ordinances in the 1930s, which created native tribunals for each district with jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters. The commissioner could sit on the native tribunal and had the power to overturn any decision of the tribunal that he thought was inappropriate.41

However, by the end of the 19th century, the whole of what is now the Gambia became part of the British protectorate of the Gambia colony. During this period farming systems in West Africa underwent a radical transformation as a result of the production of cash crops for export. For example, groundnut cultivation was encouraged in The Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea Bissau, cocoa production in Ghana, and palm oil production in Nigeria. In the Gambia, the colonial government introduced ordinances and native authority systems that coerced the chiefs under their jurisdiction to grow groundnuts. This was followed by the introduction of taxes in 1893 that the Gambian farmer had to pay in cash, and the only way to get cash was to cultivate groundnuts. The 1895 ordinance introduced the Yard Tax, levied on individual families domiciled in a compound (yard). The law also targeted “strange farmers”—young men mainly from outside of the Gambia, who came seasonally to cultivate groundnuts.42 Groundnuts is still the main cash crop and a major source of foreign exchange. However, tourism has now replaced groundnuts as a major source of foreign exchange.

In addition to these developments, Gambian politics from the late 19th to the first half of the 20th century was more or less patrician, dominated by a handful of educated Aku (liberated Africans) and Wolofs who lived in Bathurst.43 It is also fair to say that the history of Bathurst was more or less the history of the Gambia at the time because of its position as the seat of the colonial government and a place where opportunities for trade, schools, social amenities, and salaried and menial jobs were available. These developments meant that not only was politics dominantly confined in Bathurst but also that some few Gambians were being given key positions in the Legislative Council and in other key government institutions such as the courts. Some good examples were Samuel J. Forster, a wealthy trader who was coopted into the Legislative Council in the late 1880s, and Ousman Jeng, a Muslim elder whose appointment was greeted with great enthusiasm in 1922.44 Another key prominent appointee to the Legislative Council in 1947 was Edward Francis Small, whose illustrious career as a journalist, trade unionist, and politician left a permanent mark on Gambian politics.

Due to these economic and political prospects, much of the agricultural population, especially young males, living in the rural areas of the country moved to Bathurst seasonally, when the rains ceased and crops had been harvested. Their primary goal was to find work at the docks and the Public Works Department, the latter created by the colonial government in 1922 for infrastructural development, but also as porters, temporary workers, or petty traders. Apart from Armitage High School, built in 1922 to serve the children of chiefs and their relatives, no other high school existed in the protectorate. This is significant because most of the key players in the only provincial party, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), that emerged on the country’s political stage in 1959 studied at Armitage. In addition, over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the African residents of the city settled there in order to escape from domestic slavery, seeking British protection from persons in their villages who wished to retrieve them. Added to these were those fleeing from the Soninke–Marabout Wars.45

Other major international events impacted the history of the Gambia, including World War II and the political changes that swept Africa from the 1940s to the 1960s. For example, during the war, some Gambians fought in Algeria and Burma, and Bathurst served as an air base for the United States military. World War II also inspired anticolonial movements for independence and calls for political activism all across Africa.

It should be noted that these political developments were marred by squabbling between different factions in Bathurst, especially among the Muslim populations as they vied for positions and opportunities brought about by colonial rule. These frictions continued through the 1940s and 1950s over political representation, particularly in the Legislative Council. Subsequently, the 1950s saw a shift from personal politics to party politics, but the character and leadership of these parties remained urban and ethnic.

In 1959, however, a new constitution was enacted that changed the political landscape, giving rural society an opportunity to engage in national affairs and also bringing the protectorate and the colony closer together. The new constitution allowed for twelve out of the nineteen directly elected seats represented the protectorate, which were all won by the PPP in the first nationwide election in 1960.

The PPP replaced the Protectorate People’s Society, the purpose of which was to give a platform to rural people in national affairs, and it was able to mobilize rural people and bring the chiefs under its influence to become the dominant political force by 1962. The man who took over the leadership of the PPP, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, became Prime Minister in 1962, with Sir Farimang Singateh as Governor.

In 1964, the Gambia Independence Act passed by the British Parliament legislated Gambian Independence Day for February 18, 1965, an occasion led by Sir Dawda Jawara. In 1970, The Gambia became a republic under an executive president. In 1981, an attempted military coup led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang resulted in the creation of the Senegambia confederation and the stationing of Senegalese security forces on Gambian soil. Though the confederation was short-lived, it enabled Jawara to consolidate his rule and return to electoral politics.46 Despite this attempted military coup, The Gambia enjoyed a functioning democracy, rule of law, and modest social and economic growth until 1994. Unfortunately, a group of young military officers staged a military coup in July 1994 and established the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) government, led by Lieutenant Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh. The country was soon plunged into political and economic crisis as the council suspended the constitution.

From the outset, the AFPRC faced opposition from within the army, as coups or rumors of coups upon coups swirled around the government. In response, the regime became increasingly dictatorial, purging members of the junta and repressing opposition and other dissenting voices. They also faced international opposition, making it harder for foreign cash to flow into government coffers. Facing isolation from Western nations, the junta turned to China and Taiwan to finance some of their projects. In comparing the rule of Sir Dawda Jawara with that of Yahya Jammeh, Abdoulaye Saine argues that while Jawara’s rule was not free of rights violations, those violations were insignificant compared with the horrific human rights violations under Jammeh.47

In 1996, the junta transformed themselves into a political party. Jammeh became the leader of the party and subsequently won every election until December 2016, when he lost to a coalition led by Adama Barrow. Jammeh’s more than twenty-three-year rule will go down in history as repressive, undemocratic, and dysfunctional. Despite a few laudable infrastructural projects such as the construction of roads, schools, and hospitals, the country experienced not only economic and social disintegration but also a breakdown in law and order, despotism and absolutism, habitual misappropriation of government funds, unemployment, and emigration of Gambians in search of better opportunities and to escape oppression—many of the issues that the junta promised to correct at the time of the coup. The demise of Jammeh’s government came as a surprise to many observers because of the repressive nature of his regime. After the announcement of the election results, he initially conceded but soon changed his mind, disputing the results and refusing to step down despite the advice of leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). After negotiations produced no results, ECOWAS leaders sent in troops in order to force him out of power. In January 2017, Jammeh stepped down and went into exile in Equatorial Guinea. Adama Barrow took up the reins of power, promising freedom and democracy.

Discussion of the Literature

Unfortunately, very little research is available about the history of the Gambia prior to European contact. Exceptions include the work of Donald Wright, Bakary Sidibe, and Winifred Galloway. Wright’s exposition on migration stories offers several theories about Mandinka migrations and settlements along the River Gambia, while the work of Sidibe and Galloway gives examples of the peopling of the region. Among the pioneers of Senegambian history are John M. Gray and Harry Gailey, both of whose work provides a rich overview of the colonial history of the Gambia and the militant Muslim revolutions from 1850–1901.48 Other prominent scholars, such as Charlotte A. Quinn, Lamin Sanneh, and Bala Saho, focus on Islam and the 19th-century Muslim revolutions as well as how the larger Senegambian society was shaped by Islam and the religious wars.49 A good number of scholars also focus on slavery and the slave trade, such as Philip Curtin, Wright, Alice Bellagamba, and Liza Gizanto. Many of these studies relate to the economic changes in the Senegambia region during the era of the slave trade and commercial connections between the region and the rest of the world.50 Other scholars such as Judith Carney and Michael Watts focus on the struggles over resources in the Gambia, particularly land and labor.51 Assan Sarr’s work examines land, land control, and value in the Gambia River valley in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Important works on the land and peanut production have been written by Kenneth Swindell and Alieu Jeng.52 Peter Weil’s work on the Mandinka chieftaincy is a forerunner in the study of power and dependency.53 Additional scholarship includes work by Mathew Park that explores the history of Bathurst.54 Many other scholars have investigated the political history and development of The Gambia, including Arnold Hughes, David Perfect, and Abdoulaye Saine.55

Further Reading

Clark, Andrew, F. “Internal Migrations and Population Movements in the Upper Senegal Valley (West Africa), 1890–1920.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 28, no. 3 (1994): 399–420.Find this resource:

    Curtin, Philip. Economic Change in Pre-colonial Africa: Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975.Find this resource:

      Gray, John M. A History of the Gambia. London: Frank Cass, 1966.Find this resource:

        Hughes, Arnold, and David Perfect. A Political History of The Gambia, 1816–1994. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006.Find this resource:

          Quinn, Charllote A. Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia: Traditionalism, Islam, and European Expansion. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972.Find this resource:

            Saho, Bala. Contours of Change: Muslim Courts, Women, and Islamic Society in Bathurst, 1905–1965. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2018.Find this resource:

              Saine, Abdoulaye. Culture and Customs of Gambia. California: Greenwood, 2012.Find this resource:

                Sanneh, Lamin O. The Jakhanke Muslim Clerics: A Religious and Historical Study of Islam in Senegambia. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989.Find this resource:

                  Sarr, Assan. Islam, Power, and Dependency in the Gambia River Basin: The Politics of Land Control, 1790–1940. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                    Sidibe, Bakary K., and Winifred Galloway, eds. The Peoples of the Gambia. S.1: Oral History Division, Banjul, 1975.Find this resource:

                      Wright, Donald R. The Early History of Niumi: Settlement and Foundation of a Mandinka State on the Gambia River. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1977.Find this resource:

                        Wright, Donald R. “Darbo Jula: The Role of a Mandinka Jula Clan in the Long-Distance Trade of the Gambia River and Its Hinterland.” African Economic History 3 (Spring 1977): 33–75.Find this resource:

                          Wright, Donald R. The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, The Gambia. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2010.Find this resource:

                            Wright, Donald R. “Beyond Migration and Conquest: Oral Traditions and Mandinka Ethnicity in Senegambia.” History in Africa 12 (1985): 335–348.Find this resource:


                              (1.) See Luc Laporte et al., ‘Les mégalithes du Sénégal et de la Gambie dans leur contexte régional,’ Afrique: Archéologie & Arts 13 (2017): 93–119. There are few depositories on The Gambia. The main archive is The National Archives, located at the Quadrangle, Banjul, The Gambia. This is composed of colonial correspondences, colonial government files, and Travelling Commissioners’ reports. Another is the Oral History Archive, National Center for Arts and Culture, Fajara, The Gambia. This consists of oral histories of The Gambia collected from the 1960s: settlement patterns, songs, folktales, culture and traditions, legends, and religion. At the moment, these archives are not accessible online. Other depositories of documents on Gambia can be found at Kew Gardens, London, United Kingdom (colonial correspondences and European travel documents) and at the British Library, London (musical recordings and narratives).

                              (2.) Central Intelligence Agency, Factbook (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, January 2018).

                              (3.) Winifred Galloway, James Island: A Background with Historical Notes on Juffure, Albreda, San Domingo and Dog Island (Banjul: Oral History and Antiquities Division, 1978); and Donald R. Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, The Gambia (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2010).

                              (6.) See Wright, “Beyond Migration and Conquest”; Sidibe and Galloway, eds., The Peoples of the Gambia; and Richard Jobson, The Golden Trade or A Discovery of the River Gambia, and the Golden Trade of the Aethiopians (London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1623), 47.

                              (7.) Toby Green, The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300–1589 (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 56–57. See also Mathew Park, “Heart of Banjul: The History of Banjul, The Gambia, 1816–1965,” PhD diss. (Michigan State University, 2016). Boubacar Barry’s discussion on the creation of a greater Senegambia is also valid. Boubacar Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

                              (8.) Walter Hawthorne, Planting Rice and Harvesting Slaves: Transformations Along the Guinea Bissau Coast, 1400–1900 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).

                              (9.) Green, The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 57.

                              (12.) For more on the Mandinka social and political organization, see the works of George E. Brooks, Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000–1630 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993); Charlotte A. Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia: Traditionalism, Islam, and European Expansion (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972); Lamin O. Sanneh, The Jakhanke Muslim Clerics: A Religious and Historical Study of Islam in Senegambia (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989); Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa; Donald R. Wright, “Darbo Jula: The Role of a Mandinka Jula Clan in the Long-Distance Trade of the Gambia River and Its Hinterland,” African Economic History 3 (Spring 1977): 33–45; and Peter Weil, “Mandinka Mansaya: The Role of the Mandinka in the Political System of the Gambia,” PhD diss. (University of Oregon, 1968).

                              (13.) See Alice Bellagamba, “Slavery and Emancipation in the Colonial Archives: British Officials, Slave Owners, and Slaves in the Protectorate of the Gambia (1890–1936),” Canadian Journal of African Studies 39, no. 1 (2005): 5–41; Martin A. Klein, Islam and Imperialism in Senegal: Sine-Saloum, 1847–1914 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968); and Martin A. Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

                              (14.) See Galloway, James Island. For more on the early Europeans in the Gambia, see Peter Mark, “Portuguese” Style and Luso-African Identity: Precolonial Senegambia, Sixteenth–Nineteenth Centuries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002); George E. Brooks, Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, and Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003); and John M. Gray, A History of the Gambia (London: Frank Cass, 1966).

                              (16.) Gray, A History of the Gambia; Hughes and Perfect, A Political History of The Gambia; and Saho, Contours of Change.

                              (17.) See Harry A. Gailey, Historical Dictionary of The Gambia, 2nd ed. (Metuchen, NJ and London: Scarecrow Press, 1987), 36–38. See also Arnold Hughes and Harry A. Gailey, Historical Dictionary of The Gambia, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD and London: Scarecrow Press, 1999), 37–38.

                              (18.) Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia.

                              (19.) Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia, 179.

                              (20.) Gailey, A History of the Gambia, 102

                              (21.) Gray, A History of the Gambia; Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia; and Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa.

                              (22.) Gailey, A History of The Gambia, 104.

                              (23.) Fode Sillah (1830–1894) was a Muslim militant leader who ruled in the Kombos, territories adjacent to Banjul (Bathurst). Sillah was exiled to St. Louis where he died. Fode Kaba (1818–1901) was one of longest-serving Muslim militant leader whose activities were mainly on the south bank of the River Gambia, though he crossed the river on occasion to make war on the northern territories.

                              (24.) Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia.

                              (25.) Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa.

                              (26.) Sanneh, The Jakhanke Muslim Clerics, 3.

                              (27.) Gailey, A History of the Gambia, 40–41.

                              (28.) Gailey, A History of the Gambia, 1964.

                              (29.) Gray, A History of the Gambia, 389.

                              (30.) Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia, 114

                              (31.) Wright, The World and a Small Place in Africa, 2010.

                              (32.) Patrick J. Ryan, “The Mystical Theology of Tijani Sufism and Its Social Significance in West Africa,” Journal of Religion in Africa 30, no. 2 (May 2000): 315.

                              (33.) Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia, 121.

                              (34.) Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia, 175; and Gray, A History of the Gambia, 448.

                              (35.) Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia, 189; and Gray, A History of the Gambia, 470.

                              (36.) Gray, A History of the Gambia; Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of Senegambia; and Wright, The World and a Small Place in Africa.

                              (37.) A. Adu Boahen, African Perspectives on Colonialism (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

                              (38.) Michael Crowder, West Africa Under Colonial Rule (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968).

                              (39.) See A. G. Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa (London: Longman 1973); and Ralph A. Austen, African Economic History: Internal Development and External Dependency (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987).

                              (40.) See Crowder, West Africa Under Colonial Rule.

                              (41.) Saho, Contours of Change, 2018.

                              (42.) Kenneth Swindell, The Strange Farmers of the Gambia: A Study in the Redistribution of African Population (Norwich: Geo Books, 1981); Kenneth Swindell and Alieu Jeng, Migrants, Credit and Climate: The Gambian Groundnut Trade, 1884–1934 (Leiden: Brill, 2006); and Gray, A History of the Gambia; Sarr, Islam, Power, and Dependency in the Gambia River Basin.

                              (43.) Hugh and Perfect, A Political History of The Gambia, 78.

                              (44.) Hugh and Perfect, A Political History of The Gambia, 90; and J. Ayodele Langley, “The Gambia Section of the National Congress of British West,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 39, no. 4 (October 1969): 382–395.

                              (46.) Hughes and Perfect, A Political History of The Gambia, 220.

                              (47.) Abdoulaye Saine, The Paradox of Third-Wave Democratization in Africa: The Gambia Under AFPRC-APRC Rule, 1994–2008 (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009), 74.

                              (48.) Gray, A History of the Gambia; and Gailey, A History of the Gambia.

                              (49.) Quinn, Mandingo Kingdoms of the Senegambia; and Sanneh, The Jakhanke Muslim Clerics.

                              (50.) Curtin, Economic Change in Pre-colonial Africa; Lisa A. Gizanto, “Change and the Era of the Atlantic Trade: Commerce and Interaction in the Niumi Commercial Center (The Gambia),” PhD diss. (Syracuse University, 2010); Alice Bellagamba, “Slavery and Emancipation in the Colonial Archives: British Officials, Slave Owners, and Slaves in the Protectorate of The Gambia, 1890–1936,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 39, no. 1 (2005): 5–40; and Wright, The World and a Small Place in Africa.

                              (51.) Judith Carney and Michael Watts, “Disciplining Women? Rice, Mechanization, and the Evolution of Mandinka Gender Relations in Senegambia,” Signs. Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16, no. 4 (1991): 651–681. See also Richard A. Schroeder, “‘Gone to Their Second Husbands’: Marital Metaphors and Conjugal Contracts in The Gambia’s Female Garden Sector,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 30, no. 1 (1996): 69–87.

                              (52.) Swindell and Jeng, Migrants, Credit and Climate; Swindell, The Strange Farmers of the Gambia; and Sarr, Islam, Power, and Dependency in the Gambia River Basin.

                              (53.) Weil, “Mandinka Mansaya.”

                              (54.) Park, “Heart of Banjul.”

                              (55.) Hughes and Perfect, A Political History of The Gambia; and Saine, The Paradox of Third-Wave Democratization in Africa.