Global True Lithuania Encyclopedia of Lithuanian heritage worldwide

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.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Gambia 15 Comments