The Gambia has records that go as far back as the 9th and 10th centuries that say that Arab traders formed the country.
Trans-Saharan trade dominated the region, and it was under the rule of the Mali Empire. In the 16th century, the Songhai Empire ruled the territory.
The Europeans who first visited the Gambia River were Portuguese. This was the 15th century. The descendants of the Portuguese settlers remained in the Gambia until the 18th century.
English merchants attempted a trade with the Gambia in the late 16th century. They called it a “river of secret trade and riches concealed by the Portuguese.”
During the 17th century, the French tried to settle in the Gambia but failed. Many English expeditions between 1618 and 1621 failed.
Early History of Gambia – Mali and Songhai Empires
Historians believe that the great Carthaginian explorer, Hanno the Navigator, sailed to the Gambia in the fifth or sixth century.
Verified accounts say that Arab traders came to The Gambia in the 9th and 10th centuries AD.
Mansa Kankan Musa was the Madinka ruler in charge of the Mali Empire. He is recognized as the ruler who brought wealth, scholarship, and civility, including world recognition to the Gambia. The law of the land in the 13th century was the Kourourkan Fouga. It was Mali’s constitution.
Ibn Battuta, when he visited the territory in 1352, said of the inhabitants:
“The people of the region possess many admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people have. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.”
The Songhai Empire was named after the Songhai people. Their king had formal control of the Empire and dominated the region in the 16th century.
15 – 16th Century in the Gambia
Europe discovered the Gambia in the 15th century. Portuguese captain Nuno Tristao met the inhabitants of Cape Vert in 1446. He made a treaty for friendship and commerce. So every year, Portugal sent ships to trade with the Gambia.
The rumor of Gambia was that the banks of the river had in them plenty of gold. So Henry the Navigator, along with a man from Venice, Luiz de Cadamosto mounted an expedition with one ship. They were searching for the river of gold.
In the same year, he sent a Genoese trader, Antoniotto Usodimare on a similar quest. The two collaborated near Cape Verde and found the mouth of the Gambia River.
They came back to the Gambia River the following year and went upstream, making contact with native chiefs.
How the Gambia Got Its Name
Portuguese kept attempting to settle on the riverbank. They settled there and intermarried with the natives. Yet they maintained their dress, customs, and Christianity. There were communities of Portuguese in the Gambia till the 18th century. Their churches existed until 1730.
Portugal mounted a consistent assault on the Songhai Empire. By the end of the 16th century, it collapsed.
The word the Gambia comes from the Portuguese word for trade, Cambio.
In 1850, after the throne in Portugal was seized by Phillip II, many Portuguese sought refuge in England. One of them, Francesco Ferreira, was the captain of two English ships on a voyage to the Gambia in 1587. They returned with a profitable consignment of hides and ivory.
Antonio Prior of Crato had a claim to the throne of Portugal and in 1588, he sold the exclusive rights to trade in the region of Rivers Senegal and Gambia, to London and Devon merchants. They had this guarantee for ten years via letters patent of Queen Elizabeth I. Several ships were sent to the coast but did venture further south because of Portuguese hostility. Their reports said, “…the Gambia was a river of secret trade and riches concealed by the Portuguese.”
Seventeenth-Century – The Exploration of Africa by the English
The French attempted to settle in the Gambia in 1612. This ended disastrously because of the sickness among the settlers. The letters patent that conferred the right to exclusive trade with the Gambia were granted in 1598, 1618, and 1632 to other English explorers. No one made an attempt to explore by the English until 1618.
George Thompson commanded an expedition until 1618 with the aim of opening up trade with Timbucktu. George left his ships at Gasson and proceeded with a small party in boats up River Neriko. Some members of his party made it up to Cape Verde and then England. Thompson remained in the Gambia with seven companions. He died at the hands of one of them in a sudden dispute.
Richard Jobson, an honest man, and unprofitable voyages
A relief expedition departed England under the command of Richard Jobson; they seized Portuguese shipping as a response to the massacre at Gasson. Jobson made it up to River Neriko and gave a positive account of the opportunities to make money available on the River Gambia. Jobson refused the slaves offered by African merchant Buckor Sano.
He said: “…we were a people who did not deal in such commodities, neither did we buy or sell one another, or any that had our own shapes…”
Hugh Thomas dubbed his protests exceptional. Unfortunately, the expedition resulted in significant losses and another voyage was made in 1624 that was also a failure. After losing £5,000, the patentees did not make any other attempts to exploit the resources of the Gambia. They confined their attention to the Gold Coast.
The Commonwealth of England granted a patent to particular London merchants in 1651, and in that year, the merchants sent two expeditions to the River Gambia and created a trading post at Bintang. The members of the expedition made it as far as Barakunda Falls in their search for Gold. The climate took its toll so they stopped there. Prince Rupert of the Rhine entered the Gambia with three Royalists’ ships and captured the ship of the patentees. This heavy loss caused them to halt any further enterprise in the Gambia.
Courland Gambia – The England Reclamation Story
Jacob Kettler, Duke of Courland obtained a cession. Several native chiefs gave him a cession of St Andrew’s Island and land at Banyon Point, Juffure, and Gassan.
A mix of merchants, missionaries, and settlers was sent from Courland. Forts were erected on St Andrew’s island at Banyon Point. This period in history was known as Couronian colonization. In this era, they also colonized Tobago. The Courlanders believed that the possession of these territories gave them control over the river. They assumed they could levy tolls on anyone who used the waterway.
So they built a fort from sandstone, found locally, appointed a Lutheran pastor, and positioned the cannons on the island. They wanted to command the channels to the north and the south. They wanted to sell slaves to Tobago but were unsuccessful in this.
In 1658, Kettler became a prisoner of the Swedes during a war between Sweden and Poland. As a result, funds were low and they could no longer maintain the garrisons and settlements in the Gambia.
In 1659, an agent of the Duke of Courland was at Amsterdam and entered into an agreement with the Dutch West India Company and the Duke’s possessions were handed to the company.
Map of James Island and Fort Gambia
In 1660, the fort at St Andrew’s Island was captured. A French privateer in the service of the Swedish plundered it. The Dutch abandoned the fort years later and the Courlanders regained possession. When the English monarchy was restored in 1660, English interest in the Gambia was resurrected. A report of the existence of a gold mine in the upper reaches of the river caused this. A patent was granted to a new set of people who were perceived to be the Royal Adventurers in Africa Company. Among them, James, Duke of York, and Prince Rupert were the most prominent. At the end of the year, the adventures dispatched an expedition to the Gambia under the command of Robert Holmes, who had been with Prince Rupert in the Gambia in 1652.
Holmes arrived at the mouth of River Gambia in 1661. Then he went to claim Dog Island. He renamed it Charles Island and created a temporary fort there. On 18 March, he sailed to St Andrew’s Island and called on the Courlander officer-in-charge to surrender. He threatened to bombard the fort if his request was not honored.
Only seven Europeans were present in the Garrison and the Courlanders submitted. The following day, Holmes hijacked the fort. He named it James Fort after the Duke of York.
The Dutch West India Company tried to gain possession of the fort in 1662. First, they tried inciting the natives of Barra against the English. Second, they tried to bribe some of the English officers. Third, they tried to bombard the fort. They were unsuccessful but the English maintained control.
Trade Control by the English in the Gambia
The Duke of Courland launched a protest against the seizure of his possessions in the absence of war. On 17 November 1664, after negotiations over the territories, he relinquished to Charles II all claims to his African possessions. In exchange for this, he was granted the Island of Tobago and the right to trade in the River Gambia.
In 1667, the Royal Adventurers leased their rights over the Capes Blanco and Palmas to some other adventurers. They were known as the Gambia adventurers. They intended to exploit the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Sherbro. The Royal Adventurers enjoyed these rights for a year and when the lease expired, it reverted to the Royal African Company. The Royal African Company, which had purchased the rights and property of the Royal Adventurers six years earlier.
The French fought and claimed the island of Gorée from the Dutch. The struggles between England and France lasted for more than 150 years. It was a struggle for political and commercial supremacy in Senegal and Gambia.
The French acquired a small enclave at Albreda opposite James Island in 1681. England retained a foothold in this space until 1857, except for a short period when they had trouble with the natives of barren, and this led to abandoning this place briefly.
18th Century – The Turmoil and Prosperity of the African Company
The French captured James Fort four different times in 1695, 1702, 1704, and 1708. This happened during a period following the Glorious Revolution. However, the French did not attempt to occupy the fort permanently.
The French recognized the right of the English to James Island and their settlements on the River Gambia during the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The wars resulted in an outbreak of piracy along the West African coast. English trade in the Gambia suffered heavily from the efforts of the pirates. Howel Davis, a pirate in 1719, captured James Fort. In 1721, the part of the garrison of the fort carried out a mutiny under the command of Captain John Massey. He seized one of the company’s ships and promptly became a pirate. In 1725, the accidental explosion of gunpowder extensively damaged James Fort.
Royal African Company
After these incidents, the Royal African Company made benefits from 20 years of relative prosperity.
They established as far up the river as Fattatenda and other places. A considerable trade was carried out with the interior of Africa.
Nonetheless, despite an annual subsidy from the British government for the maintenance of their forts, the Royal African Company faced considerable financial difficulty. In 1749, James Island was in a miserable condition. A year after, the reports said that the garrison at James Fort was reduced through sickness from around 30 mean. Since all the soldiers were dead, a common soldier took command.
By 1750, the position was critical and an Act of Parliament was passed to divest the Royal African Company of its forts and settlements to a new company. A committee of merchants controlled it. The Act prohibited the new company from trading in its corporate capacity. It allowed an annual subsidy for the upkeep of the forts. This was done to prevent the monopolistic tendencies of rule by a joint-stock company, to save the government the expense entailed by the creation of colonial civil service.