Monument near the Maison des Esclaves on Gorée Island.
Saint-Louis in 1780.
Various European powers – Portugal, the Netherlands, and England – competed for trade in the area from the 15th century onward, until in 1677, France ended up in possession of what had become a minor slave trade departure point—the infamous island of Gorée next to modern Dakar. In 1758 the French settlement was captured by a British expedition as part of the Seven Years' War, but was later returned to France. It was only in the 1850s that the French, under the governor, Louis Faidherbe, began to expand their foothold onto the Senegalese mainland, at the expense of the native kingdoms.
The Four Communes of Saint-Louis, Dakar, Gorée, and Rufisque were the oldest colonial towns in French controlled west Africa. In 1848, the French Second Republic extended the rights of full French citizenship to their inhabitants. While those who were born in these towns could technically enjoy all the rights of native French citizens, substantial legal and social barriers prevented the full exercise of these rights, especially by those seen by authorities as 'full blooded' Africans. Most of the African population of these towns were termed originaires: those Africans born into the commune, but who retained recourse to African and/or Islamic law (the so called "personal status"). Those few Africans from the four communes who were able to pursue higher education and were willing to renounce their legal protections could 'rise' to be termed Évolué ('Evolved') and were nominally granted full French citizenship, including the vote. Despite this legal framework, Évolués still faced substantial discrimination in Africa and the Metropole alike.
On 27 April 1848, following the February revolution in France, a law was passed in Paris enabling the Four Quarters to elect a Deputy to the French Parliament for the first time. On 2 April 1852 the parliamentary seat for Senegal was abolished by Napoleon III. Following the downfall of the French Second Empire the Four Quarters was again allowed a parliamentary seat which was granted by law on 1 February 1871. On 30 December 1875 this seat was again abolished, but only for a few years as it was reinstated on 8 April 1879, and remained the single parliamentary representation from Africa anywhere in a European legislature until the fall of the third republic in 1940.
It was only in 1916 that originaires were granted full voting rights while maintaining legal protections. Blaise Diagne, who was the prime advocate behind the change, was in 1914 the first African deputy elected to the French National Assembly. From that time until independence in 1960, the deputies of the Four Communes were always African, and were at the forefront of the decolonisation struggle.