The first known inhabitants of what is now The Gambia were a succession of ethnic groups who migrated to the fertile basin of the River Gambia from elsewhere in West Africa. European traders began to settle near the river from mid-fifteenth century and the present-day borders of The Gambia were first drawn in 1889, in Paris, by British negotiators, with ruler and compass. Legend has it that the country’s optimum dimensions were determined by measuring the extent of territory that could be defended by cannon-fire from a gunboat sailing up the river – hence The Gambia’s long, thin and crooked shape.
The earliest people of the Gambia valley may have been the Jola, who by tradition have a very limited oral history. The hundred or so Gambian stone circles, including the famous ones at Wassu, are compelling evidence of a civilization that lived near the river between 800BC and 1000AD, but hard facts about their ethnic origin have so far eluded archaeologists and ethnographers. The first known written record referring to the River Gambia appeared in the Carthaginian Hanno’s account of his voyage around the west coast of Africa around 470BC. His mission was to establish colonies on the Atlantic coast for the purpose of trade in ivory and gold, and it is thought that he made it all the way to Cameroon and back. Hanno’s account, though geographically sketchy, was still being used as a reference by seafarers in the age of exploration two thousand years later.
Knowledge of the intervening centuries is very incomplete. The introduction of camels to Africa in the second century AD, facilitating long-distance desert travel, opened up West Africa to Arab traders in slaves and gold, who gave the indigenous Africans an appetite for commerce. Between the fifth and eights centuries AD, the area that is now The Gambia was part of the ancient kingdom of Ghana (capital in present-day Mauritania, and from which the modern state of Ghana took its name), that was ruled by overloads from the Fouta Djalon plateau in Guinea, part of the Songhai empire. By fifteenth century, most of the valley was under the control of small Mandinka kingdoms founded by immigrants from the Mali empire.
The dawn of the colonial era
The European settlers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were mostly c. They set themselves up as trading partners with local headmen. Their larger game plan was to trace a route to the spice islands of the Far East, and in the process track down the fabled riches of the West African kingdoms and possibly find the source of the Nile. The River Gambia was assumed to be an open door to the interior of Africa. The first Portuguese adventurer to explore the mouth of the River Gambia was Nuno Tristão, sent to West Africa in 1447 by Prince Henry the Navigator. Ten years later, other Portuguese explorers started to establish trading stations along the river, to purchase slaves and commodities in exchange for cloth, guns and other manufactured goods. The river was a highly rated trading area, with plenty of safe anchorages. The Portuguese landed on an island twenty miles up-river and name it St. Andrew’s Island after a sailor who died and was buried there. It was later renamed James Island. Some of the Portuguese traders made the district their home, marrying the daughters of chiefs. The descendants of these mixed unions often grew up to become local traders and mediators.
In the late sixteenth century, when the Mali empire was decline, the British first arrived in the area and started trading along the river. Other nationalities soon followed suit and, from the mid-seventeenth century, English, Dutch, French and Baltic merchant-adventurers shared and fought over trading rights from the small (but strategically invaluable) neighbouring bases of Fort James on James Island, mid-river, and Albreda on the north bank. in 1765, the British gained the upper hand in the area, instituting their first West African colony, the province of Senegambia, with its headquarters in St Louis on the banks of the River Senegal and its River Gambia base at Fort James. The colony was dissolved less than twenty year later, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Most of the territory was handed over to France, but the River Gambia section remained under British control.
British interests in West Africa began to alter radically towards the end of the eighteenth century, as slave trading began to be not only less and less profitable, but also a positive hindrance to other trading enterprises. Even after the 1808 ban, the Gambian slave trade continued. illegally, for many decades, partly because the ban was a unilateral one that some French and Portuguese traders chose to ignore, and partly because in the Gambians themselves profited so handsomely from the trade.
The British won lasting influence in the River Gambia area after the Napoleonic wars, and Captain Alexander Grant founded the city of Bathurst (now Banjul) in 1816. this defensive post was named after Henry, 3rd Earl of Bathurts, who governed the region from Freetown (Sierra Leone) as British colonial secretary at the time. In the 1820s, Britain declared a Protectorate, the “Settlement on the River Gambia” and Alexander Gant acquired a small up-river island, which he named MacCarthy ISland (later Janjangbureh), and built Fort George to defend it. In the following decade, groundnuts (peanuts) were introduced to the area for the first time and became the Settlement’s most important cash commodity after beeswax, ivory and skins, soon accounting for one third of its total export income. Around the same time, the protectorate gained a new, wiling labour force in the parties of freed slaves who were moved from the slave ships and plantations via Freetown to The Gambia and settled in Bathurst and George town. The Gambia’s first Legislative Council was introduced in 1843, and the Protectorate was given its own colonial administration, based in Bathurst, rather than being governed from Freetown.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, while the British hesitated and focused their attentions elsewhere, the French were battling their way deep into the Soudan (present-day eastern Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire), actively engaged in a mission to conquer. From 1850 to 1901 the whole of the Gambia region was in a state of social chaos as the Soninke-Marabout Wars repeatedly flared up between renegade Muslim leaders and Mandinka kings, and the British were forced to consolidate the region or else lose it to France.
Britain’s establishment of “The Crown Colony and Protectorate of the Gambia” was formally agreed at the Paris conference of 1889. The Colony comprised St Mary’s Island and the capital Bathurst, the district of Kombo St Mary, and MacCarthy Island, where Wolofs predominated. The Protectorate was the rest of present-day Gambia, at the time ruled by headmen and chiefs and populated by Mandinkas. Britain’s decision to claim this territory stemmed less from commercial ambitions than from imperial strategy. The intention was to prawn off the country in exchange for some better French territory. Gabon was one chunk favoured by the British – they’d already turned down the offer of the Ivory Coast sea forts. But the temporary expedient of holding the river became permanent when, having failed to agree on an exchange, the British succeeded merely in delimiting a narrow strip of land on each side of the River Gambia, burrowing into the heart of French territory: France acquired most of Senegal at the Paris conference, and Casamance was later transferred to France from Portugal. Yet Britain wasn’t fully reconciled to its responsibilities along the River Gambia until after World War l – thus, in practical terms, The Gambia’s era of effective colonialism lasted only forty years, from the 1920s to the 1960s.
The road to independence
In a manner similar to that of many other countries in West Africa, The Gambia’s progression to independence was not a heroic one – the men who led the country into the neocolonial era were not to so much nationalists as ambitious politicians.
The Bathurst Trade Union, founded in 1928, mounted successful campaigns for workers’ rights, but the first political party wasn’t formed until shortly before the Legislative Council elections of 1951. Through most of the 1950s, the Gambian parties were reactive, personality-led interest groups rather than campaigning, policy-making, issue-led organizations. All the early-1950s parties – the Democratic Party, the Muslim Congress Party and the United Party – were Wolof, and Colony-based (that is, based in Buthurst, rather than up-country) and highly sectional. Gambia had to wait until 1960 before a party with a genuinely grassroots programme emerged. This was the Protectorate People’s Party, quickly relabelled People’s Progressive Party (PPP), led by an ex-veterinary officer from Mac Carthy Island Division, David Jawara, The PPP looked to the people of the Protectorate for support, but was distinctly anti-chef. Instead it spoke for rural Mandinkas and others in their resentment against corrupt chiefdoms, and for disenfranchised and younger Wolofs of the Colony.
The administration had overhead the constitution in 1951 and finally, after consultation with senior Gambian figures, produced a complicated new constitution in 1954. This gave real representation to the up-country Protectorate peoples for the first time, but precipitated sharpened demands for greater responsibility for Gambian ministers in the government. It also put extraordinary power in the handds of the chiefs, who ere, for the most part, supporters of the colonial status quo. To avoid a crisis, another constitution was formulated in 1959 which abolished the Legislative Council and provided for a parliament – the House of Representatives.
In the run-up to the 1960 elections, the Democratic and Muslim Congress parties merged as the Democratic Congress Alliance (DCA). but couldn’t shake off the popular impression that their nominees were all puppets of the British administration. As a result, the DCA took only three seats, while the United Party of PS N’Jie (with whom the governor had recently fallen out) and David Jawara’s PPP took eight seats each. The British governor, in a move to placate the Protectorate chiefs, offered the post of prime minister to PS N’Jie, to the consternation of Jawara, who became education minister. But the 1959 constitution gave rise to further indecisive election results. More talks in 1962 resulted in yet another constitution, providing for a 36-seat House of Representatives with 32 elected seats and just four chiefs nominated by the Chiefs’ Assembly, and granting universal suffrage to all citizens of 21 years and above.
The balance of power now shifted against the United Party, Jawara and the Democratic Congress Alliance found room for co-operation and, in the 1962 elections – which were to determine the political configuration for full self-government – the two parties contested seats in concert to squeeze out the UP. The results of this electoral alliance were highly successful for the PPP, which won seventeen out of the 25 Protectorate seats and one of the seven Colony seats. The DCA, however, managed to gain only one seat in the Colony and couldn’t shift the UP from its urban power base. As a result, with the support of the DCA’s two elected members, Jawara had an absolute majority in parliament. Jawara and his party were to remain in power for the next 32 years, until the 1994 coup.
After the 1962 elections, Jawara entered into a coalition with the experienced PS N’Jie of the United Party to form the first fully independent government. Independence Day came on February 19, 1965, when The Gambia was admitted to the Commonwealth as an independent constitutional monarchy and began five years as a parliamentary democracy, with Queen Elizabeth II as titular Head of State and Jawara as Prime Minister.
In 1966, Jawara was knighted by the Queen in London, and PS N’Jie backed his United Party out of the coalition government to lead the opposition. Four years later, on April 24, 1970, following a referendum, The Gambia became a republic with prime minister Dawda Kairaba Jawara (now using his Muslim name) its president. In contrast to the many other Africa countries operating as single-party states. The Gambia opted for a multi-party democracy with a five-year parliamentary term. However at every election, the PPP continued to win the vast majority of seats, and at every election N’Jie claimed that the vote was rigged. Despite the corruption allegations, the PPP, with its roots in the Mandinka villages, managed to established credible support across the country.
The first fifteen years of independence were peaceful, and the groundnut economy fared better than expected due to high prices on the world markets. In 1971 the Central Bank of The Gambia was established and launched the new dalasi currency. In 1973, with the Gambian population exceeding 500,000 for the first time, Bathurst was renamed Banjul with much patriotic pride, and in the same year a record groundnut harvest earned a balance of trade surplus of D25,2 million, increasing the per capita income of the population by half.
Source: THE ROUGH GUIDE to The Gambia (Rough Guides)
Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh
Until a military coup in July 1994, the Gambia was led by President Jawara, who was re-elected five times. 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.
In July 1994, Yahya A.J.J. 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.