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Senegal in 1848

The 1848 revolution marked a turning of the page the West African region of Senegal, site of France's only substantial foothold on the African continent at that point. Two events were of particular importance in this regard. The first was the decree of April 27, 1848 whereby the provisional government abolished slavery in France's colonies, including Senegal. The newly-freed slaves in Senegal automatically became French citizens, a privilege extended by a law of 1834 to free inhabitants of French settlements in the region (the "Quatre Communes" of St. Louis, Gorée, Rufisque, and Dakar). The second crucial event was the decree of March 2, 1848 instituting universal manhood suffrage, which gave the male population of French Senegal, including the newly-freed slaves , the right to vote in French national elections. The almost entirely African and mulatto electorate (whites accounted for only about one percent of the colony's population) took part in the national elections of November 1848 and chose the first man of color ever to sit in the French parliament. Though the future course of electoral politics in the colony was far from smooth, the extension of male suffrage to the Quatre Communes in 1848 would give Senegal a great edge in political sophistication over France's other African colonies in the twentieth century.

Although French traders had been active in West Africa since the fourteenth century, the first permanent settlement in the region was established only in 1659 at Saint-Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River. In 1848 the French presence in the region was still confined to a few enclaves: the island of Gorée off Cape Verde, a longtime entrepot in the slave trade to the Antilles; Saint-Louis, the colony's administrative and commercial center;a handful of precariously-held trading posts on the lower Senegal River; and the Casamance region between British Gambia and Portuguese Guinea (Dakar, the future metropolis of French West Africa, was little more than a village at this point).

The emancipation of slaves in 1848 directly concerned only about 6,000 so called captifs, almost all of them the property not of Europeans but of the habitants of the colony: métis or mulattoes, many whom had long been prominent in business and society, or workers who had been hired out as municipal employees or as laptots, soldiers in the local militia or sailors on trade vessels plying the Senegal river. Some of the slaves, who spoke African languages long since forgotten but the gallicized métis, served as key intermediaries in their masters' lucrative trade in gum arabic, used to fix dyes in textiles and in pharmaceutical products, with peoples of the interior. Emancipation was strongly resented by the mulatto and African slave owners, who believed , rightly as it turned out, that this loss of property would have a negative effect on their economic future. Still, as compared to the Antilles, unrest was minimal when emancipation took effect on August 23, 1848. The big problem for the French in Senegal was article 7 of the emancipation decree, which stated that: "the principle whereby the slave who reaches French soil is free, is henceforth applied to the colonies and possessions of the republic." Victor Schoelcher, the secretary of state for colonies in the provisional government, had insisted on this article, "because of the situation of Algeria and Senegal, surrounded by populations holding slaves." French colonies thus became not only islands of liberty, but havens to which slaves from outside could come to gain their freedom.

The naval ministry, which had over all charge of French's colonies, was aware of the risks France ran by trying to implement the letter of article 7 in Senegal. France's tiny possessions were surrounded by slave holding powers on whom they depended utterly for their survival. Would they continue to supply food to the French towns and engage in trade in gum arabic, the prime export of the colony, at French trading posts, if they knew that in doing so they risked losing their slaves?

In the course of 1848-49, in the face of growing tension with the Moors and other slaveholding peoples of the interior, the naval ministry managed to get the implementation of article 7 in Senegal relaxed. Local authorities were given wide powers to turn away fugitive slaves who showed up in the French enclaves. As a result, household slavery continued to be practiced in the interior of French West Africa until 1905, when another government decree finally abolished it. Still, the brief interlude of universal application of the emancipation decree may have brought freedom to at least some slaves from the interior. In 1878, a French visitor to Segu, on the Niger river between Bamako and Timbuktu, reported being greeted by a shout of "Liberté! Mil huit cent quarante-huit! Merci!" The March 2, 1848 decree of the provisional government authorizing universal manhood suffrage gave the male population of Senegal, as French citizens, the right to elect a deputy to represent them in the parliament in Paris. While the colonists of the Antilles, the Indian enclaves, and the Ile de France had previously enjoyed representation in the national parliament in 1789-1791, those of Senegal had not. And it was only in 1840 that the colony had been granted the right to send a delegate to the Bourbon monarchy's Colonial Representatives' Assembly, established as an advisory body in 1827. Now, some five thousand electors were enrolled in the colony, and over two thousand took part in November 1848 in which a prominent mulatto businessman, Durand Valentin, won a seat in the constituent assembly. Valentin, however, resigned in 1850, unable to combine his legislative functions in Paris with his business back home. The by-election to choose his successor was voided as a result of questions about the eligibility of both the winning candidate and certain of the voters, and the post went unfilled until the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon, who abrogated French citizenship rights in Senegal. The colonial elite were happy with this action, since they considered the bulk of the new Senegalese electorate--freed slaves and urban laborers--incapable of benefitting from representative government. Most could not speak French and had to have documents translated into Arabic or Wolof, a language spoken by much of the African population. French citizenship would not be restored to the Senegalese of the Quatre Communes until the advent of the Third Republic.

Nonetheless, the extension of the franchise to Senegal in 1848 had resulted in the first elections in modern Africa and had paved the way, difficult though it was, for the emergence at the turn of the present century of an African political movement in Senegal strong enough to elect a deputy of its own to the French parliament: Blaise Diagne. Nowhere else in black Africa was this possible in the pre-1914 era, and it was only possible in Senegal because of the revolution of 1848.

Bruce Vandervort


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