How to Sign over a River? : British Colonial Treaties in Africa – The Case of the Gambia River

Map and Flag of The Gambia

As I read more colonial treaties signed on the continent, it is hard for a modern mind to understand the concept of ceding over rivers. How do you know where the river ends? Is the river part of just one kingdom? What do you do when it is split among several kingdoms? Did the Europeans take that into consideration, if they only had the signature from one king, and not others? Or did they just cause war to get the remainder of the river? What do you think?

Below is the example of the Gambia River.

On the 3rd September, 1783, a Treaty was concluded between Great Britain and France, by Article X of which the King of the French guaranteed to the King of Great Britain the possession of Fort James (Albreda) [located on modern-day Kunta Kinteh Island] and of the River Gambia.

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Cession of the River Gambia to Great Britain. (The map of Africa by Treaty, Vol 1, P.367 – 368)

On the 15th June, 1826,+ a Convention was signed between the Acting Governor of Sierra Leone and the King of Barra and of the River Gambia, with his Chiefs and headmen, for the cession of the Gambia to Great Britain.

Map of the River Gambra (now Gambia) in 1732

It contained the following stipulations:

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“ 2nd. The said Brunay, King of Barra, by and with the advice and consent of his Chiefs and headmen before named, cedes, transfers, and makes over to his Honour Kenneth Macaulay, Acting Governor of  Sierra Leone, and his successors, Governors of Sierra Leone for the time being, on the part and behalf of His Majesty the King of the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, his heirs, and successors forever, the full, entire, free, and unlimited right, title, sovereignty; and possession of the River Gambia, with all the branches, creeks, inlets, and waters of the same, as they have been held and possessed by the Kings of Barra from time immemorial ; and the said Brunay, King of Barra, with the advice and consent of his said Chiefs and headmen as aforesaid, does further cede and forever relinquish all and every right, claim, or demand for customs or duties of any description on British or other vessels entering or navigating the River Gambia, or any of the waters thereof (as have been formerly demanded and taken).

+ S.P., vol. xlviii, p. 882; H.T., vol. xii, p. 5. See also Treaties, 6th January, 1832, p. 824, and 18th November, 1850, p. 326.