History of Senegal
Archeological findings indicate that the Senegal area has been inhabited since prehistoric times. For the last millennium at least, trade routes have helped shape the area. Trans-Saharan trade flowing to and from the interior of Africa helped establish and maintain the Ghana, Mali, and Wolof (or Jolof) Empires, each of which bordered or included portions of modern-day Senegal. Trade and conquest brought wealth, Islam and people into the region—and sometimes pushed people out.
Portuguese traders reached the estuary of the Senegal River in the mid-1400s. Over the next four centuries the direction of trade shifted. Instead of heading inland, toward the Sahara, it began to flow outward, toward the European traders on the Atlantic Coast. As colonial powers began to push farther inland themselves in the 19th century, they eventually brought an end to local kingdoms and actually furthered the spread of Islam, which became a way of uniting against the European invaders.
Slave raiding and trading were major sources of revenue for the region’s kings, and the island of Gorée (just a mile off the coast of Senegal, opposite Dakar) became the largest slave-trading center in Africa. Controlled at various times by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, the island served as a warehouse where, over a 200-year period, millions of slaves were taken from their homeland. The island, with its House of Slaves museum and memorial, is now a pilgrimage destination for the African diaspora from the slave trade.
The French took control of Senegal in the 19th century, while the Gambia became a British colony. Senegal gained independence in 1960; the Gambia, in 1965.
Migrations and ethnic groups in the Senegal region
Senegal’s current population is believed to be a mixture of peoples who moved into the region from the north and the east. Despite its relatively small size, the area is home to several ethnic groups. Today, the predominant population groups are the Wolof (43%), the Fula (23%) and the Serer (14%). Others include the Jola and the Mandinka.
Many believe the Wolof (or Jolof) people migrated into Senegal from the northeast sometime around the 11th century. By 1350, they had established their own empire, a federation of several Wolof kingdoms, or states. The Wolof Empire came to an end when the French took control of the interior during the 19th century. Most Wolof identify themselves as Muslim. Their culture once had a three-tiered caste system—freeborn, of slave descent, and artisans—though this has broken down somewhat in recent times. The Wolof language has become the lingua franca of Senegal.