Atlantic History Signares
by
Hilary Jones
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0273

Introduction

Derived from the Portuguese senhora, the word signare came to describe African women who entered into temporary marital unions with European merchants, officials, or soldiers who resided on the Senegambian coast in the era of the transatlantic slave trade. On the island-settlements of Gorée and Saint Louis town residents and officials understood signare as a title that referred to African and Afro-European women who owned property and achieved high social standing. Historian George Brooks describes signares as entrepreneurial women of means and “social consequence.” Although the term connotes interracial mixing in the former French colony of Senegal, terms such as nhara, senora, and dona described the same pattern of African and European interaction that emerged along the coastline of West and West Central Africa where Dutch, British, Danish, and Portuguese merchants created commercial outposts. In the historical record, the term “signare” appears with European travelers who described their observations of the Senegambian coast. The private archives of métis (mixed race) families indicate that Senegalese used the term to describe their late 18th and 19th century ancestors. French and British officials, moreover, used signare to designate women who belonged to the class of elite town residents called habitants. In keeping with Wolof marital practices, marriage to European men afforded signares access to European trade goods, gold, real estate, and slaves. Signares also sponsored upriver trade expeditions to acquire gold and slaves on their own account. Owing to their efficiency, by 1750 the mercantile companies that controlled the island establishments began renting slave labor from signares for public work projects and for upriver trade expeditions instead of acquiring slaves on their own. Although scholars debate the origin and impact of signares on transatlantic commerce, their image has become synonymous with the African and European encounter. Depictions of signares wearing European fabrics in Senegalese style with conical head wrap often accompanied by slave girls illustrated 19th-century European travel accounts and 20th-century novels by Senegalese authors. Senegalese signareship reached its apex in the mid-19th century. The 1848 decree ending slavery resulted in significant financial losses for signares. In addition, Church teachings sought to end the “immoral” practice of signare marriage and colonial officials expressed less tolerance for these relationships. Today, Senegalese celebrate the signares as a symbol of the role of African women in shaping the initial relations between Africa and Europe on the Senegambian coast and as a way of explaining the towns’ multi-racial past.

General Overviews

The works chosen for this section represent a selection of seminal titles that deal with key themes related to the study of signares of Senegambia such as colonial encounter, women and gender histories, and African histories of slavery and the slave trade. Although, signares did not emerge in the formal era of empire in West Africa, the institution appeared in relation to the expansion of European trade networks and the rise of Afro-European trade diasporas that facilitated trade and diplomatic relations for the mercantile companies that controlled Atlantic commerce. Curtin 1984 explains the organization of long-distance trade and the implications of cultural exchange. Barry 1998 focuses attention on the internal forces that structured Senegambian states and societies in the era of the transatlantic slave trade and the effect of European commerce for the political economy of the region from the Senegal River to the border of British territory in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Searing 1993 adds to knowledge of the peoples, states, and societies of 18th-century Senegal by examining the impact of slavery and the slave trade on the kingdoms of the Lower Senegal River and the inhabitants of the fortified trade towns of Saint Louis and Gorée. Ballantyne and Burton 2005 provides context for understanding how signares fit into ideologies of empire that depended on racializing and sexualizing women’s bodies as a means of legitimizing rule. The contributors to Women in Africa (Hafkin and Bay 1976) offer insight on African women as agents of change in their own right and discuss the implications of women’s activities on changes in African life and livelihood from the era of Africa’s encounter with Europe to the height of colonial empire.

  • Ballantyne, Tony, and Antoinette Burton, eds. Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    This work examines cross-cultural contact in world history through the lens of empire. Divided into three sections, it covers a range of geographies from the early modern period to the mid-20th century. Contributors address the role of the body (raced, classed, gendered, and sexualized). Conclusion offers useful directions for future research.

  • Barry, Boubacar. Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade. Translated by Ayi Kwei Armah. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    A synthesis of research on pre-colonial Senegambia, Barry uses the region as a framework to analyze the historical ties between peoples and states from the Senegal River to Sierra Leone. It explains internal forces (Islam, trade, slavery) that shaped the political economy of the region and led to colonial conquest. Originally published in French as La sénégambie du XVe au XIXe siècle: traite negrière, Islame et conquête colonial (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 1988).

  • Cohen, William B. The French Encounter with the Africans: White Response to Blacks, 1530–1880. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    A monograph on the evolution of French attitudes toward blacks, this work compares three patterns of interactions with blacks: in France, the West Indies, and Senegal. Themes include slavery, scientific racism, skin color, and slavery. Useful discussion of signares as evidence of a pattern of liberal attitudes toward race.

  • Curtin, Philip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511661198E-mail Citation »

    A synthesis of Curtin’s research on Senegambia and the transatlantic slave trade. Examines cross-cultural contact through the lens of long distance trade in world history. Curtin considers coastal Africans as part of the rise of Afro-European trade diaspora on the west coast of Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries.

  • Hafkin, Nancy J., and Edna G. Bay, eds. Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1976.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of first works to focus on women as agents of change. The contributors deal with African women’s activities outside of the domestic sphere. Themes addressed include social organization, political life, and economic activities. George Brooks’s contribution to this volume is a pioneering essay on signares as entrepreneurs (see Brooks 1976, cited under African and European Encounter).

  • Scully, Pamela, and Diana Paton, eds. Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    This work contributes to emancipation studies by bringing together research on gender in the 19th-century Atlantic World. The essays deal with the gendered organization of labor and its implications for contract, citizenship, and formal antislavery policies. The article by Klein and Roberts considers slavery in signare households (see Klein and Roberts 2005, cited under Slavery and Abolition).

  • Searing, James. West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce: The Senegal River Valley, 1700–1860. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511572784E-mail Citation »

    This monograph deals with the effects of the Atlantic slave trade on the societies of the Senegal River Valley. The author gives an overview of slavery in 18th-century Senegambia. A chapter on slavery in Saint Louis and Gorée considers signares as slave owners. The work contains useful population data.

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