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Monday, July 15, 2024

Happy birthday Gambia: You are 132 years old today

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It is a generally held believe that the geopolitical entity called Gambia has been in existence for many centuries which is a fallacy. The name Gambia or geopolitical entity bearing that name unfortunately came into existence with our contact with Europeans. Hitherto, we had our pre-colonial states none of which ever had a name or semblance to the name Gambia.

So it is safe to conclude that there was no place called Gambia prior to foreign contact or interest in our region and we have been made to believe that the first European contact was with the Portuguese in 1455. This is mainstream history taught in schools and is part of the history syllabus.

However, there are accounts that the first Portuguese to visit was not in 1455 when Al Viso Cada Mosto landed but in 1446 when Nuno Tristao visited and was killed by the natives including many of his sailors.

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In the accounts of Gomes Eanes de Azurara, a Portuguese Court Chronicler, a Portuguese sailor by the name of Nuno Tristao arrived on the “Gambian” shores nine years before Cadamosto and it is inaccurate history to assume that Portuguese came to Gambia in 1455. Raiding of settlements especially on the northern bank along the coastal villages was common when Portuguese raiders would snatch and round up Africans and sell them in slave markets in Portugal.

Nuno Tristao unfortunately, when he arrived, he launched two boats with 12 armed men and according to Azura “….. made for some habitations that they espied on the right hand….” (which most likely would have been the island of Banjul, a proof that Banjul was inhabited before 1816).  Their concentration to the right of the bank of the Gambia river must have been intense because they did not realize that there were 12 boats filled with warriors heading towards them and they discharged their poisoned arrows on them.  “.. There would be as many as seventy or eighty Guineas, all Negroes, with bows in their hands”… Discharged that accursed ammunition of theirs all full of poison upon the bodies of our countrymen. That poison was so artfully composed that a slight wound, if it only let blood, brought men to their last end”.

As the Portuguese rushed back to Portugal, 21 bodies of the sailors were thrown overboard. They succumbed to their wounds. The few who arrived in Lagos (Portugal), informed Prince Henry their ordeal who “…had great displeasure at the loss of the men….. like a lord who felt their deaths had come to pass in his service, he afterward had an especial care of their wives and children…” (See Gomes Eanes de Azura, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, ed C.R. Beazley and E. Prestage, 2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1896-99), 2: 252-57.

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What happened to the brave men from the Nuimi side of the river are not known or which king they represented but certainly, they must have been handsomely rewarded by their community for protecting their people and territory.

The story of Nuno Tristao has not yet become mainstream in school lectures but is slowly picking up.

Unfortunately, what is yet to be taught in school is another group of Europeans who preceded the Portuguese by over 100 years and went as far as present-day Ghana during the reign of Charles V.

A group of Dieppe merchants of France, in 1364, “sent expeditions to the coast of West Africa and these merchants founded commercial colonies at Goree and Cape Verde, at Sestro, Paris, now Grand Sestros (Grand Sess), at Petit Dieppe  near Grand Bassam, on the mouth of the St. John’s River, and at the Bay of France now Rio Fresco (Rufisque)”.

Further expeditions were sent in 1386 that reached Commenda and Mina (El Mina in Accra) where they built castles one of which was called Bastion de France with inscriptions beginning with M.C.C C.: _____. These Roman numerals simply mean the year 1300 and evidence of French activity here.  In fact, Elmina in Accra, is nothing but a corruption of the phrase “Le Mina del Ore or Del Mina pointing to the gold mines there.

In the accounts of Pere Labat in his “Nouvelle Relation de l’Afrique Occidentale”, the French merchants of Dieppe and Rouen agreed to beef up their trading stations of Sanaga (Senegal), Rio Fresco (Rufisque) and Gambra (Gambia).

It therefore looks like the name Gambra or Gambia is in fact of French origins and not Portuguese because it was mentioned in accounts prior to Portuguese encounter.  This is a great discovery and so the story of the Bainunka King of Kambi Jassey which evolved into Kambiya is suspect.  The name Gambra it looks like predated the Portuguese by nearly 100 years and cannot be associated with them. The French are said to have discovered the River “Gambia” in 1390.

The Big 14

Prior to what became known as kambiya or Gambia or Gambra, we had fourteen pre-colonial states each independent of each other and each with its own ruling class. These states were: Niani (two states), Jimara, Wuli, Kantora, Saloum, Baddibu, Nuimi, Kombo, Foni, Kiang, Jarra, Niamina and Wuropana. As you will observe, none of these states’ names is anywhere close to the name Gambia, kambiya or Gambra. This is also a nail in the coffin of the doctrine of Gambia being a geopolitical entity long in existence as many want us to believe.

You will note that I did not list the pre-colonial state of Fulladu and it is deliberate on my part. For Fulladu to be listed, we have to delete Jimara, Niamina and Wuropana because Fulladu was the survivor of these three states. So depending on the time in history, the big fourteen may become only twelve states. Fulladu lasted for only thirty-three years (the Firdu revolted in around 1867 and collapsed in 1901) with three kings: Alfa Molloh, Bakary Demba and Musa Molloh. It was also the last pre-colonial state to fall effectively giving the British control over all the land that hitherto constituted the big fourteen.

Which states predated the big fourteen?

According to the Epic of Sundiata, by 1240 when Tiramakan Trawally set his eyes on the western frontier and to Jollof specifically, there were four big states here that they had to contend with. Namely: Niani, Jollof, Ba-Dugu and Sanumu. It therefore appears that the later big fourteen may have been breakaway entities from the big four. Again, none of these four bear any semblance to the name Kambiya or Gambia or Gambra. So our name Gambia is as a result of a western encounter and a loss in translation and our name initially, was limited to one settlement where this mythical figure called Mr. Kambi lived. So in the beginning, any reference to the name Kambiya or Gambia or Gambra must be limited in scope and not used to brush all the big fourteen. What happened in Kombo or Nuimi depending of which Kambi you believed must be limited to that state. This has been the problem in the thesis advanced with regard to the Bainunka story. The Bainunka story is not a Gambian story but Kombo.

As to the origins of the name Gambia, there are several different accounts all competing for recognition. One account has it that it is corrupted Portuguese word “Cambio’ which may mean exchange or trade. This is a close name to Gambia and the Mandinka appear to call the country Kambia instead of Gambia.  The Portuguese visited our coast the second time around 1455 when Alviso sailed south. With this theory, it’s safe to say that we got the name Gambia around 1455 or thereabout. However, the next question would be did the name extend all the way to the interior and if so how far inland did the Portuguese do trade with the locals. Are there accounts in the diary of Alviso as to which ethnic group he found on the coastline? Cambia Weschel which is synonymous to Exchange Bureau appears to also have a Wolof word WECHIT similar to Weschel which accidentally also means change. If we take both scenarios, could Alviso have found both the Wolof and Mandinka in Gambia or perhaps on his stops on the coastline in present day Senegal? Senegal is north of Gambia.

“The country, like the river, was called “Gambra”; its king, Farosangul, lived ten days’ journey toward the south, but he was himself under the Emperor of Melli, chief of all the negroes”. (The Project Gutenberg eBook, Prince Henry the Navigator, the Hero of Portugal and of Modern Discovery, 1394-1460 A.D., by C. Raymond Beazley, 2006)

Emperor of Melli (Mali) certainly was under the Manding speaking people since Mali never became an Empire until after 1235. Clearly by this account of Alviso’s diary, we were Gambra or we could have been Gambia. Perhaps it was his understanding of the name.

Let’s not forget that sometime between the 5th and 6th century Hannon the Navigator sailed south all the way to present day Gambia but accounts of his journey are scanty and the only reference material was the Periplus which was more like a log of the settlements along the coastline from Carthage down south.  Some academics are arguing that the voyage never took place. But according to Emma Gregg, Richard Trillo in their book “Rough Guide to Gambia” pp233, around this time, the area we call Gambia was part of the Ghana Empire and seven centuries later power exchanged to the Mandingka people. We should be careful to assume that just because the Area was part of the Ghana Empire, does not mean that it was inhabited by Ghanaians. Ghana Empire and modern-day Ghana are very different. The latter, due to Nkrumah’s Pan Africanist leanings, decided to name the newly independent country after an Empire of great glory.

There is another account that goes like this: That when the Europeans first arrived on our shores, they encountered a man called Kambi Sanneh of Nuimi, who, when asked about the name of the territory, thought the westerners wanted to know the name of the nearby settlement and responded “Kambiya” which in Mandinka means Kambi’s homestead or residence. Now is the name Kambi, Mandinka or some other ethnic group? We have the Kambi family in Kiang but also in Kombo specifically in Busumbala (or Busi abala of Jata Sangsang). Two other competing theses are also being advance. One was that of Kambi Jassey of Kartong and the other Kambi Jatta of Busumbala. We may never agree on the real Kambi who gave us Kambiya but I am betting on Kambi Jatta for many reasons beyond the scope of this piece.

The land we know as Gambia today was called Gambra including the river. Richard Jobson who sailed to our region between 1620 and 1621 published his memoir of his journey and titled it “The Discovery of River Gambra”. This memoir is one of the earliest sources on the area.

August 10, 1889: The birth of geopolitical Gambia

In order to avoid conflicts between the French and the English, series of meetings held in Paris in April of 1889 and on August 10, 1889 an agreement was reached to draw up the boundary. An earlier such meeting was held in 1882 but failed to materialize because the French Chamber of Deputies refused to ratify the convention but in 1889, the Chamber approved the convention and hence the demarcation of the boundary.

The final agreement was that the British “should have occupation rights to the banks of the Gambia six miles north and south of the river as far inland as Yarbutenda; there, the eastern boundary of the Gambia was to be the arc of a six-mile radius drawn from the center of the town.”

Another convention held in 1901, further affected the 1889 boundary and Gambia lost territory and we renegotiated the boundary in the 1970s. The current shape of the Gambia was drawn by Mr. Bayol, French Governor of Senegal. He drew the lines in pencil on a map in 1889 and it stuck. The Administrator of Gambia in 1889, Sir Gilbert Thomas Carter was ignored by the 1889 convention delegation to Paris insisting that more land should be requested by the British and unfortunately, Casamance which was historically part of the riverine “Gambian” territory was deliberately carved out by Mr. Bayol and that is how Casamance became French territory.

Happy birthday Gambia because it was on this day 132 years ago, that the concept of a geopolitical entity called Gambia was hatched ignoring the inhabitants of the big fourteen states. A policy of gradual encroachment was recommended with the traditional kings and the rest is history when in 1901, Fulladu, the last state fell and the British raised their flags from Koina to Kartong.

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