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The Gambia

When one hears the word "Colonialism" the mighty European Empires (Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, Russia...) probably come to mind first. However, several smaller countries also managed to partake in the great colonial adventure. Among them was Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, a fiefdom of Grand Duchy of Lithuania. 27,286 km² in area and with a population of mere 200 000 people in the year 1651 it became the first European power to settle the Gambia and one of the first to establish a colony in Africa.

The colony was established in Andrew island and some surrounding areas. The Russian invasion of Lithuania meant that Courland was weakened and lost its colonies after less than a decade, however. British captured the Gambia estuary and their slave trade was what made the island (renamed James Island) famous. British traders used to buy local slaves from their black masters upriver and keep them on the island before the transatlantic voyage. The island still housing ruins of a fort (British, not Lithuanian), is now a UNESCO world heritage site, its importance increased by Alex Haley's book "Roots" where this African American author claimed to have traced his own roots to a certain slave Kunta Kinte who had been once shipped through the James Island.

Andrew/James/Kunta Kinte island, a former Lithuanian (Courlandian) colony in the Gambia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The historical accuracy of the book is doubtful and it has been attacked for plagiarism but the Gambia capitalizes on related tourism (James Island was renamed after Kunta Kinte in 2011). On Juffureh village near the island, a slavery museum has been established, its guides presenting a version of history as it is described in "The Roots", influenced by the African American national romanticism era of 1960s-1970s.

Juffureh village itself also used to be a colony of Courland and Semigallia. Banjul island where the capital city of the Gambia is now located was the third Courlandian colony.

The name Courland is now virtually unknown so popular sources list the first colonial power of Gambia variously as either Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians or Poles. There is a grain of truth in every version as the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was ruled by ethnic German dukes (Kettler dynasty), its population majority was Latvian, it was a fiefdom of Lithuania which, in turn, was a part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

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  1. Klounai, kokia “lietuva” ten turėjo kolonijų? Kuršo Žiemgalos hercogystė, o jus melagiai, agresoriai ir nevykėliai, nelyskit prie svetimo pyrago, nes gali atsitikt kaip Viestardo ir Žvelgaičio istorijoje:-)

    • Na, Kuršo-Žiemgalos hercogystė buvo Lietuvos (LDK), paskui Lenkijos-Lietuvos (ATR) vasalas. Tai ir yra paaiškinta straipsnyje – nerašoma, kad ši kolonija buvo tiesiogiai pavaldi Lietuvai.

      Citata: “Kas gi buvo salos pirmieji kolonistai gidai ir oficialūs Gambijos šaltiniai sako įvairiai. Minimi latviai, vokiečiai, kitur – lenkai ar lietuviai. Visi šie pasakymai savaip teisingi atsižvelgiant į ypatingą Kuršo ir Žiemgalos padėtį: vokiečių kunigaikščių valdoma latvių gyvenama žemė, vasalystės santykiais pavaldi Lietuvai, kuri, savo ruožtu, buvo unijoje su Lenkija. Suverenios nepriklausomos valstybės principas XVII a. tiesiog dar nebuvo gimęs.”

  2. What I don’t understand is, how can someone be proud of having or wanting to have a colony, and be a part of imperialism directly or indirectly. How can somebody call one country’s claim about having a colony “wanting someone else’s pie”? That land didn’t belong to someone else from Europe either! That land only belonged to indigenous people!!! Any and every European nation who had their dirty greedy hands and feet on “colonial” lands were nothing but murderers, genocidal lunatics and thieves! How can somebody be proud of ever having a colony?
    The only thing that made me proud about being Lithuanian was that we didn’t have colonies. It’s so shameful to know that there are Lithuanians out there who think that having had colonies is something to be proud of, and that those people try to claim with pride that LT did even try to have colonies. It’s so embarrassing. DO YOU EVER THINK HOW THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE WHO ALREADY BEEN LIVING THERE FOR CENTURIES FELT about the colonialists who were steeling their land and killing their people???

    • Indeed, I believe colonialism and imperialism are never good. However, the exact harm they did to indigenous populations varied greatly from one place to another, ranging from genocide and near-total destruction in North America and Australia, to a rather benevolent, albeit clearly one-side-dominated, relationships with some countries of Asia and Middle East.

      The “pride of once having ruled bigger empires” (not necessarily intercontinental empires) often is the most pronounced in the today’s small countries that themselves had been victims of history, such as Latvia, Lithuania or Poland, which have been conquered by foreign empires and suffered genocides (in the 19th-20th century). That earlier history is more of proof to them that their country too was once not simply a victim but also had a certain influence on the history of the world. Psychologically, perhaps, it is difficult to be a perpetual victim – for a person and for a nation alike. The story of Courland’s colonies in Gambia and Tobago was especially perpetuated by the Latvian diaspora during the 1940-1990 time when Latvia itself was occupied by the Soviet Union. During that time, for example, a memorial to Latvian history was built in Tobago.

      Of course, the “pride of having had an empire” is rarely felt among the nations which were the perpetrators of the genocides and other most significant crimes (e.g. Germany), but more in the countries which had a more benevolent relationship with their colonies, or where such relationship was too insignificant to create much harm to the indigenous people. In the particular case of Gambia, the area was so small and insignificant and ruled so shortly, that it is treated, I believe, in some historiographies more as a “proof” of the influence and power their country had in the era (similar to the tenets such as “Courland had a navy one third of the size of the legendary Spanish armada”). No stories of bad treatment of the local population by the Latvians/Germans/Lithuanians/Courlanders/Poles or whoever could be deemed to really have controlled the colony survive and so they could not influence the opinion.

      I think should this colonial regime have been more bloody, and would have included e.g. mass murders of the local population, nobody would feel proud of that today. In fact, in Lithuania, a great part of the story of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which Lithuanians are proud of is about its benevolence to the indigenous people (in the foreign lands it controlled, e.g. Ukraine and Belarus) – that is the tolerance of the other cultures to the extent where a Lithuanian duke sent to rule some land would convert to the local religion and learn the local language (this, especially the religion part, was otherwise unheard of in the times when inquisition, religious persecutions and “militant Christianity” prevailed in much of Europe). Due to this benevolence, in no country which was formerly mostly ruled by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is this history treated as that of conquest – e.g. while Ukrainians view the Polish and Russian periods of their history negatively, they view the Lithuanian period in a positive or neutral light, which is reflected in the fact that monuments commemorating the Lithuanian grand dukes are still built in the independent countries of Ukraine and Belarus (to the Belarusians, in fact, they are treated as *their own* dukes, see ).

      Another issue is that even the worse forms of colonialism leave traces in the form of heritage. Not the case in the Gambia, but in Lithuania itself, for example, while the Russian, German and Polish former regimes are typically viewed with despise for what they did, they have also left much Russian, German, and Polish heritage behind themselves in the form of buildings, monuments, etc. (e.g. Russian Orthodox churches of Vilnius) – and that heritage may still be interesting or have a cultural value. The architects and artists who created such heritage typically (though not always) were not the perpetrators of crimes. Obviously, there are exceptions, such as colonial-propaganda-art which clearly has negative reasons to be created and is typically removed after independence (as was the case with the Soviet memorials in Lithuania, and various statues to the colonial “heroes” (villains) in Africa).

      It is such “heritage in foreign lands” – in my case, Lithuanian heritage – that I document in this website. In the case of Lithuanian heritage in the foreign lands, however, such heritage is not related to extra-European colonies but rather to the massive diaspora communities which themselves began mostly because Lithuania was occupied by the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.

      P.S. That said, I would clearly differentiate “feeling pride in history” from “promoting imperialism/colonialism today”, the latter of which is always very dangerous. In some countries, such as Russia, unfortunately, imperialist ideas are still a reality and they still fight the wars of conquest (as happened in Crimea or Georgia). There is a widespread belief among these nations that their former imperial possessions should be returned. Such beliefs, however, are more of an exception in today’s world, being widespread merely in a few countries. Clearly, next-to-no Lithuanians would believe that any of the lands Grand Duchy of Lithuania may have ruled in the Medieval era should be “returned” to it even if that would be possible. The same goes for Poles, Latvians, and others. This history is understood as just that – an interesting history that contrasted with sadder histories of the 19th-20th centuries, and not some glorious time that “should be returned”.

  3. Did Lithuania have any other colonies? On Wikipedia, which to me is an unreliable source says that had colonies such as Little Courland in Latvia, Tejas, the African tribe Maasai and New Lithuania in Antarctica. Could someone please share some information on these places and whether or not, in fact, Lithuania colonised these places.

    • Lithuania did not have any colonies on other continents directly. However, it (the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) was itself a very extensive country, ranging from Baltic Sea to the Black Sea at one time, controlling (in full or in parts) modern-day Belarus, Latvia, Russia, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine.

      Grand Duchy of Lithuania (later together with Poland) also had a fief Courland-Semigallia in modern-day Latvia. This fief had two colonies: one in the Gambia and one in Tobago.

      The rest you mention are not part of reality but rather a part of the Ill Bethisad alternative history project (i.e. fiction).

      • I also heard that it was more ”german-baltics” who wanted to colonize/ did colonize Gambia etc, more them doing that sort of. Which of course involved the latvian people. Idk if its true though but Jacob Kettler was baltic-german.

        • Yes, it is true what you say. There were no nation-states as came to be later at the time. So, the truth is like this:

          The colonies in Gambia and Tobago belonged to the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. This duchy had a Latvian population majority but was led by ethnically German dukes. This duchy was also a fief of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (and Grand Duchy of Lithuania) beforehand. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was nominally a union of Poland and Lithuania but the Polish culture increasingly predominated there.

  4. I heard that Lithuania had a very few black people during grand duchy of Lithuania though i am not sure and everyone says differently, but is that true or unsure?

    • There were no Black communities in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and even the 20th century Republic of Lithuania. Only in the 21st century Black people became more common due to immigration.

      Prior to that, there were no direct connections between Lithuania and Africa. There was no slavery in the Grand Duchy (i.e. no “import” of slaves), there was also no immigration from Africa. The “colony” in Gambia was little, it was not directly ruled by the Grand Duchy (but rather by its fief) and it was held for a very short time, making Lithuania-Africa relations non-existant. Lithuania itself was colonized and conquered by major European powers (mostly Russia, but also Germany and France) during the 19th and 20th centuries, sharing the fate with African countries. However, as the main occupier of Lithuania Russia (Soviet Union) had no colonies in Africa itself, there was also no Black immigration through “a common imperial power” either.

      Surely, there could have been some individual persons, e.g. it is possible that a few people came from Africa in one time or another, likely via some Western European countries. However, even if this happened, they never formed a race-based community or conciousness (as there were far too few of them) and intermarried with locals, their traces “disappearing” over several generations.

      Individual people is something beyond a typical historical research (unless these persons would be leaders) and until recent centuries there are actually few historical records remaining about the “regular people”.

  5. Something i dont really understand though, some say that Lithuania was part of the transatlantic-slave-trade, especially during the 16th. According to some sources they say that 0.8% the danish and the baltics participated. And someone said that Lithuania was part of it. But since we never had colonies it is really hard to find if we did have or not. Do you know anything about that?

    • It was not part of it. What are the sources?

      In case of the Danish, though, they indeed had a colony in the Caribbean – Danish West Indies (which they then sold to the USA and is now known as the US Virgin Islands). This colony was indeed used for the slave trade and most of the inhabitants there nowadays are of Black African descent. Slavery was abolished there by the Danes in 1848, prior to that it existed there.

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