Reevaluating Saint Louis' Infamous Signares, 1700–1850

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:00 AM
Chamber Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Lindsey Gish, Michigan State University
Twice a year the city of Saint Louis, Senegal holds a fanal or a lantern parade. For this celebration the citizens of Saint Louis dress up as the city’s most famous historical founders, signare women, mixed-race habitants, Frenchmen and slaves. Impeccably dressed in a hybrid of French and African dress,  posturing uncomfortably erect, and sauntering gracefully, the parading signares appear regal, flawless, untroubled, and in a state of constant leisure; moreover a romanticized portrait all too nostalgic and mythical. Saint Louis’ infamous signares were more than just wealthy African and Eurafrican women with extravagant taste in fine French clothing and food who shared their arm publically and their bed privately with French and Eurafrican men.

In using notarial records, my paper will de-emphasize the exotic and mythical image of Saint Louis’ signares by instead highlighting their more human and realistic nature. This paper explores how these African and Eurafrican women navigated the socio-economic complexity of Saint Louis in their roles as entrepreneurs, negotiators, diplomats, friends, wives, mothers and matriarchs. It will demonstrate that not all signares were famous and successful, but that those who were knew how to embrace multiple identities, cultures, laws and affiliations when it served a particular need. The wealthiest and most respected signares were those women who mastered the ability to identify as French one minute, African the next, and Eurafrican after that.  By tracing the individual stories of these women over a period of 100 plus years, this paper will demonstrate how signareship in Saint Louis passed through three main stages: the “Intermediary” phase (1670s-1740s), the “Landlord, Broker and Negociant” phase (1740s-1830s), and the “Figurehead” phase (1830s- 1900).

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