Ethnic Groups

Main Ethnic Groups of the Senegambia

An ethnic group can be defined as a group of people sharing common ancestry and many cultural characteristics. It is argued that the modern ethnicities of Africa originated in the colonial period and that pre-colonial socio-cultural boundaries were marked by their flexibility. In the case of The Gambia, the small size of the country, generations of inter-marriage and the unifying force of Islam (90% of Gambians are Muslims) have contributed to the sharing of cultural heritage between peoples of The Gambia. However they can be broadly classified into different major groups. Although it is not possible to tell the historic tribes apart by appearance, each group has it own traditions, language and background.

In 1993 the population of The Gambia was 1,038,175 and comprised many different groups of people from all over the world. But the majority of the countrys ethnic population belong to eight indigenous tribes. These are: the Mandinka (about 41% of the population); the Wolof (15%); the Fula (19%); the Jola (10%); the Serahuli (8%); the Serer (2.5%); the Aku (0.8%) and the Manjago (1.7%). The ethnic groups were all affected by the Atlantic Slave Trade and domestic slavery.


The Akus or Creole played an influential role in the Gambian economic and governmental life during the colonial period. They are the descendents of European traders and their African wives [Mulattoes], as well as of liberated slaves from Sierra Leone. Liberated slaves also intermingled and intermarried with other groups of freed slaves from the New World and Britain who were already exposed to different cultures. As a result they developed their own distinctive culture, encompassing both African and European characteristics and language. Most are Christian and have European names and continue to figure prominently in Gambian commerce and the civil service.

Portuguese Mulatto traders were the middlemen between African producers and European merchants during the height of the transatlantic slave trade.


The Fulas were traditionally mainly cattle herders originating in the area north of the Senegal River, though it is thought by some that they originally came from much further north. Some Fulas were pastoralists who kept cattle and sheep and wandered across the grasslands of the Western Sudan. Others were cultivators and settled in towns and villages. By the 18th century many Fulas had converted to Islam and became so powerful that they subdued non-Muslim rulers and founded their own states. The Fulas who first immigrated into The Gambia were non-Muslim pastoralists. They asked for protection from the Mandinka chiefs and cared for the herds of these Mansas in exchange for protection against attacks from hostile groups. Generally a mutually beneficial relationship existed between migrant Fulas and Mandinka kings and village chiefs. But at times European travellers reported that the Fula bands were exploited by their Mandinka neighbors. Francis Moore (who wrote Travels into the inland parts of Africa London, 1738) visited a certain town where the Fulas, claiming that their cattle had been stolen, attacked and destroyed the nearby Mandinka community, selling its inhabitants into slavery.

In the mid 19th century economic factors forced more bands of Fulas into Gambia searching for pasture for their animals. Under the leadership of Alpha Molloh and his son Musa Molloh, the Fula warriors overran Mandinka states and founded the state of Fulladu.

There are many sub-groups of Fulas based on different places of origin and modes of making a living. The Firdu Fulas for example, because of their semi-sedentary nature and ethnic intermarriage were often looked down upon as being of slave origin. Another sub-group, the Fulbe Futa, formed warrior bands and preyed upon other Fula groups and Mandinka communities.


Amongst the earliest people in the Senegambia region were the Jolas, who had migrated from Egypt. They brought palm seed, cotton and rice with them and settled along the Atlantic coast and river mouth. They lived in small, independent communities recognizing no central authority. Today many still live near the coastal areas in The Gambia and unlike many of the tribes they have retained more of their traditional practices and beliefs, due in part to their independent nature. A Colonial Office report in 1929 described the Jola tribe as mainly pagan, although Islam was beginning to gain ground amongst them.

The Jolas were the only tribe never to have kept slaves, although they did sell their own prisoners of war to merchants. The Jolas were themselves often victims of slave takers and were particularly subjugated by the Mandinkas.

Mandinka / Mandingo

Once the Mali empire had been established in the 13th century, Mande speaking peoples began to expand its boundaries. The Mandinkas were the first of a series of invaders to the Senegambia region. Gradually the whole of Gambia valley came under Mandinka control and they were firmly established by the 15th century.

Trade was also important in Mandinka states and long distance trade routes were established. During the period of the Transatlantic slave trade, slaves and firearms became the most important articles of trade. As well as being victims of slave takers, some Mandinkas carried on extensive trade in slaves. Even well into the 19th century it was well-known and admitted fact that Mandingos… are in the practice of obtaining and carrying off liberated slaves from Freetown.

Mandinkas make up the largest proportion of the Gambian population. Traditionally farmers, today they are often engaged in business and farming, especially the production of groundnuts throughout the country.


The Serahuli were rulers and merchants of the Kingdom of Ghana, and have a long history in the West African region. The Serahuli empire controlled rich trade routes and many Serahuli were wealthy overlords. Those found in The Gambia arrived during the 19th century as refugees from the religious wars in Senegal and are therefore the most recent arrivals of all the Senegambian ethnic groups. They hired land from Mandinka chiefs and, by the middle of the century, had proved themselves useful to the kings of the river states, acting as mercenaries. Now a days many are farmers living along the eastern Gambian border, but remain famous for their gold and silver trading activities.


The Serers are among the oldest ethnic group in the Senegambia region, having migrated into the delta regions from the north of Senegal. Today they are mainly found along the river mouth, with fishing as their main trade. The Wolofs claimed sovereignty over the Serers. According to traditions passed on by nineteenth century European writers, the Fulas drove the Serer out of the Futa Toro region of Senegambia and enslaved them.


The Wolofs are thought to have originated in Southern Mauritania where droughts and raids forced them south into the area north of The Gambia in western Senegal. They have common ancestors with the Serers. During the religious wars of the 19th century, Wolofs established themselves in Banjul and on the north bank of the river as traders and ship builders. The wars engendered considerable suspicion and hostility between the Mandinkas and Wolofs. Nowadays, Wolofs on the north bank are usually farmers, while those in Banjul are influential in business, commerce and the civil service.

Early descriptions of Wolof chiefs are found in the writings of a 15th century Portuguese explorer. He described how Wolof kings forced some of their subjects and those of A Wollof womanneighbouring provinces into slavery, part whereof they employed in cultivating the lands assigned them, with the rest sold to the Azanaghi [Moors] and Arab merchants. For protection, the kings would surround themselves with warriors, often of slave origin called tyeddo.


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