Opinion – The Gambia Means a Struggle For Nationhood Since 1865
Yes, indeed there was once a colony called Senegambia; and it was possessed by Great Britain. The first appointed governor to Senegambia at St. Louis (Ndarr) was Lieutenant Colonel Charles O’Hara in 1765. The colony was essentially both economic and spatial. Great Britain, which was a supreme sea power at that time occupied three strategic islands in order to secure the sea lanes to the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas: St. Louis, Goree; and James Island in the River Gambia.
Chattel slavery was good business and Great Britain with the help of its great navy ensured that their empire dominated that business. However, two consequential world events changed the power dynamics in our sub-region: The American War of Independence from 1775 to 1783; and the Treaties of Versailles which settled that conflict and gave France an upper hand to emasculate a war weary Imperial Britain.
Britain reallocated all it’s forces to the campaign in the Americas leaving its territorial possessions in Senegambia ill defended; and the French took advantage of the situation. In 1783 during the Paris Peace talks the Senegambian colony was split into two: “Senegal” and “Gambia”, the former taken over by the French based in St. Louis and Goree Island; and the latter retained as a British possession based at James Island.
In 1807 the British Parliament based passed a landmark legislation abolishing the slave trade and sent the British navy to Gambia in order to enforce this law. This culminated in the acquisition and later establishment of the Crown Colony, Bathurst, in 1821.
This spatial acquisition led to a structuration that allowed for the formation of order and translocation of the liberated Africans, the Akus, from Freetown to Banjul in July 1832. These Akus were the first acculturated indigenous Africans to the Western culture — Anglo-Saxon civilization to be specific. And these minority Africans did form the crucible that eventually germinated Gambian nationalism.
It was this community of liberated African who first assimilated five critical elements from the British culture- the English language; English rule of law; English protestant Christianity and work ethic- that molded the early political identity of the 500 Akus that petitioned the British government to abrogate the cession of the Gambia to the French from 1865 to 1875. Gambia is today thanks to these liberated 500 Akus who resisted the French machinations to cannibalize the Gambia.
The French general Faidherbe had an aggressive expansionist colonial policy and was slowly conquering Senegal through force and subterfuge. However, when Foday Sillah laid siege of Bathurst in 1894 the British resolved to bringing order to the rest of what we know today as Gambia proper through subjugation of warring tribal chiefs, peace treaties for British protection, abolition of all kinds of slavery, demarcation of the Gambia’s political borders and the final demonetization of the French franc all during the periods from 1875 to 1922. British order by rule of law and the early Aku civic-nationalism through self-empowerment are the foundations of Gambian statehood.
This “Aku nationalism” in the Crown Colony generated expectations and relations with the colonial authorities which overtime crystallized into a culture where liberty and independence were at stake. Hence the establishment of the Legislative Council in Banjul and the emergence of Gambia’s first nationalist Edward Francis Small. The Akus dominated the Crown Colony politics from 1930 until 1960; and in fact, 22 of the 35 Gambians who drafted the first Gambian Constitution were Akus.
The nationalism of civic non-compliance to foreign influence continued throughout President Jawara’s administration—it rejected President Senghore’s initial courtship for a Senegambian federation, and later outmaneuvered President Abdou Joof’s confederal entrapment.
However, President Yaya Jammeh was a radical break from this previous colonial nationalist legacy. Jammeh is a post-colonial embodiment of radical anti-Western nationalism that directed a lot of energy towards the symbolism of cultural identity, nativist political and economic policies that often times drove him into irrational negative impulses which later plagued his administration — exactly what Lord Acton once described as “nationalism as insanity”: placing politics above moral principles, suppressing legitimate dissent and creating a dangerous attachment to the state hence alienating all citizens. Jammeh’s nationalism made some critical gains in socio-economic development of the Gambia but at a huge price of civil liberties and freedoms.
Political identities do not last but a creed of moderation, tolerance and restraint does. Gambians need to locate some values between these two nationalist strands- civic and socio-economic such that we can craft out a national identity balancing these two legacies from Jawara’s civility and Jammeh’s national pride. This shall be a sure step towards protecting our rightful sovereignty from Senegalese encroachment, and advance our socio-economic interests in these challenging times of COVID-19 global meltdown.
The Gambia is still an ongoing project of liberal ambitions and self-empowerment, and we cannot afford to be engaging in self-destructive politics or outsourcing our national agenda to foreign powers. Like Voltaire once said: “il faut cultiver notre jardin”