Portuguese explorers reaching the Gambia region in the mid-15th cent. reported a group of small Malinke and Wolof states that were tributary to the empire of Mali. The English won trading rights from the Portuguese in 1588, but their hold was weak until the early 17th cent., when British merchant companies obtained trading charters and founded settlements along the Gambia River. In 1816 the British purchased Saint Mary's Island from a local chief and established Banjul (called Bathurst until 1973) as a base against the slave trade. The city remained a colonial backwater under the administration of Sierra Leone until 1843, when it became a separate crown colony. Between 1866 and 1888 it was again governed from Sierra Leone. As the French extended their rule over Senegal's interior, they sought control over Britain's Gambia River settlements but failed during negotiations to offer Britain acceptable territory in compensation. In 1889, The Gambia's boundaries were defined, and in 1894 the interior was declared a British protectorate. The whole of the country came under British rule in 1902 and that same year a system of government was initiated in which chiefs supervised by British colonial commissioners ruled a variety of localities. In 1906 slavery in the colony was ended.
The Gambia continued the system of local rule under British supervision until after World War II, when Britain began to encourage a greater measure of self-government and to train some Gambians for administrative positions. By the mid-1950s a legislative council had been formed, with members elected by the Gambian people, and a system had been initiated wherein appointed Gambian ministers worked along with British officials. The Gambia achieved full self-government in 1963 and independence in 1965 under Dauda Kairaba Jawara and the People's Progressive party (PPP), made up of the predominant Malinke ethnic group. Following a referendum in 1970, The Gambia became a republic in the Commonwealth of Nations. In contrast to many other new African states, The Gambia preserved democracy and remarkable political stability in its early years of independence.
Since the mid-1970s large numbers of Gambians have migrated from rural to urban areas, resulting in high urban unemployment and overburdened services. The PPP demonstrated an interest in expanding the agricultural sector, but droughts in the late 1970s and early 1980s prompted a serious decline in agricultural production and a rise in inflation. In 1978, The Gambia entered into an agreement with Senegal to develop the Gambia River and its basin. Improvements in infrastructure and a heightened popular interest by outsiders in the country (largely because of the popularity of Alex Haley's novel Roots, set partially in The Gambia) helped spur a threefold increase in tourism between 1978 and 1988.
The Gambia was shaken in 1981 by a coup attempt by junior-ranking soldiers; it was put down with the intervention of Senegalese troops. In 1982, The Gambia and Senegal formed a confederation, while maintaining individual sovereignty; by 1989, however, popular opposition and minor diplomatic problems led to the withdrawal of Senegalese troops and the dissolution of Senegambia. In July, 1994, Jawara was overthrown in a bloodless coup and Yahya Jammeh assumed power as chairman of the armed forces and head of state.
Jammeh survived an attempted countercoup in Nov., 1994, and won the presidential elections of Sept., 1996, from which the major opposition leaders effectively had been banned. Only in 2001, in advance of new presidential elections, was the ban on political activities by the opposition parties lifted, and in Oct., 2001, Jammeh was reelected. The 2002 parliamentary elections, in which Jammeh's party won nearly all the seats, were boycotted by the main opposition party.
There was a dispute with Senegal in Aug.–Oct., 2005, over increased ferry charges across the Gambia river, which led to a Senegalese ferry boycott and a blockade of overland transport through Gambia, which hurt Senegal S of Gambia but also affected Gambian merchants. Gambia subsequently reduced the charges. A coup plot led by the chief of defense staff was foiled in Mar., 2006.
Jammeh was again reelected in Sept., 2006, but the opposition denounced and rejected the election for being marred by intimidation. In the subsequent parliamentary elections (Jan. 2007), Jammeh's party again won all but a handful of the seats. The presidential election in Nov., 2011, was again won by Jammeh, and again denounced by the opposition and criticized by foreign organizations. Opposition parties boycotted the Mar., 2012, parliamentary elections; the outcome mirrored that of 2007 elections. Jammeh's rule has been marked by the often brutal treatment of real and percieved opponents.