The boats of The Gambia


Our friend Vic Smith has sent us this striking set of photos of boats – dugouts and pirogues with built-up sides – in use along the coast of The Gambia in Western Africa, and along the country’s major river, also called The Gambia.

Vic and his wife Tina live in Sussex, but have strong links with the small African country; they’re involved in supporting a local school and have friends among local musicians, some of whom play in the UK from time to time.

For those of us with a particular interest in the evolution of water craft, these photos of ancient boat types illustrate one of the key ways in which boats have evolved around the world. In this case the ancient dugout leading to the pirogue, which here is the name given to a dugout hull with built-up sides providing improved carrying capacity and improved seaworthiness.

One could almost draw a parallel between the turf boats of Somerset used on the Levels, and the possibly related but more sophisticated and high-sided flatners developed for fishing in the bays along the Bristol Channel – which by chance also sport spritsails not unlike the one shown in the gallery of Vic’s photos below.

It’s also interesting to me that some of the larger pirogues seem to have been motorised without having requiring much adaptation that I can see. And again, notice how the boats are pulled up the beaches on rollers and skids in much the same way that people still haul craft up on the English South Coast, for example at Hastings and Beer. However, in The Gambia this operation involves a great many more people.

Thinking about this operation, it’s wonderful to see whole communities cheerfully working together in this way, but the other side of this coin is very low per capita incomes that must result from so many people having to be involved.

From the Wikipedia I learn that about a third of the population in the country lives below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day, despite the country’s undoubted advantages of fertile soil for farming, and busy fishing and tourism trades. It makes you think…

Thanks for the photos Vic!

4 thoughts on “The boats of The Gambia”

  1. We saw these boats a good 20 to 30 miles off shore , between Cap Vert and Gambia, powered by a big-ish outboard 25 to 40HP, at night they were unlit unless the crew had a fire going in a metal pot either for cooking or keeping warm. Even in those latitudes it could get cold at night, the crews mostly only had cheap yellow oilskins – must be a pretty hard life.

  2. These photos leave little doubt in my mind how very similar boats ended up being used in the southern swamps of the US. The common explanation is that white settlers improvised on native craft, but doesn’t it make sense that the technology came from slaves, or at least the contact with West Africa? Just riffing on a theme.

    It’s possible that with a per-capita income so insignificant, a lot of people simply live without money and possibly don’t need it. Hard for us to imagine, perhaps.


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