Precolonial history

Gambian history before the arrival of Europeans is speculative. The Malinke and Wolof kingdoms, fully established by the 19th century, were still in the formative stages when the Portuguese explorer Alvise Ca' da Mosto (Cadamosto) arrived in 1455. The Malinke were the westernmost peoples of the old Mali empire. The Wolof probably migrated from the Songhai regions, and the Fulani pastoralists were part of a migration from the Futa Toro. Although locally powerful, none of the small Gambian kingdoms were ever strong enough to dominate Senegambia. Continuing internecine warfare made it easy for the French and British to dominate the territory.

European colonization

The first Europeans in the Gambia, the Portuguese, established trading stations in the late 1400s but abandoned them within a century. Trade possibilities in the next two centuries drew English, French, Dutch, Swedish, and Courlander trading companies to western Africa.

The 18th century witnessed a struggle for prestige in Senegambia between France and England. Trade was minimal, and no chartered company made a profit. French and British outposts changed hands a number of times. Britain controlled the entire area between 1763 and 1783, but the Treaty of Versailles returned all French possessions. British presence on the river was maintained until 1823 by individual traders.

Captain Alexander Grant was sent to the Gambia in 1816 to reestablish a base from which the navy could operate to control the slave trade. He purchased Banjul Island (St. Mary's) from the king of Kombo, built barracks, laid out a town, and set up an artillery battery to control access to the river. The town, Bathurst (now Banjul), grew rapidly with the arrival of traders and workers from Gorée and upriver. The Gambia was administered as a part of the British West African Federation from 1821 to 1843. It was a separate colony with its own governor until 1866, when control was returned to the governor-general at Freetown until 1889.

British domination of the riverine areas seemed assured after 1857, but the increasing importance of peanut cultivation in Senegal prompted a new imperialism. By 1880 France controlled Senegal; in the 1870s the British attempted twice to trade the Gambia to France, but opposition at home and in the Gambia foiled these plans. Complicating matters was the series of religious conflicts, called the Soninke-Marabout Wars, lasting a half century. Only one Muslim leader, Maba, emerged who could have unified the various kingdoms, but he was killed in 1864. By 1880 the religious aspect had all but disappeared, and the conflicts were carried on by war chiefs such as Musa Mollah, Fodi Silla, and Fodi Kabba.

British protectorate

A Paris conference in 1889 obtained French agreement to British control of the Gambia River and the drawing of the present-day boundaries. In 1900 Britain imposed indirect rule on the interior, or protectorate (established in 1894), areas, dividing the Gambia into 35 chiefdoms, each with its own chief. The real power was concentrated in the governor and his staff at Bathurst.

Except for some trouble with slave-raiding chiefs, the Gambia enjoyed peace after its separation from Sierra Leone. In 1906 an ordinance was passed abolishing slavery throughout the protectorate. During World War II the Gambia contributed soldiers for the Burmese campaign and was used as an air staging post.


Political parties were late in developing, but by 1960 there were a number whose leaders demanded independence. Britain, believing that eventually the Gambia would merge with Senegal, gave the territory revised constitutions in 1954, 1960, and 1962 and finally granted it independence within the Commonwealth in February 1965. The Gambia became a republic on April 24, 1970. The first president, Sir Dawda Jawara, head of the PPP, was returned in all elections after 1972. In 1981 an attempt to overthrow the government was put down with the aid of Senegalese troops after heavy fighting in Banjul. In the aftermath, leaders of both countries created the confederation of Senegambia. This plan called for each state to retain independence of action in most areas, but military and economic resources were to be integrated. A Senegambian executive and legislature were also established, but the confederation was dissolved in 1989.


The Senegambia was a limited confederation of the sovereign countries of Senegal and The Gambia. The two countries reached a merger agreement in November 1981, and the Senegambia confederation came into being three months later. The terms of the agreement required Senegal and The Gambia to take the following steps toward union: integrate their military and security forces; form an economic and monetary union; coordinate their foreign policies and communications; and establish confederal institutions. The larger Senegal would dominate these institutions, controlling the confederal presidency and two-thirds of the seats in a confederal parliament. Despite the merger, each country would maintain its independence. Senegal and The Gambia began implementing the agreement in July 1982.

Jawara, Sir Dawda Kairaba

Born on May 16, 1924, at Barajally, MacCarthy Island, The Gambia, Jawara is a politician and veterinarian who was The Gambia's prime minister from 1962 to 1970 and its president from 1970 until he was overthrown in 1994.

The son of a Mande trader, Jawara was educated at a Methodist boys' school, studied veterinary medicine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and qualified as a veterinary surgeon in 1953. Returning to The Gambia, he became principal veterinary officer of that British colony in 1957. Jawara had become interested in politics, and in 1959 he joined the Protectorate People's Party. He changed its name to the People's Progressive Party and became its leader. In the elections of 1960 he won a seat in the Gambian legislature and was appointed minister of education in the government. He resigned his ministerial post in 1961 when the British government picked a rival Gambian leader to serve as the country's interim prime minister preparatory to new elections.

The People's Progressive Party won the general elections of 1962, and Jawara became The Gambia's prime minister. He led his country into independence from Great Britain three years later. Under his leadership, the tiny nation of The Gambia became one of Africa's few successful parliamentary democracies; Jawara's ruling People's Progressive Party won six successive elections (1966, 1972, 1977, 1982, 1987, 1992) under completely free conditions after independence in 1965. He was knighted in 1966. Jawara served as president from 1970, when a republican constitution was adopted to replace the former monarchy under the British sovereign. Jawara survived an attempted coup in 1981 with help from neighbouring Senegal, with which Gambia joined in a confederation called Senegambia from 1981 to 1989. Jawara was overthrown in a military coup in July 1994.

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