| Tribal Relationships to Slavery
groups were affected to one extent or another by the Atlantic
Slave Trade and domestic slavery.
They are the descendents of European traders and their African
wives [Mulattoes], as well as of liberated slaves from Sierra
Leone. Liberated slaves also intermingled and inter-married
with other groups of freed slaves from the New World and Britain
who were already exposed to different cultures. As a result
developed their own distinctive culture, encompassing both
African and European characteristics and language. Most are
and have European names and continue to figure prominently
in Gambian commerce and the civil service.
Portuguese Mulatto traders were the middlemen between African
producers and European merchants during the height of the
Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
The Fulas were traditionally mainly
cattle herders originating in the area north of the Senegal
River, though it is thought by some that they originally came
from much further north. The Fulas who first immigrated into
The Gambia were non-Muslim pastoralists.
There are many sub-groups of Fulas based on different places
of origin and modes of making a living. The Firdu Fulas for
example, because of their semi-sedentary nature and ethnic
intermarriage were often looked down upon as being of slave
origin. Another sub-group, the Fulbe Futa, formed warrior
bands and preyed upon other Fula groups and Mandinka communities.
Amongst the earliest people in the Senegambia region were
the Jolas, who had migrated from Casamance
in Senegal. A Colonial Office report in 1929 described the
Jola tribe as mainly pagan.
The Jolas were the only tribe never to have had a tradition
of keeping slaves, although they did sell their own prisoners
of war to merchants. The Jolas were themselves often victims
of slave takers and were particularly subjugated by the Mandinkas.
The Mandinka were the first of a series of invaders
to the Senegambia region. Gradually the
whole of Gambia valley came under Mandinka control
and they were firmly established by the 15th century.
Trade was important in Mandinka states and long
distance trade routes were established. During the
period of the Transatlantic slave trade, slaves
and firearms became the most important articles
As well as being victims of slave takers, some Mandinkas
carried on extensive trade in slaves. Even well
into the 19th century it was "well-known and
admitted fact that Mandingos... are in the practice
of obtaining and carrying off liberated slaves from
Those found in The Gambia arrived during the 19th
century as refugees from the religious wars in Senegal
and are therefore the most recent arrivals of all
the Senegambian ethnic
groups. They hired land from Mandinka chiefs
and, by the middle of the century, had proved themselves
useful to the kings of the river states,
acting as mercenaries.
The Serrers are among the
oldest ethnic group in the Senegambia
region, having migrated into the delta regions from
the north of Senegal. According to traditions passed
on by nineteenth century European writers, the Fulas
drove the Serer out of the Futa Toro region of Senegambia
and enslaved them.
The Wollofs are thought to have originated in Southern
Mauritania where droughts and raids forced them
south into the area north of The Gambia in western
Early descriptions of Wollof chiefs are found in
the writings of a 15th century Portuguese explorer.
He described how Wolof
kings forced some of their subjects and those of
neighbouring provinces into slavery, part whereof
they employed in cultivating the lands assigned
them, with the rest sold to the Azanaghi [Moors]
and Arab merchants. For protection, the kings would
surround themselves with warriors, often of slave
origin called 'Tyeddo'.
system operated within Wolof society. Household
or domestic slaves could not be sold except for
serious crimes such as murder or witchcraft. In
fact many enjoyed greater power than freemen, with
some acting as trusted advisors and agents to their
masters. Slaves were valuable property and ownership
of many slaves generated prestige within the community.