Despite its relative proximity to the rift valley in Ethiopia, the site generally regarded as the 'cradle of mankind', most of this region of West Africa shows no sign of human habitation until around 350,000 years ago, but from then on there is a good deal of evidence in various tools and weapons found in the area.
It is thought that the region bypassed the Bronze Age and instead went straight to the Iron Age and it is during this period that the spread of settlements and the growth of villages occurred – based around the newly acquired agricultural knowledge and the use of iron based tools. Evidence of these societies is abundant in the presence of the burial mounds, stone circles and tombs that punctuate the landscape of both Senegal and The Gambia.
Much of the history of the first millennium was influenced by the increase in trade in the area that grew up around the newly opened routes across the Sahara. Vast empires flourished, the first of which was the empire of Ghana, which was all-powerful for the best part of four centuries; until, by around the early part of the 14th century, power was eventually seceded to the Malian empire, which eventually stretched from Senegal, right the way down to modern day Nigeria. During this time, due to contact with traders from Northern Africa, and the rise of the Marabouts, Islam made a strong impression on the region with large proportions of the tribespeople converting to the religion.
The first tentative European incursions into the area came from the Portuguese who, during the 15th century, established various trade routes on the Senegal and Gambia Rivers and set up a permanent base on the island of Gorée, which eventually became a major centre in the slave trade. The French, British and Dutch, all eager to have a share of the considerable spoils, which by now were mainly centred on the trading of people, joined them in the region.
By the 18th century, the French were the dominant colonial force in the coastal Senegal region and had a considerable presence, especially on the islands of Gorée and St James; and due to the libertarian values of the French Revolution anyone imprisoned in these territories was automatically given the status of French citizens. The British also maintained a strong interest in the region and established the River Gambia as a protectorate in 1820. The French however consolidated their position and made strong forays into the interior, building fort stations along the Senegal River – many of which are still in evidence today – and founded the administrative centre of Dakar.
The Scramble for Africa, which started in 1879 but was formalised by the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, ‘officially’ divided up most of Africa into colonies and France was awarded a vast stretch of central and western Africa, including the modern day country of Senegal. Some of Senegal’s populace, particularly those from the French created cities, were awarded citizenship; others from the more rural areas were simply regarded as subjects. What this meant, effectively, was that it became possible for Senegalese delegates to attend the French assembly, although this was a rare occurrence. Indeed the first black Senegalese to attend was Blaise Diagne in 1914.
After WWII the French granted the territory of Senegal its own assembly and this was fronted by the charismatic Leopold Senghor, a man who went on to be one Senegal’s most influential politicians and a major player in the country’s move towards independence which eventually came in 1960 after much negotiation and politicking with Charles de Gaulle the then French president. Senghor went on to become the first Senegalese president, a position he occupied for 20 years.
Recent Senegalese political history is one of turmoil, and claims and counter claims of rigged elections and governmental corruption. This has reared its head in a particularly ugly fashion in the violent clashes between the Senegalese government forces and the Casamance separatists of the southern region of Senegal. Yet since the controversial reign of Abdou Diouf was ended by Abdoulaye Wade in 2000, there has been a wave of optimism in the country and the Senegalese are rightly proud of the democratic processes that are in place.
More recently Senegal elected a new president and Macky Sall was sworn in on 2nd April 2012. He is the first new leader in 12 years and Senegal's fourth president since the country gained independence from France in 1960.