The Gambia, surrounded almost entirely by Senegal and defined by a river but with a small strip of its own coastline, is mainland Africa’s smallest country. A former Portuguese empire, The Gambia was squabbled over by France and Britain before finally gaining independence from Britain on Feb. 18, 1965, after centuries of British rule. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about The Gambia and its struggle for independence.
Gambia was the first nation conquered by the British in West Africa. It was 300 years before independence would be granted on Feb. 18, 1965. When it became independent, The Gambia became the 37th sovereign African state.
When Gambia gained independence, it was the last of Great Britain’s West African colonies to do so. It became the 21st member of the Commonwealth that still pledged allegiance to the Queen, and the 116th member of the United Nations.
The Gambia’s transition to independence was peaceful. The U.K. granted the country internal self governance two years prior to independence in 1963.
On Feb. 18, 1965, the Duke and Duchess of Kent traveled to The Gambia to commemorate the event which ended 300 years of colonial rule. They dined with 35 chiefs at the first Independence Day celebration.
Representing the Queen, the royal couple joined Gambia’s Prime Minister Dawda Jawara and Gov. Sir John Paul in the mansa bengo (gathering of kings) where the Gambian chiefs were seated. The oldest chief, Toure Sagnaing, thanked the U.K. for its help in making the transition to independence.
The guest list was significant because Gambia gained independence in the middle of the Cold War. George Mennen, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and Grigori Pashchenko, ambassador to Sierra Leone from the former Soviet Union, both attended.
There was a global audience for the traditional ceremony, which took place in Brikama, now one of the largest cities in The Gambia. The guest list included dignitaries from 30 different countries. It also included soothsayers, standard bearers and lots of music.
Gambia’s independence day celebration included the lowering of the Union Jack for the last time, and the raising of The Gambia’s red, white, blue and green national flag.
After independence, Dawda Kairaba Jawara was the first leader of the Gambia. He served as prime minister from 1962 to 1970 and as president from 1970 to 1994. During his almost 20-year rule, The Gambia and neighboring Senegal formed a confederation known as Senegambia. More than 500 people died during an attempted Senegalese coup.
In 1994 a coup led by Lt. Yahja Jammeh ousted Jawara and put Jammeh in control of the country. He is currently on his fourth term.
Describing it as a “neo-colonial” institution, Jammeh decided in 2013 The Gambia would depart from the Commonwealth.
Independence Day celebrations take place in the capital city of Banjul and usually involve a parade of school children, teachers and the military. These take place at McCarthy Square in front of the president and other dignitaries.
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