Ancient stone circles on the banks of the River Gambia are evidence of an early population but little is known of it. From the fifth to eighth century the area that is now The Gambia was part of the empire of Ghana, ruled by the Serahuli. It later became part of the kingdom of Songhai; in that period Islam was introduced. The Mali empire, under the Mandinka and Susu, which established control during the 13th century, had declined by about 1500. In the late 18th century Fula invaders penetrated the area.
Europeans started to explore and settle the coast and river area from the 15th century. In 1455 and 1456, Portuguese-sponsored expeditions began exploring the river; the attractions were rumours of gold (in fact gold was shipped down the River Gambia from the interior) and the opportunities for slaving, with local business co-operation. From the 17th century up to and even after the trade became illegal in 1807 the river was a focus for the European slave-trade.
During the 17th century various English and French adventurers and semi-official expeditions came and went, on the trail of gold and slaves. There were Portuguese communities living on the river banks until the mid-18th century, and much intermarriage with local people. From the 18th century the French and the British struggled for control of the region. Between 1765 and 1783 The Gambia and Senegal were combined into the province of Senegambia, under French administration. The British settlement of James Island was recognised by the Treaty of Versailles in 1783.
In the early 19th century Britain established a military post on Banjul island (then called Bathurst) in order to suppress the slave traffic on the River Gambia carried on by American and Spanish vessels. In 1823, MacCarthy Island (270km up-river) became a settlement for liberated slaves. In 1888, alarmed by French influence in Senegal, Britain seized the river and the land on both sides of it; thus The Gambia became a separate country, the downstream part of the country being a colony and the upstream part a protectorate, and a Gambian legislature was established. Previously, the much smaller territory had been administered from Sierra Leone. A legislative council gradually became more representative as progress towards independence was made.
During the 1950s political parties emerged. In 1960, in elections held under a new constitution, the People’s Progressive Party established itself. After further constitutional changes, the country became internally self-governing in 1963 and achieved independence on 18 February 1965, with Queen Elizabeth II, represented by a governor-general, as head of state.
In 1970, following a referendum, a republican constitution was introduced. The 1970 constitution enshrined the strong traditional structures by giving a voice in the legislature to the chiefs.
The Gambia’s location, enclosed by Senegal, has suggested the benefits of some form of union between the countries. The Senegambian Confederation, established in 1982 after Senegalese troops had intervened to help deal with an attempted coup, was a loose arrangement bringing benefits to both countries. The Confederation was dissolved in 1989, however, after Gambian resistance to closer union, but in May 1991 the two countries signed a treaty of friendship and co- operation.
After re-election on five occasions (the country retaining multiparty democracy under his 29-year leadership), President Dawda Jawara was deposed in a bloodless coup by junior army officers in July 1994. Captain Yahya Jammeh then set up the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, which pledged a return to democratic civilian government.
An 11-member constitutional commission, chaired by a Ghanaian judge and including British, American and Malawian lawyers, prepared a draft new constitution in 1995. A national referendum on the draft constitution was held in August 1996, and the ban on political activity lifted in the same month (although ex-President Jawara and the leaders of the three main opposition parties were barred). The presidential election was held in September 1996, and won by Jammeh, with 55% of the votes. Three days after this election, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) raised serious doubts about the credibility of the poll.
In January 1997, parliamentary elections were contested by Jammeh’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), the United Democratic Party (UDP) led by Ousainou Darboe, the People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), the National Reconciliation Party (NRP) and five independents. The APRC – the only party able to contest every seat – won with a more than two-thirds majority – securing 33 seats. The UDP – which had agreed to take part on condition political detainees were released and the army and security forces did not interfere in the electoral process – won seven; the NRP two; and the PDOIS one. CMAG concluded that these were conducted in a freer atmosphere than the presidential election in September 1996.
The National Assembly was inaugurated in January 1997, and adopted the new constitution. Political prisoners, including ministers of the Jawara government and UDP supporters arrested before the elections, were released in February and charges dropped. In April 1997, the restoration of a civilian government was completed when the four remaining regional military governors were replaced by civilians.
In October 2013, The Gambia's Interior Minister announced that The Gambia would leave the Commonwealth after 48 years of membership. After the 1 December 2016 elections, Adama Barrow became the third president of The Gambia and the country began the process of returning to its membership of the Commonwealth on 23 January 2018 by formally presenting its application to re-join to Secretary-General Patricia Scotland.
The Gambia officially re-joined the Commonwealth on 8 February 2018.