48. Making a Breakthrough in The Gambia during 1300 - 1400
MAR. 31, 2022
Follow Pete and Ryan to Africa’s smallest nation, The Gambia. Will pre-colonial, oral-tradition Africa defy attempts to uncover the history of the region, or will Pete make a breakthrough and continue to find that History Happened Everywhere?
This episode sees Pete struggle with researching the history of a region with a largely oral tradition of history and trying to make a breakthrough to tell the tale to The Gambie from 1300 to 1400.
The Gambia is one of two countries using The – The Gambia and The Bahamas and is situated in West Africa, almost wholly enclosed by the country of Senegal.
Gambia is situated on both sides of the lower reaches of the Gambia River, approximately 11,300 sq km in size with a population of about 2million people.
The capital city is Banjul, renamed from Bathurst in 1973.
Visitors to The Gambia enjoy sunshine and beaches, but the area is also popular with birdwatchers, as well as significant numbers of African Americans seekin to trace their roots in the area.
The most famous example of this being Alex Haley, who researched his lineage in preparation for writing his famous work Roots. This tells the story of Kunta Kinteh, a young man living by the River Gambia in his village, Jufureh, taken when he was seventeen and sold as a slave.
Quick history of The Gambia
Before European explorers ever saw the area, Arab traders crossed the Sahara into the region for trade, especially Gold. The trade was conducted with the various empires that ebbed and flowed in the West African region, including the Sosa empire, the Mali empire (1200s to 1600s) and the Kaabu (1530s to 1860s).
In 1446, Portuguese captain Nuno Tristao made contact with the inhabitants of Cape Vert, Senegal for Portuguese king Henry the Navigator. Henry then sent a Venetian called Luiz de Cadamosto to take a ship in search of the river. He arrived at the River Gambia in 1455 and proceeded a short way upstream but Portuguese attempt to establish a settlement on the river, never quite succeeded.
It is, however, Portuguese that gives us the word Gambia from Portuguese Cambio – meaning trade or exchange.
Eventually France and Britain also take an interest in the area with Senegal eventually coming under French control and The Gambia under British.
In World War 1 the Gambia Company served alongside other British troops in the Kamerun campaign and in World War 2 Gambians fought for Britain again, this time in Burma, with the country itself also providing an important base for the RAF.
After the war came the road to independence. it was agreed between the British and Gambian that the Gambia would become independent on 18 February 1965, and they did so.
In 1982 a Treaty created the Senegambia Confederation attempted to increase cooperation between Senegal and The Gambia, combining the armed forces of the two states and unifying their economies and currencies. However, worried about being ‘lost’ in the larger country, the Gambia withdrew from the confederation in 1989.
In 1994 Yahya Jammeh (ya ya jam-eh) led a bloodless coup, then bans opposition and rules at the head of a military council for two years. This was followed in 1996, by democratic elections, and the winner is…. Jammeh again
In the 2016 elections, Jammeh finally lost to opposition candidate Adama Barrow. But Jammeh refused to recognise the result, proclaiming a state of emergency.
This mobilised the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) who launched Operation Restore Democracy, with about 7,000 troops of various countries arriving to support the democratic result. After two days of clashes, Jammeh stands down.
Barrow returned to Gambia and officially took office and is still the President of Gambia today reelected most recently in 2021.
So how did all this start?
In the 5th Century BC it’s believed a Carthaginian named Hanno the Navigator (North Central Africa, modern Tunisia just across the Med from Italy) may have travelled to the area. He wrote ana ccount of his journey in which he encounters a wild hairy people he gave a name meaning ‘hairy person… Gorrilae – after which the gorilla we know today were named.
Later sources For a long time the Sahara desert was a big barrier to transport and trade, but in the 7th century, camel trade began to access the gold fields of southwest Africa, inaugurating international trans-Saharan cultural and economic exchange.
Ibn Battuta one of the greatest travellers in pre-modern history, made his last journey with one of these trading caravans around 1350ce, making it to the Mali empire – and the Mali empire. Of the people he found, he said, “The people of the region possess many admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. There is complete security in their country.”
The empire itself arose from the early 1200s– and in this we see the roots of the Gambian people. The empire stretches from the Coast of Senegambia, right across to Gao, about 1700km inland.
And the founder of this empire is detailed in as story told by the Jali or storytellers of the area. The legendary “Epic of Sundiata,” tells the story of Sundiata Keita a faithful Muslim who is nonetheless a powerful magician/shaman and founder the empire of Mali.
But The Gambia is on the Western edge of the empire and probably saw little direct contact with Sundiata himself.
Everyday life in The Gambia in the 1300s
A village in Gambia at this time would likely have been found on the rising slope just above the flood plains, consisting of circular mud huts with grass roofs.
This would place them on the flood plains themselves, we can grow rice, bananas, vegetables and tap trees for palm oil.
Women would tend the rice in the flood plains, whilst the men would grow millet and sorghum on the drier uplands.
The village would be governed, in the case of the Mandinka tradition, in three layers. At the family level the eldest male member of a household is in charge in the family compound. At the village level the head of the village was the oldest member of the family that first established the settlement. Above that is the state level, where power resided in the "Mansa" or chief for the whole area.
Another key member of the community is the Jali. They were storytellers, musicians, praise-singers, as well as diplomats. When tribal chiefs would come together, their jelis would often speak on their behalf. In addition, they are also celebrants, masters of ceremnony for various rites of passage including marriages and naming ceremonies.
Often, Jali would use or be accompanied by musical instruments such as the Kora. Stories the bards tell us of the Kora tell us many origins, all different, but all of which have the instrument coming from the Djinn. One such story tells of a Jali named Fouling Cissoko went to the city of Gabu (now in Guineu Bissau. He heard about a mysterious lake called Sanamentin, home to a djinn of whom he asked “I want the best instrument in the world, one that no other Jali has ever seen”.
The djinn suggests a suitable payment for such a boon would be the Jali’s sister. Unwilling to accept this, Fouling returns to his village and tells his sister what had happened. Clearly a music lover, or possibly just keen on djinn, she agrees to the trade, heads to the lake and throws herself in.
The next Day Dialy Fouling went to the lake and found a strange and beautiful instrument, a kind of double harp. The djinn appeared and shouted to the Jali “Play!”.
And thus the first Kora was born. The instrument has a big round base made of a calabash – dried out gourd, with a long, straight neck made of rosewood and strings from the neck down that are sort of harp like row of strings.
Another instrument that may have been found in a village in our time is the Bolon or Bolonbata. This is similar to the Kora, but with fewer strings and a much lower, bassy sound and at most 5 strings.
With their instruments, the Jali would tell the tale of the history of the local people, how they originated with Sundiata in the Mali empire and travelled West into modern Gambia.