History of Gambia – from Senegambia to today

British West Africa

In 1765 Great Britain established its first colony in West Africa on the Senegal and Gambia rivers and named it Senegambia. It belonged to British West Africa. In 1779 the French recaptured their trading establishments in Senegal. They took James Island and destroyed the fort. It was the end of Senegambia. Great Britain only remained the Gambia Valley.

From 1809 to 1817 Senegal was once again under British ownership. In 1811 Great Britain banned the slave trade in its colonies (France followed in 1848). In 1816 the British built a base at Bathurst to combat the slave trade, which was still carried on by the Americans and the French. Today the capital Banjul is located there.

War between Soninke and Marabouts

Between 1850 and 1887, brutal wars took place between the Soninke, who practiced an animistic religion, and marabouts. Marabouts are religious leaders in Islam. They waged war against everyone who did not want to adopt Islam. Soninke supremacy in the area was broken. Members of the Diola on the south bank of the Gambia who rejected Islam were also killed.

The Gambia was temporarily under the administration in Sierra Leone (see there). France wanted to exchange the area for other (French) colonial land, for example from the Ivory Coast. Traders and settlers were against it, but so were the marabouts, who even ended their war. Britain eventually broke off negotiations.

British colony

In 1888 the Gambia became an independent British colony. A year later, Great Britain and France set the national borders as they still exist today. The border followed the course of the Gambia River and the land on the bank stretched as far as the range of a cannonball, namely ten miles.

Independence in 1965 and republic in 1970

After the Second World War, the colony gradually gained more independence. Parties were formed. In 1965 the Gambia was given independence. The country remained in the Commonwealth of Nations and was a monarchy headed by the British Queen. Dawda Jawara became prime minister.

A popular vote in 1970 decided that Gambia should become a republic. Jawara was elected its president and was re-elected in 1972 and 1977. Bathurst was renamed Banjul in 1973. The Gambia was seen as a “model country” with an exemplary democracy.

Senegambia (1982-1989)

An economic crisis led to a coup in 1981, which however was suppressed with the help of troops from Senegal. On February 1, 1982 the Gambia and Senegal merged under the name Senegambia (this is called a confederation). The armed forces, the currency and the economic area were united. But the cooperation turned out to be difficult, and the additional bureaucracy also made the merger difficult. In 1989 the confederation was ended again. Jawara remained President of Gambia and was re-elected in 1992.

1994 coup: Yahya Jammeh becomes president

In 1994, Jawara was ousted in a military coup. He and his government were accused of corruption. The coup was bloodless. Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh declared himself President of Gambia. The constitution was repealed, political parties banned, opponents arrested and the death penalty reintroduced.

In 1996, Jammeh finally allowed democratic elections again. A certain stability returned. Jammeh won the election. Tourism, interrupted by the coup, increased again. In 2001, Jammeh was confirmed in office. He extended his term of office and was accused of corruption and waste.

In 2011, Jammeh was re-elected in an election. Now he was accused of manipulating the election. The lack of freedom of the press and the violation of human rights continue to be criticized. Jammeh sees himself as a faith healer.

Adama Barrow becomes President of Gambia

Jammeh’s presidency ended in 2016. He lost the election and so Adama Barrow took over the office of Gambian President. Jammeh delayed the takeover, but ultimately couldn’t prevent it.

When a baby is born in Gambia, all those who belong to Islam celebrate the naming festival one week after the birth. The Mandinka call the ceremony Kulliyo, the Wolof Ngente. All relatives and friends are invited. It is celebrated in front of the house or in the family courtyard. The festival begins in the morning.

An imam (Muslim head) cuts off a lock of hair from the baby and then doses some water on his head. The imam speaks verses from the Koran. Then he whispers his name in the baby’s ear. Then the name is repeated aloud to everyone. That can also be done by a griot. Griots are called Jali in Gambia.

The name of the child was kept secret until then. The baby’s father chose and determined the name. Now the party will go on until the evening. Most families slaughter a cattle, sheep or chicken. Guests are also often offered kola nuts. You break the seeds into pieces, chew them and spit them out after about an hour.

Incidentally, the birthday is usually not celebrated in Gambia. It also happens that children whose birth has not been reported to the authorities do not even know on which day they were born. This is not only the case in Gambia, but in all of West Africa according to Countryaah.

Names in Gambia

And what are the names of the children in Gambia? Often the first names have a Muslim origin, then there are also traditional names or English names (such as John or Susan). Girls are often called Fatou or Fatoumata, Mariama, Isatou or Ami or Aminata. There is also the first name Fanta, which reminds us more of a lemonade, but the name has nothing to do with that.

The firstborn son is often called Lamin among the Mandinka people. This is the African modification of the Arabic name al-Amin, which means “conscientious” or “trustworthy”. When it comes to the girls’ names, Aminata is the counterpart. Other common boy names are Ebrima, Abdouli (or Abdoulaye, from the Arabic name Abdullah), Momodou (from Arabic Mohammed) or Ousman (Arabic Othman).

You can often tell from the surname which people someone belongs to. Mandinka, for example, are often called Jawara or Jobateh. Wolof are often called Mboge or Njie. Jallow, Ceesay, Bah, Camara, Jobe and Jammeh are also widespread in Gambia.

History of Gambia