In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gambia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Geography
  • Economy
  • Politics and Government
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Music and Performance

African Studies Gambia
Assan Sarr, Donald R. Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0134


The Gambia River, which enters the Atlantic Ocean 115 miles south of Cape Verde, Africa’s western tip, was long a major artery for commerce between the Atlantic and West Africa’s interior. Europeans referred to land along the river as “Gambia” or “the Gambia,” part of “Senegambia,” the region between the Senegal River on the north and the Gambia River on the south. Gambia’s population consists of several ethnic groups: Serer and Jola, early occupants of coastal regions; Mandinka (the largest), and Serahuli (Serrawooli, Soninke), migrants from the east; Fula (Fulbe, Peul), herders from the north, bringing cattle and Islam; Wolof from Senegal, accompanying British traders and officials; and Aku, descendants of liberated slaves from Sierra Leone. Before rapid urban growth in the last half of the 20th century, most Gambians were farmers (millet, sorghum, rice), herders, craftsmen, merchants, or Islamic holy men, residing in small villages. Riverine trade, for centuries involving salt moving upriver, increased after the mid-15th century with the arrival of Portuguese seamen, and again after the mid-17th century with the establishment of English and French outposts. Exports were gold, slaves, and cowhides; imports included cloth, beads, iron bars, metalware, weaponry (swords and cutlasses, firearms and gunpowder), spirits, and paper. Beginning in the early 19th century, after Great Britain established a permanent settlement at Bathurst (now Banjul) near the river’s mouth, closing the river to slave trading, British merchants steadily garnered more Gambia trade. Peanuts dominated exports from the 1840s through the 20th century. In 1893, Britain claimed a narrow strip along two hundred miles of the lower Gambia River, surrounded by French Senegal, as its Gambia Colony and Protectorate. British rule was noteworthy for lack of expenditure and development. Thus, when The Republic of The Gambia (commonly “The Gambia”) gained independence in 1965, it was one of the world’s poorest nations. The Gambia’s government was a democracy known for respecting human rights until a military coup in 1994 brought to power Lieutenant (later Colonel, and then President) Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh. His two decades of increasing authoritarian rule, which saw declining respect for the law, illegal detention, torture, and murder, ended in the surprising 2016 election of coalition candidate Adama Barrow, hopeful of leading the nation toward recovery from two decades of tyranny. Because Senegal surrounds The Gambia, overviews and bibliographies of Senegal can be informative about Gambia, as are works on Senegalese history, culture, religion, language, and the arts. In this article, because they are difficult to access, government and private publications from Gambia are rarely included. For these, see Gamble 1988, cited under Bibliographies, and supplements in Gamble’s Gambia Studies Series, cited under General Overviews.

General Overviews

Great Britain was the major European power involved with Gambia over the last two centuries, so works in English by British authors dominate studies of Gambia. Gamble’s Gambia Studies Series covers a range of topics with authority and empathy; Reeve 1912 and Southorn 1952 offer perspectives on history, geography, and cultures of a Gambia that no longer exists, based on the colonial-world view of the authors’ time, and are best read with that in mind.

  • Gamble, David. Gambia Studies Series.

    Anthropologist Gamble began working in Gambia in 1946 and, until his death in 2011, wrote over fifty studies of Gambia language, ethnography, place names, narratives, and folk tales, along with a bibliography and scholarly critiques. St. Mary’s College of Maryland provides online access to fifty-three of Gamble’s “Gambia Studies.”

  • Reeve, Henry F. The Gambia: Its History, Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Together with Its Geographical, Geological, and Ethnological Conditions, and a Description of the Birds, Beasts, and Fishes Found Therein. London: Murray, 1912.

    Broad coverage, descriptive, much about life in early colonial Gambia, scenery along the river, what one might encounter if visiting over a century ago.

  • Southorn, Bella Sidney (Bella Sidney Woolf). The Gambia: The Story of a Groundnut Colony. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952.

    Writer of fiction and nonfiction, Bella Sidney Woolf was married to British colonial administrator Winfred Thomas Southorn, Gambia’s governor from 1936 to 1942. The book provides a history and geography of the colony. Her views and words are sympathetic; interesting comments on Gambia during World War II.

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