From Signares to Citizens in Early Colonial Senegal

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:20 AM
Iowa Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Lorelle D. Semley, College of the Holy Cross
Signares were local African and mixed race 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 Saint-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. The
possibility some of these women located in various Senegalese towns may have been from one extended family suggests that signares formed regional and transcontinental networks during the era of trans-Atlantic slave trade. The activities of signares also raise questions about women’s engagement with the rhetoric and politics of citizenship in Senegal. With the establishment of limited electoral institutions in coastal Senegal during the Second and Third Republics, the political exclusion of signares was based neither on race nor economic status but on gender. Using a combination of archival and other primary sources, this paper examines signares as political actors during the ear of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 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 reputed decline of signares by the middle nineteenth century? 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 where the denial of such rights sometimes led to protest and even revolution?
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