Donas, Signares, and Free Women of Color: African and Eurafrican Women of the Atlantic World in an Age of Racial Slavery

AHA Session 153
Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Chamber Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Hilary Jones, University of Maryland at College Park
Lorelle D. Semley, College of the Holy Cross

Session Abstract

In the age of the Atlantic Slave Trade, African and Eurafrican women emerged as intermediaries between foreign traders and local populations. Europeans’ lack of knowledge in African languages, trade networks, local culture, social structures and political institutions provided African and Eurafrican women a unique opportunity to become cultural and economic brokers.  Portuguese adventurers on the coast of West Africa first named these women “senhoras” in the 16th century. Although Portuguese men coined the term, they were not the only Europeans to name and have socio-economic relationships with African and Eurafrican women. Over time each European group made the original Portuguese term their own: in Crioulo it became “nhara”, in French “signare”, in English “senora”, and “dona” among the Portuguese of Central Africa.  These ‘middle-women” surfaced all along the coast of Africa from the Senegambia to Mozambique between the 15th and the 20th centuries, although the most famous of these women were found in the port cities of Bathurst, Benguela, Bissao, Cacheu, Goree, Joal, Luanda, Osu, Portudal, Rufisque and Saint Louis. These women formed a distinct group within African and Afro-Atlantic society during an age of racial slavery, but the duration and trajectory of their lives varied across time and place.

“Donas, Signares & Free Women of Color” gathers scholars working on female African and Eurafrican entrepreneurs, brokers, and partners who allied with Portuguese, Spanish, French and Danish men in one specific enclave of Africa or the Americas. Together these four papers will question what made these women unique, how different European powers perceived them, if and how partnering with one particular European power over another influenced these women, and how their actions were shaped by their local environments. Panelists’ papers will also explore the trans-regional and trans-Atlantic connections between women in each society, drawing on comparative frameworks to interrogate the similarities and differences between each group. By exploring the individual stories of African and Eurafrican “middle-women” across the Atlantic world, this panel will move the scholarship beyond exoticism and generalizations. The panel’s ultimate goal is to determine if these women can and should be discussed as a coherent collective group throughout the Atlantic World or if scholars should continue to examine each group separately.


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