From the point of view of British and French history, the history of Senegal is closely linked to that of the Gambia in the sense that in the competition for power between the two European powers in this region, the French-controlled region became Senegal and the British-controlled region became the Gambia. Just as we and other Europeans, particularly the French, fought for control of the Gambia, so we fought for control of Senegal and for control of trade there – the slave trade being one of the major elements. The island of Gorée in Senegal was a particularly hotly contested area. The Portuguese had settled it as early as 1444. We came along and took it from the Dutch in 1664. The French took it and then we took it and eventually the French gained long-term control of it. St Louis was another place that had a similarly varied history and that we held on assorted occasions.
In 1758, a British expedition of two warships and 200 troops, with a plan devised by American merchant Thomas Cumming, took Senegal in a surprise attack. We joined it with the land we already controlled in the Gambia to form British Senegambia. It doesn’t look like they thought too long and hard about that name. In 1779, the French were back and in 1783 the Treaty of Versailles once again separated out British and French-controlled areas in the region.
In the Napoleonic Wars we were back, yet again, taking Gorée in 1803 and St Louis in 1809. In the end, we gave them back to the French in 1816 after Napoleon’s unlamented (by us) final departure from power.
As the nineteenth century proceeded, things between us and the French settled down in the region, but still there was another invasion of Senegal to come in the twentieth century, or at least an attempted invasion. In September 1940, a British and Free French task force, including the carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battleships HMS Barham and HMS Resolution, arrived at Dakar with orders to try to persuade the French forces there to switch from Vichy to the Free French. The French in Dakar refused to come over to De Gaulle and fighting broke out, with the coastal forts and British ships exchanging fire, and with Free French troops trying to get ashore south-east of Dakar. Fighting between the fleet and Vichy forces continued for some time until eventually the attempt to persuade Senegal to switch to the Free French was abandoned. Vichy was to hang on to control of Dakar for quite a while longer.