Dakar, Senegal: Cosmopolitan Interwar City

By Kathleen Keller, Gustavus Adolphus College

One of largest cities in West Africa, Dakar, Senegal sits at the western-most tip of the continent. Now home to a population of over two million people, Dakar of today is the capital of Senegal and a major city with an important art scene, a huge new international airport, and a growing business and technology sector. The city’s origins lie in the colonial era when, in the late nineteenth century, the small fishing village was selected by French authorities to become the capital of a large federation of colonies known as French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française –AOF). The federation was a political entity that encompassed a wide swath of territory from Mauritania to Dahomey and from Senegal to Mali and lasted until independence in 1960. The federation of colonies took its seat in Dakar in 1902, where a governor-general ruled the federation from a neoclassical palace.


Palace of the Government-General, Dakar, early 1920s


In my recent book, Colonial Suspects: Suspicion, Imperial Rule, and Colonial Society in Interwar French West Africa, I recount how the government-general of AOF developed a strategy in the interwar period to identify and monitor “suspicious persons” who were considered politically threatening. My analysis frequently focuses on the implications of this policy for understanding the colonial state. However, the archive generated on suspects also happens to reveal a fascinating slice of the colonial population that was international, transient, and diverse. Raymond Betts has argued that Dakar became an imperial city in the interwar era, but my research suggests that Dakar also emerged as a cosmopolitan city in the same time period. Because suspicion was frequently linked with international politics such as Pan-Africanism, communism, and Pan-Islamism, foreigners were prime suspects. African and French suspects also contributed to the global connections of the city’s population by maintaining contacts in Europe, the United States, and other points abroad.

Colonial Dakar is not known for being a cosmopolitan city, but Dakar’s port connected West Africa to the world as steamships arrived at the renowned port, carrying passengers from all over the world. In the 1920s and 1930s the increasing arrival of steamships was a source of alarm for authorities concerned about radical politics. Martial Merlin, governor-general of AOF, identified the port as particularly vulnerable to political agitators because at ports “elements of all kinds mix and cross one another […] news brought by ships can be easily and rapidly put into circulation, amplified, and distorted by those wishing to cause disorder.” In the 1920s Corsican sailors who travelled from port to port representing the International Club of Sailors brought unionist and communist propaganda with them. In the 1930s African sailors serving the port of Le Havre in France brought radical pan-Africanist newspapers to distribute in Dakar.

In the interwar period, the largest group of foreigners in Dakar (and AOF generally) were Lebanese and Syrians. This group had been castigated as outsiders since the nineteenth century, when they began migrating to work in commerce and trade in Senegal. As Andrew Arsan has recounted in Interlopers of Empire, the Syrian and Lebanese population continued to grow in the aftermath of the First World War, as migrants settled in increasing numbers, in spite of colonial efforts to stop them. The French tended to view the Lebanese and Syrians as a monolith, but occasionally glimpses of individuals emerge as well. For example, Mohamed El Houmani, a Lebanese journalist, made a brief visit at the port of Dakar where he was welcomed by hundreds of his compatriots. In the interwar period, Lebanon and Syria were French mandates, but they were far from the only parts of the empire to draw migrants to Dakar.

Hotel Metropole Dakar

Hotel Métropole, Dakar, 1920s

As a colonial capital and port city, Dakar was connected to the wider French empire. Moroccans, Algerians, and Antilleans all visited Dakar. For example, Henri Jean-Louis, a lawyer from Guadeloupe with connections to Pan-Africanists in Paris came to Dakar in 1931 where he met with Arthur Beccaria, the founder of the Dakar branch of the League for Defense of the Negro Race. Although few in number, Vietnamese men in Dakar were likely to be permanent residents of the city. Nguyen Van Phu, originally from near Hanoi, had worked many years on a steamship out of Marseille before settling in Dakar in 1928. In Senegal, he was employed as the head chef at the Hotel Métropole, an establishment that served wealthy European guests. Nguyen lived an austere life until one day in 1930 when he was alarmed to find a package of Vietnamese-language “revolutionary communist” journals on his door step. From the perspective of the colonial authorities, subjects from other parts of the French empire were in a legally ambiguous position. They could not be treated as foreigners under the law, but they were also not subject to the customary laws of Senegal. Ultimately, in spite of their status as subjects of the French Empire, people such as Nguyen were typically still viewed as outsiders and sometimes investigated as “suspicious persons.”

British subjects from African colonies also surfaced in Dakar. Some of them settled in Dakar for work or for the express purpose of promoting political causes. In 1922, the French police had one of their greatest successes in shutting down international political activity in Dakar when they arrested and deported a group of men from Sierra Leone who had established a branch of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Within the same decade another activist from British Gambia, Edward Francis Small, came to agitate for communism and labor unions.


Cosmopolitans of the French Empire: Blaise Diagne (left) and the Guadeloupean politician Gratien Candace in Paris in 1921

A large cast of transient European characters also moved in and out of Dakar. Frenchmen, of course, made up the bulk of white visitors, including men like Pierre Magard who pursued a series of wild schemes such as collecting animals for a zoo, or Auguste Greleau, who fled a criminal past to start over in Dakar. More rarely, French women, such as Marcelle Hervé, suspected of communist propaganda, or Audrée Delmas, an eccentric woman of a certain age, arrived in the city alone. But, European foreigners who were eminently suspicious also increasingly made stops in Dakar. In 1929 German journalist Rosie von Waldeck, then known as Rosie Gräfenberg, visited the city, making acquaintances with Dakar’s elite, including the politician Blaise Diagne. In 1937 Paul von Heinl, an Austrian baron with Nazi connections spent time in Dakar, pursuing business interests. European suspects were a mix of political operatives, potential spies, and seedy misfits, but they came from all over Europe.


Of course, most residents of Dakar were African. Some of them participated in making Dakar a cosmopolitan city through their travel and political connections. In addition to having visited France, Amadou Sall travelled to the United States and maintained correspondence with people in New York. Beccaria, of the League for Defense of the Negro Race, was in frequent contact with Tiémoko Garan Kouyaté, the Malian activist in Paris. Cosmopolitan Africans from one of the federation’s colonies other than Senegal frequently passed through Dakar. In 1927 two Dahoméens returning from studies at the Normal School in Aix-en-Provence distributed propaganda tracts in the capital before moving on to Dahomey where they helped promote teachers’ unions. Whether it be receiving the French communist newspaper l’Humanité or sharing Muslim religious materials from North Africa, Africans who became noted as “suspects” in the interwar era almost all had connections outside of AOF.

Colonial Suspects recognizes Dakar as a node in a network of colonial power that linked the colonial capital to Paris, Hanoi, Casablanca, and Algiers. Colonial police attempted to cast a wide net over both permanent and transient populations to root out political dissent. However, colonial police records also indicate that the city of Dakar was part of a web that connected people around the globe as Africans, Frenchmen, and foreigners who moved in and out of the colonial city, reached the wider world.


Kathleen Keller is associate professor of history and chair of the History Department at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN, USA. Her first book, Colonial Suspects: Suspicion, Imperial Rule, and Colonial Society in Interwar French West Africa was published in 2018 by University of Nebraska Press.

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