Gambia stamps and postal history

Gambia 1874 Cameo Stamps, Imperforate Wmk Crown CC 6d. deep blue, mint block of four SG. 7

In the year 1455 Prince Henry the Navigator, of Portugal, commissioned Aluise da Cada Mosto, a Venetian, and Antoniotto Usi di Mare, a Genoese, to lead an African expedition to the south of Cape Verde. The two Europeans, the first white men to visit The Gambia, proceeded a short way upstream and repeated the voyage the following year when contact was made with some native chiefs. At the mouth of the river “ they cast anchor on a Sunday morning at an island in the shape of a smoothing iron, where one of the sailors, who had died of fever, was
buried; and, as his name was Andrew, being well loved, they gave the Island the name of St. Andrew.”

For well nigh three centuries history has little to record except that small communities of Portuguese descent continued to inhabit the banks of The Gambia to the middle of the eighteenth century; their farthest penetration was Setuku near Fattatenda.
In 1587 Francisco Ferreira, a Portuguese refugee in England, piloted two British ships up the River Gambia and returned with a cargo of hides and ivory.

The following year Antonio (Prior of Crato), a claimant to the throne of Portugal, sold the trading rights between the Rivers Gambia and Senegal to certain merchants in London and Devon, and the grant was confirmed for a period of ten years by letters patent of Queen Elizabeth. As a result many expeditions were sent to trade and explore but Portuguese hostility prevented the traders venturing farther south than Joal - thirty miles to the north of the mouth of the River Gambia. The merchants reported that The Gambia was “a river of secret trade and riches concealed by the Portugals. For long since one Frenchman entered with a small barque, which was betrayed, surprised and taken by two gallies of the Portugals.” The French made another attempt to settle in 1612 but disaster overtook them in the form of sickness and mortality.

Although letters patent conferring exclusive trading rights were granted in 1598, 1618 and 1632 no attempt was made by the English to explore the river until 1618, when George Thompson took out an expedition and left his ship at Gassan, from whence he proceeded with a small party as far as the River Neriko. Whilst Thompson was away the Portuguese massacred most of his crew and only a few found their way overland to Cape Verde and thence to England. Thompson, with seven companions, remained in The Gambia and was killed in a quarrel. Meanwhile a relief expedition commanded by Richard Jobson had reached Gassan and seized several Portuguese ships as a reprisal for the massacre.

Certain London merchants were granted a patent in 1651 and established a trading post at Bintang, but in the following year Prince Rupert, with three Royalist ships, captured the patentees’ vessels.

About this period James, Duke of Courland (godson of James I of England) obtained from native chiefs cession of St. Andrew’s Island and land at Banyon Point, Juffure and Gassan. A few years later the Duke was made prisoner by the Swedes (Sweden-Poland War), and funds became insufficient to maintain the cession, so it was arranged that the Dutch West India Company should take over until such time as the Coulanders could resume possession (1660).

The reputed existence of a gold mine in the upper reaches of the river was the signal for a new patent granted in 1660 to a number of persons, who joined together and formed “The Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa”. Prominent mem¬bers of the “Adventurers” were James, Duke of York and Prince Rupert. Major Robert Holmes commanded the next expedition and arrived at the mouth of the River early in the following year and occupied Dog Is., which he renamed Charles Island, and erected a fort. Later, he sailed up to St. Andrew’s Island and demanded surrender of the Courlander officer, who had no alternative but to submit, and Holmes took possession, renaming it Fort James after the Duke of York. The Dutch West India Company then tried to intervene by threats and bribes, but all to no purpose, so the Duke of Courland lodged a protest against the seizure of his possessions and after lengthy negotiations was persuaded to relinquish in favour of Charles II, it being agreed that the Duke was granted the Island of Tobago.

In 1677 the Royal Adventurers sublet to the Gambia Adventurers, who, in turn, had to give way to the Royal Africa Company. From this time until 1857 France made determined efforts to obtain supremacy of The Gambia and during that period captured Fort James on no less than five occasions.

During 1750 the Royal Africa Company was superseded by a new company, controlled by a committee of merchants, and fifteen years later an Act of Parliament vested the interest in the Crown - which meant that The Gambia formed part of the Crown Colony of Senegambia, with head¬quarters at St. Louis, and a Lieutenant-Governor to take charge of Fort James and the settlements of The Gambia. In 1783 Senegambia ceased to be a British Colony and The Gambia was entrusted to the care of the African Company.

The Island of Banjol, later renamed St. Mary’s Island, was acquired by a treaty with the King of Kombo, and became the site of Bathurst in 1816. An Act of Parliament dissolved the African Company in 1821 and The Gambia was placed under the jurisdiction of Sierra Leone, a state of affairs which lasted until 1843, when it became a separate Colony until 1866, when, once again, it came under the Sierra Leone administration.

In the meantime, Britain, through treaties with native chiefs, had acquired Lemain Island (McCarthy Island) in 1823, north bank of river mouth in 1826, and considerable areas of the main¬land adjoining St. Mary’s Island between 1840 and 1853. Albreda was handed over in 1857.

Since 1888 The Gambia has been a separate Colony and many treaties have been concluded with the principal chiefs, the last being in 1901 with Musa Molloh, chief of Fuladu.


The Gambia is a narrow strip of territory about ten miles wide on each bank of the river, extending some 300 miles inland from Bathurst. The river rises near the village of Labe on the Futa Jallon plateau and flows westward for 700 miles. It is navigable for large steamers to Kuntaur (150 miles up-river) and for vessels of less than two fathoms to Koina, the most easterly village of the Protectorate, where there is a tide rise of two feet, and during the rains a maximum rise of 30 feet.

The Colony, in the main, consists of the Islands of St. Mary and MacCarthy and the division of Kombo St. Mary.
Bathurst, on the Island of St. Mary, is the capital with a population of 21,152 (274 non-Africans). Total population of The Gambia in 1949 was 246,886.

The inhabitants are mostly Wollof, Mandingo, Fula and Jola and all are Mohammedans except the pagan Jola tribe.
Communications are limited to about 30 miles of tarmac roads in the Bathurst area and 600 miles of sandy tracks, but the River Gambia forms an important link in communications.


Prior to around 1855 there appears to have been no organised postal service, but about this period letters destined for the outer world were sent by boat to Sierra Leone, accompanied by sufficient funds to defray the cost of postage at prevailing rates. There was a British Postal Agency at Freetown, Sierra Leone, for dealing with this type of correspondence, whence the letters, franked with English stamps, would be forwarded to their destinations. No Post Office was established at Bathurst, owing to the very sparse white population and also, possibly, owing to the fact that The Gambia was, at that time, a dependency of Sierra Leone.

Although The Gambia issued its own postage stamps in 1869, one finds examples of letters being forwarded via French territory by local traders as late as 1875, franked with the French Colonial general issue and obliterated in Senegal.

Previous to the issue of its own adhesive stamps the outgoing mail from a Colony would generally be conveyed to its destination abroad by a system in extensive use, and approved by the British Post Office - known as “Ship Letters”.

This was an arrangement by which the Captains of merchant vessels, calling at any port where no regular Post Office existed, were permitted to receive mail on board for conveyance to the port where postage stamps and postal services were available. In all cases “Ship Letters” had to be accompanied with the full amount of postage necessary to carry the letter to where addressed, plus the sum of one penny per letter, which the master of the vessel was entitled to demand as a recompense for his trouble.

The first actual postal reference to The Gambia was in 1866, which is the date given by Mr. F. Bisset Archer to certain postal changes regarding the scale of postal charges. It would appear that, from this date, the rate to Great Britain was fixed at 6d. per half ounce.

First Gambia 1869 Cameo Stamps

Gambia 1869 Imperforate No Watermark 4d. pale brown in a mint block of four

It was in 1867 that the Administrator of The Gambia, Rear-Admiral C. E. Patey, considered the time ripe to appeal for special stamps for the Colony. After discussions with his Administration it was decided to write to London.

On December 9th, 1868, Messrs. De La Rue & Co. obtained the contract for the production of the new stamps, and for the sake of economy the plates were to be small, the sheets imperforate and there was to be no watermark.

The result of this economy was a stamp design of simplicity and great beauty - inspired by the gaudy adhesives of Heligoland - the Gambian “Cameo”.