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Reviewed by:
  • A Political History of The Gambia, 1816-1994, and: Migrants, Credit and Climate: The Gambian Groundnut Trade, 1834-1934
  • Donald R. Wright
Arnold Hughes and David Perfect. A Political History of The Gambia, 1816–1994. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2006. xviii + 530 pp. Map. Tables. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $90.00. Cloth.
Kenneth Swindell and Alieu Jeng. Migrants, Credit and Climate: The Gambian Groundnut Trade, 1834–1934. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006. xxxv + 261 pp. Maps. Figures. Notes. Index. $91.00. Paper.

Serious studies of Gambian history rarely appear. Yet here, in the same year, are two histories, each written by a long-time authority (Arnold Hughes and Kenneth Swindell, respectively), each in co-authorship with a person he trained at the University of Birmingham. Each book is based on thorough research and provides insight gained over years of study. Too bad so few non-Gambians are interested enough in the country's history to take advantage of these studies; too bad the books cost so much that few Gambians could afford one.

A massive compendium of information (35 pages of bibliography, 130 of citations), A Political History of The Gambia, 1816–1994 is now the place to begin study of Gambian history or society over the last two centuries and the de facto encyclopedia for Gambian government and politics. In addition to analysis, the authors provide gritty detail. When it comes to modern Gambian politics, Hughes and Perfect know the players and understand their motives.

The story runs like this. From colonial Gambia's beginning in 1816 until the late 1950s, its political focus was the capital city (today's Banjul) and surroundings ("the Colony"), excluding rural areas ("the Protectorate"), which held 80 percent of the population. Through the 1860s British merchants exercised the greatest influence on government, but by the 1880s two other groups competed for seats on the Legislative Council: elite urban Aku (descendants of Liberated Africans), or Wolof, divided by family, [End Page 160] religion, and class, and conservative in nature. A more radical element emerged in the 1920s, led by the journalist and early West-African nationalist E. F. Small, but the old patricians continued to dominate elections. When political parties emerged after World War II, they took on the personalities of their charismatic leaders. A new constitution in 1959, which allotted a majority of directly elected seats to the Protectorate, opened a path for a new Protectorate People's Party (soon the People's Progressive Party, PPP), which, under the leadership of D. K. Jawara, dominated Gambian politics as the country gained independence in 1965. By the early 1970s, though a working democracy, The Gambia was essentially a one-party state. PPP control was threatened only by an abortive coup in 1981, which Senegal's army quelled and which fostered a weak Senegambian Confederation from 1982 to 1989. What led to the government's eventual downfall was corruption and resistance to change. In 1994 a bloodless coup headed by junior officers in the Gambia National Army took over, ending "the longest continuously surviving multiparty democracy in Africa" (280) and paving the way for a government headed by Lieutenant (later Colonel, now President) A. J. J. Jammeh. It remains unclear if the new regime is outdoing Jawara's in corruption and general ineptness, but it is doubtlessly worse in its respect for human rights. The authors conclude with a balanced assessment of Jawara that, while pointing to his flaws, suggests that in recent Gambian history only Small is of comparable stature in terms of "his overall contribution to Gambian public life"; Hughes and Perfect recognize the likelihood that "future historians will judge [Jawara] much more kindly than his successor" (294).

Since the 1840s, revenues supporting the Gambian government came, directly or indirectly, from peasant production of groundnuts (or peanuts) for market. In Migrants, Credit and Climate: The Gambian Groundnut Trade, 1834–1934, Swindell and Jeng analyze their subject more thoroughly than anyone has before, drawing attention to the importance of human and natural forces in the way the economy evolved. Most clearly, the authors show how groundnut cultivation drew Gambians ever more thoroughly into a global economy. One reads here...


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