In the fifteenth century European merchants explored the coasts of West Africa, where they found scattered human settlement and states; they settled for trading on the coast rather than trying to reach the organized interior states. In the sixteenth century the Portuguese (lançados) dominated these basic trading posts, where ships remained on the open sea because of the bore and where forts supported a small garrison town (Rufisque). The Senegal River carried gold dust produced on the plateaus that previously had been transported across the Sahara. Following the withdrawal of the Portuguese, and despite the resistance of several Dutch settlements (Arguin), the Royal African Company and the Compagnie française du Sénégal, Cap Vert et Gambie agreed to keep the Portuguese and Dutch merchants away from the ports of Gambia and Senegal. They often used half-caste descendants of the Portuguese as intermediaries and sent ships upstream (on the Senegal, Casamance, and Gambia). Trade was carried out by means of light settlement, with a number of small forts and ships at anchor.
After fighting to prevent French settlement between 1720 and 1740, the English left Gorée to the French, who had occupied it since 1677 and gained it officially in 1768, before settling at Saint-Louis in 1778. In Gambia, the English company withdrew from upstream. In these lands, commercial activities were left to the locals, who brought back slaves, ivory, skins (the main commodity in the eighteenth century), beeswax, and gum arabic. Muslim merchants also took part in Senegambian trade. Native boats carried European goods including fabrics and iron bars—the region did not produce any iron, and these bars were a trading currency for dealings in pounds sterling. The strong demand for slaves and gold meant that the natives enjoyed advantageous rates of exchange during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The French traded in the port of Gorée, which became the place to which "ebony" was brought for triangular trade, mainly with Nantes and Lorient.
The wars in Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century slowed down this economic activity, but the restrictions placed on the slave trade destroyed its established basis. Fortunately, gum arabic was in demand in Europe for the dressing and printing of fabrics and for confectionery, and gum-tree (acacia verek) plantations were established in the Sahelian region. Traveling harvesters ensured that the balls of gum produced from the trees were harvested; North African traders traded this for blue cloth ("Guinea cloth") in the ports of Senegal. Mauritania and Senegal (which together exported 5,000 metric tons per year in the 1930s) provided competition in the gum market, which was dominated by British Sudan.
Anglo-French rivalry to gain control of the region eased in the 1850s when the British settled on the Gambia, where the River Gambia Trading Company traded from 1882. France controlled the whole of modern-day Senegal. In the 1880s French troops conquered the Sahel, intending to control every market town in the interior and all the trade routes as far as the northern Niger bend and (French) Sudan. In the south, Portugal ceded Ziguinchor and Casamance in 1886. France established a fort at Dakar in 1857 and built modern port facilities there between 1860 and the beginning of the twentieth century. Sailing routes and entrepôts were established. A railroad linked Dakar to Saint-Louis (1883), then to Thies. Dakar became the capital of French West Africa, the federation created in 1901, which developed new trade as the French government made purchases to supply its offices and soldiers. With a population of 100,000 in 1939, it was the trading port for the Sahel and had an infrastructure for commerce and banking.
French traders encouraged peanut cultivation beginning in the 1830s. The Muslim authorities (the Mou-rides) and chiefs who were linked to them encouraged this in the populations over which they held sway and in the habous (land owned by religious communities) on their own territory. Senegal also became involved in the development of the oil-refining industry, especially in France (Marseille, Bordeaux) and in Hamburg, Germany. Thanks to this group of products, nicknamed "the Trade," the colony of Senegal became a key launchpad for French modern businesses. Companies from Marseille (Verminck beginning in the 1840s, then its successor, the Compagnie française de l'Afrique occidentale, or CFAO, which was created in 1887) and Bordeaux had trading posts at Saint-Louis and Dakar and a network of trading posts and smaller posts along the length of the river. Their growing presence encouraged the development of "commercial agriculture." The local inhabitants gained from it financially in terms of work and purchasing power—they began to buy fabric and tools that changed their way of life. Senegal became one of the richest territories in the French colonial empire until the 1960s. After a period between 1864 and 1880 when there was a "colonial pact," which meant that French industrialists controlled outlets in this colonial area, and despite ententes (understandings) that arranged the marketing of what was produced, competition was fierce between French companies, but also with their English counterparts. Lever established branches in French Africa that allowed England to export coal, fabric, and tobacco. In Gambia three French and one English company each controlled one-quarter of trade, which amounted to one-quarter of all Senegalese trade.
Large companies expanded throughout these territories, while the Bordeaux companies remained happy with their traditional roles in Senegal and Gambia. The CFAO dominated the market: in 1939 it had seventy-three trading posts in Senegal, twenty-three in Casamance, and thirty in Gambia—together, 126 of its total 421 outlets in black Africa. In the interwar period Syrian-Lebanese from the French Levant expanded the retail and trade sector throughout French West Africa. State control of harvesting and export of produce changed the way these large French companies operated, and they became distributors of fabrics, everyday utensils, and agricultural and building tools. Between 1960 and 1980 they ceded the retail trade to Senegalese and Syrian-Lebanese when "unofficial" trade circumvented customs barriers and paying expatriates became too expensive. Instead, they concentrated on the technical sector: building materials and public works, automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, and machinery. They were able to invest in a few industrial companies (weaving, auto manufacturing, and plastics) thanks to the protectionism that had been established post independence, but these factories disappeared between 1980 and 1990 with free trade and the policy of "liberalization" that held sway in black Africa. The relative impoverishment of Senegal in comparison with territories with greater natural and mineral resources explains its decline in the commercial strategy of European corporations, hence the departure of the group Unilever, and Gambian trade relies greatly on cross-border trade, even smuggling.
SEE ALSO Africa, Labor Taxes (Head Taxes); Arms, Armaments; Cowries; Empire, British; Empire, Dutch; Empire, French; Empire, Portuguese; Ethnic Groups, Africans; Gold and Silver; Imperialism; Laborers, Coerced; Laborers, Contract; Mercantilism; Privateering; Slavery and the African Slave Trade; Sugar, Molasses, and Rum; Textiles.
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Brooks, Georges. Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, and Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.
Davies, K. G. The Royal African Company. London: 1956.
Delcourt, A. La France et les établissements français au Sénégal entre 1713 et 1763. La Compagnie des Indes et le Sénégal. La guerre de la gomme (France and the French Establishments in Senegal Between 1713 and 1763. The Compagnie des Indies and Senegal) Dakar, Senegal: 1952.
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Marfaing, Laurence. L'évolution du commerce du Sénégal, 1830–1930 (The Evolution of Trade in Senegal) Paris: L'Harmattan, 1995.