Why the Name : Saint-Louis ?

Aerial view of Saint-Louis (Source: Wetlands.org)

When you hear the name Saint-Louis, what comes to mind? If you are thinking about the city with the Gateway arch, that city in the United States of America, St Louis,… then think again… today we will talk about the other Saint-Louis, the city located in Senegal, which used to be the capital of the French colony of Senegal from 1673 to 1902. You heard right… so Saint-Louis in Senegal is actually much older than the American St Louis.

View of the Saint-Louis Fort from the sea, from “L’Afrique ou histoire, moeurs, usages et coutumes des Africains”, by René Claude Geoffroy de Villeneuve, 1814

The city of Saint-Louis is the capital of Senegal’s Saint-Louis Region, and is located in the northwest of the country, near the mouth of the Senegal River, 320 km from the capital Dakar, on the border with Mauritania. The city was named after Louis IX, a 13th century king of France, and also in honor of Louis XIV who was the monarch at the time of the island’s settlement by France in 1659. It was the first city founded by Europeans in West Africa; before then, there were Portuguese, Dutch, English traders in the area, but they had not yet ‘founded’ cities. The city was originally known as Saint Louis of the Fort (St-Louis-du-Fort) after its fort. At least 200 years prior to the European arrival in the area, the site was an Wolof settlement known to locals as Ndar or N’dar which is Wolof for island. With the arrival of Europeans, the city became an important trade center for gold, gum Arabic, ivory, and slaves in Africa.

Downtown Saint-Louis, Rue Lebon, 1900

Nicknamed the “African Venice,” it is no surprise that Saint-Louis acquired the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. Since then, the city has been working on renovation of ancient buildings, transforming some of the warehouses into hotels and restaurants. The city still has a lot of houses from the colonial era. It is divided into three parts: N’Dar’s island (the historical part of the city) which is connected with a bridge to the fishing village in the peninsula Guet N’Dar (the

View of Saint-louis showing its different neighborhoods (Source: Baobabtourisme.com)

Langue de Barbarie) and to the continental part with another bridge. The heart of the old colonial city is located on a narrow island which is a little more than 2 km (1.2 mi) long but only about 400 m (1,300 ft) wide. The island lies in the Senegal River. It is 25 km (16 mi) north of its mouth, but is only separated from the Atlantic Ocean to its west by the Langue de Barbarie, a 300 m (980 ft) wide sand spit. The Langue de Barbarie is the location of the seaside neighborhoods Ndar Toute and Guet Ndar. On the mainland, the east bank of the river is the site of Sor, an older settlement now considered a suburb of Saint-Louis. It is nearly surrounded by tidal marshes. Three characteristics give Saint-Louis its distinctive geographic appearance: the Sahel, the marshes, and the Langue de Barbarie.

A Signare or Negresse of quality from the Island of Saint Louis in Senegal, accompanied by her slave, Illustration from Costumes civils de tous les peuples connus, Paris, 1788, by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur

One cannot talk of Saint Louis without mentioning the Signares. Deriving from the Portuguese Senhora, Signares were the women of mixed descent, French/Senegalese, also known as Métis, who formed a class of entrepreneurs women who managed to gain some assets, status and power in the hierarchies of the Atlantic slave trade. They were important in the economic, cultural and social life of the city. They created a distinctive urban culture characterized by public displays of elegance, refined entertainment and popular festivities. There are still families descending from these women entrepreneurs of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Some big attractions apart from the city itself include the National Park Langue de Barbarie which is in the southern tip of the peninsula, and covers a total surface of 2000 hectares, and the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary which is the third largest bird sanctuary in the world, with species emigrating there from Europe, Asia, and East Africa.

If you are ever in Senegal and would like to head north of Dakar, please take the time to visit Saint-Louis, and bathe in the mix of old colonial French style and the teranga (hospitality) so well known to Senegalese people. To learn more about Saint-Louis, check out: Saint-Louis du Senegal, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and my favorite on Spirited Pursuit.

Why the name: Dakar?

Map of Senegal
Map of Senegal

After talking about one of the great queens of Senegal, Queen Ndate Yalla Mbodj, it made total sense to explore the meaning of the capital and largest city of Senegal: Dakar. Is the name a local Wolof name? or does it have a French origin? Is the name’s meaning linked to Dakar’s strong fishing tradition or something else?

Map of Dakar in 1850
Map of Dakar in 1850

The name Dakar could be the French version of Ndakaarou (Ndakaaru), local name whose etymology still remains uncertain. It could be derived from the wolof deuk raw meaning “whoever settles here will be in peace,” or dekk-raw from dekk (country), and raw (to escape) because of the afflux of populations from the Cayor and Baol regions after the Lebous settled there. It could also arise from the wolof dakhar, the name for the tamarind tree: it is said that upon arrival in the area, the Lebou people were impressed by the huge numbers of Tamarind trees they saw, and thus named the area after it, dakhar. However, some historians think that the area was named after a French marine officer Accar or d’Accard, who lived there at the end of the 17th century, and was mentioned on maps of that era. The name Dakar first appeared on a 1750 map of the Cap-Vert Peninsula, drawn by French botanist Michel Adanson.

Map of Dakar in 1888
Map of Dakar in 1888

The Cap-Vert peninsula was settled, no later than the 15th century, by the Lebou people, an aquacultural ethnic group related to the neighboring Wolof and Serer. The original villages: Ouakam, Ngor, Yoff and Hann, still constitute distinctively Lebou neighborhoods of the city today. In 1444, the Portuguese reached the Bay of Dakar, initially as slave-raiders, but were repulsed by the natives on the shores. Peaceful contact was finally opened in 1456 by Diogo Gomes, and the bay was subsequently referred to as the “Angra de Bezeguiche” (after the name of the local ruler). Due to its key location, the bay of “Bezeguiche” would eventually serve as a critical stop for the Portuguese India Armadas of the early 16th century.

Hotel de Ville of Dakar, 1920
Hotel de Ville of Dakar, 1920

The Portuguese eventually founded a settlement on the island of Gorée (then known as the island of Bezeguiche or Palma), which by 1536 they began to use as a base for the export of slaves. The mainland of Cap-Vert, however, was under control of the Jolof Empire, as part of the western province of Cayor which seceded from Jolof in its own right in 1549. A new Lebou village, called Ndakaaru, was established directly across from Gorée in the 17th century to service the European trading factory with food and drinking water.

Public well in Dakar in 1899
Public well in Dakar in 1899

The city of Dakar is a commune, one of the 67 communes of Senegal. The commune of Dakar was created by the French colonial administration on June 17, 1887 by detaching it from the commune of Gorée. The commune of Dakar is also a department, one of the 34 departments of Senegal; this is quite similar to Paris, which is both a commune and a department. Dakar was also the capital of the short-lived Mali Federation from 1959 to 1960, before becoming the capital of independent Senegal in 1960. The poet, philosopher and first President of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, tried to transform Dakar into the “Sub-Saharan African Athens” (l’Athènes de l’Afrique subsaharienne).

The African Renaissance Monument with a view of Dakar and the ocean (Carrapide.com)
The African Renaissance Monument with a view of Dakar and the ocean (Carrapide.com)

In its colonial heyday Dakar was one of the major cities of the French Empire, comparable to Hanoi or Beirut. French trading firms established branch offices there and industrial investments (mills, breweries, refineries, canneries) were attracted by its port and rail facilities. Today, Dakar is a major financial center, home to national and regional banks, and numerous international organizations, NGOs and international research centers. Beginning in 1978 and until 2007, Dakar was frequently the ending point of the famous Dakar Rally. It is also home to the IFAN Museum of West African culture, and the tallest sculpture in Africa, the African Renaissance Monument.

Dakar is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city. Located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, its numerous sandy beaches and the warmth of its people make it a rare pearl. Enjoy the video below, and if you get a chance, do visit this “Athens of Sub-Saharan Africa”, and do not forget to taste the amazing fish, and world-renowned Senegalese cuisine, and feel the spirit of the teranga (hospitality).