About the Conference

Conference Background

Founded respectively in 1659 and in 1718 near the mouths of the Senegal and Mississippi Rivers, Saint-Louis and New Orleans constitute two important cities of the Atlantic world, the African diaspora and the French empire from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. They share a common history with respect to trade, slavery and French colonization, and there are numerous other connections and resonances between the histories of the two port cities. Between 1659 and 1779, Saint-Louis was the seat of a series of commercial companies that furnished the French colonies of the Americas with African slaves. In particular, during the period when the French Company of the Indies held the commercial monopoly on the Senegalese trading post at the same time that it was proprietor of the colony of Louisiana, hundreds of men and women who began slavery’s Middle Passage at Saint-Louis ended it in the capital of Louisiana. In comparison, the migrations from France to New Orleans and especially to Saint-Louis were relatively less important, except in the first part of the nineteenth century when a large number French men and women settled in Louisiana and rejuvenated its Francophone tradition. These voluntary and forced migrations gave birth to imperial and diasporic cultures which are reflected, for example, in the architectural and urban heritages of the two cities and in the Senegambian roots of African- American music in Louisiana. They also favored the expansion of métissage in their urban societies, which notably took the form of lasting unions between European men and women of African descent that resembled marriage. The essentialist and racialized discourse that developed early on about both the signares of Saint-Louis and the quadroons of New Orleans continues to support an exceptionalist view of the history of the two cities.

Imperial rivalries and the succession of different sovereignties also mark the histories of both cities. Tensions and regime changes between France and England, as well as Spain in the case of Louisiana, affected New Orleans before it was incorporated into the United States in 1803 and Saint-Louis prior to its integration into the French Empire after the disruptions of the Revolutionary era. Both cities experienced transitions from colonial territories to national sovereignty, New Orleans in 1803 and Senegal with its independence in 1960. During the early colonial period, neither city was prominent. Saint-Louis was only a trading post and New Orleans the capital of a colony that was founded late, was isolated and had difficulty developing. It was only in the nineteenth century that the two cities reached their demographic and economic apogee in association with the economic expansion of the United States following independence, for New Orleans, and Europe’s replacement of American colonization with African for Senegal. With the development of steamship navigation of the Mississippi, New Orleans became the second port of the United States before the Civil War, second only to New York. Meanwhile, Saint-Louis was made the capital of the colony of Senegal before becoming, between 1895 and 1902, the capital of French West Africa. The two cities also experienced a relative decline from the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century, with the development of transcontinental railways after the Civil War affecting New Orleans and, to the detriment of Saint-Louis, the decline in the rubber trade on the Senegal River, the expansion of the peanut economy and the emergence of Dakar as the colonial capital at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the connection of the two cities with the identity and culture of France diverged radically. While in 1916 the inhabitants of Saint-Louis were fully recognized as French citizens, instruction in French in Louisiana was outlawed in 1921. And yet, despite Louisiana’s political Americanization in the early nineteenth century, New Orleans had remained for a long time a “French” city by virtue of the significant immigration of Francophones in the first decades of the nineteenth century. But the internal slave trade added many Anglophones to the captive labor force in Louisiana and, with the arrival of German and Irish immigrants in the second third of the nineteenth century, English speakers became dominant in the city’s population. By contrast, in 1872, Saint-Louis obtained at the same time as Gorée, and then Rufisque in 1880 and Dakar in 1887, the “statut de commune française de plein exercice,” which gave the inhabitants of these cities full citizenship in the French empire. This privilege was the result of decades of activism by the inhabitants of the city, as notably exemplified in the register of grievances of the inhabitants of Saint-Louis to the Estates General in 1789. Thus was Sénégal’s first president, the poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, able to write that “Saint-Louis gave birth to the Senegalese nation,” according the city a central place in the national history of Senegal. The history of Louisiana, meanwhile, still occupies a marginal place in American national history.

These two international colloquia thus seek to position Saint-Louis and New Orleans to mirror each other to better analyze both their common and distinct histories in relation to the following themes: State, colony and empire; law, justice, and punishment; citizenship and ethnic, racial and national identities; imperialism and capitalism; trade and slavery; métissage and race; architecture and urbanism; music, memory and representation. Particular attention will be paid to the way in which historical discourses and commemoration of the two cities, which produce powerful reverberations today, have been constructed. In order to achieve this the colloquia will bring together the best African, European, and American specialists of the two cities. Papers will be precirculated for both colloquia. They will be presented and discussed first at Saint-Louis, then revised, circulated and discussed again a year later in New Orleans. The objective of the colloquia is to produce a truly comparative and linked history of the two cities and to publish a collected volume in which the articles on each of the two cities are in genuine dialogue with one another. A workshop for graduate students has been organized in tandem with the main colloquia in both Saint-Louis and New Orleans.


Tulane University, School of Liberal Arts, 102 Newcomb Hall, New Orleans, LA  70118, (504) 865-5225,