The Gambia was actually a sought after river running into the Atlantic from North West Africa. The Portugese had long known of this local communications highway and used it to trade in slaves and gold. In 1588, Portugese emigres convinced Queen Elizabeth of the value of the area. She allowed the creation of a group of merchants who had a monopoly of ten years to trade on the rivers of Senegal and Gambia. The company did not make the hoped for fortunes and left no permanent settlement.
Timbuktu held a fascination for Europeans as a possible source of huge quantities of gold. It was hoped that either the Rivers Senegal or Gambia would provide a suitable access point to the fabled wealth of the city. Unfortunately, they did not realise that Timbuktu’s prime had already passed. But that did not stop James 1 granting another charter to ‘The Company of Adventurers of London’ for a monopoly of West African trade. They built a fort at the mouth of the Gambia in order to use as a base of operations. These adventurers endeavoured to find a route to Timbuktu but were usually killed outright if they did not die of disease first.
Later in 1664, they built a sturdier fort named Fort James to try and defend their trade from the Dutch who had become a serious rival to the English. This fort would provide the basis of a permanent settlement for the next few centuries. Although their frequent expeditions to Timbuktu continually ended in failure.
By the eighteenth century, the French would become the major competitor for influence in West Africa. Lured by the profits in slaves and the hope for gold, the French moved forcefully into the Senegal region. The fort at James Island was to prove its worth many times over as the two nations clashed with one another. In the seven years war the British were to capture Senegal and form the colony of Senegambia. However, this highpoint was to last only two decades. Britain had a harder time keeping their colonies during the American Revolutionary Wars with France and Spain. The French were able to reclaim their Senegal lands, although the British fort at James Island would keep some British influence on the Gambia at least – although the French were permitted their own trading post at Albreda. However the French were to lose much of their influence once more due to the Napoleonic wars. In fact, the British easily captured the isolated French colonies dotted around the world. Senegal would be one such acquistion.
The Gambia was to lose much of its economic influence with the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The area still held some strategic interest to the British and after the Napoleonic War they took over the trading posts to form the nucleus of the Gambia colony and set up a new military post at Bathurst. It was to be administered from Sierra Leone until 1843. The British slowly expanded the colony up the river through treaty deals and purchases from surrounding tribes. A deal with the French confirmed the British claims in 1857 in return for British recognition of the surrounding French colonies. There were to be subsequent attempts by the French to take over administration of the colony through swapping for territory elsewhere in Africa, but Imperial lobbies in London resisted any deals with their erstwhile enemies. The French slowly pushed their own settlements closer and closer to the Gambia and effectively isolated it from any hinterland. The borders of the colonies were finally formalised between the two nations in 1889.
In 1892 a slave-raiding chief, named Fodi Kabba, had to be forcibly expelled from the British territory. In 1894 another slaveraider, Fodi Silah, gave much trouble to the protectorate. An expedition under Captain E. H. Gamble succeeded in routing him, and Fodi Silah took refuge in French territory, where he died. During the expedition Captain Gamble was led into an ambush, and in this engagement lost 5 killed and 47 wounded. In 1900 trouble again arose through the agency of Fodi Kabba, who had fixed his residence at Medina, in French territory. Two travelling commissioners (Mr F. C. Sitwell and Mr Silva) were murdered in June of that year, at a place called Suankandi, and a punitive expedition was sent out under Colonel H. E. Brake. Suankandi was captured and, with French co-operation, Medina was also captured, Fodi Kabba being killed on the 23rd of March 1901. It wasn’t until 1906 that an ordinance forcibly banned slavery from the entire colony.
Gambia played a crucial role during the Second World War laying strategically midway between Britain, the Caribbean and the Middle East. It allowed flying boats in particular to move relatively safely between theatres and to help patrol the oceans to help fight the German U-boat threat. A particularly large seaplane base was built on the Gambia River in the capital of Bathurst.
It became independent in 1965.