Introduction & Origins:
statistics estimate that between the
17th and 19th centuries 1 in every 6 people taken
as slaves from West Africa were from the
Senegambia region. Other
figures say that at the height of the trade in the 17th century some
5,000 to 6,000 slaves were transported from The Gambia each year on the 'Voyage
of No Return'. This period is known as the Triangular or
Slave Trade (Middle Passage).
In total 11.32¹ million people are thought
to have been transported alive to the Americas of which 55% of (African Americans)
Americans are thought to have come from West Africa while 41% of them
are believed to have come from Central West Africa or South West Africa.
Two thirds of those traded were female, 10% died during capture or on
The greatest African community in the Diaspora is believed to be in
Brazil with a population of about 200 million, followed by the
Caribbean and the U.S.A.
The starting point for the trade in human
cargo was in 1441
when the Portuguese explorer,
Antonio Gonsalves, kidnapped 10
West African natives and shipped them back to Lisbon. In Gambia the first
colonial power to engage in slavery were the Portuguese. The first British involvement in West Africa was in 1562 when
Sir John Hawkins
seized about 300 locals from Sierra Leone and sold them in the
Caribbean (Spanish West Indies.)
From the 17th century onwards it was Britain that tended to
dominate the trade. At its height, in the 18th century, 50% of those
shipped across the Atlantic were taken by the British though other countries such as Holland, Denmark,
Spain, Sweden and the Norwegians all became
involved in shipping the so called 'Black Ivory' to North and South
America as there were huge profits to be made.
The Gambian Context:
As happened in
other West African countries Europeans generally did not travel inland
to purchase or capture slaves but depended on African middlemen who
from tribal leaders and local chiefs in exchange for European goods
including guns. They then proceeded to bring them down to the coastal
regions to the European slavers.
Many chiefs saw an opportunity
to accumulate substantial wealth from the trade in battle captives. So
as the demand for slaves increased, so did inter-tribal warfare and
attacks on other villages. However, there are also many
accounts of raiding parties where villages were ransacked and raised
to the ground in pursuit of their human cargo.
One historical account
given by Francis Moore when visiting Gambia in 1721 describes how
merchants would bring ivory and sometimes slaves who were bought from
local chiefs. They were shackled by the neck with leather tongs in
lines of between 30 to 40 people and at the same time hold either
ivory or a bundle of corn in each hand.
historical account of March 1814, states that an unnamed US square
brig attacked a ship originating from Liverpool just off the coast of Senegal with
inconclusive results. What
later appeared to be the same ship - thought to be owned by a Mr. James de Wolf (of
Rhode Island) - made an appearance in The Gambia a couple of days
later under Spanish colours and carrying 400 hundred enslaved
There were many small
armed clashes between the various European nations over ownership of a
number of slaving posts which lay along the
River Gambia. This
included the skirmishes between the French and the British over
Island near Juffureh.
abolition in 1807 British
traders complained that they were at a clear disadvantage. They argued
that the legitimate trade in peppers, ivory, gum, wax and hides could
not compete with the slave trade. As a result in 1815 the Earl of
Bathurst ordered the occupation of James Island and any nearby
areas which gave a distinct advantage to foreign traders.
In 1831 war broke out between the British and the
people on the north bank state of Niumi partly because of the colonial
power's attempt to interfere with the slave trade by sealing the
entrance to the river. The
Mandinka king of Niumi, Burungai Sonko, and
his people had benefited over the years from taxing slave traders who
wished to ship their human cargo out of the country. In January, 1832
a peace treaty was signed in
Juffure in which Niuminkas ceded control
of their section of the river mouth to the colonial power.
After the British
abolished the slave trade it began a policy of enforcing the
ban by establishing a human settlement (1816) on St. Mary's Island
called Bathurst (Banjul). This was to be the base of a military barracks with
big guns to guard against rogue nations who attempted to smuggle
slaves out of the Gambia's river mouth. Britain
abolished slavery in
1833. It was not until 1895, 88 years after the abolition of the
trade, that local Gambian chiefs decided to cease trading in or
keeping slaves. However, the practice continued until the turn of the
It should be noted that many African rulers and
Europeans condemned the trade throughout its history.
¹The Slave Trade
by Hugh Thomas
Simon and Schuster, 1997
1881 - 1966 (UK)
Slavery Before the Europeans:
Indigenous slavery had existed in Gambia (including
the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa), well before the
Europeans arrived (a somewhat similar situation
Rome). This was the case among tribes
such as the Mandinka
and Wolof (with the notable
exception of the Jola -
though they did sell prisoners). However, much of
this traditional system was more akin to indentured
servitude and generally speaking domestic slaves
had some rights.
That doesn't mean to say that harsh treatment was
never meted out to them as was the case with adulterers
and sometimes to prisoners of war.
was in general contrast to the European system which
saw all slaves as having no rights. They being treated
as personal property who were subject to harsh disciplinary
treatment on the whims of the master.
Senegambian traditional society was made up of 1/3 slaves. In
the Wolof tribe they were at the bottom of the social scale and
were called jam or known as jongolu in Mandingo society. Such people
could find themselves in servitude as a result of being a
prisoner of war, by birth, convicted as a criminal or a debtor.
There were even those, who through destitution, voluntarily gave
up their freedom to a life of domestic bondage (though this last
group could have their freedom when they wanted.)
In his book "Travels
in the Interior Districts of Africa, 1795-1797"
Mungo Park who stayed at Jilifrey, opposite James
Island, on the north bank of The Gambia said:
"In the account which I have thus given of the
natives, the reader must bear in mind that my observations apply
chiefly to persons of FREE CONDITION, who constitute, I suppose,
not more than one-fourth part of the inhabitants at large. The
other three-fourths are in a state of hopeless and hereditary
slavery, and are employed in cultivating the land, in the care
of cattle, and in servile offices of all kinds, much in the same
manner as the slaves in the West Indies. I was told, however,
that the Mandingo master can neither deprive his slave of life,
nor sell him to a stranger, without first calling a palaver
(conference or meeting) on his conduct, or in other words,
bringing him to a public trial. But this degree of protection is
extended only to the native or domestic slave. Captives taken in
war, and those unfortunate victims who are condemned to slavery
for crimes or insolvency—and, in short, all those unhappy people
who are brought down from the interior countries for sale—have
no security whatever, but may be treated and disposed of in all
respects as the owner thinks proper....".
Today, there are
those who are still labeled as belonging to the 'slave' group
however, this is not literal and is acquired because of one's
birth lineage. Sadly, people are still forcibly taken as slaves throughout
the world and its abolition has not ended the practice it has
simply evolved and adapted itself to suite the modern day.
The Gambia adopted to outlaw and punish those engaged in
slavery and having recourse to compulsory or forced labour. An
anti-slavery convention, entered into force on the 9th March,
1927 in Geneva, was ratified on Wednesday 2nd
April, 2008. Presenting the convention to parliament for ratification,
Marie Firdaus, Attorney General and SOS for Justice highlighted the
main features of the convention such as the
definition and prohibition of slavery.
A site dedicated to the Motherland with contributions from black
Trans-Atlantic history of the trade.
Article about the Triangular Trade with
detailed figures by West African country.
Divided into 10 sections from the starting
point in 1441 to 1948.
Modern Day Slavery in Gambia
By Prof. Martin Patt (USA) reports on human trafficking in
children and women.