Gambia Information Site
History of Slavery in Gambia
History   See also Juffureh Village    Kunta Kinte - Roots    Links
Introduction & Origins:
Chained slavesSome 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 Transatlantic Slave Trade (Middle Passage).

RestraintsIn total 11.32¹ million people are thought to have been transported alive to the Americas of which 55% of (African Americans) of North 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 their voyage. 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 Cargo holdcolonial 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:
Deep SouthAs happened in other West African countries Europeans generally did not travel inland to purchase or capture slaves but depended on African middlemen who bought slaves  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.

African American SlavesOne 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.

²Another 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 Africans.

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 Fort James Island near Juffureh.

After 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 20th century.

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
ISBN 0-68481063-8

²Annual Departmental Reports
Relating to
The Gambia
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 to ancient 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. Beaten in AmericaThis 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....".
Modern Day:
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.


Useful Links:

African Holocaust
A site dedicated to the Motherland with contributions from black academics.

Recovered Histories
Trans-Atlantic history of the trade.

Article about the Triangular Trade with detailed figures by West African country.

Captive Passage

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.



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