History & Politics

Great African kingdoms

A wealthy empire

In 1324, the king of the Mali empire (14th–15th centuries) went on a pilgrimage to Mecca.  Mansa Musa took so much gold with him that records in Cairo speak of his trip causing massive inflation in the Middle East. He is therefore one of the first figures in history to cause a financial market crisis.

During the first millennium AD, trade routes developed through the Sahara linking West Africa to the northern coast.

The first empire to grow rich from this trade was the Empire of Ghana. This spanned parts of eastern Senegal in the 8th–11th centuries.

This Ghana empire fell following attacks from the northern Senegalese kingdom of Takrur/Tekrur and its powerful Muslim ally of the Almoravid dynasty – see Morocco History & Politics. Around this time, the Jolof kingdom was founded to the south. It became a vassal region of the great Mali Empire.

Evidence of an early civilisation in Senegal can be found at Senegambia (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Here, there are four large groups of stone circles and numerous burial mounds, probably from AD500–750.

The arrival of the Europeans

A centre for the slave trade

Wall mural at House of Slavery on Gorée Island, By Manuele Zunelli (Flickr [1]) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Just off the coast of Dakar, Gorée Island acted as one of the bases for the slave trade, which shipped millions of Africans from the continent. (The mural above is at the House of Slavery on Gorée Island.)

The Jolof and Takrur regions were released from serving larger empires. But they soon faced another threat. In the 15th century, Portuguese merchants set up coastal trading stations for gold and slaves.

By the 17th century, their position was taken by the Dutch and then the French. (The British concentrated on the Gambia river). The French colony of Saint-Louis was founded in 1659, where a unique Franco-African culture formed, with French traders marrying mixed-race Senegalese.

When the slave trade was abolished by the Europeans in the 1800s, the French began exporting acacia gum and peanuts from Senegal.

French expansion into the interior was opposed by Muslim peoples, led by famous spiritual leaders such as El Jajj Omar Tall and Cheikh Amadou Bamba. However, they were defeated and the French staked their claim to French West Africa at the Berlin conference of 1884-5.

Modern-day Senegal

Fighting for France

During the 20th century, many Senegalese viewed France as the ‘motherland’ and fought for France during the First and Second World wars.

In 1914, Senegal’s famous politician Blaise Diagne fought for African rights under the French values of ‘equality and freedom’.

After World War II, independence movements gained in popularity. Senegal became fully independent in 1964. Léopold Sédar Senghor was the first president.

Senghor stepped down in 1980 and was succeeded by Abdou Diouf. In 2000, Mr Diouf’s party lost power under the country’s democratic system and was replaced by Abdoulaye Wade. In 2012, Macky Sall won elections to become president of Senegal.

With its stable democracy, Senegal remains the only country in West Africa never to have experienced a military coup, where the army seizes power from an elected government.