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The Senegal and Gambia rivers: to1894

For a vessel sailing down the west coast of Africa, the mouth of the Senegal river offers the first refreshing welcome after the parched territory of the western Sahara. Further south, round the difficult promontory of Cape Verde, is the even more enticing estuary of the Gambia. Here the channel is sufficiently broad and deep to carry even modern ocean-going vessels as far as 150 miles inland.

From the moment when Europeans begin exploring these regions, in the 15th century, these two great rivers attract their attention. For a century and more the Portuguese virtually have them to themselves. They reach the Senegal in 1444 and the Gambia in 1455.

In the 17th century the French and the British, by now imperial rivals, develop an interest in the two rivers. The French establish a trading station at the mouth of the Senegal in 1638. In 1659 they move it to St Louis, a more secure island. In 1677 they seize (from the Dutch) the island of Gorée, little more than a large rock off Cape Verde but of great value as a defensible trading station at this pivotal point on the coast.

Meanwhile the British have been concentrating their efforts on the Gambia. In 1661 Fort James is built on an island some seventeen miles upstream.

In the 1680s the French send a detachment from Gorée to establish a distinctly provocative settlement at Albreda on the north bank of the river opposite Fort James.

France and Britain are at this time on the verge of a century and a half of almost continuous warfare against each other. The fortified settlements in Africa change hands between the two nations again and again during the 18th century. The end result, by the mid-19th century, is that Britain is the established European power on the Gambia, with the valuable addition of Bathurst (now known as Banjul). This island in the mouth of the river is used from 1816 as a base against the slave trade.

Balancing this, France has the Senegal and the important outpost of Gorée between the two rivers. Moreover the French have been much more ambitious than the British in pressing inland. They establish a station at Médine, far up the Senegal, in the 1850s. In 1883 a French expedition reaches Bamako on the Niger. They effectively outflank the British, who restrict their interests to the banks of the Gambia.

As a result, when the scramble for Africa begins in 1884, the British are at a disadvantage. When boundaries are agreed between the two nations, in 1889, Britain secures only a narrow strip along each bank of the Gambia. This territory is entirely surrounded by French Senegal.

The Gambia Protectorate: 1894-1970

From 1894 Britain administers the narrow riverside region, calling it the Gambia Protectorate. Local rule over small areas is divided among thirty-five chiefs, answerable to the governor presiding from Bathurst.

After World War II, with all colonies in Africa heading towards independence, Britain assumes that the Gambia will merge with its larger all-round neighbour, Senegal. However local politicians prefer to aim for a small nation standing on its own (the population in 1963 is 315,000.) This is achieved in 1965.

Independence: from1965

The Gambia becomes an independent member of the Commonwealth in February 1965. Five years later a new constitution, approved in a referendum in April 1970, transforms the nation into a republic.

The prime minister taking office on independence in 1965 is Dawda Jawara, who also becomes president of the republic from 1970. For the next quarter of a century he is re-elected every five years (without accusations of electoral malpractice), but in 1981 there is an armed uprising against his government. After heavy fighting in the capital, Banjul, the rebels are defeated with the help of troops from neighbouring Senegal.

This event leads to an experiment in federation with Senegal. In 1982 the two nations form the confederation of Senegambia. They undertake to merge their military and security forces, to evolve a joint foreign policy and to work towards economic and monetary union. Joint institutions are to include a confederal parliament, but the two nations will nevertheless maintain their separate independence.

This ambitious scheme (similar to the long-term aims of the European Union) lasts until 1989, when tensions cause the confederation to be dissolved. It is replaced by a looser treaty of friendship and cooperation, agreed in 1991.

In July 1994 Jawara's regime is toppled in a coup led by junior army officers, arising from a riot in the streets of Banjul by soldiers demanding unpaid wages. Jawara escapes to exile in Senegal. An army lieutenant, Yahya Jammeh, becomes chairman of a provisional military council.

Jammeh stands for election as president in 1996, but the political situation is distorted by a ban on the three political parties active during the Jawara years and on anyone who has held a ministerial post since independence. In these unusual conditions Jammeh defeats two rivals in the presidential election. In 1997 his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation, wins 33 of the 49 seats in parliament.