Gambia: The Colony Nobody Knows

I came to the Gambia (to give the British African colony its full and formal title) for the first time in pretty inauspicious circumstances. I was a member of the press corps accredited to the Queen’s tour of West Africa; and, the lively envy of friends notwithstanding, it had proved until then a fairly harrowing assignment.

No royal tour is ever, for the accompanying correspondents, a delightful picnic. This one had been particularly burdensome: implacable heat and humidity, far outdoing even Washington in July; a variety of afflictions — three of our number came down with malaria, and nearly everyone suffered violent stomach upsets at one time or another; early risings most days, at 5 or 6 A.M.; constant air travel, mostly in tiny and wildly uncomfortable aircraft; bumping along for hours through clouds of red dust in cramped buses; political difficulties in one country, resulting in two of our party beingtold by the authorities that they were forbidden to leave the place; the inevitable repetitiveness of the schedules arranged for the royal visit (“If I have to sit through one more durbar of the chiefs, I’ll get the screaming meemies,” cried one of our lady reporters); and the equally inevitable buildup of personal tensions and dislikes in our party of fifty.

In these conditions, Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone had lingeringly imposed their various ordeals. Now we were on the last lap, the Gambia, and few of us approached it with anything but gloomy resignation. judge, then, our amazement and joy on finding that this strange little country was not only by far the most attractive one we saw on the tour, but was full of charm and delight, so much so that I fully intend to return there under my own steam at the earliest opportunity.

The two main morale-boosting factors, which instantly enraptured our travel-stained company as we arrived in Bathurst, the capital, were the climate and the hotel. Suddenly, incredibly, it was cool. A fine breeze blew gently inland from the sea. There were splendid beaches, and both the swimming and the surfing were good. We could wear thick suits and sleep under blankets again in comfort. (There is a hot season, with heavy rainfall, from July to October; but from November through May the temperatures are mainly in the sixties and low seventies, and there is little rainfall or humidity.)

Until five years ago there was no hotel in Bathurst. But today there is an establishment of considerable excellence. It is run by a Belgian, with a charming Lebanese wife who helps with the management. The food constituted a remarkable surprise, for the chef turned out to be one of the best I have encountered anywhere in Africa. This was the more astonishing in that whatever else was admirable in the British colonial era, there are few who would claim that a fine cuisine could be listed among the benefits handed down to the emergent nations. But this chef, a Gambian, was first-class. The roast duck with fresh orange sauce which he dished up for us on the first night could have held its own with that of any restaurant in Paris, New York, or London. His curries were superb. The local lobsters were delicious. They were real lobsters, not the coarse and oversized crayfish which so often masquerade as lobsters on the menus of the world, and I would rank them with Maine and English lobsters for succulence. The chef served them cold, with a good mayonnaise and potato or lettuce salad. The hotel wine list is small but excellent, and I favored a Niersteiner in admirable condition, which went very well with the lobster.

The hotel boasts a small, horseshoe-shaped bar, presided over by a famous African barmaid named Effie. Effie tolerates no bad language at the bar, and if anyone is foolish enough to forget the rule, she promptly slams down the grille and withdraws. Imposing quantities of cool beer are consumed at the bar, mainly Dutch and Danish brands.

The Gambia is Britain’s oldest and smallest colonial possession in Africa, and may prove to be its last. Queen Victoria called it “that dear, loyal, little place,” but independence is undoubtedly coming in the next two or three years. The country is an extraordinary shape, just a long thin sliver of territory running almost directly from west to east for 200 miles or so, and consisting of nothing more than the two banks of the 1100mile-long river from which it takes its name. The country is never more than 27 miles wide (the width of the river at Bathurst), and sometimes it dwindles to only seven miles.

The Portuguese discovered the Gambia in 1455. Thereafter, the French, the Dutch, and the British fought each other fiercely and repeatedly for its possession, for it was thought to be the key to the immense riches of Africa, and perhaps even to lead to the source of the Nile.

It used to be a center of the slave trade and was also, in the old days, hideously unhealthy. Sir Richard Burton a century ago described it as being nothing but “mud, mangroves, malaria and miasma.” Today only the mangroves remain; Bathurst has long since shaken off the “White Man’s Grave” tag, and the three hundred or so whites who live in the country enjoy good health (the African population is about 275,000). A reminder of the bad old days lurks in the name of a Bathurst suburb, Half Die, so named because 50 percent of its population was in fact carried off by some peculiarly virulent nineteenth-century epidemic.

Bathurst is captivating. About 20,000 people live in it, and the tempo rarely works itself up to much more than the gentlest of jog trots. The place has seedy, contemplative charm, which reminded me a little of some off-the-track spot in the Deep South of the United States: decaying wharves, tin roofs, peeling paint, a fairly large open-air market, where most of the trade gets done and where nobody pesters you. What stores there are, apart from the market, are nearly all run by Syrians or Lebanese, who hover in the entrances wearing slacks and gay sport shirts. Nearly everyone you meet on the street smiles pleasantly and wishes you good morning or evening, as the case may be. And the passersby provide a splendid chaos of color. For this is a predominantly Muslim country, and the robes billow out in the most uninhibited tints.

The fanciest dressers of all are the women of the Wolof tribe. Facially handsome, they delight in their clothes and accouterments, and on ceremonial occasions they put on a sartorial show as splendid as I have seen in either hemisphere: burgeoning headdresses; superb, bouffant, patterned gowns in shimmering saffrons, mauves, crashing pinks, apricots, emeralds, Prussian blues. The women wear gold filigree jewelry, stain the palms of their hands with henna, turn their lips blue with antimony, and sport imposing wigs fashioned of plaited black sisal.

But being a Wolof husband is no joke. He is forever being dunned by moneylenders or made bankrupt as the result of trying to foot his wife’s wardrobe bill. Many female Wolofs spend as much as $300 a year on their clothes, a fantastic amount by any African standard, but horrifying in a country as poor as the Gambia.

The market offers filigree bracelets, earrings, and many other adornments; some of those marvelous clothes worn by the Wolof women (which would create a sensation at a summer-night cocktail party back home); and wood carvings which I found rather disappointingly derivative. My own choice fell on the skins of two jungle cats of the leopard family. They cost me $7.20 for the two, and, provided with light-blue felt underpinnings after my return home, they have emerged as two very handsome floor rugs.

Apart from the market and an upto-date hospital, Bathurst offers a Protestant and a Roman Catholic church, both tin-roofed, the former flanked in season by such nostalgically English plantings as petunias, pinks, and hollyhocks; and Macarthy Square, a centrally located maidan, fringed with yellow-blossomed casuarina trees and dominated by the Secretariat building, a rather attractive stone affair with a tower of square design atop it. There is a bandstand, where the police band on occasion offers a concert; and sometimes a film show is put on by the local film society. But there are no regular movie houses, for the reason that few people would be able to afford to go often enough to make movies a practical proposition. Bathurst, moreover, lacks a daily newspaper and a radio station, and the country boasts no railway, no university, and no restaurant. There are only about 8000 moderately literate people in the whole country. (At the hotel, out of an African staff of forty, only five can make any convincing claim to read and write.) There are 70-odd miles of paved roadway, and just over 1200 motor vehicles to use it. There is an archaic touch to some of the English you hear spoken.

I heard someone saying, “I was real humbugged this morning,” meaning that he had been annoyed.

A short distance from the hotel is Government House, a most proper home for one of the last representatives of ancient imperialism. There is an opéra-bouffe touch about the gleaming white exterior, with stern sentries peering out of their boxes and immense old cannons pointing seaward, just in case the French should decide to pay another return visit. Inside, “G.H.,” built about 1800, is coolly elegant, with quiet, well-proportioned rooms. At night the fine garden at its rear is floodlighted. the flamboyants and other exotic trees picked out tellingly in haggard grandeur. If the sightseer signs the visitors’ book at G.H., the chances are that he will be invited in for a predinner drink, because casual visitors are few and the governor is apt to get a bit lonely now and then.

The Gambia’s tax rate is the highest in the whole of West Africa, but, apart from the resident whites, only a minority pays taxes. Almost the only source of revenue (98 percent) is the groundnut crop, groundnuts being the bureaucratic euphemism for what are known as peanuts in the United States and monkey nuts in Britain. The big time comes in the December through April period, when the crop is being gathered. Every scrap of available land in Bathurst, including tiny back lots behind the bungalows on stilts, is planted to the crop, and when picking starts, everything else is likely to go by the board. The manager of the hotel has a wearing time of it, since many of his staff often heed the call of the harvest and take off for a while in order to help with the nuts. They still speak fondly in Bathurst of the occasion when the Gambia Regiment was due for an inspection (it was disbanded as an economy measure not long ago, all three officers, two NGOs, and ninetyfive enlisted men), and when the commanding officer arrived on the parade ground, he discovered that nearly the whole place had been dug up and diligently planted with groundnuts. The troops begged the CO, with the utmost respect, to be very careful where he trod.

Besides groundnuts and mangroves, there is a bit of rice grown up-country. Rice stew and cornmeal porridge, seasoned fiercely with pepper and onions, provide the staple diet for the African population.

The Gambia is in fact the river, and a splendid old river steamer named Lady Wright (540 tons) makes regular sailings upstream, as does her sister vessel, the Fulladu. In addition to simple but perfectly adequate cabins for twenty overnight passengers, a dining saloon, and a bar, the Lady Wright and her sister ship provide what are thought to be the only waterborne post offices in the world, whose stamps arc franked “The River Gambia Post Office.”

It is always pleasant to chug along on any river, glass in hand, idly scrutinizing the banks. The river is in this instance twenty-seven miles at its mouth, and the banks are merely thin dark-green lines in the far distance. But the river soon begins to narrow, and by and by one can discern the entrances to the batons, or creeks, containing on their banks villages which have not changed much in character or aspect over the past three centuries. The huts in these villages are made of palm-wood framework, with bamboo strips anchoring them. This gets an outer coating of a tough type of mortar made of crushed oyster shells and known as lasso. The whole thing is topped off with the inevitable corrugated iron roof.

When the Queen was visiting the Gambia, she was taken upriver to a creek known as the Mini Minium Bolon, where she visited a groundnut clearing center called Jowara. I had been told that on her way back to Bathurst she was almost certain to make an unscheduled stop at James Island, and so to James Island, together with two or three congenial colleagues, I repaired to await the sovereign.

Now, James Island is one of the more fascinating spots I have come across in the past several years. It crops up, perhaps a bare two acres in extent, alone and forlorn, in the middle of the wide stream. And it was here, on James Island, that the most ferocious fighting took place between the French and the English. James Island was regarded as the military key to the Gambia; he who owned it controlled the river. The French captured it from the English five times. Each time the English got it back, but the last time the French were in possession, in 1779, they did a pretty thorough job of demolition on the fort. Even so, some of it still stands today, an incongruous sight, with its Europeanstyle battlements, turrets, revetments, and underground passageways, all in the midst of the watery, tropical immensity. The fort is now surrounded by beobab trees, which have very big bases and taper gracefully to their upper reaches. Apart from that sight, there are curiously blackened stones and rocks, almost volcanic in appearance, and a few birds squawk overhead.

But in the loose shale and the silent ruins one can still come upon all sorts of relics of the former occupations: metal uniform buttons, bits of clay pipes, fragments of English china services, an odd coin, and a great carpet of smashed rum and wine bottles. Life on James Island in those seventeenthand eighteenthcentury colonial days was fairly squalid. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. The French waited at their riverbank settlement of Albreda, just opposite. The hemmedin garrison had no chance of relaxation. Jammed in together, they bickered incessantly, and hundreds of them died “of the flux, the fever and the miasma.” There was no fresh water, but there was plenty to drink, and drink they did. Endless consignments of booze were ferried in to the luckless defenders to help them through their ordeal, and it is the remnants of those supplies which still litter the place.

My own trip upriver to James Island proved wholly delightful. I arranged to charter a motor launch which is available to visitors. The island is twenty miles from Bathurst, and the journey takes about two hours. Aboard the launch I and one or two of my colleagues were comforted by a capacious refrigerator, which we had forehandedly stocked with a half dozen of the hotel’s Niersteiner and some beer, and pleasant chaises longues. In addition to a competent crew, we enjoyed the services of a highly polished and attentive African butler.

After we had pottered around on the island for a while, the royal yacht Britannia was sighted, coming downstream. Since the Queen’s stop-off at James Island was believed to be only tentative, and since we felt that if binoculars on the Britannia’s bridge were to pick out unknown marauders already ashore on the tiny place, the Queen might change her mind about stopping there, we took pains to find cover behind the ruined battlements, around which we cautiously peered. But the Britannia duly hove to and dropped anchor. Next, the royal barge was observed making for the sketchy jetty. When we judged it safe, we emerged from our refuges. Just as the monarch stepped ashore only a few yards away, the butler from the launch provided an unlooked-for touch of panache. For he walked up to me, silver tray in hand, and with a flourish proffered a fresh bottle of Niersteiner. I could only accept and allow him to pour me a frosted glassful with what insouciance I could muster. Phileas Fogg stuff.

But the Lady Wright should by no means be neglected. The longest journey upriver, from Bathurst to Basse, the furthest navigable point for deep-draft ships, takes four days. If the traveler then feels like pushingon further, a shallow-draft boat will take him into Senegalese territory, at Barrakunda Falls. In Basse he can buy some weird musical instruments, both string and percussion, which, I am told, can be mastered fairly readily. As the boat travels up the river, baboons chatter from the trees (although they are slaughtered, with official encouragement, at the rate of 30,000 a year), and water birds eye the passengers from the mud flats. At every stop a group of cheerful, friendly people gathers to greet the ship, endlessly curious but always courteous.

A Gambian holiday would not be to everyone’s taste. The packagedtour people would not like it much. From their point of view there isn’t much “to do.” No shops, as we understand the term. No sightseeing with uniformed guides. Absolutely no night spots.

But for someone who is content with a quiet stay in a pleasant place, among likable people, someone who wants to get away for a while, the Gambia is just the ticket.

Bathurst is only forty-five minutes’ flight from Dakar, in Senegal, and Dakar is nowadays one of the world’s busiest airports, with any number of scheduled flights coming in from Europe. Las Palmas, in the Canaries, is only about two and a half hours away by air. The airport at Yundum, eighteen miles from Bathurst, is soon to have another $1.5 million spent on it and will then be able to take bigger aircraft.

There are plans to build an extension to the hotel out at Fujara, twelve miles from Bathurst, on a cape where most of the Europeans live, which is, on the average, several degrees cooler even than the capital. The idea here is that if a tourist is staying at the hotel and would like a change of scene for a meal or a night, he will be able to drive out to the annex on the cape and be lodged or eat there for no extra charge.

The name of the Bathurst hotel is the Atlantic. A single room in the main building costs $15.40 a day; double, S26.70 a day. One of the chalets which are scattered about the grounds costs $13.55 a day for a single, or $21.40 for a double. These prices include all meals, or, as they say, “Full pension.” The main building has air-conditioned bedrooms, but in the cool season the chalets without air conditioningare just fine.

The launch charter costs $60, including four hours of travel and an hour and a half on the island. Longer trips are in proportion. It is an extremely good value.

As far as I am concerned, the main attraction of the Gambia is that it has not so far even a hint of the awful glaze of the jet age on it. It is still to a great extent as it always was; and there are not, in a world where package trips to, say, the Fiji Islands are now obtainable on the installment plan, many places you can still say that of.

If, when I go back there, I find they’ve already put in a night spot, or replaced the Lady Wright with a new luxury boat, I’ll feel humbugged. Really, I will.