History of the Gambia

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The modern-day Gambia was once part of the Ghana, Mali and Songhai Empires.


Early history

The first written accounts of the region come from records of Arab traders in the 9th and 10th centuries AD. In medieval times the area was dominated by the trans-Saharan trade. The reign of the Mali Empire, most renowned for the Mandinka ruler Mansa Kankan Musa, brought world wide recognition to the region due to its enormous wealth, scholarship, and civility. The North African scholar and traveler Ibn Battuta visited the area in 1352 AD and said this about its inhabitants:

The negroes possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.[1]

Since the early 13th century, the Kouroukan Fouga, Mali's constitution, was the law of the land. The Songhai Empire, named after the Soninke people whose king assumed official control of the Empire, came to dominate the region in the 16th century. As time went on the area began to suffer from continuous Moroccan and Portuguese invasion and looting. By the end of the 16th century, as the raids continued, the empire collapsed and was conquered and claimed by Portugal.

In 1588, the claimant to the Portuguese throne, Antonio, Prior of Crato, sold exclusive trade rights on The Gambia River to English merchants; this grant was confirmed by letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I. In 1618, King James I granted a charter to an English company for trade with The Gambia and the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Between 1651 and 1661 part of Gambia was (indirectly) a colony of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; it was purchased by the Courlandish duke Jakub Kettler. At that time Courland, in modern-day Latvia, was a fiefdom of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Courlanders settled on James Island, which they called St. Andrews Island and used as a trade base from 1651 until its capture by the English in 1661.

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