The Empires of Ghana (5th to 11th centuries) and Mali (13th to 15th centuries) extended their influence over the region that is now The Gambia. By 1456 the first Portuguese navigators landed on James Island and quickly monopolised trade along the West African coast throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, exchanging salt, iron, pots and pans, firearms and gunpowder for ivory, ebony, beeswax, gold and slaves.
Baltic Germans first built a fort on James Island in 1651, and were displaced in 1661 by the British, who found themselves under constant threat from French ships, pirates and African kings. New forts were built at Barra and Bathurst (now Banjul), at the mouth of the Gambia River, to control the movement of ships. Fort James continued to be an important collection point for slaves until the abolition of slavery in 1807.
The British continued to extend their influence further upstream until the 1820s, when the territory was declared a British protectorate ruled from Sierra Leone. In 1888 Gambia became a crown colony, by which time the surrounding territory of Senegal had fallen into French custody.
Gambia became self-governing in 1963 though it took two more years until real independence was achieved. Gambia became The Gambia, Bathurst became Banjul, and David Jawara, leader of the People’s Progressive Party, became Prime Minister Dawda Jawara.
High groundnut prices and the advent of package tourism led to something of a boom in the 1960s. Jawara consolidated his power, and became president when The Gambia became a fully fledged republic in 1970. As groundnut prices fell in the 1980s, and tourism revenues did not trickle down the economic scale, two coups were hatched – but thwarted with Senegalese assistance. This cooperation led to the 1982 confederation of the two countries under the name of Senegambia, reportedly the first step to unification, but the union collapsed by 1989. Meanwhile, corruption increased, economic decline continued and popular discontent rose. Finally, in July 1994, Jawara was overthrown in a reportedly bloodless coup led by Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh.
After a brief flirtation with dictatorship, the 30-year-old Jammeh bowed to international pressure, inaugurated a Second Republic and won the 1996 presidential election comfortably. Human-rights groups and democratic watchdogs were all put at high alert when, in 2004, prominent journalist Deyda Heydara was assassinated after having expressed his opposition to a new controversial media law, and in March 2006, an alleged coup d’état attempt led to the ‘cleansing’ of governmental ranks. That same year, the country again prepared for elections, this time against a background of increasing autocracy. It now seems unlikely that the future direction of The Gambia will change dramatically, as Yahya Jammeh was sworn in as president for another five years after defeating his main rival Oussainou Daboe. In September 2012 The Gambia began executing prisoners on death row after an almost 30 year hiatus prompting fresh concerns over human rights, for more information check The Gambia's BBC news profile.