Island of Saint-Louis

Since 2000 • Cultural

Founded as a French colonial settlement in the 17th century, Saint-Louis was urbanised in the mid-19th century. It was the capital of Senegal from 1872 to 1957 and played an important cultural and economic role in the whole of West Africa. The location of the town on an island at the mouth of the Senegal River, its regular town plan, the system of quays, and the characteristic colonial architecture give Saint-Louis its distinctive appearance and identity.

The Island of Saint-Louis, a former capital of West Africa, is an outstanding example of a colonial city, characterized by its particular natural setting, which illustrates the development of colonial government in this region and the important exchange of values and influences on the development of education and culture, architecture, craftsmanship, and services in a large part of West Africa.

The Island of Saint-Louis was not inhabited before the arrival of the Europeans. The region belonged to the kingdom of Walo and was explored by Portuguese, Venetians and Dutch from the 15th century onwards. There were a number of initiatives, particularly in the 17th century, when some settlements were established in the region. In 1633 the French decided to establish the first chartered company in Senegal, the Cap-Vert Company. The island at the mouth of the Senegal River was selected in 1659 when, after some unsuccessful attempts, the Frenchman Louis Caullier chose this site for the fortification of the company. Several other companies followed the Cap-Vert Company; the English occupied Saint-Louis on three occasions, in 1693, in 1779, and from 1809 to 1817. Initially unhealthy and inhospitable, the island also lacked building materials, until it was discovered that the plentiful masses of oysters could serve for lime production and road construction. Gradually the settlement developed its commercial activities, trading rubber, leather, gold, ivory and cereals as well as slaves. To these were added the need for education and building of schools. In 1854 Louis Faidherbe was nominated governor, and Saint-Louis was nominated the capital of Senegal and the capital of West Africa. In this period Saint-Louis became the leading urban centre in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the centre for the diffusion of cultural and artistic activities. This time of peace in the colony contributed to the development of economic and commercial activities, thus favouring the expansion and influence of the town. However, in 1902 Saint-Louis lost its status as capital of West Africa and in 1957 it ceased being capital of Senegal. This meant the departure of the French garrison and their families and the closure of offices and shops. The French population was drastically reduced. At present the city has revived its economy (based on fishing and agriculture) and tourism.

The Island of Saint-Louis is articulated in three parts: the North quarter, the South quarter, and the Place Faidherbe and the Government Palace in the centre. The entire settlement is situated in a magnificent lagoon formed by the two arms of the Senegal River, which separate it from the maritime part of the town and from the Sor quarter on the continent. The bridge of Moustapha Malick Gaye (formerly Servatius) links the island to a ridge of land in the west, the Langue de Barbarie, which protects it from the ocean. The Faidherbe Bridge, inaugurated in 1897, links the town to the mainland and the area of Sor.

The urban fabric of the old town is based on the orthogonal grid plan of 1828, which established the street pattern and regulated the development starting from the old fortification as the basic reference. The island is encased by a system of quays, which are a reference to all streets in the east-west direction. The urban layout gives the town its particular character and specificity. From the architectural and aesthetic point of view the quality of the two- or three-storeyed colonial buildings is distinguished in the form of wooden balconies with wrought-iron grilles, roofs with red tiles, and the doors and windows with wooden shutters. The main historic buildings include the ancient fort the Governor's Palace, which marks the centre of the island, the place where the first settlement was established. This ensemble has been modified to a great extent over the centuries, particularly in the interior, but it still conserves the exterior, although with some additions. The cathedral, situated next to the Governor's Palace, was built with the voluntary contribution of the citizens, completed in 1828. The military barracks (Rognat Nord and Rognat Sud) were constructed in 1837 in the centre of the town, on Place Faidherbe. Together with the Governor's Palace, they form a classical composition in axis with the Servatius Bridge. The Regional Assembly for the River has existed since 1825, first in a more modest form. It was extended to house a primary school in 1839, and after 1873 it was used for the colonial archives. Subsequently it has provided the premises for various public authorities. A rather large complex, it is articulated with pilasters and balconies and is in a good state of repair. Other buildings include the Civic Hospital built in 1822, and the Great Mosque of the North, built starting in 1838.

Historical context

The Island of Saint-Louis was not inhabited before the arrival of the Europeans. The region belonged to the kingdom of Walo and was subject to exploration by Portuguese, Venetians, and Dutch from the 15th century onwards. There were a number of initiatives, particularly in the 17th century, when some settlements were established in the region. In 1633 the French decided to establish the first chartered company in Senegal, the Cap-Vert Company. The island at the mouth of Senegal River was selected in 1659 when, after some unsuccessful attempts, the Frenchman Louis Caullier chose this site for the fortification of the company. Several other companies followed the Cap-Vert Company, and the English occupied Saint-Louis on three occasions, in 1693, in 1779, and from 1809 to 1817.

Initially unhealthy and inhospitable, the island also lacked building materials, until it was discovered that the plentiful masses of oysters could serve for lime production and road construction. Gradually the settlement of Saint-Louis developed its commercial activities, trading rubber, leather, gold, ivory, and cereals as well as dealing in slaves. To these were added the need for education and building of schools.

At the beginning of the 19th century the settlement had some 8000 inhabitants. In 1828 an urban master plan established the street pattern and regulated the development of the town, starting from the old fortification as the basic reference. The real development of the town, however, took place from 1854, when Louis Faidherbe was nominated governor. Thus from 1854 to 1865 Saint-Louis was urbanized. It was nominated the capital of Senegal in 1872 and reached its apogee in 1895 when it was nominated the capital of West Africa.

In this period Saint-Louis became the leading urban centre in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the centre for the diffusion of cultural and artistic activities. The first museum of the industry, ethnography, and history of West Africa was opened in Saint-Louis on 15 March 1864. In this period the schools and other public institutions and services, as well as the first Senegalese military battalion, and a Muslim court of justice, were established.

The period of peace in the colony contributed to the development of economic and commercial activities, thus favouring the expansion and influence of the town. However, in 1902 Saint-Louis lost its status as the capital of West Africa and in 1957 it ceased being the capital of Senegal. This meant the departure of the French garrison with the military and their families and the closure of a number of offices and shops; the last to close were the customs in 1963. The French population was drastically reduced. At the same time, however, the overall population continued to grow, being 55,600 in 1960, 90,000 in 1976, and 150,000 in 1997.

The town has developed both on the Langue de Barbarie (the ridge against the Ocean) and in Sor on the continent. There has also been overpopulation in the old town, where some older structures been at risk of collapse. An new urban master plan was prepared in 1983 in order to regulate the situation, and also to provide for the protection of the historic areas. At present the city has revived its economy (based on fishing and agriculture) and tourism (international festivals, exhibitions, sports, etc.). The University of Gaston Berger was opened in 1992. A new airport was recently inaugurated in Saint-Louis to facilitate access. The growth of the city is giving the authorities the same concerns as any other large African city, including illegal occupation of land and environmental problems.


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