In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Saint-Louis, Senegal

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Journals
  • The Signares
  • Commerce
  • Slavery and the Slave Trade
  • Islamic Reforms
  • Agriculture
  • Saint-Louis in the Atlantic World
  • Abolition and Emancipation
  • French Rule
  • Citizenship

Atlantic History Saint-Louis, Senegal
Bronwen Everill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0323


Saint-Louis is an island at the mouth of the Senegal River. Called Ndar by local Wolof speakers, the island became the focal point of French (and for a time, British) commercial and political activities in the region. The French established a fort on the north side of the island in 1659. The island passed back and forth between French and British authority throughout the 18th century, with France regaining the colony finally in 1817, at which point it became the administrative center of the colony of Senegal. Men and women from the mainland also moved to the island, and by the late 18th century it had grown into an important commercial hub of the trade in enslaved captives, as well as, increasingly, gum. Crucial to the conduct of trade and the running of the island were the group of women called signares, many of whom were married to French or British traders, and their descendants, who came to be called habitants. As the slave trade was replaced by gum trading and, later, groundnuts, the habitants managed their position as middlemen and women between the hinterland production and French traders. Senegal’s commerce, and the role of Saint-Louis in mediating it, make up a large part of the literature on Saint-Louis’s place in the Atlantic world. By 1848, with the abolition of enslaved labor in the French empire, new debates about Senegalese participation in the governance of Saint-Louis were emerging. Habitants had participated in partial governance of the colony, with the first habitant mayor of Saint-Louis elected in 1778. As the capital of the expanding French empire in West Africa it became an important site of political activity, in addition to its military and (declining) commercial roles. The result of these debates was the partial enfranchisement of newly created French citizens in the quatre communes of Saint-Louis, Gorée, Dakar, and Rufisque in 1848. Senegal first sent an elected representative to the French parliament from 1848 to 1852, again from 1871 to 1875, and then from 1879 to 1940. In 1916, citizenship rights were extended beyond the évolué populations to the wider group of originaires who maintained legal protections under Islamic or African law. Participation and resistance in the imperial project thus emerge as major themes of the literature on later-19th- and 20th-century Saint-Louis. Throughout the whole period of Atlantic engagement, the existence of Islamic reform movements in the wider Senegambian region played an important role in the politics and social movements of Saint-Louis’s hinterland in ways that shaped the city’s relationship with both the French and the Islamic reformers.


Barry 1998 presents an overview of Senegambia within the Atlantic world, in which Saint-Louis played a continually important role, while Rodney 1970 is a classic overview of the whole region’s relationship with global trade. Sinou 1993 and Dozon 2012 are outside of the field of history, but both frame the history of Saint-Louis within modern developments. Diouf 1990 and Barry 1972 are both focused on the wider African context, but deal with the relationship between Saint-Louis and the shifting African political context.

  • Barry, Boubacar. The Kingdom of Waalo: Senegal before the Conquest. Paris: Maspero, 1972.

    Provides the African political and social context for the hinterland politics between the French at Saint-Louis and the Kingdom of Waalo, adjacent to Saint-Louis to the north on the mainland.

  • Barry, Boubacar. Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Covers Senegambian history from the 15th century through the late 19th century, with a particular focus on the role of the Atlantic slave trade, but in the wider context of political change in the region.

  • Diouf, Mamadou. La Kajoor au XIXe siècle: Pouvoir ceddo et conquête coloniale. Paris: Karthala, 1990.

    A history of Cayor, a Wolof kingdom located on the mainland adjacent to Saint-Louis, to the south. Particularly focused on the conflicts between Cayor and the French as the latter increasingly sought to control the hinterland beyond Saint-Louis.

  • Dozon, Jean-Pierre. Saint-Louis du Sénégal: Palimpseste d’une ville. Paris: Karthala, 2012.

    An overview of the history of the city and the contested role of memory in preserving and challenging its place in Senegal’s history and in French history.

  • Rodney, Walter. A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545–1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.

    A regional overview of West African history, with a particular focus on the slave trade and the links between the slave trade the erosion of African political and economic autonomy. Part of the “dependency school.”

  • Sinou, Alain. Comptoirs et villes coloniales du Sénégal: Saint-Louis, Gorée, Dakar. Paris: Karthala, 1993.

    A comparative examination of the historical development of three of Senegal’s colonial cities in the context of urban history and the processes of urbanization in contemporary Senegal.

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