Arab traders provided the first written accounts of the Gambia area in the ninth and tenth centuries. During the tenth century, Muslim merchants and scholars established communities in several West African commercial centres.
Both groups established trans-Saharan trade routes, leading to a large export trade of local people as slaves, also gold and ivory, as well as imports of manufactured goods.
Senegambian stone circles (megaliths) which run from Senegal through the Gambia and which are described by UNESCO as “the largest concentration of stone circles seen anywhere in the world”.
By the 11th or 12th century, the rulers of kingdoms such as Takrur, a monarchy centred on the Senegal River just to the north, ancient Ghana and Gao had converted to Islam and had appointed to their courts Muslims who were literate in the Arabic language.
At the beginning of the 14th century, most of what is today called Gambia was part of the Mali Empire. The Portuguese reached this area by sea in the mid-15th century, and began to dominate overseas trade.
In 1588, the claimant to the Portuguese throne, António, Prior of Crato, sold exclusive trade rights on the Gambia River to English merchants. Letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I confirmed the grant.
In 1618, King James I of England granted a charter to an English company for trade with the Gambia and the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Between 1651 and 1661, some parts of the Gambia were under the rule of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, and were bought by Prince Jacob Kettler.
During the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century, the British Empire and the French Empire struggled continually for political and commercial supremacy in the regions of the Senegal River and the Gambia River.
The British Empire occupied the Gambia when an expedition led by Augustus Keppel landed there following the Capture of Senegal in 1758.
The 1783 First Treaty of Versailles gave Great Britain possession of the Gambia River, but the French retained a tiny enclave at Albreda on the river’s north bank. This was finally ceded to the United Kingdom in 1856.
As many as three million people may have been taken as slaves from this general region during the three centuries that the transatlantic slave trade operated.
It is not known how many people were taken as slaves by intertribal wars or Muslim traders before the transatlantic slave trade began.
Most of those taken were sold by other Africans to Europeans: some were prisoners of intertribal wars; some were victims sold because of unpaid debts; and many others were simply victims of kidnapping.
Traders initially sent people to Europe to work as servants until the market for labour expanded in the West Indies and North America in the 18th century. In 1807, the United Kingdom abolished the slave trade throughout its empire.
It also tried, unsuccessfully, to end the slave trade in the Gambia. Slave ships intercepted by the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron in the Atlantic were also returned to the Gambia with people who had been slaves released on MacCarthy Island far up the Gambia River where they were expected to establish new lives. The British established the military post of Bathurst (now Banjul) in 1816.
Gambia Colony and Protectorate (1821–1965)
In the ensuing years, Banjul was at times under the jurisdiction of the British Governor-General in Sierra Leone. In 1888, The Gambia became a separate colony.
An agreement with the French Republic in 1889 established the present boundaries. The Gambia became a British Crown colony called British Gambia, divided for administrative purposes into the colony (city of Banjul and the surrounding area) and the protectorate (remainder of the territory).
The Gambia received its own executive and legislative councils in 1901, and it gradually progressed toward self-government. Slavery was abolished in 1906 and following a brief conflict between the British colonial forces and indigenous Gambians, British colonial authority was firmly established.
During World War II, some soldiers fought with the Allies of World War II. Though these soldiers fought mostly in Burma, some died closer to home and a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery is in Fajara (close to Banjul). Banjul contained an airstrip for the US Army Air Forces and a port of call for Allied naval convoys.
After World War II, the pace of constitutional reform increased. Following general elections in 1962, the United Kingdom granted full internal self-governance in the following year.
The Gambia achieved independence on 18 February 1965, as a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth, with Elizabeth II as Queen of the Gambia, represented by the Governor-General.
Shortly thereafter, the national government held a referendum proposing that the country become a republic. This referendum failed to receive the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution, but the results won widespread attention abroad as testimony to The Gambia’s observance of secret balloting, honest elections, civil rights, and liberties.
On 24 April 1970, The Gambia became a republic within the Commonwealth, following a second referendum. Prime Minister Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara assumed the office of President, an executive post, combining the offices of head of state and head of government.
President Sir Dawda Jawara was re-elected five times. An attempted coup on 29 July 1981 followed a weakening of the economy and allegations of corruption against leading politicians.
The coup attempt occurred while President Jawara was visiting London and was carried out by the leftist National Revolutionary Council, composed of Kukoi Samba Sanyang’s Socialist and Revolutionary Labour Party (SRLP) and elements of the Field Force, a paramilitary force which constituted the bulk of the country’s armed forces.
President Jawara requested military aid from Senegal, which deployed 400 troops to The Gambia on 31 July. By 6 August, some 2,700 Senegalese troops had been deployed, defeating the rebel force.
Between 500 and 800 people were killed during the coup and the ensuing violence. In 1982, in the aftermath of the 1981 attempted coup, Senegal and The Gambia signed a treaty of confederation.
The Senegambia Confederation aimed to combine the armed forces of the two states and to unify their economies and currencies. After just seven years, The Gambia permanently withdrew from the confederation in 1989.
In 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) deposed the Jawara government and banned opposition political activity. Lieutenant Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, became head of state.
Jammeh was just 29 years old at the time of the coup. The AFPRC announced a transition plan for return to democratic civilian government.
The Provisional Independent Electoral Commission (PIEC) was established in 1996 to conduct national elections and transformed into the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in 1997 and became responsible for registration of voters and for the conduct of elections and referendums.
In late 2001 and early 2002, The Gambia completed a full cycle of presidential, legislative, and local elections, which foreign observers deemed free, fair, and transparent, albeit with some shortcomings.
President Yahya Jammeh, who was elected to continue in the position he had assumed during the coup, took the oath of office again on 21 December 2001.
Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) maintained its strong majority in the National Assembly particularly after the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) boycotted the legislative elections. (It has participated in elections since, however).
On 2 October 2013, The Gambian interior minister announced that The Gambia would leave the Commonwealth of Nations with immediate effect, ending 48 years of membership of the organisation.
The Gambian Government said it had “decided that The Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism”.
Incumbent President Jammeh faced opposition leaders Adama Barrow from the Independent Coalition of parties and Mamma Kandeh from the Gambia Democratic Congress party in the December 2016 presidential elections.
The Gambia sentenced main opposition leader and human rights advocate Ousainou Darboe to 3 years in prison in July 2016, disqualifying him from running in the presidential election.
Following the 1 December 2016 elections, the elections commission declared Adama Barrow the winner of the presidential election. Jammeh, who had ruled for 22 years, first announced he would step down after losing the 2016 election before declaring the results void and calling for a new vote, sparking a constitutional crisis and leading to an invasion by an ECOWAS coalition.
On 20 January 2017, Jammeh announced that he had agreed to step down and would leave the country.
On 14 February 2017, The Gambia began the process of returning to its membership of the Commonwealth and formally presented its application to re-join to Secretary-General Patricia Scotland on 22 January 2018.
Boris Johnson, who became the first British Foreign Secretary to visit The Gambia since the country gained independence in 1965, announced that the British government welcomed The Gambia’s return to the Commonwealth.