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The first written records of the region come from Arab traders in the 9th and 10th centuries. In medieval times, the region was dominated by the Trans-Saharan trade and was ruled by the Mali Empire. In the 16th century, the region came to be ruled by the Songhai Empire. The first Europeans to visit the Gambia River were the Portuguese in the 15th century, who attempted to settle on the river banks, but no settlement of significant size was established. Descendants of the Portuguese settlers remained until the 18th century. In the late 16th century, English merchants attempted to begin a trade with the Gambia, reporting that it was "a river of secret trade and riches concealed by the Portuguese."
In the early 17th century, the French attempted to settle the Gambia but failed. Further English expeditions from 1618 to 1621, including under Richard Jobson, were attempted but resulted in huge losses. Merchants of the Commonwealth of England sent expeditions to the Gambia in 1651, but their ships were captured by Prince Rupert the following year. In 1651, the Couronian colonization of the Gambia had also begun, with forts and outposts being erected on several islands. The Courlanders remained dominant until 1659 when their possessions were handed over to the Dutch West India Company. In 1660, the Courlanders resumed possession, but the next year was expelled by the newly formed Royal Adventurers in Africa Company.
In 1667, the rights of the Royal Adventurers to the Gambia were sublet to the Gambia Adventurers but later reverted to the new Royal African Company. 1677 saw the beginning of a century-and-a-half-long struggle between the English and French for supremacy over the Gambia and Senegal. The English possessions were captured several times by the French, but in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the British rights to the region were recognized by the French. In the mid-18th century, the Royal African Company began having serious financial problems and in 1750, Parliament divested the company of its rights in the region. In 1766, the Crown gained possession of the territory, and it formed part of the Senegambia colony. In 1783, Senegambia ceased existing as a British colony.
Following the cessation of Senegambia, the colony was in effect abandoned. The only Europeans were traders who existed in a few settlements on the river banks, such as Pisania. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Alexander Grant was sent to re-establish a presence in the Gambia. He established Bathurst and the British possessions continued to grow in size through a series of treaties. It was administered from Sierra Leone until 1843 when it was given its own Governor, but in 1866 merged again with Sierra Leone. The cession of the Gambia to France was proposed in the late 19th century but was met with considerable protest in both the Gambia and in England. In 1888, the colony regained its own government structure, and in 1894 the Gambia Colony, and Protectorate was properly established along the lines it would continue to hold until independence.
In 1901, legislative and executive councils were established for the Gambia, as well as the Gambia Company of the RWAFF. Gambian soldiers fought in World War I, and in the 1920s Edward Francis Small led the push for emancipation, founding the Bathurst Trade Union and the Rate Payers' Association. During World War II, the Gambia Company was raised to a regiment, and notably fought in the Burma Campaign in the latter years of the war. Franklin D. Roosevelt's visit to the Gambia in 1943 was the first visit by a sitting US President to the African continent. Following the war, the pace of reform increased, with an economic focus on the production of the Peanut and a failed programme called the Gambia Poultry Scheme by the Colonial Development Corporation. The push towards self-government increased its pace, and the House of Representatives was established in 1960. Pierre Sarr N'Jie served as Chief Minister from 1961 to 1962, though following the 1962 election Dawda Jawara became Prime Minister, beginning the People's Progressive Party's dominance of Gambian politics for the next thirty years. Full internal self-government was achieved in 1963, and following extensive negotiations, the Gambia declared independence in 1965.
The Gambia gained independence as a constitutional monarchy that remained part of the Commonwealth, but in 1970 became a presidential republic. Jawara was elected the first President and remained in this position until 1994. A coup, led by Kukoi Sanyang, was attempted in 1981 but failed after Senegalese intervention. From 1981 to 1989, the Gambia entered into the Senegambia Confederation, which collapsed. In 1994, Jawara was overthrown in a coup d'état led by Yahya Jammeh, who ruled as a military dictator for two years through the AFPRC. He was elected President in 1996 and continued in this role until 2017. During this time, Jammeh's party, the APRC, dominated Gambian politics. the Gambia left the Commonwealth of Nations in 2013 and suffered an unsuccessful coup attempt in 2014. In the 2016 election, Adama Barrow was elected President, backed by a coalition of opposition parties. Jammeh's refusal to step down led to a constitutional crisis and the intervention of ECOWAS forces.
The first verifiable 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 Mali Empire, most renowned for the Mandinka ruler Mansa Kankan Musa, brought worldwide recognition to the region due to its enormous wealth, scholarship, and civility. From the early 13th century, the Kouroukan Fouga, Mali's constitution, was the law of the land. The North African scholar and traveler Ibn Battuta visited the area in 1352 and said 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.
The European discovery of the Gambia began in the 15th century, with the push toward exploration by the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator. In 1446, Portuguese captain Nuno Tristao made contact with the inhabitants of Cape Vert, and made a treaty of commerce and friendship with them. Every year following, ships were sent from Portugal to trade with them. From them, information reached Henry the Navigator regarding the Gambia, and according to their reports, the banks of the river yielded large quantities of gold. In 1455, Henry induced a Venetian called Luiz de Cadamosto to take a single ship on an expedition in search of the river. Later in the same year, he sent a Genoese trader called Antoniotto Usodimare with two ships on the same quest. The two joined forces near Cape Verde and, by keeping close to the coast, easily found the mouth of the Gambia River.
They arrived at the River Gambia in 1455 and proceeded a short way upstream. They repeated the voyage the next year, proceeding further upstream and making contact with some of the native chiefs. When they were near the river's mouth, they cast anchor at an island where one of their sailors, who had previously died of a fever, was buried. As his name was Andrew, they named the island St Andrew's Island.
This expedition was followed by Portuguese attempts to establish a settlement on the river banks. No settlement ever reached a significant size, and many of the settlers intermarried with the natives while maintaining Portuguese dress and customs and professing to be Christians. Communities of Portuguese descent continued to exist in the Gambia until the 18th century, with Portuguese churches existing at San Domingo, Geregia and Tankular in 1730. The further Portuguese settlement up the river was at Setuku near Fattatenda. By the end of the 16th century, the Songhai Empire, under constant assault by Portugal, collapsed. The name Gambia comes from the Portuguese word for trade, cambio.
After the Portuguese throne was seized by Philip II in 1580, a number of Portuguese sought refuge in England. One of these refugees, Francisco Ferreira, piloted two English ships to the Gambia in 1587 and returned with a profitable cargo of hides and ivory. In 1588, António, Prior of Crato, who had a claim to the throne of Portugal, sold to London and Devon merchants the exclusive right to trade between the Rivers Senegal and Gambia. This grant was confirmed to the grantees for a period of ten years by letters patent of Queen Elizabeth I. The merchants sent several ships to the coast, but, owing to Portuguese hostility, did not venture further south than Joal: 30 miles to the north of the river mouth. They reported that the Gambia was "a river of secret trade and riches concealed by the Portuguese."
In 1612, an attempt by the French to settle in the Gambia ended disastrously due to sickness spreading among the settlers. Letters patent conferring the right of the exclusive trade with the River Gambia were subsequently granted again in 1598, 1618 and 1632 to other English adventurers, but no attempts were made by the English to explore until 1618. An expedition that year was commanded by George Thomson and its objective was to open up trade with Timbuktu. Leaving his ships at Gassan, Thompson proceeded with a small party in boats as far as the River Neriko. During his absence, the crew of his ship were massacred by the Portuguese. However, some of his party managed on their return to make their way overland to Cape Verde and then to England. Thomson remained in the Gambia with seven companions but was killed by one of them in a sudden dispute.
In the meantime, a relief expedition had departed from England under the command of Richard Jobson, who seized some Portuguese shipping as a reprisal for the massacre at Gassan. Jobson also made his way up to Neriko and subsequently gave a very positive account of the commercial opportunities of the River Gambia. During his expedition, Jobson refused slaves offered by an African merchant, Buckor Sano. He said that "we were a people who did not deal in such commodities, neither did we buy or sell one another, or any that had our own shapes." His protests were noted as "exceptional" by Hugh Thomas. However, both his and Thompson's expedition had resulted in significant losses and a subsequent voyage that he made in 1624 proved a complete failure. After a loss of £5,000, the patentees made no further attempts to exploit the resources of the Gambia but confined their attention to the Gold Coast.
In 1651, the Commonwealth of England granted a patent to certain London merchants who in that and the following year sent two expeditions to the River Gambia and established a trading post at Bintang. Members of the expedition proceeded as far as the Barakunda Falls in search of gold, but the climate took its toll. In 1652, Prince Rupert of the Rhine entered the Gambia with three Royalist ships and captured the patentees' vessels. After this heavy loss, they abandoned any further enterprise in the Gambia.
During this, Jacob Kettler, the Duke of Courland, had in 1651 obtained from several native chiefs the cession of St Andrew's Island and land at Banyon Point (also known as Half-Die), Juffure and Gassan. Settlers, merchants and missionaries were sent out from Courland and forts were erected on St Andrew's Island and at Banyon Point. This was part of a period in Courlander history known as Couronian colonization, which also saw them colonise Tobago. The Courlanders believed that the possession of these territories would give them control over the river and enable them to levy tolls on all those who used the waterway. They erected a fort built out of local sandstone, appointed a Lutheran pastor, and positioned the cannons on the island so as to command both of the channels to the north and the south. The plan was to sell slaves to the colony in Tobago, but this did not prosper. In 1658, Kettler was made a prisoner by the Swedes during a war between Sweden and Poland. As a consequence, funds were no longer available to maintain the garrisons and settlements in the Gambia and in 1659, the Duke of Courland's agent at Amsterdam entered into an agreement with the Dutch West India Company whereby the Duke's possessions in the Gambia were handed over to the company.
In 1660, the fort on St Andrew's Island was captured and plundered by a French privateer in Swedish service. The Dutch thereafter abandoned the fort and the Courlanders resumed possession. After the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, English interest in the Gambia was revived due to the reported existence of a gold mine in the upper reaches of the river. A new patent was granted to a number of people who were styled as the Royal Adventurers in Africa Company. The most prominent among them were James, Duke of York, and Prince Rupert. At the end of the year, the Adventurers dispatched an expedition to the Gambia under the command of Robert Holmes, who had been with Prince Rupert in the Gambia in 1652.
Holmes arrived at the river mouth at the beginning of 1661. He proceeded to occupy Dog Island, which he renamed Charles Island, and to establish a temporary fort there. On 18 March 1661, he sailed up to St Andrew's Island and called on the Courlander officer-in-charge to surrender, threatening to bombard the fort if his request was ignored. There were only seven Europeans in the garrison, and the Courlanders had no alternative but to submit. On the following day, Holmes took possession of the fort, which was renamed James Fort after the Duke of York. An attempt was made in 1662 by the Dutch West India Company to gain possession of the fort. Firstly, they attempted to incite the natives of Barra against the English, secondly they offered bribes to certain English officers, and, lastly, they attempted to bombard the fort. None of these efforts were successful and the English remained in control.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Courland had lodged a protest against the seizure of his possessions in a time of peace. On 17 November 1664, after negotiations over the future of the territories, he relinquished in favour of Charles II all claims to his African possessions and in return was granted the island of Tobago and the right for himself to personally trade in the River Gambia. In 1667, the Royal Adventurers sublet their rights between Capes Blanco and Palmas to another body of adventurers, who became known as the Gambia Adventurers. They were to exploit the Rivers Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Sherbro.This group of adventurers enjoyed these rights for only a year, when, on the expiration of their lease, they reverted to the Royal African Company, which had purchased the rights and property of the Royal Adventurers six years earlier.
In 1677, the French wrested the island of Gorée from the Dutch. This began a century and a half period of struggle between England and France for political and commercial supremacy in the regions of Senegal and the Gambia. By 1681, the French had acquired a small enclave at Albreda opposite to James Island. Except for short period, during which trouble with the natives of Barra or hostilities with England compelled them to temporarily abandon the place, they retained a foothold there until 1857.
In the wars with France following the Glorious Revolution, James Fort was captured on four occasions by the French, in 1695, 1702, 1704 and 1708. However, no attempt was made by France to occupy the fort permanently. At the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the French recognised the right of the English to James Island and their settlements on the River Gambia. One of the results of these wars was an outbreak of piracy along the West African coast. The English trade in the Gambia suffered heavily from the efforts of the pirates. In 1719, one pirate, Howel Davis, captured James Fort. In 1721, part of the garrison of the fort mutinied under the leadership of Captain John Massey, seizing one of the company's ships and turning pirate. Finally, in 1725, James Fort was extensively damaged by an accidental explosion of gunpowder.
Following these incidents, the Royal African Company enjoyed 20 years of comparative prosperity. Factories were established as far up the river as Fattatenda and at other places and a fairly considerable trade was carried out with the interior of Africa. Nevertheless, despite an annual subsidy from the British government for the maintenance of their forts, the Royal African Company became involved in serious financial difficulties. In 1749, James Island was found to be "in a most miserable condition". In the following year, it was reported that the garrison at James Fort had been reduced through sickness from around 30 men to between five and eight, and that, with all the officers being dead, a common soldier had succeeded to the command.
By 1750, the position had become critical and an Act of Parliament was passed divesting the Royal African Company of its charter and divesting its forts and settlements into a new company, controlled by a committee of merchants. The Act prohibited the new company from trading in its corporate capacity but allowed it an annual subsidy for the upkeep of the forts. It was hoped that this would prevent the monopolistic tendencies of rule by a joint stock company and at the same time to save the government the expense entailed by the creation of a colonial civil service.
In 1766, the fort and settlements were taken from this new company by another Act of Parliament and given to the Crown. For the next 18 years, the Gambia formed part of the Senegambia colony. The government headquarters were at St Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River and a Lieutenant Governor was appointed to take charge of James Fort and the settlements in the Gambia. In 1779, the French captured James Fort for the fifth and final time. On this occasion, they so successfully demolished the fortifications that at the close of the war it was found impossible to rebuild them. Besides a brief period following the Napoleonic Wars, when the island was temporarily occupied by a handful of soldiers as an outpost, James Island stopped playing any part in the history of the Gambia.
In 1780, the French privateer Senegal captured four vessels which had been part of the British garrison at Goree sent to the Bintang Creek under the command of Major Houghton to obtain building material. The Senegal, in turn, was captured by HMS Zephyr after an engagement off Barra Point. In 1783, St Louis and Goree were handed back to France and Senegambia ceased existing as a British colony.
It was once again handed back to the Royal African Company. However, they made no attempt to administer the Gambia. In 1785, Lemain Island was acquired by the British government with the view of the establishment of a convict settlement, but nothing came of the plan. For the next thirty years, British influence in the Gambia was confined to the operations of a small number of traders. Settlements were established by these traders along the river banks. Among these settlements, the most important probably was Pisania. This settlement, which was already in operation by 1779, was occupied by Dr John Laidley and a family by the name of Aynsley. Subsequently, Laidley and the Aynsleys rendered invaluable assistance to Major Daniel Houghton in 1790, Mungo Park in 1795 and 1805, and Major William Grey in 1818, in the course of their journeys into the interior of Africa.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Montgomery identified that most settlements on the Gambia River were British. However, to the north, there were several native kingdoms, including Barra, Boor Salum, Yani and Woolli. At the time, Barra had a population of 200,000 and its capital was Barra Inding, although the main trading place was Jillifrey. Boor Salum had a population of 300,000 and the smaller kingdoms of Yani and Woolli were to the north of it. The Mandinka people were the inhabitants of all four kingdoms, which all conducted a considerable trade with the interior of Africa. Montgomery said that no considerable kingdom existed south of the Gambia.
In 1807, the African slave trade was abolished by an Act of Parliament. At that time, the British were in control of Goree. With the help of the Royal Navy, the Goree garrison made efforts to suppress the slave traders operating in the River Gambia, who were primarily Spanish and American. On more than one occasion, the slavers offered a stubborn resistance and the Royal African Corps suffered several casualties.
H. E. Egerton, Oxford Survey of the British Empire, Vol. VI, p. 141
Following the Treaty of Paris in 1814, which ended the war with the French, the British forces and officials on the island of evacuated Gorée. Captain Alexander Grant was sent with a detachment of Royal African Corps soldiers to explore the possibility of rebuilding Fort James on James Island but decided that more space would be provided by St Mary's Island. Grant made a treaty with the King of Kombo on 23 April 1816 that ceded the island to the UK. He also founded the town of Bathurst on St Mary's Island. In 1821, the Royal African Company was dissolved by Act of Parliament and the Gambia was placed under the jurisdiction of the Governor of Sierra Leone. It continued to be administered from Sierra Leone until 1843 when it became a separate colony. In 1866, however, the Gambia and Sierra Leone were once again united under the same administration.
The British government continued to extend its territorial acquisitions beyond St Mary's Island by concluding treaties with a number of native chiefs. Lemain Island, 160 miles up the river, was ceded to the United Kingdom in 1823 by King Collie and renamed as MacCarthy Island. Georgetown was established on the island as a military barracks and settlement for liberated slaves. In 1826, the Ceded Mile, a one-mile strip on the north bank of the River Gambia, was ceded by the King of Barra. Fattatenda and the surrounding district was ceded in 1829. In 1840 and 1853, considerable areas of the mainland adjoining St Mary's Island were obtained from the King of Kombo for the settlement of discharged soldiers of the West India Regiments and liberated Africans. Cessions of another land further upstream were obtained at various dates, including Albreda, the French enclave, which was obtained in 1857.
In the 1850s, under the leadership of Louis Faidherbe, the French colony of Senegal began a vigorous expansion until it virtually engulfed the Gambia. The colony assumed an importance to the French as a possible trade route, proposed cession of the Gambia for some other part of West Africa was first mooted in 1861. It was seriously discussed again during 1865 and 1866. In 1870 and 1876, negotiations were entered into between the French and British government over the proposed cession of the Gambia in exchange for other territories in West Africa.
However, the proposal aroused such opposition in Parliament and among various mercantile bodies in England, as well as among the native inhabitants of the Gambia, that the British government was unable to press ahead with the scheme. This "remarkably powerful" Gambia lobby was revived whenever the topic of the proposed cession was brought up, and successfully saw that the British could not cede any land. In 1888, the Gambia was once again separated from Sierra Leone and from that date until its independence operated as a separate colony. In 1889, an agreement was reached between the French and British governments for the delimitation of the borders of the Gambia, Senegal, and Casamance.
During this time, despite a number of small wars with the natives, the Gambian government was able to conclude a series of treaties with the chiefs living along the banks of the river. Some of these included the cession of small tracts of territory, but most conferred British protection. The last and most important of these was concluded in 1901 with Musa Molloh, the paramount chief of Fuladu. In 1894, an Ordinance was passed for the better administration of these districts which had not been ceded but merely placed under the protection of the British government. It was decided that it was not feasible to administer these places from the seat of government in Bathurst, so in 1895 and the following years, ordinances were passed to bring these places under the control of the Protectorate. Finally, a Protectorate Ordinance passed in 1902 brought the whole of the Gambia besides St Mary's Island under the Protectorate system.
the Gambia received its own executive and legislative councils in 1901 and gradually progressed toward self-government. Also in 1901, the Gambia Company, the first colonial military unit of the Gambia, was founded. It was formed as part of the Sierra Leone Battalion of the new West African Frontier Force (late Royal West African Frontier Force). A 1906 ordinance abolished slavery.
During World War I, the Gambia Company served alongside other British troops in the Kamerun campaign, under the command of Captain V. B. Thurston of the Dorsetshire Regiment, and a number of its soldiers received gallantry medals for their conduct.
In 1920, the National Congress of British West Africa was formed, an organisation working towards African emancipation, with Edward Francis Small as the sole delegate. He returned and founded the Gambia Section of the Congress, the principal aim of which was to achieved elected representation in the government of the Gambia. It also frequently petitioned against unpopular government policies. It had some success, with Small founding the first Gambian trade union, the Bathurst Trade Union, in 1929. However, it failed to prevent its opponent, Ousman Jeng, being appointed to the Legislative Council in 1922 and again in 1927.
In 1932, Small founded the Rate Payers' Association (RPA) to oppose the unpopular policies of Richmond Palmer, the Governor, and of the conservative elements of Gambian politics, led by Forster and his nephew W. D. Carrol. By the end of 1934, the RPA was winning all the seats on the Bathurst Urban District Council and its successor the Bathurst Advisory Town Council, however, had no representation in the Legislative Council.
During World War II, the Gambia Company became the Gambia Regiment, with a strength of two battalions from 1941. It fought in the Burma campaign and served for some time under the command of Antony Read, later the Quartermaster-General to the Forces. the Gambia itself was also important to the war effort. It was home to RAF Bathurst, a flying boat base, and RAF Yundum, an RAF station. HMS Melampus, a shore base, was also based at Bathurst for some of the war, and in 1942, a light cruiser named HMS Gambia was launched, which maintained ties to the colony until it was decommissioned in 1960. Bathurst was also the nearest English-speaking port to Dakar, where, before the Battle of Dakar, the Vichy French battleship Richelieu had been told to travel to.
the Gambia was also home to 55 British General Hospital from 1941 to 1942, 40 British General Hospital from 1942 to 1943, and 55 British General Hospital again from 1945 to 1946. During World War II, the Gambia also formed an Auxiliary Police, who, among other things, helped to enforce the blackout in Bathurst. Many air raid shelters were built across the Gambia too. In 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President of the United States, stopped overnight in Bathurst en route to and from the Casablanca Conference. This marked the first visit to the African continent by a sitting US President. The visit hardened his views against British colonial rule. Appalled, as he was, by the poverty and disease that was present there, he wrote to Churchill describing the territory as a "hell-hole".
After the Second World War, the pace of reform increased. The economy of the Gambia, like other African countries at the time, was very heavily orientated towards agriculture. Reliance on the groundnut became so strong that it made up almost the entirety of exports, making the economy vulnerable. Groundnuts were the only commodity subject to export duties; these export duties resulted in the illegal smuggling of the product to French Senegal. Attempts were made to increase production of other goods for export: the Gambian Poultry Scheme pioneered by the Colonial Development Corporation aimed to produce twenty million eggs and one million lb of dressed poultry a year. The conditions in the Gambia proved unfavourable and typhoid killed much of the chicken stock, drawing criticism to the Corporation.
The River Gambia was the principal route of navigation and transport inland, with a port at Bathurst. The road network was mainly concentrated around Bathurst, with the remaining areas largely connected by dirt roads. The only airport was at Yundum, built in World War II. Post war it was used for passenger flights. Both British South American Airways and the British Overseas Airways Corporation had services, the former moving its service to Dakar, which had a concrete runway (as opposed to pierced steel planking). The airport was rebuilt in 1963 and the building is still in use today.
In anticipation of independence, efforts were made to create internal self-government. The 1960 Constitution created a partly elected House of Representatives, with 19 elected members and 8 chosen by the chiefs. This constitution proved flawed in the 1960 elections when the two major parties tied with 8 seats each. With the support of the unelected chiefs, Pierra Sarr N'Jie of the United Party was appointed Chief Minister. Dawda Jawara of the People's Progressive Party resigned as Minister of Education, triggering a Constitutional Conference arranged by the Secretary of State for the Colonies.
The Constitutional Conference paved the way for a new constitution that granted a greater degree of self-government and a House of Representatives with more elected members. Elections were held in 1962, with Jawara's Progressive Party securing a majority of the elected seats. Under the new constitutional arrangements, Jawara was appointed Prime Minister: a position he held until it was abolished in 1970. Following general elections in 1962, full internal self-governance was granted in the following year.
At the Marlborough House constitutional conference in June 1964, it was agreed between the British and Gambian delegations that the Gambia would become an independent country on 18 February 1965. It was agreed that the Elizabeth II would remain as the head of state, and a Governor-General would exercise executive powers on her behalf. On 18 February, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, on behalf of the Queen, formally granted the country independence with Prime Minister Jawara representing the Gambia. It became the 21st independent member of the Commonwealth, with a constitution described as a "sophisticated version of the Westminster export models."
Shortly thereafter, the government held a referendum proposing that an elected president replace the Queen of the Gambia as head of state. The referendum failed to obtain the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution, but the results received widespread attention abroad as testimony to the Gambia's observance of secret balloting, honest elections, and civil rights and liberties.
On 24 April 1970, the Gambia became a republic within the Commonwealth, following a second referendum, with Prime Minister Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara as head of state.
The relative stability of the Jawara era was first shattered by a coup attempt in 1981. The coup was led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang, who, on two occasions, had unsuccessfully sought election to Parliament. After a week of violence which left several hundred people dead, Jawara, in London when the attack began, appealed to Senegal for help. Senegalese troops defeated the rebel force.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Senegal and the Gambia signed the 1982 Treaty of Confederation. The Senegambia Confederation came into existence; it aimed eventually to combine the armed forces of the two states and to unify their economies and currencies. the Gambia withdrew from the confederation in 1989.
Until a military coup in July 1994, the Gambia was led by President Jawara, who was re-elected five times.
In July 1994, Yahya Jammeh led a coup d'état that deposed the Jawara government. Between 1994 and 1996, Jammeh ruled as head of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) and banned opposition political activity. The AFPRC announced a transition plan for a return to democratic civilian rule, establishing the Provisional Independent Electoral Commission (PIEC) in 1996 to conduct national elections. After a constitutional referendum in August, presidential and parliamentary elections were held. Jammeh was sworn into office as president on 6 November 1996. On 17 April 1997 the PIEC transformed into the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
Jammeh won both the 2001 and 2006 elections. He was re-elected as president in 2011. The People's Republic of China cut ties with the Gambia in 1995 after the latter established diplomatic links with the Republic of China (Taiwan). the Gambia was elected to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council from 1998 to 1999.
On 2 October 2013, the Gambian interior minister announced that the Gambia would leave the Commonwealth of Nations with immediate effect, stating that they would "never again be part of a neo-colonial organization"
The presidential election of 2016 saw the surprising victory of the opposition candidate Adama Barrow, who defeated Jammeh with 43,3% of votes. However, Jammeh refused to recognise the result of the election and refused to leave office, instead proclaiming a state of emergency. Barrow abandoned the country and fled to Senegal, where he was sworn in as new president at the Gambian embassy in Dakar on 19 January 2017.
On the same day ECOWAS launched a military intervention in Gambia in order to forcefully remove Jammeh from power (Operation Restore Democracy); the move was authorized by United Nations Security Council with UNSC Resolution 2337. On 21 January 2017 Jammeh announced stepped down as president and abandoned the country and went to exile in Equatorial Guinea. On 27 January 2017 Barrow returned to Gambia and officially took office.
The Gambia officially rejoined the Commonwealth on 8 February 2018.