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The first written accounts of the region come from records of Arab traders in the ninth and tenth centuries AD.

By the 11th or 12th century, the rulers of kingdoms such as Takrur (a kingdom centered on the Sénégal River just to the north), Ancient Ghana and Gao, had converted to Islam and had appointed Muslims who were literate in Arabic as advisers. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, most of what is today called The Gambia was a tributary to the Mali Empire. The Portuguese reached the area by sea in the mid-fifteenth century and began to dominate trade.

In 1588, the claimant to the Portuguese throne, António, Prior of Crato, sold exclusive trade rights on the Gambia River to English merchants; letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I confirmed the grant. In 1618, James I granted a charter to a British company for trade with Gambia and the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Between 1651-1661 (the time of the Commonwealth) some parts of Gambia were under Courland's rule, bought by prince Jacob Kettler, who was a Polish vassal.

During the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth, Britain and France struggled continually for political and commercial supremacy in the regions of the Senegal and Gambia rivers. The 1783 Treaty of Versailles gave Great Britain possession of the Gambia River, but the French retained a tiny enclave at Albreda on its north bank. This was finally ceded to the United Kingdom in 1857.


The British established the military post of Bathurst (now Banjul) in 1816. In the ensuing years, Banjul was at times under the jurisdiction of the British Governor General in Sierra Leone. In 1888, The Gambia became a separate colonial entity.

An 1889 agreement with France established the present boundaries. The Gambia became a British Crown Colony, British Gambia, divided for administrative purposes into the colony (city of Banjul and the surrounding area) and the protectorate (remainder of the territory).

Following general elections in 1962, the United Kingdom granted full internal self-governance in the following year. The Gambia achieved independence on 18 February 1965 as a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth of Nations. Shortly thereafter, the government held a referendum proposing that an elected president replace Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. The referendum failed to receive the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution, but the results won widespread attention abroad as testimony to The Gambia's observance of secret balloting, honest elections, civil rights and liberties. On April 24, 1970, The Gambia became a republic within the Commonwealth, following a second referendum, with Prime Minister Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, as head of state.




No symbols of the ancient empires of  Takrur, Ghana and Gao are known. The oldest visual documentation about the Northwestern African empires is on the portolans, made by Catalan sailors and explorers. On one such a portolan the emperor of Mali is depicted, seated on his throne and with a sceptre and orb in his hands.

As from the middle of the 14th century the mouth of the river Gambia was within the reach of European traders and trading companies, the ancient heraldry of The Gambia is mainly the heraldry of the Western trading powers.

The first European traders to set foot in The Gambia were the Portuguese who developed, from the middle of the fifteenth century a Portuguese Seaborne Empire.  They were, after 1588, followed by the British and, during the Commonwealth, by Jacob Kettler.


In 1651 Jacob (James) Kettler (1610-1682), Duke of Courland (Latvia), bought some parts of The Gambia and obtained a grant of the island of Trinidad from King Charles I. During the Swedish-Polish war (1655-1660) Duke Jacob was captured and the West African possessions were lost (1664).


Jacob Kettler bore as a Duke of Courland and Semgallen:


Arms: ¼: 1&4: Argent, a lion Gules; 2&3: Azure, a deer issuant from the outside Or. And on an escutcheon Or, a kettlehook sable surrounding the crowned cypher SA (= Sigismund August, King of Poland 1548-’72) parted per pale with the wolfs’ jaw of Bathori (arms of Stefan Bathori, King of Poland 1575-’86)

Crest: 1. Kettler; 2. A deer issuant Or (Semgallen); 3. A lion issuant Gules, crowned Or. (Livonia)

                                                                                                               (From: Siebmacher I. 7.)



After the short Courlandish intermezzo the place of Jacob Kettler was filled in by Dutch, Danish and English companies, mainly operating from the Gold Coast, (today’s Ghana).


Crown Colony Britsh Gambia



The separate political entity of the “Crown Colony of The Gambia” was represented from 1889 by a badge on the British blue ensign.  This consisted of a landscape with a palm tree and an elephant, common for all British West African colonies, and the letter “G” for Gambia.


Badge on the Blue Ensign



Constitutional Monarchy



The achievement of The Gambia was granted on 18 November 1964, three months before independence. It is:


Arms: Azure, an axe and an adze in saltire, Or, within a double bordure Argent and Vert.

Crest: A bush of groundnut (Aracis hypogæa - Fabaceæ) proper, on a helmet to the dexter, lambrequined Azure and Or.

Supporters; Two lions proper, the dexter with an axe, the sinister with and adze.

Motto: PROGRESS PEACE PROSPERITY in black lettering on a ribbon Argent, lined Gules.


The Locar-axe and the Mandinka-adze symbolize the importance of agriculture for the economy.  Blue is for love and reasonableness, white is for the peaceful scenery of Gambia and the friendliness of its people, green is for hope and tolerance. The groundnut-bush symbolizes the main trade crop. The lions are symbols of courage, dignity and steadfastness. 


ð See the illustration in the head of this article





The abolition of the monarchy did not have any consequence for the achievement.


Presidential Seal


Presidential flag




The first police force in The Gambia was the Gambia River Police, formed in 1855. Prior to this, security in the small colonial enclaves was provided by British troops and a small local militia, drawn from traders, freed slaves, and other settlers. The River Police's role was to control smuggling, enforce taxation, and prevent insurgencies. Its 10 men were aided by the local militia, and were further reinforced in 1866 by the establishment of the paramilitary Gambia Constabulary. Initially formed with 40 constables, this was increased to 100 in 1870. At this point, all imperial troops were withdrawn from the colony and policing was left to the Constabulary and local militia


Banner Royal West African Frontier Force


A Frontier Police force was founded in 1895. The establishment of the West African Frontier Force in 1900 led to the creation of the Gambia Company in 1901, which also aided in maintaining the colony's security. In the Protectorate, security was the responsibility of the district chief. In 1909, the British issued an ordinance granting the chiefs to appoint 'badge messengers', who were allowed to keep the peace and had all the same authority of the colony police. Francis has noted how "Although Gambians staffed the lower level of the force, to the local population, the police and security services, limited as they were, represented an essentially foreign presence."

At independence in 1965, the Constabulary and Frontier Police merged to create the Gambia Police Force. Following the Gambia Regiment being disbanded in 1958, the police took on all defence responsibilities. A 200-man paramilitary force, the Gambia Field Force, which was part of the police after 1958, maintained responsibility for internal security.


Gambia Police Force badge 1965-1970


Gambia Police Force emblem (current)

Gambia Police Force sleeve patch (current)


Armed Forces



The Gambia Armed Forces, also known as the Armed Forces of The Gambia, consists of three branches: the Gambia National Army (GNA), the Gambia Navy, and the Republican National Guards (RNG). It formerly included the Gambia National Gendarmerie (GNG) from the 1980s to 1996, when they were moved under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior.

The commander-in-chief is the President of the Gambia  whereas practical control is exercised by the Chief of the Defence Staff 


Royal Gambia Battalion West African Regiment WWI


The Gambia Regiment was a British Army colonial regiment drawn from the Gambia Colony and Protectorate that existed between 1901 and 1958. Known as the Gambia Company from 1901 to 1939, and from 1945 to 1950, its strength fluctuated from peacetime and wartime, peaking at two battalions during World War II. It saw active service in both world wars, fighting in German colonies in Kamerun and East Africa during the first, and in Burma against the Japanese in the second. It was raised as part of the larger Royal West African Frontier Force, and was part of the 81st (West Africa) Division during its operations in WWII.

81st (West Africa) Division






Air Force


Cap badge

Navy anchor





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© Hubert de Vries 2008.12.01. Updated 2019-12-19






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