1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gambia (colony)

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GAMBIA, the most northerly of the British West African dependencies. It consists of a stretch of land on both sides of the lower Gambia. The colony, with the protectorate dependent upon it, has an area of about 4000 sq. m. and a population officially estimated (1907) at 163,000. The colony proper (including St Mary’s Island, British Kommbo, the Ceded Mile, McCarthy’s Island and other islets) has an area of about 69 sq. m. The protectorate consists of a strip of land extending ten kilometres (about 6 m.) on each side of the river to a distance of about 200 m. in a direct line from the sea. The land outside these limits is French. Within the protectorate are various petty kingdoms, such as Barra, to the north of the Gambia, and Kommbo, to the south. The breadth of the colony near the coast is somewhat greater than it is higher up. The greatest breadth is 39 m.

Physical Features, Fauna and Flora.—The colony, as its name implies, derives its character and value from the river Gambia (q.v.), which is navigable throughout and beyond the limits of the colony, while large ocean-going ships can always cross the bar at its mouth and enter the port of Bathurst. Away from the swamps by the river banks, the country is largely “bush.” The region above McCarthy’s Island is hilly. Much of the land is cleared for cultivation. The fauna includes lions, leopards, several kinds of deer, monkeys, bush-cow and wild boar. Hippopotami are found in the upper part of the river, and crocodiles abound in the creeks. The birds most common are bush-fowl, bustards, guinea-fowl, quail, pigeon and sand-grouse. Bees are very numerous in parts of the country. The flora resembles that of West Africa generally, the mangrove being common. Mahogany and rosewood (Pterocarpus erinaceus) trees are found, though not in large numbers, and the rubber-vine and oil-palm are also comparatively scarce. There are many varieties of fern. The cassava (manioca) and indigo plants are indigenous.

Climate.—The climate during the dry season (November-June) is the best on the British West African coast, and the Gambia is then considered fairly healthy. Measures for the extermination of the malarial mosquito are carried on with good effect. The mean temperature at Bathurst is 77° F., the shade minimum being 56° and the solar maximum 165°. Upriver the variation in temperature is even greater than at Bathurst, from 50° in the morning to 100°–104° at 3 p.m. being common at McCarthy’s Isle. The average rainfall is about 50 in. a year, but save for showers in May and June there is rarely any rain except between July and October. The first instance of rain in December in twenty-six years was recorded in 1906. The dry east wind known as the harmattan blows intermittently from December to March.

Inhabitants.—The inhabitants, who are both thrifty and industrious, are almost entirely of Negro or Negroid race, the chief tribes represented being the Mandingo (q.v.), the Jolof and the Jola. Numbers of Fula (q.v.) are also settled in the country. Fully four-fifths of the natives are Mahommedans. The few European residents are officials, traders or missionaries. Towns and Trade.—Bathurst, pop. about 8000, the chief town of the colony, in 13° 24′ N., 16° 36′ W., is built on St Mary’s Island, which lies at the mouth of the river near its south bank and is connected with the mainland by a bridge across Oyster Creek. It was founded in 1816 and is named after the 3rd earl Bathurst, secretary of state for the colonies from 1812 to 1827. Bathurst is a fairly well-built town, the chief material employed being red sandstone. It lies about 12 to 14 ft. above the level of the river. The principal buildings face the sea, and include Government House, barracks, a well-appointed hospital, founded by Sir R. G. MacDonnell (administrator, 1847–1852), and various churches. The market-place is shaded by a fine avenue of bombax and other wide-spreading trees. There are no other towns of any size in the Gambia. A trading station called Georgetown is situated on McCarthy’s Island, so named after Sir Charles McCarthy, the governor of Sierra Leone, who in 1824 was captured and beheaded by the Ashanti at the battle of Essamako. Albreda, a small port on the north bank of the river, of some historic interest (see below), is in the Barra district.

Products.—Ground-nuts (Arachis hypogaea), rubber, beeswax, palm kernels, rice, cotton, and millet are the chief productions. Millet and rice are the staple food of the people. The curing of hides, the catching and drying of fish, boat-building, and especially the weaving of cotton into cloths called “pagns,” afford employment to a considerable number of persons. Formerly the principal exports, besides slaves, were gold-dust, wax and hides, the gold being obtained from the Futa Jallon district farther inland. Between 1830 and 1840 from 1500 to 2000 oz. of gold were exported annually, but shipments ceased soon afterwards, though small quantities of gold-dust can still be obtained from native goldsmiths. The export of hides received a severe check in 1892–1893 through the death of nearly all the cattle, but after an interval of seven or eight years the industry gradually revived. The value of hides exported increased from £520 in 1902 to £9615 in 1907. The collection of rubber was started about 1880, but the trade has not assumed large proportions. In 1907 the value of the rubber exported was £4602. The export of wax, valued at £37,000 in 1843, had dwindled in 1907 to £2325. The cultivation of the ground-nut, first exported in 1830, assumed importance by 1837, and by 1850 had become the chief industry of the colony. In 1907 the value of the nuts was £256,685, over 11/12 of the total exports (exclusive of specie). Nearly the whole male population is engaged in the industry for eight months of the year. Planted in June, after the early rains, the crop is reaped in October or November and exported to Europe (4/5 to Marseilles) for the extraction of its oil, which is usually sold as olive oil. A feature of the industry is the appearance at the beginning of the planting season of thousands of men from a distance, “strange farmers,” as they are called, who are housed and fed and given farms to cultivate. In return they have to give half the produce to the landlords. As soon as he has sold his nuts, the “strange farmer” goes off, often not returning for years.

Apart from the cultivation of the ground-nut, the agricultural resources of the country are undeveloped. Large herds of cattle are kept by the Fula, and in cattle rich natives usually invest their wealth. Land can be hired for 2d. an acre per annum for twenty-one years. All land lying vacant or unused, or to which the occupier is unable to produce any title, is vested in the crown. A botanical station was opened in 1894, and the cultivation of American and Egyptian cotton was taken in hand in 1902. The experiment proved discouraging. Great difficulty was experienced in getting farmers to grow cotton for export, as unless carried on on highly scientific lines its cultivation is not so profitable as that of the ground-nut. The principal imports, of which over 2/3 come from Great Britain or British colonies, are cotton goods, kola-nuts (from Sierra Leone), tobacco, rice, sugar and spirits. In the ten years 1898 to 1907 the average annual value of the exports was £301,000, of the imports £316,000. There are no mines in the colony, nor any apparent mineral wealth, except ridges of ironstone in the regions above McCarthy’s Island. Bathurst is in telegraphic communication with Europe and the rest of Africa. There are no railways in the colony, but it is traversed by well-made roads of a uniform width of 18 ft. The Liverpool mail steamers call at the port every fortnight. A government steamer runs regularly from Bathurst to McCarthy’s Island, and a smaller boat plies on the upper river. The shipping trade is chiefly British; French and German tonnage coming next.

Surrounded on all sides, save seawards, by French territory, the colony largely depends, economically, upon France, to which country most of the exports go. A considerable entrepôt trade is also done with the neighbouring French colonies. The extent of French influence is indicated by the fact that the five-franc piece, locally known as a dollar, is largely circulated throughout the protectorate, and is accepted as legal tender, although the currency in the colony proper is the English coinage.

Administration, Revenue, &c.—The Gambia is administered by a governor, assisted by an executive and a legislative council. On the last-named body nominated unofficial members have seats. The colony is self-supporting and has no public debt. The revenue, which in 1906 for the first time exceeded £60,000, is mainly derived from customs. A company of the West African Frontier Force is maintained. Travelling commissioners visit the five districts into which, for administrative purposes, the protectorate is divided, and in which the native form of government prevails. From the native law-courts appeal can be made to the supreme court at Bathurst. There is also at Bathurst a Mahommedan court, established in 1906, for the trial of cases involving the civil status of Moslems.

Primary schools are maintained by the various religious denominations, and receive grants from government. The Wesleyans have also a secondary and a technical school. There is a privately supported school for Mahommedans at Bathurst. The Anglicans, Wesleyans and Roman Catholics have numerous converts.

History.—Of the early history of the Gambia district there is scant mention. At what period the stone circles and pillars (apparently of a “Druidical” character), whose ruins are found at several places along the upper Gambia, were erected is not known. Those at Lamin Koto, on the right bank of the river opposite McCarthy’s Island, are still in good preservation, and are an object of veneration to the Mahommedans (see Geog. Journ. vol. xii., 1898). The country appears to have formed part, successively, of the states of Ghana, Melle and Songhoi. The relations, political and commercial, of the natives were all with the north and east; consequently no large town was founded on the banks of the river, nor any trade carried on (before the coming of the white man) by vessels sailing the ocean. About the 11th century the district came under Mahommedan influence.

The Portuguese visited the Gambia in the 15th century, and in the beginning of the 16th century were trading in the lower river. Embassies were sent from the Portuguese stations inland to Melle to open up trade with the interior, but about the middle of the century this trade—apparently mostly in gold and slaves—declined. At the end of the century the river was known as the resort of banished men and fugitives from Portugal and Spain. It was on the initiative of Portuguese living in England that Queen Elizabeth, in 1588, granted a patent to “certain merchants of Exeter and others of the west parts and of London for a trade to the river of Senega and Gambra in Guinea.” This company was granted a monopoly of trade for ten years. Its operations led to no permanent settlement in the Gambia. In 1618 James I. granted a charter to another company named “The Company of Adventurers of London trading into Africa,” and formed at the instigation of Sir Robert Rich, afterwards earl of Warwick, for trade with the Gambia and the Gold Coast. This company sought to open up trade with Timbuktu, then believed to be a great mart for gold, which reached the lower Gambia in considerable quantities. With this object George Thompson (a merchant who had traded with Barbary) was sent out in the “Catherine,” and ascended the Gambia in his ship to Kassan, a Portuguese trading town, thence continuing his journey in small boats. In his absence the “Catherine” was seized and the crew murdered by Portuguese and half-castes, and Thompson himself was later on murdered by natives. Two years afterwards Richard Jobson, another agent of the Company of Adventurers, advanced beyond the falls of Barraconda; and he was followed, about forty years later, by Vermuyden, a Dutch merchant, who on his return to Europe asserted that he had reached a country full of gold.

The Company of Adventurers had built a fort near the mouth of the Gambia. This was superseded in 1664 by a fort built by Captain (afterwards Admiral Sir Robert) Holmes on a small island 20 m. from the mouth of the river and named Fort James, in honour of the duke of York (James II.). This fort was built expressly to defend the British trade against the Dutch, and from that time the British remained in permanent occupation of one or more ports on the river. In 1723 Captain Bartholomew Stibbs was sent out by the Royal African Company, which had succeeded the earlier companies, to verify Vermuyden’s reports of gold. He proceeded 60 m. above the falls, but the land of gold was not found. The French now became rivals for the trade of the Gambia, but the treaty of Versailles in 1783 assigned the trade in the river to Britain, reserving, however, Albreda for French trade, while it assigned the Senegal to France, with the reservation of the right of the British to trade at Portendic for gum. This arrangement remained in force till 1857, when an exchange of possessions was effected and the lower Gambia became a purely British river. In the period between the signing of the treaty of Versailles and 1885 the small territories which form the colony proper were acquired by purchase or cession from native kings. St Mary’s Isle was acquired in 1806; McCarthy’s Isle was bought in 1823; the Ceded Mile was granted by the king of Barra in 1826; and British Kommbo between 1840 and 1855. During this period the colony had gone through an economic crisis by the abolition of the slave trade (1807), which had been since 1662 its chief financial support. The beginning of a return to prosperity came in 1816 when some British traders, obliged to leave Senegal on the restoration of that country to France after the Napoleonic wars, founded a settlement on St Mary’s Isle. From that year the existing colony, as distinct from trading on the river, dates. The Gambia witnessed many administrative changes. When the slave trade was abolished, the settlement was placed under the jurisdiction of the governor of Sierra Leone, and was formally annexed to Sierra Leone on the dissolution of the Royal African Company (1822). It so remained until 1843, when the Gambia was made an independent colony, its first governor being Henry Frowd Seagram. Afterwards (1866) the Gambia became a portion of the officially styled “West African Settlements.” In 1883 it was again made a separate government, administered as a crown colony. Between the years last mentioned—1866–1888—the colony had suffered from the retrograde policy adopted by parliament in respect to the West African Settlements (vide Report of the Select Committee of 1865).

In 1870 negotiations were opened between France and Great Britain on the basis of a mutual exchange of territories in West Africa. Suspended owing to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War the negotiations were resumed in 1876. “Definite proposals were at that time formulated by which the Gambia was to be exchanged for all posts by France between the Rio Pongas (Pongo river, French Guinea) and the Gabun. This would have been a comprehensive and intelligible arrangement, but so strong a feeling in opposition to any cession of British territory was manifested in parliament, and by various mercantile bodies, that the government of the day was unable to press the scheme.”[1] Nothing was done, however, to secure for the Gambia a suitable hinterland, and in 1877 the 4th earl of Carnarvon (then colonial secretary) warned British traders that they proceeded beyond McCarthy’s Isle at their own risk. Meantime the French from Senegal pushed their frontier close to the British settlements, so that when the boundaries were settled by the agreement of the 10th of August 1889 with France, Great Britain was able to secure only a ten-kilometre strip on either side of the river. This document fixed the frontier of the British protectorate inland at a radius of 10 m. from the centre of the town of Yarbatenda; which town is situated at the limit of navigability of the Gambia from the sea. By Art. 5 of the Anglo-French convention of the 8th of April 1904, Yarbatenda was ceded to France, with the object of giving that country a port on the river accessible to sea-going merchantmen.

Since 1871 the colony had been self-supporting, but on the acquirement of the protectorate it was decided, in order to balance increasing expenditure, to impose a “hut tax” on the natives. This was done in 1895. The tax, which averages 4s. per annum for a family, met with no opposition.

In 1892 a slave-raiding chief, named Fodi Kabba, had to be forcibly expelled from British territory. In 1894 another slave-raider, Fodi Silah, gave much trouble to the protectorate. An expedition under Captain E. H. (afterwards admiral) 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 15 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, the French co-operating, Medina was also captured, Fodi Kabba being killed on the 23rd of March 1901.

The people of the protectorate are in general peaceful and contented, and slave trading is a thing of the past. Provision was moreover made by an ordinance of 1906 for the extinction of slavery itself throughout the protectorate, it being enacted that henceforth all children born of slaves were free from birth, and that all slaves became free on the death of their master.

See the Annual Reports on the colony published by the colonial office, London, which give the latest official information; C. P. Lucas’s Historical Geography of the British Colonies, vol. iii., West Africa (2nd ed., Oxford, 1900) (this book contains valuable bibliographical notes); and The Gambia Colony and Protectorate, an official handbook (with map and considerable historical information), by F. B. Archer, treasurer of the colony (London, 1906). Early accounts of the country will be found in vol. ii. of Thomas Astley’s New General Collection of Voyages and Travels (London, 1745–1747). See also Major W. Gray and Surgeon Dochard, Travels in Western Africa in 1818–1821, from the River Gambia . . . to the River Niger (London, 1829). The flora has been the subject of a special study, A. Rançon, La Flore utile du bassin de la Gambie (Bordeaux, 1895). Most of the books mentioned under Gold Coast also deal with the Gambia.

  1. Extract from a despatch of Lord Salisbury to the British ambassador to France, dated 30th of March 1892.