Senegambia and the slave trade

Two thirds of the Africans sold into slavery and brought to Louisiana before 1731 — nearly 3,800 men, women, and children — came from Senegambia, the West African region that lies between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers. Although many more French colonists migrated to Louisiana during the same time period, they died at much higher rates than the Africans. By 1732, as the first era of colonization in Louisiana drew to a close, there were twice as many enslaved Africans as French people. Senegambia and its culture were thus powerful factors in shaping early New Orleans.

French merchants established a trading post in 1659 at the mouth of the Senegal River from which captives from the African interior could be sold to transatlantic slave traders. This entrepôt evolved into the city of Saint-Louis, which eventually became the capital of colonial French West Africa. In 1677 the French expanded their foothold on the African coast when they captured a Dutch trading post about 160 miles to the south of Saint-Louis at Gorée, a rocky island located off the coast of the Cape Verde Peninsula near Senegal’s present-day capital, Dakar. France granted a concession over the Senegambian slave trade anchored by the two posts to the Senegal Company in 1679. In 1727, the Senegal Company became part of the Company of the Indies, the trading company that controlled the colony of Louisiana and its capital, New Orleans until 1731.

New Orleans and Saint-Louis du Senegal were literally connected to each other by the slave trade between 1719 and 1731, and by the government of the Company of the Indies between 1727 and 1731. The cities resemble one another in striking ways. Both lie at the mouths of major rivers, each represented points at either end of slavery’s Middle Passage, and both bear the traces of having been French colonial capitals in their gridded street plans and architecture adapted to tropical settings.

There is a controversy among historians over whether a specific Senegambian ethnicity constituted the majority of captives who were brought to Louisiana and influenced its root culture. Some contend that a group known as the Bambara were overrepresented in the slave trade to Louisiana. Others argue that there was really no such group and that the label “Bambara” was a generic one that has little meaning for those attempting to trace the survival of African culture in Louisiana. Readings representing both points of view can be found in this unit.