Senegal, Gambia, Casamance’s history of slavery


As I was in the Gambia, close to the southern border, on 12 February 2012, I heard gunfire from the south.

Senegal and Gambia

A young Gambian was sad to hear that violent sound. He said it was Senegalese soldiers fighting the independence movement in Casamance: the part of Senegal to the south of the Gambia, while most of Senegal, including its capital, is to the north of the Gambia.

In principle, he said, the Casamance independentists were right. “Everyone should have their independence”, and should not be ruled by others.

To understand more about this, we should go back into the history of what are today the states of Senegal and Gambia.

In the middle ages, the region was targeted by north African slave traders. That trade, along long and dangerous Sahara desert routes to the Mediterranean coast, was comparatively small-scale and inefficient compared to later slave trade.

The fifteenth century saw a change. Portuguese slave traders arrived with ships. For the first decades, they deported their human booty to Portugal and Spain; also still relatively small-scale compared to later centuries.

In the sixteenth century, two important changes happened. Portugal (and Spain) conquered big colonies in the Americas. Soon, they started deporting millions of Africans to the American sugar and other plantations.

Slave ship

And the Portuguese slave traders got competition from other European slavers: first Spanish, later French, English, Dutch, etc.

In 1588, the claimant to the Portuguese throne, António, Prior of Crato, sold exclusive trade rights on the Gambia river to English merchants. In later centuries, the English had to fight for their Gambian slavery profits with mainly French competitors. Not until 1856 did France renounce all claims to the Gambia.

North of the Gambia, what is today northern Senegal was also at issue in conflicts between European slavers. In the fifteenth century, present day Gorée, a suburb of Dakar the capital of Senegal, was a Portuguese slave trading port. Later, it was conquered by Dutch slave traders, who named it Goeree after the Dutch island of that name. The Portuguese reconquered it; then, the Dutch reconquered it. In 1664, the English took over. From 1677 to 1960, Gorée was under French colonial rule.

The Senegambia region suffered much from the trans-Atlantic slave trade: estimates are that just from this part of Africa over three million people were abducted in chains to the Americas. African American author Alex Haley in his book Roots claimed to have traced his ancestral line to a Gambian village.

The slave trade very deeply damaged African societies, from the coast to deep in the interior. Originally, Africa had not really been poorer than Europe. The seventeenth century Dutch author about Africa, Olfert Dapper, writes that there were then cities in Africa as big as Haarlem in Holland (Holland was then the most urbanized part of Europe). However, seventeenth century and later slavery soon changed that.

Traditionally, wars in Africa might have been solved with a compromise peace, returning prisoners of war to their own countries. Now, if some coastal king heard from a European slave trader: “Don’t make peace. Sell the prisoners of war to me as slaves. You will get firearms in return. With those, you may conquer the inland regions and capture more slaves to sell to us”, that might sound like a tempting offer. In this way, inter-African wars became bloodier. People fleeing slavers sometimes fled far to the interior, in their panic trampling harvests, which might lead to more bloody conflicts with agriculturists angry about that.

In most African regions, European slavers were dependent for their transatlantic trade on African kings and other middlemen. In the Gambia, that dependence was less in principle, as the broad Gambia river allowed sea ships to go inland hundreds of kilometers.

And what happened meanwhile to the Casamance river valley, to the south of the Gambia? That will be discussed in a later blog post.

12 thoughts on “Senegal, Gambia, Casamance’s history of slavery

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