West Africa Study Circle

Collecting The Gambia

Many more people now have heard of The Gambia than had in 1965 when Britain's smallest African colony became independent. There is a flourishing tourist industry which brings many people back again and again. There are the usual holiday attractions - sun, sea, sand; but also an astonishingly varied bird-life (see SG 215-217, 233-245 (upper picture), 510-513, 1500-1507 (lower picture) and others), stone circles (SG 368), river journeys (SG 404-406, 494-509), black Americans searching for their roots; and all the tingling strangeness, for Europeans, of African sights, sounds, and smells. All these features (except for the sounds and smells of course!) appear on The Gambia's postage stamps, along with many more.

The river's interest to European navigators was as a waterway into the African hinterland. The River Gambia is almost unique among African rivers in having a bar across the estuary low enough to allow quite large sea-going ships to enter, especially at high tide, and proceed many miles up-river. Geographically, the country is the banks of the river. Someone once inelegantly compared its appearance on the map to "a suppository in the backside of Senegal". The national flag represents the river (blue) between ricefields (white), laterite (red) and lush riverine vegetation (green). See SG 211, 213, 330 and others.

The earliest trading contacts (honey, hides, wax, gum, and the all-consuming hope of gold) led to the slave-trading days of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With the end of that trade in British possessions, the town of Bathurst was founded in 1816 on Banjul Island (SG 246-8) to control the maritime traffic in the estuary. Many of the present inhabitants are descended from slaves freed from impounded ships. In 1973 it officially became Banjul (SG 315-7). Many other events from Gambian history and life are shown on the stamps: the arrival of European missionaries (SG 268-70 and 492-3); self-government (SG 206-8); Independence (SG 211-4, 407-9 etc.); local institutions and their anniversaries (SG 256-8, 287-9 etc.); wildlife (SG 356-9, 1500-08, 2230-45, though one mustn't assume that all the animals and birds shown on these issues are native to The Gambia); as well as the usual participation in international omnibus issues such as Human Rights Year (SG 253-5), Olympic Games, Football World Cups, Halley's Comet etc.

The teeming local bird life has been a popular subject for issues. This is the Pigmy Kingfisher....
.... and this is the Martial Eagle. Incidentally the scientific name should read: Polemaetus bellicosus.