Signares of a French Atlantic World : Politics, Mobility, and Gender in Colonial Senegal during XVIIIth and XIXth centuries

Signares were local African women in the Senegambia region who entered into long-term relationships with Europeans, using these partnerships to bolster their socioeconomic standing and personal trading enterprises. Often celebrated more for their beauty and sensuality than for their business acumen, this paper seeks to place signares within a wider Atlantic world as eighteenth-century travelers and as politically engaged international merchants. For example, in the 1770s, one signare originally from St. Louis in Senegal was buying and selling property in Saint-Domingue while five other signares in Gorée signed a petition against a poorly run French company that had been awarded an exclusive contract with the island. More intriguing is the possibility some of these women may have been from one extended family suggesting that signares were part of transcontinental networks. The activities of signares in the eighteenth century raise questions about women’s engagement with the rhetoric and politics of citizenship in Senegal. With the establishment of limited electoral institutions in the Four Communes of Senegal during the Second and Third Republics, the political exclusion of signares would have been based not on race or economic status but on gender. Using a combination of primary documents including traveler accounts, illustrations, and cadastral surveys, this paper examines signares as political actors. How did gender and race intersect in the political and economic activities of signares? What was the relationship between the official recognition of citizenship in colonial Senegal and the apparent decline of signares in the latter nineteenth century? As elites of African descent who were excluded from citizenship, does the experience of signares shed light on the history of other parts of the French colonial empire such as Saint Domingue and French West Africa when the denial of such rights to men led to protest and revolution?

Lorelle Semley is Assistant Professor in College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, Massachussettes, USA). She is the author of Mother Is Gold, Father Is Glass: Gender and Colonialism in a Yoruba Town, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

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