The Sénégal River (French: Fleuve Sénégal) is a 1,790 km (1,110 mi) long river in West Africa that forms the border between Senegal and Mauritania.
The Sénégal’s headwaters are the Semefé (Bakoye) and Bafing rivers which both originate in Guinea; they form a small part of the Guinean-Malian border before coming together at Bafoulabé in Mali. From there, the Senegal river flows west and then north through the spectacular Talari Gorges near Galougo and over the Gouina Falls, then flows more gently past Kayes, where it receives the Kolinbine. After flowing together with the Karakoro, it prolongs the former’s course along the Mali-Mauritanian border for some tens of kilometers till Bakel where it flows together with the Faleme river, which also has its source in Guinea, subsequently runs along a small part of the Guinea-Mali frontier to then trace most of the Senegal-Mali border up to Bakel. The Senegal further flows through semi-arid land in the north of Senegal, forming the border with Mauritania and into the Atlantic. In Kaedi it accepts the Gorgol from Mauritania. Flowing through Bogue it reaches Richard Toll where it is joined by the Ferlo coming from inland Senegal’s Lac de Guiers. It passes through Rosso and, approaching its mouth, around the Senegalese island on which the city of Saint-Louis is located, to then turn south. It is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a thin strip of sand called the Langue de Barbarie before it pours into the ocean itself.
The river has two large dams along its course, the Manantali Dam in Mali, built as a reservoir, and the Maka-Diama dam on the Mauritania-Senegal border, near the outlet to the sea, preventing access of salt water upstream.
The Senegal River has a drainage basin of 483,181 km2 (186,557 sq mi), a mean flow of 640 cubic metres per second (23,000 cu ft/s) at its mouth, and an estimated annual discharge of 20,000 cubic hectometers. Important tributaries are the Faleme River, Karakoro River, and the Gorgol River.
In 1972 Mali, Mauritania and Senegal founded the Organisation pour la mise en valeur du fleuve Sénégal (OMVS) to manage the river basin. Guinea joined in 2005.
Senegal River seen from Spot Satellite
The aquatic fauna in the Sénégal River basin is closely associated with that of the Gambia River basin, and the two are usually combined under a single ecoregion known as the Senegal-Gambia Catchments. Although the species richness is moderately high, only three species of frogs and one fish are endemic to this ecoregion.
The existence of the Senegal River was known to the early Mediterranean civilizations. It was called Bambotus by Pliny the Elder (from Phoenician “behemoth” for hippopotamus) and Nias by Claudius Ptolemy. It was visited by Hanno the Carthaginian around 450 BCE at his navigation from Carthage through the pillars of Herakles to Theon Ochema (Mount Cameroon) in the Gulf of Guinea. There was trade from here to the Mediterranean World, until the destruction of Carthage and its west African trade net in 146 BCE.
Western Nile (Senegal-Niger River) according to al-Bakri (1068)
Western Nile (Senegal-Niger River) according to Muhammad al-Idrisi (1154)
In the Early Middle Ages (c.800 CE), the Senegal River restored contact with the Mediterranean world with the establishment of the Trans-Saharan trade route between Morocco and the Ghana Empire. Arab geographers, like al-Bakri of Spain (1068) and al-Idrisi of Sicily (1154), provided some of the earliest descriptions of the Senegal River. Many believed the upper Senegal River and the upper Niger River were connected to each other, and formed a single river flowing from east to west, which they called the “Western Nile” or the “Nile of the Blacks”.It was believed to be either a western branch of the Egyptian Nile River or drawn from the same source (variously conjectured to be Ptolemy’s Ghir or the Biblical Gihon stream or some great internal African lake).
Arab geographers Abd al-Hassan Ali ibn Omar (1230), Ibn Said al-Maghribi (1274) and Abulfeda (1331), label the Senegal as the “Nile of Ghana” (Nil Gana or Nili Ganah).
As the Senegal River reached into the heart of the gold-producing Ghana Empire and later the Mali Empire, Trans-Saharan traders gave the Senegal its famous nickname as the “River of Gold”. The Trans-Saharan stories about the “River of Gold” reached the ears of Mediterranean merchants that frequented the ports of Morocco and the lure proved irresistible. Al-Idrisi reports that at least three separate Arab maritime expeditions – the last one organized by a group of Muslim merchants of Lisbon (before 1147) – tried to sail down the West African coast in an effort find the mouth of the Senegal River and reach the gold source directly. Their fate is unknown.
Early European portolan maps of the 14th C. (e.g. 1367 map of Domenico and Francesco Pizzigano and the 1375 Catalan Atlas) drew on Arab sources sources and depicted the “River of Gold” (if only fantastically), draining into the Atlantic Ocean somewhere just south of Cape Bojador. The legend of Cape Bojador as a terrifying obstacle, the ‘cape of no return’ to sailors, emerged around the same time (possibly encouraged by Trans-Saharan traders who did not want to see their land route side-stepped by sea).
Depiction of Jaume Ferrer’s attempt to reach the “River of Gold” in 1346, from the Catalan Atlas of 1375
Christian Europeans soon began attempting to find the sea route to the Senegal. The first known effort is by the Genoese brothers Vandino and Ugolino Vivaldi, who set out down down the coast in 1291 in a pair of ships (nothing more is heard of them). In 1346, the Majorcan sailor, Jaume Ferrer set out on a galley, with the explicit objective of finding the “River of Gold” (Riu de l’Or), where he heard that most people along its shores were engaged in the collection of gold and that the river was wide and deep enough for the largest ships. Nothing more is heard of him either. In 1402, after establishing the first European colony on the Canary Islands, the French Norman adventurers Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de la Salle set about immediately probing the African coast, looking for directions to the mouth of Senegal.
The project of finding the Senegal was taken up in the 1420s by the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator, who invested heavily to reach it. In 1434, one of Henry’s captains, Gil Eanes, finally surpassed Cape Bojador and returned to tell about it. Henry immediately dispatched a follow up mission in 1435, under Gil Eanes and Afonso Gonçalves Baldaia. Going down the coast, they turned around the al-Dakhla peninsula and emerged into an inlet, which they excitedly believed to be the mouth of the Senegal River. They mistakenly bestowed the name “Rio do Ouro” on that Western Saharan inlet, a name it would remain stuck with down to the 20th C.
Realizing the mistake, Henry kept pressing his captains further down the coast, and in 1445, the Portuguese captain Nuno Tristão finally reached the Langue de Barbarie, where he noticed the desert end and the treeline begin, and the population change from ‘tawny’ Sanhaja Berbers to ‘black’ Wolof people. Bad weather or lack of supplies prevented Tristão from actually reaching the mouth of the Senegal River, but he rushed back to Portugal to report he had finally found the “Land of the Blacks” (Terra dos Negros), and that the “Nile” was surely nearby. Shortly after (possibly still within that same year) another captain, Dinis Dias (sometimes given as Dinis Fernandes) was the first known European since antiquity to finally reach the mouth of the Senegal River. However, Dias did not sail upriver, but instead kept sailing down the Grande Côte to the bay of Dakar.
The very next year, in 1446, the Portuguese slave-raiding fleet of Lançarote de Freitas arrived at the mouth of the Senegal. One of its captains, Estêvão Afonso, volunteered to take a launch to explore upriver for settlements, thus becoming the first European to actually enter the Senegal river. He didn’t get very far. Venturing ashore at one point along the river bank, Afonso tried to kidnap two Wolof children from a woodsman’s hut. But he ran into their father, who proceeded to chase the Portuguese back to their launch and gave them such a beating that the explorers gave up on going any further, and turned back to the waiting caravels.
Sometime between 1448 and 1455, the Portuguese captain Lourenço Dias opened regular trade contact on the Senegal River, with the Wolof statelets of Waalo (near the mouth of the Senegal River) and Cayor (a little below that), drumming up a profitable business exchanging Mediterranean goods (notably, horses) for gold and slaves. Chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zurara, writing in 1453, still called it the “Nile River”, but Alvise Cadamosto, writing in the 1460s, was already calling it the “Senega” , and it is denoted as Rio do Çanagà on most subsequent Portuguese maps of the age. Cadamosto relates the legend that both the Senegal and the Egyptian Nile were branches of the Biblical Gihon River that stems from the Garden of Eden and flows through Ethiopia. He also notes that the Senegal was called “the Niger” by the ancients – probably a reference to Ptolemy’s legendary ‘Nigir’ (below the Gir), which would be later identified by Leo Africanus with the modern Niger River. Much the same story is repeated by Marmol in 1573, with the additional note that both the Senegal River and Gambia River were tributaries of the Niger River. However, the contemporary African atlas of Venetian cartographer Livio Sanuto, published in 1588, sketches the Senegal, the Niger and the Gambia as three separate, parallel rivers.
Senegambia region, detail from the map of Guillaume Delisle (1707), which still assumes the Senegal connected to the Niger; this would be corrected in subsequent edititions of Delisle’s map (1722, 1727), where it was shown ending at a lake, south of the Niger.
Portuguese chronicler João de Barros (writing in 1552) says the river’s original local Wolof name was Ovedech (which according to one source, comes from “vi-dekh”, Wolof for “this river”). His contemporary, Damião de Góis (1567) records it as Sonedech (from “sunu dekh”, Wolof for “our river”). Writing in 1573, the Spanish geographer Luis del Marmol Carvajal asserts that the Portuguese called it Zenega, the ‘Zeneges’ (Berber Zenaga) called it the Zenedec, the ‘Gelofes’ (Wolofs) call it Dengueh, the ‘Tucorones’ (Fula Toucouleur) called it Mayo, the ‘Çaragoles’ (Soninke Sarakole of Ngalam) called it Colle and further along (again, Marmol assuming Senegal was connected to the Niger), the people of Bagamo’ (Bambara of Bamako?) called it Zimbala (Jimbala?) and the people of Timbuktu called it the Yça.