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Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Visit to The Gambia, 1961: A historical revisit

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By Hassoum Ceesay


Queen Elizabeth II who will be buried today, visited The Gambia from 3rd to 5th December 1961 to the great joy of her subjects. This royal visit was a part of her West Africa Tour which took her to Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and very briefly, Senegal. The Royal Tour was long in the offing since 1959 but had to be postponed because some people in the British Conservative government did not want the queen to rub shoulders with Ghana’s founding president Kwame Nkrumah, who they suspected was harbouring anti-West sentiments and had just paid a month-long visit to Soviet Union and the eastern bloc in the summer of 1961. According to recently declassified archival documents, the queen insisted on going to Ghana, and not only did she go to Accra in November 1961, she danced a highlife tune with Nkrumah!

It is also important to state that the 1961 royal visit had been preceded by other royal visits to The Gambia including that of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII (1894-1972) in 1925 when he described The Gambia as “our most oldest and most loyal colony”; the 1957 royal visit by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip (1921-2021). Indeed, the British royal family has very strong ties and love for The Gambia exhibited through these visits, and many more in 1985 when Princess Anne visited Banjul to attend our 20th independence anniversary and in 2017 when the current sovereign, King Charles III, visited us.

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In addition, King George V knighted Sir Samuel Forster (1873-1940), the first Gambian lawyer, trained at Oxford University. In 1954, Queen Elizabeth knighted Sir John Mahoney. In 1966 she knighted our prime minister Sir Dawda Jawara. In 1968, she knighted Sir Farimang Singhateh and in 1970, she knighted Sir Alieu Sulayman Jack. In addition, the late queen has personally decorated numerous Gambians over the long period of her reign. In 1961, she personally pinned the British Empire Medal (BEM) on the chest of Chief Saderr Manneh of Niani at the MacCarthy Square! Gambian notables like Alhaji Sheikh Omar Faye, John Mahoney and Chief Matarr Ceesay attended her coronation in 1953 as representatives of The Gambia, in addition to many ordinary Gambians like Mrs Joiner who paid to travel to London to attend the coronation.

The late queen was the head of state of The Gambia from her accession to the throne in 1952, to the time when our country became a republic in April 1970. She endorsed our national symbols: Coat of Arms, National Anthem and National Flag in October 1964. Moreover, as head of the Anglican Church, the queen was the leader of all our Anglican citizens. Our founding president, Jawara, met the queen in audience at least six times in my own count from 1966 to 1993 she also met President Barrow in the early days of his presidency.

The visit

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The 1961 royal visit was reported by The Gambia News Bulletin issue of 7th December 1961 on page 1 as follows:


What a wonderful visit it has been!

Bathurst gay with flags, buntings, triumphal arches and other decorations during the day, and a blaze of coloured light at night. The Royal Yacht “Britannia” and ships of the Royal Navy floodlit and decorated overall in the harbour; and an atmosphere of happy festivity everywhere.  Her Majesty who gave each one of them a medallion. Dancers, acrobats and fire-eaters performed and village crafts were most interestingly displayed.

Before the visit, the people of The Gambia had feverishly prepared themselves and she found a clean and well-ordered town waiting. The River Gambia had to be dredged at certain points to ensure that the Royal Yatch Britannia does not get stuck in the sandbanks. School children were well dressed and highly motivated.

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The late queen arrived in Bathurst aboard the HMS Royal Britannia at 7:30am on Sunday, 3rd December, 1961 and was received at the wharf by Governor Windley and senior colonial officials. Chief Minister PS Njie and his cabinet were also at hand to receive the queen. Her motorcade reached MacCarthy Square by way of Wellington Street through Russell Street. Soon after, the queen arrived on Government Wharf and inspected a guard of honour. She appeared on a crowded MacCarthy Square before assembled schoolchildren and detachments of ex-servicemen, Girls Guards, Boy Scouts and Red Cross.

The PPP was in opposition at this time and was left out of the formal ceremonies to welcome the queen but the party militants could not be held back from doing their own thing to welcome her to The Gambia. The PPP organised Sikko drumming and its women wing also created a memorial arch in the capital. The United Party (UP) then in government also asked its women wing to make an arch at Dobson Street; the DCA women wing also did its own arch at Hagan Street. Bathurst was full of these decorated memorial arches erected by the female wings of the political parties.

At the square, Chief Minister PS Njie gave a loyal address on behalf of the Gambian subjects.

He stated:

“May it please Your Majesty, it is my privilege to speak today on behalf of the peoples of The Gambia and to extend to Your Majesty, in their name, loyal and affectionate greetings.

Your Majesty has reached the end of a long and strenuous tour through West Africa, a journey which we have all followed with proud interest and with a growing thrill of anticipation as this great day approached. For, in the history of The Gambia, this will surely go down as a day as important in our annals as that when the first English ships sailed up the Gambia River in 1587.

In the course of three centuries, The Gambia has become imbued with much that I best in the British way of life.

During these three hundred years, strong and affectionate links have been forged with the Mother Country and Your Majesty’s presence here today, as the first reigning sovereign ever to visit us, seals and consecrates an association of which we Gambians are very proud.

Many of us still have happy memories of the visit which Your Majesty’s uncle paid us, as Prince of Wales, in 1925.

Then, nearly four years ago His Royal Highness Prince Philip delighted The Gambia by saying that he would re-visit us. It was, however, beyond what we dared to hope that Your Majesty would be able to come in person. During those four years, and with the help and goodwill of Your Majesty’s Government, The Gambia has moved forward on the historic path of self-government.  Next year, The Gambia will be called upon to stand on its own feet and we feel that Your Majesty’s presence among us today is an assurance that, whatever future lies before us as a free member in the fellowship of African peoples, we may continue to count on the comity and support of the Commonwealth of which Your Majesty is the distinguished head.

In the short time that your visit allows as us, we shall try to show you something of this great river and its peoples: we are pleased that when you leave us in three days time you will be paying a brief visit to the neighbouring and friendly country of Senegal.

With humble duty, I would ask Your Majesty and His Royal Highness to accept, in the name of the peoples of The Gambia, some modest gifts to commemorate your visit. With them go a proud loyalty to our queen, and a deep personal affection both for Your Majesty and for Prince Philip.

Your Majesty’s visit has enriched the long association of our country with the British government and, in the name of The Gambia, I pray that The Almighty God may be pleased to grant to Your Majesty and to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh long life devoted to the cause of strengthening the ties which unite the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”.

Then, on behalf of the people of The Gambia, Chief Minister Njie presented Her Majesty with a crocodile leather handbag and His Royal Highness with a travelling bag also made from crocodile leather’.

In the next segment, we will bring you the queen’s Royal Address.

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