Casamance, Gambia, and Senegal, from colonialism to neo-colonialism

Casamance and Senegal

What happened during the fights of Portuguese, English, French and other slave traders and colonialists in Senegal and the Gambia which we have written about, with the Casamance river valley, south of the Gambia?

While the Portuguese lost the Gambia and (northern) Senegal relatively early, these two after many conflicts becoming English, respectively French, colonies; the Casamance valley stayed a Portuguese colony, governed jointly with Guinea-Bissau to the south, until the late nineteenth century, when the Portuguese ceded it to the French.

Today, the Portuguese-based Kriolu language is still spoken in the Casamance; while French is the official language in Senegal.

While in (northern) Senegal, and the Gambia, over 90% of people are Muslims, in the Casamance Christianity (about half of local people) and traditional African religions are stronger.

The Casamance is also traditionally a rainforest region, while (northern) Senegal is more savanna.

Then, in the 1950s, as British Prime Minister MacMillan said, the “winds of change” started blowing over Africa.

More and more Africans, both moderate and militant, demanded an end to European rule and economic exploitation. At first, European ruling politicians refused. If there should be any change in colonial policies, some thought, it should be in the direction of the “Eurafrica” concept: France, Belgium, Portugal, etc. not ruling their colonies separately, but, as European political integration proceeded, jointly as common European colonies.

However, European colonial politicians gradually became convinced that colonialism should be replaced with neo-colonialism. Meaning that the biggest palace in the capital should no longer be called “governor’s palace”, but “president’s palace”, with an African head of state instead of a white governor living in it. That the colonial power’s flag should be replaced with a new African country’s flag. Etc. However, in their view, economic decisions should still benefit Western multinational corporations, like under open colonialism. If necessary, French, British etc. soldiers should still have bases.

Thus, in 1958, France proposed a “French Community”, headed by France, with the former colonies as “member states”.

The French colonial governments won referendums on this Community in the African colonies, including in Senegal; except in Guinea-Conakry.

The leader of the independence movement in Guinea-Conakry, Sekou Touré, a trade unionist, rejected neo-colonialism. That made him a problem for Western rulers.

In this, he was somewhat similar to Lumumba, pro-independence leader in ex-Belgian Congo; and Kwame Nkrumah, pro-independence leader in ex-British Gold Coast (Ghana). Lumumba was murdered with complicity of the CIA and the Belgian secret service. Kwame Nkrumah was driven away by a CIA-supported military putsch.

In Guinea-Conakry, there was neither murder of Sekou Touré nor a coup. However, the departing French colonial officials made sure the newly independent country got as bad a start as possible, destroying the infrastructure and taking even the electric bulbs with them to France.

Meanwhile, Senghor, president of officially now also independent Senegal, wanted to continue to have good relations with France. France helped him in putting down a pro-independence movement in Casamance. That movement in the 1960s had support from southern neighbour state Guinea-Conakry. Also among pro-independence fighters in Guinea-Bissau, the Portuguese colony then also bordering on southern Casamance, it had some support.

President Senghor of Senegal reportedly temporarily defused the Casamance issue by promising Casamance people they might get independent in 1980.

That promise was not kept. Which led to armed conflict, still continuing today. The present president of Senegal, Wade, has not just this conflict on his hands; also the issue of general dissatisfaction with his rule.

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.