The heart of the old colonial city is located on a narrow island (just over 2 km long and about 400 m wide) in the Senegal River, 25 km from its mouth. At this point the river is separated from the Atlantic Ocean to the west by a narrow sand spit, the Langue de Barbarie (300 m wide), which has also been urbanized (the seaside neighborhoods of Ndar Tout and Guet Ndar). Yet a third part of the city, Sor, lies on the eastern mainland and is nearly surrounded by tidal marshes. Saint-Louis is situated on the Mauritanian border, though the border crossing is at Rosso, 100 km upstream.
Three characteristics give Saint-Louis its distinctive geographic appearance: the Sahel, the marshes and the Langue de Barbarie.
Part of the Sahel, a transitional desertic band that separates “[…] the dunes of the Sahara from the baobabs of the savanna”, Saint-Louis’ landscape is characterized by occasional acacias and is disturbed by sand storms during the dry season.
The marshes are flood basins that form during the rainy season when the river overflows into the countryside, creating ponds and stretches of mangroves that attract birds like flamingos and pelicans.
The Langue de Barbarie ("Tongue of Barbary"), a 600 km long stretch of sand from Nouadhibou in Mauritania to Saint-Louis, over a stretch of 25 km separates the lower Senegal River from the Atlantic Ocean. Its vegetation mainly consists of Filao trees, propagated to prevent soil erosion in sandy and salty soils.
Saint-Louis only has two seasons, the rainy season from June to October, characterized by heat, humidity and storms, and the dry season from November to May, characterized by cool ocean breeze and dust from the Harmattan winds. A 2011 documentary described Saint-Louis as the African city most threatened by rising sea levels.
Saint-Louis was established in 1659 by French traders on an uninhabited island called Ndar. It was baptized Saint-Louis-du-Fort in homage to the former French king Louis IX, who had been made a saint, as well as to the contemporary king, Louis XIV. It was the first permanent French settlement in Senegal. The fortified factory commanded trade along the Senegal River. Slaves, hides, beeswax, ambergris and, later, gum arabic were exported. During the Seven Years' War, in 1758 British forces captured Senegal. In February 1779, French forces recaptured Saint-Louis. In the late 18th century, Saint Louis had about 5,000 inhabitants, not counting an indeterminate number of slaves in transit. "Saint-Louis became the leading urban centre in sub-Saharan Africa”.
Between 1659 and 1779, nine chartered companies succeeded one another in administering Saint-Louis. As in Gorée, a Franco-African Creole, or Métis, merchant community characterized by the famous "signares", or bourgeois women entrepreneurs, grew up in Saint-Louis during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Métis were important to the economic, social, cultural and political life of the city. They created a distinctive urban culture characterized by public displays of elegance, refined entertainment and popular festivities. They controlled most of the up-country river trade and they financed the principal Catholic institutions. A Métis mayor was first designated by the Governor in 1778. Civic franchise was further consolidated in 1872, when Saint-Louis became a French "commune".
Louis Faidherbe, who became the Governor of the Colony of Senegal in 1854, contributed greatly to the development and modernization of Saint Louis. His large-scale projects included the building of bridges, provisioning of fresh drinking water, and the construction of an overland telegraph line to Dakar. Saint-Louis became capital of the federation of French West African colonies in 1895, but relinquished this role to Dakar in 1902.
Saint-Louis’ fortunes began to wane as those of Dakar waxed. Access to its port became increasingly awkward in the age of the steamship and the completion of the Dakar-Saint Louis railroad in 1885 meant that up-country trade effectively circumvented its port. Large French firms, many from the city of Bordeaux, took over the new commercial networks of the interior, marginalizing the Métis traders in the process. Saint-Louis nonetheless maintained its status as capital of the Colony of Senegal even after Dakar assumed the role of capital of the French West Africa federation. The colonial institutions set up in the city in the 19th century, such as the Muslim Tribunal and the School for Chiefs’ Sons, were to play important roles in the history of French Africa. Though relatively small in size (population of 10,000 in 1826; 23,000 in 1914, and 39,000 in 1955) Saint-Louis dominated Senegalese politics throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, not least because of its numerous political parties and associations and its independent newspapers.
Following independence, when Dakar became sole capital of the country, Saint-Louis slipped into a state of lethargy. As its French population and military departed, many of the town’s shops, offices and businesses closed. This generated a loss of jobs and human potential, and less investment in the economic activities of Saint-Louis, thus causing its economic decline. For some people, however, Saint-Louis' decline was not just limited to its economy, but spread to all aspects of its life as the loss of its past status meant less recognition and lack of interest from the colony’s officials and, after Senegal’s independence, from the Senegalese government. When its most famous political son, the French-educated lawyer Lamine Guèye, died in 1968, the city lost its strongest proponent.
Today, rich in three centuries of history, in cultural background, geography, architecture, and other characteristics, Saint-Louis is a bridge between the savanna and the desert, the ocean and the river, tradition and modernity, Islam and Christianity, Europe and Africa.
Home to a society with a distinctive lifestyle, Saint-Louis has retained its unique identity. “No one comes without falling in love with the city," proudly say its people who consider Saint-Louis as the birthplace of Senegalese Teranga, the Wolof word for hospitability.
Saint-Louis’ economy is a third important, yet critical, facet of its identity. As is supported in the article, Saint Louis has economically declined since the transfer of the Capital of French Western Africa to Dakar. This has caused the dispossession of Saint Louis of all its past economic attributes and is said to have “[…] reached its paroxysm in 1960 when the capital of the independent Senegal was transferred to Dakar”. Saint-Louis, however, has remained an important tourist and trading center and the city's economy, though not entirely recovered, is gradually reviving.
Tourism constitutes an important part of Saint-Louis' economy. The city preserves much of its 19th-century morphology, reminiscent of other cities of the “Creole Atlantic”: Bahia, Cartagena, Havana and New Orleans. Thanks to its distinctive appearance, numerous sites of attraction and its international music festivals and cultural exhibitions, Saint-Louis attracts many tourists each year.
Saint-Louis remains the most characteristically French colonial destination in West Africa along with Gorée Island.
Among Saint-Louis’ numerous natural sites we have the National Park of the Langue de Barbarie, the National Park of the Birds of Djoudj, the Fauna Reserve of Gueumbeul, beaches like that of the Langue de Barbarie, the colonial waterworks at Makhana, the palace of Baron Roger at Richard-Toll, the Diama Dam, and various hunting lodges on the south side of the Senegal River.
National Park of the Langue de Barbarie
This park, which is 20 square kilometres large, occupies the southern point of the Langue de Barbarie, the estuary of the Senegal river and part of the continent. It hosts thousands of water birds like cormorants, brushes, pink flamingos, pelicans, herons and ducks each year.
National Park of the Birds of Djoudj
The world’s third largest ornithological park, it is located 60 kilometers north of Saint-Louis. This park occupies over 120 km² and includes part of the river, and many lakes, basins, and marshes. About 3 million migrating birds of 400 species visit it each year.
Fauna Reserve of Guembeul
Located at a dozen kilometers south of the city of Saint-Louis, this reserve has an area of 7 square kilometres and shelters birds and endangered species such as the Dama Gazelle, the Patas monkey and the African Spurred Tortoise.
Museums, monuments and edifices
Saint-Louis’ Research Center and Documentation Museum of Senegal offers interesting panoramas of Senegal’s history and ethnic movements over the years, expositions of traditional clothes and musical instruments, etc. Other interesting and attractive monuments and edifices are the Governor’s Palace, the Gouvernance where are located the town’s administrative offices, the Parc Faidherbe named for the French governor at the centre of town Louis Faidherbe, colonial-era hotels, the historic airport at Dakar-Bango on the mainland, the Grande Mosquée, the Faidherbe Bridge that connects the island to the Langue de Barbarie and the Gaol and Servatius bridges that connect the island to the continent.
Events and festivals
Saint Louis is famous for its urban culture. The heritage of the signares lives on in the city’s many festivals and its cultivated sense of public display, and it is helping Saint-Louis emerge from decades of neglect. "Fanals", which are night-time processions of giant paper lanterns, take place at Christmas time.
The Saint-Louis Jazz Festival is the most important jazz festival in Africa. Jazz first became popular in the 1930s when records produced in Cuba were aired on the radio. After World War II, visiting U.S. GIs popularized jazz bands and by the 1950s local groups had adopted a "Cuban" sound. Another music festival, 1, 2, 3 musiques, exhibits various genres of music.
The Festival Métissons, held for the first time in 2010, is a grassroots music festival organized by local communities and small businesses. Every edition sports international, national and local musical talent.
The annual reggata, or pirogue race organized by teams of fishermen from Guet-Ndar, takes place on the "little branch" of the river, between Ndar Island and the Langue de Barbarie.
The Magal of the Niari Rakas, a yearly commemoration of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké’s (the founder of Mouridism) two prayers in the Governor's Palace in 1895, is the city's largest religious gathering.
The city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 and cultural tourism has become an engine of growth. As a result, a process of gentrification has set in, with many historic buildings on the island being turned into restaurants and hotels.
Beyond tourism, Saint-Louis is also a commercial and an industrial centre for sugar production. Its other economic activities are fishing, irrigated alluvial agriculture, pastoral farming, trading and exportation of peanut skins. It is important to note that each of these economic activities is assured by a particular ethnic group. The Wolofs and Lebous who are the main inhabitants of Saint-Louis are mostly fishermen that live in fishing communities like Guet-Ndar on the Langue de Barbarie. The Fulas live in the inland and practice pastoral farming. The Maures who are migrants from Mauritania (Saint-Louis is less than six miles south of the border with Mauritania) are mostly merchants, traders and shopkeepers found everywhere in Saint Louis.
Saint-Louis' characteristic colonial architecture along with its regular town plan, its location on an island at the mouth of the Senegal River and the system of quays, gives Saint-Louis the distinctive appearance and identity that have raised the Island to the rank of world heritage since 2000. The Island of Saint-Louis is inscribed on the World Heritage list on the basis of criteria ii and iv:
Criterion ii The historic town of Saint-Louis exhibits an important exchange of values and influences on the development of education and culture, architecture, craftsmanship, and services in a large part of West Africa.
Criterion iv 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, and it illustrates the development of colonial government in this region.
Rising sea levels, as well as water levels flowing out of the Senegal River now threaten the low-lying islands which make up the city. In June 2008, Alioune Badiane of the United Nations' UN-Habitat agency designated Saint-Louis as "the city most threatened by rising sea levels in the whole of Africa", citing climate change and a failed 2004 river and tidal canal project as the cause.
Education is another important facet of Saint-Louis. With a large influence over education in colonial times, Saint Louis is now a centre of educational excellence. It is home to the University Gaston Berger and The Military Academy Charles Ntchorere.
Senegal’s second university, the University Gaston Berger, which was created in 1990, offers studies organized in a number of general education and research faculties.
The Military Academy Charles Ntchorere, commonly known as the Prytanee Militaire of Saint Louis, was created in 1922. The school’s mission today is to provide pupils from various African countries not only with a secondary education, but also a moral formation on the principles of patriotism, honor and discipline.
École française Antoine-de-Saint-Exupéry, a French international school serving preschool through collège (junior high school), is located in Saint-Louis.
Saint Louis has been the birthplace or home of famous men such asEl Hadj Malick Sy,
Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké,
the fathers Jean-Baptiste Labat, Abbé David Boilat, Daniel Brattier,
the naturalist Michel Adanson,
politicians Blaise Diagne, Lamine Guèye,
the boxer Mbarick Fall aka Battling Siki,
the football player El Hadji Diouf,
University of Virginia basketball player Assane Sene,
BK VEF Rīga center Bamba Fall
the French photographer François-Edmond Fortier
Syracuse Orange forward Baye Moussa Keita
Saint-Louis is twinned with: St. Louis, United States
Lille, France, since 1978
Fes, Morocco, since 1979
Liège, Belgium, since 1980
Bologna, Italy, since 1991
Toulouse, France, since 2003
Fortaleza, Brazil, since 2006