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In the north-west of Senegal, near the mouth of the Senegal River, lies the town of Saint-Louis, capital of French Senegal from 1673 until independence in 1960.

The centre of the old colonial city lies on a narrow island in the river, measuring just 2 km (1.2 mi) long by about 400 in (1,312 ft) wide, although the modern city now sprawls on the mainland either side.

The first permanent French settlement in Senegal, Saint-Louis was founded in 1659 by French traders on an uninhabited island. Named after the French king Louis, the town commanded trade along the Senegal River, exporting slaves, animal hides, beeswax and gum arabic.

Between 1659 and 1779, the city was administered by nine different chartered companies. A Metis (Franco-African Creole) community soon developed, characterized by the famous signares. These bourgeois women entrepreneurs dominated the economic, social, cultural and political life of the city, creating an elegant urban culture with time for refined entertainments. They controlled most of the river trade and financed the principal Catholic institutions.

Louis Faidherbe became the Governor of French Senegal in 1854, and spent a great deal of money modernizing the town, including bridge building, setting up a drinking water supply, and providing an overland telegraph line to Dakar. The fortunes of the town began to dwindle as Dakar became an ever more important city. Saint-Louis’ port proved difficult for steam ships to access, and a railway between Saint-Louis and Dakar, opened in 1855, took most of its up-country trade.

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Saint-Louis Backwater

Today Saint-Louis is a sleepy backwater which retains its lovely colonial architecture. In 2000 it was added to the World Heritage List, and many of its beautiful buildings are being renovated. Among the sites and monuments to see on the island are the Governor’s Palace, a fortress built in the 18th century across from Place Faidherbe, the Gouvernance which comprises the town’s administrative offices and Pare Faidherbe in the centre of town, named for the French governor.

The museum at the southern end of the island tells the story of Senegal’s history and peoples, with displays of traditional clothes and musical instruments, and there are various mosques and catholic churches to visit.

Saint-Louis Jazz Festival

The heritage of the signares lives on in Saint-Louis today, with the festivals for which the town is famous. Fanals, a night-time procession of giant paper lanterns, takes place at Christmas, usually coinciding with the Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, the most important jazz festival in Africa. The annual pirogue race, organized by teams of fishermen from Guet-Ndar, takes place on the river and makes a vibrant spectacle.

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Saint-Louis Senegal

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