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.