The Revolution of 1848 in Senegal: Emancipation and Representation

This post is a part of the “Race and Revolution” Series.

By Jenna Nigro

The French Revolution of 1848 sparked the abolition of slavery in France’s colonies, transforming the way race, freedom, and citizenship were defined in different parts of the empire.[1] Perhaps unexpectedly, the 1848 Revolution had significant reverberations in France’s West African colony of Senegal. To many at the time, Senegal seemed like a tranquil, neglected colony, not a likely site for ambitious reforms and social change. The colony was small, consisting of the urban coastal center of Saint-Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River, Gorée Island to the south, and other minor outposts. The overseas slave trade had been abolished several decades earlier in 1818 (though effective enforcement took some time longer), eventually depriving the colony of one of its important economic foundations and causing a turn to an expanded trade in gum arabic harvested from trees in the region.[2] The gum trade went into crisis in the late 1830s, however, and while peanuts were gaining importance, they had not yet become the clearly dominant cash crop of the colony.[3] Beginning in the 1830s, a series of colonial governors – none of whom stayed in their positions long – pleaded for additional support and argued that the metropolitan government was neglecting Senegal. At the same time, Senegal had the reputation for being a colony that lacked the racial tensions of the Caribbean.[4] Slavery in the colony had long been portrayed by European observers as a benign social system in which coastal African elites and their slaves got along, not a morally corrupt institution requiring reform.

J. Arnier, Map of the Senegal River, 1849.

The events of 1848, however, led to major shifts in colonial Senegal. Those living within the borders of the colony found themselves facing a new future. Two main reforms in the colony, the abolition of slavery and the inclusion of a Senegalese representative in France’s National Assembly, brought to light existing tensions in Senegal – between free and slave, French and métis,[5] and citizen and subject. Race and status played a role in determining the benefits – and challenges – that individuals faced as a result of these reforms.

J. B. Poirson, Map of Saint Louis, early 1800s.

The first major reform, abolition, was a direct challenge to the system of slavery that was deeply embedded in the societies of Saint Louis and Gorée. The habitants – the coastal trading class dominated by the métis descendants of signares (West African women who found roles as commercial intermediaries) — owned and rented out slaves as sailors, masons, weavers, millet pounders, laundresses, and laborers in other occupations. In 1845, according to a colonial census, 10,196 slaves lived on Saint Louis and Gorée (out of a total population of 18,753).[6] Before 1848, colonial administrators and habitants alike argued that slavery in the region was unique and less harmful than slavery elsewhere, stalling discussions about reform.[7] One colonial governor, for example, responded to a ministerial query about abolition by arguing that slaves in Senegal were treated well already, so abolition was unnecessary because it would not change their condition.[8]

Original text of the decree of 27 April 1848 abolishing slavery in the French colonies

Still, the decree of 27 April 1848 abolished slavery in all France’s overseas colonies, including Senegal.[9] Even before this date, news of the revolution spread hope among the enslaved population of Saint Louis. In a document in the colonial archives from Governor Baudin addressed “aux captifs du Sénégal” (to the slaves of Senegal), dated 15 April 1848, Baudin wrote, “I learned with chagrin that after poorly interpreting a dispatch from the government of France, posted yesterday morning, you appear to want to refuse to work. I urge you more than ever to act like men and to prove that you are worthy of the liberty that will soon be given to you.” Baudin assured the “captifs” that after freedom they would be hired by the government or the habitants, could find land to grow crops, or could become soldiers who, Baudin promised, would be treated the same as European soldiers.[10] Baudin’s paternalistic promises, delivered even before the act of abolition was passed, would have to wait — in Senegal, the date of emancipation was set for 23 August.[11] In the intervening months, the colony remained in a state of uncertainty. The governor took measures to forestall habitants’ expected attempts to move or sell slaves beyond the colony’s borders in neighboring regions, where the decree would not apply.[12] The most dangerous part of the decree, in the eyes of French colonial authorities and the elites of neighboring states like Kajoor, was Article 7, the clause that stated touching French soil would mean freedom, which seemed to guarantee the colony would be overwhelmed by an influx of enslaved people seeking liberty.[13]

When August 23 finally arrived, the mood among the newly freed was one of celebration. The freed slaves went to bathe in the ocean. They then gathered around the colonial government building, shouting their praises for France.[14] Abbé Boilat wrote in 1853 that the freed captives of Saint Louis were the happiest class of people in the colony, since they were able to continue their occupations but no longer had to share their wages with their owners.[15]

The habitants, on the other hand, were hurt to some degree by abolition. While slave owners were entitled to an indemnity, the negotiations surrounding the process were long, and indebted habitants who did not have the resources to wait sold their certificates to French merchants.[16] Some historians have characterized abolition as a major blow to habitants, while others have noted that habitants’ continued power over jobs and housing allowed them to retain control over their former slaves.[17]

The second major reform, representation, marked a moment of contestation between métis elites and French in the colony. The 1848 Revolution gave Senegal an elected representative in Paris and granted men over 25 years of age (including the formerly enslaved) the right to vote.[18] The two main candidates were a métis merchant, Durand Valantin, and a French official, Duchâteau.[19] Valantin criticized Duchateau in a statement to the voters in October, noting that Duchâteau had “no other merit to offer but the tie of blood that linked him to his own country” and asking whether his opponent was indeed devoted to the good of the colony.[20] Durand Valantin was declared the winner, serving until his resignation in 1851.[21] John Sleight, another métis candidate, won the election to replace him, but an election dispute caused the results to be invalidated, and soon afterwards Napoleon III ended colonial representation.[22]

This period, though short-lived, was significant in that it inspired the mixed-race spokesmen of the habitants of Senegal to begin to view themselves as the legitimate representatives of the colony in France. Even as habitant economic power declined with the growing influence of French merchants and with the challenge emancipation posed to their status as slave owners, the mixed-race elite of the colony began to form an identity as French citizens and to develop a culture of protest. These men and women were the forerunners of the originaires, Senegalese who were granted citizenship during the French Third Republic.

The changes to colonial society in Senegal as a result of the French Revolution of 1848 marked an important moment for the formerly enslaved and for habitants who could begin to claim French citizenship. Certainly, the reverberations of the 1848 emancipation in the Caribbean colonies, with their particular histories of slavery, were significant. In Senegal, too, emancipation and representation meant different things to different parts of society. Emancipation and the introduction of metropolitan representation in Senegal forced those who made up the colony’s complex society to face the ways the meanings attached to status, race, free or enslaved status would change under the shifting policies of French colonial rule.

Jenna Nigro is an Assistant Professor of History at Utah Valley University in Orem, UT. Her research focuses on French colonial projects in Senegal between 1817 and 1870. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @NigroJenna.

Further Readings:

Web Exhibit, Les Abolitions d’esclavage (The Abolitions of Slavery) (IN FRENCH)

Jennings, Lawrence C. French Antislavery: The Movement for the Abolition of Slavery in France, 1802–1848. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Jones, Hilary. The Métis of Senegal: Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013.


[1] See the earlier post on this blog by Jonathan Dusenbury,

[2] Martin A. Klein,  “Slaves, Gum, and Peanuts: Adaptation to the End of the Slave Trade in Senegal, 1817-48.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 66, no. 4 (2009): 895-914. 

[3] Hilary Jones, The Métis of Senegal: Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013), 51-55.

[4] For examples of nineteenth-century observations about the harmonious race relations of Senegal, see William B. Cohen, The French Encounter with Africans: White Response to Blacks, 1530-1880 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 120-127.

[5] I use “métis” here to refer to the mixed-race intermediaries of coastal West Africa, following Hilary Jones. See her discussion of terminology in The Métis of Senegal, 9-11.

[6] For summaries and analysis of colonial census information on slavery from this period, see James F. Searing, West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce: The Senegal River Valley, 1700-1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 178-179 and Martin A. Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 22-24.

[7] See a discussion of this notion that a benign and unique slavery existed in Senegal in Searing, West African Slavery, 178. Beginning in the 1840s, colonial commissions began to investigate the question of ending slavery in the colony and suggested gradualist approaches, though they faced pushback: Trevor Getz, Slavery and Reform in West Africa: Toward Emancipation in Nineteenth-Century Senegal and Gold Coast (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004), Chapter 4.

[8] Pujol to Minister of the Navy, 23 February 1836, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (ANOM) SEN XIV 13.

[9] It also abolished Senegal’s system of indenture (engagement à temps). See Getz, Slavery and Reform, and Guèye, “La fin de l’esclavage,” 639-641.

[10] Baudin to captives of Senegal, 15 April 1848, ANOM SEN I 33c.

[11] Mbaye Guèye, “La fin de l’esclavage à Saint-Louis et à Gorée en 1848,” Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Afrique Noire, Ser. B, 28, nos. 3/4 (1965): 641.

[12] Guèye, “La fin de l’esclavage,” 642; Getz, Slavery and Reform, Chapter 4.

[13] Martin A. Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule, 27; François Renault, “L’abolition de l’esclavage au Sénégal, L’attitude de l’administration française, 1848-1905,” Revue Française d’Histoire d’Outre-Mer 58, no. 1 (1971): 7-16. The fears of the administration did not come to pass, and the power of Article 7 was weakened in subsequent years, Trevor Getz argues in Slavery and Reform, Chapter 4.

[14] Mbaye Guèye, “La fin de l’esclavage,” 641.

[15] L’Abbé P.-D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises: Physionomie du pays, peuplades, commerce, religions, passé et avenir, récits et légendes (Paris: P. Bertrand, 1853), 213.

[16] Roger Pasquier, ”A propos de l’émancipation des esclaves au Sénégal au milieu du XIXe siècle en 1848,” Revue française d’histoire d’outre-mer 54 (1967): 198-207; Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule, 25.

[17] Hilary Jones emphasizes the moment as a turning point in The Métis of Senegal, 54-55, and James F. Searing argues that “Emancipation was the ruin of the habitants as a distinct social group. . . The era of the habitants was over” in West African Slavery, 185-186. An argument for continuity in the power of the habitants can be found in Mohammed Mbodj, “The Abolition of Slavery in Senegal, 1820-1890: Crisis or the Rise of a New Entrepreneurial Class?” in Breaking the Chains: Slavery, Bondage and Emancipation in Modern Africa and Asia, ed. Martin A. Klein (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993) and in Getz, Slavery and Reform, Chapter 4; Klein also notes that many freed slaves stayed with their masters in Slavery and Colonial Rule, 25.

[18] For previous attempts on the part of French officials and habitants in Senegal to obtain a representative in Paris, see G. Wesley Johnson, The Emergence of Black Politics in Senegal: The Struggle for Power in the Four Communes 1900-1920 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971), 47-49.

[19] Victor Schoelcher, the abolitionist who had visited Senegal in 1847, was also a candidate in abstentia. Johnson, Emergence of Black Politics, 50.

[20] Copy, Durand Valantin to electors, 18 October 1848, Archives nationales d’outre-mer, ANOM SEN VII 44c.

[21] Valantin won the majority of votes in Saint Louis, but not on Gorée – still, he had the required votes to win. Abstentions were rather high: 57% at Saint Louis and 52% at Gorée. Saliou Mbaye, “La représentation du Sénégal au Parlement français sous la Seconde République (1848-1951),” Bulletin de l’IFAN, Ser. B, no. 3 (1976): 530-531. Valantin was reelected in 1849.

[22] Johnson, Emergence of Black Politics, 50-51; Jones, The Métis of Senegal, 126.

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