Written by Laura Turner September 22, 2008
With the conception of two sexes comes the question of hierarchy. Presuming the notion of two separate sexes is correct, the act of labeling one of these sexes as superiority to the other correlates with human’s affinity for categorizing all things into specific relations with and against one another. It is difficult to determine where the idea of male as better than female originates. Many philosophers and social scientists attempt to explain how the dichotomy between the sexes developed. Friedrich Engels’s theory about inequality between men and women from “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State” is appropriate to utilize when discussing the rise of signares: African women who defied tradition by breaking boundaries of the expected role of women. Leith Mullins explains: “From Engels’s perspective, ‘equality’ derives from all the members of society having the same relationship to the resources of society, particularly the means of production. Inequality, in this context, occurs when such resources are appropriated by particular strata as private property.”[i] Engels’s viewpoint about the variation between the sexes is primarily based in economics. According to his theory when women are excluded from social production they are not able to fully participate in society, and therefore do not reap the full benefits that men earn from dominating society’s public realm. Although somewhat limited in scope, Engels’s solution to rectify inequality, is to have women in the workforce earning the same wages as men and therefore be capable of affording private property with out having a dependence on men for monetary assistance.
Mullins furthers Engels’s concept by distinguishing the difference between equality and asymmetry. Mullins’s definition of “asymmetry” takes into account that although access to the means of production might be equal and the distribution of resources may be egalitarian, “a group of males may retain formal control over the distribution; males and females may not have access to the same roles and statuses, and there may be differing cultural evaluations of these roles.” Mullins’s argument of asymmetry is pertinent to the discussion of the evolution of the signares. Although these women start off being as powerful as the European traders who require their aid, as the status of signares changes with time, their expected roles in correspondence also alter. Mullins deems that a good technique to understand what caused the change in women’s status is “to analyze how the status of women has changed as society has become increasingly stratified. Although forms of stratification were developing in Africa before colonialism (and of course many state systems existed), the European intrusion, through slave trade and colonialism, accelerated the division of the population into classes.” This statement reflects Mullins’s conviction that one of the results of colonialism was the deterioration of the status of women in comparison to men. The plummet in importance of women’s status correlates with the colonizer’s introduction of a definite social structure based on discrimination by class and sex. This weakening of women’s status also decreased independent female participation in the public sphere and entrepreneurial settings.
Engels’s supposition that women would have equal opportunity for resources of society and the same means of production was based on the premise of an idealistic non-stratified society. Particularly the emergence of private property was the indication Engels looked to in order to elucidate why men had more power and authority than women over the course of history. Mullins asserts that several anthropologists have hypothesized that “in societies where men and women are engaged in the production of the same kinds of socially necessary goods, and where widespread private property (and therefore class structure) has not developed, women’s participation in production gives them access to and control over the products of their labor, as well as considerable freedom and independence.” This quotation demonstrates the best-case scenario in the opinion of Engels and Mullins for women to achieve economic equality to men. Indeed it is exactly this type of non-stratified setting from which signares evolved.
Amy Richlin attributes Linda Gordon for outlining two stances towards writing women’s history: “In one approach, the historian paints women as the victims of an oppressive structure, showing how patriarchy and patriarchs keep women downtrodden. In the other approach, the historian paints women as agents, working out their own strategies to deal with whatever system they find themselves in. This second approach tries… to analyze sets of strategies that women at particular times and places have adopted.” Engels’s position towards equality for women corresponds with this first approach, siding with the idea that patriarchy causes inequality in economics, which in turn debilitates women from functioning to their full potential. Engels would argue that the absence of a fixed patriarchy, and lack of rigid private property laws on the islands of Gorée and Saint-Louis, created a rare ideal historical situation that allowed the rise of signares. Indeed the unique historical aspects that surrounded the development of signares were critical to nurturing their success. However the second approach to writing feminist history would focus on the fact that these women fashioned their ascent into power through their own ingenuity.
The birthplace of the signares was on the islands of Gorée and Saint-Louis. These two islands are located near the mouth of the Senegal River which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Before the arrival of European traders, these two small islands held little importance for the native peoples. Landing on the islands required careful navigation, neither island had remarkable arable land, and Gorée also barely had any potable water. Therefore the African peoples had no striking reason to desire inhabiting these islands when the mainland was bountiful and plentiful. However with the coming of European merchants these islands served as a prime location to establish a trading center for the transition of goods from West Africa to Europe. The isolation of the islands and lack of settled peoples on them, made Gorée and Saint-Louis relatively easy places for the Europeans to claim as their own property. It also served as a new spot where it was possible for aspiring African women to stake their claim. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore mainland Western Africa in depth from around 1556-1587. George E. Brooks acknowledges “Portuguese permitted to live ashore in African communities to expedite trade came to be known as lançados, from the Portuguese se-lançar (“throw oneself”), which may be freely translated as individuals who cast their lot among African societies.” These lançados bartered directly with Africans and respected their customs. Through trade these lançados sometimes joined in unions with African women who acted as precursors to signares by similarly performing as “invaluable interpreters of language, society, and culture and as collaborators in commercial exchanges” for the Portuguese traders. However it was the French who began on a large scale to systematically trade with Africans with the intention of creating considerable revenue. And it was the French who first settled Gorée and Saint-Louis and attracted the attention of many African women. James Searing addresses:
The origins of the signares remain obscure, but it is likely that they were formed by three separate currents of emigration to the islands. Free women traders from the mainland, like those described by La Courbe, expanded their commercial activities by ‘marrying’ Atlantic merchants and establishing themselves as signares. Secondly, it is likely that some of the Afro-Portuguese signares based on the mainland migrated to the islands and reestablished themselves as intermediaries in the Atlantic trade, and that this group gave its name to the signares. Thirdly, European sources suggest that some signares were slave women chosen as mistresses by Atlantic merchants from the female slaves that the slave trade brought to Saint Louis and Gorée.
Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch is of the conviction that “it is likely that most of these women were former slaves engaging in what was considered (first by Europeans and finally by their compatriots) a means of social advancement.” However, many sources remain distant or completely fail to concentrate on the specific reasons behind why the African women decided to begin partnerships with the French. It is difficult to determine what provoked the women to want to help the Europeans. Most articles and books seem to suggest it was only because of the women’s desire for wealth that spurred creation of signares. Articles never addressed whether the signares chose this life style to help their whole family profit, or if the women anticipated that resisting the influence of the Europeans would make their lives more difficult. Surely some tribes must have rigorously rejected the influence of the Europeans and detested the Africans who helped these foreigners exploit other Africans, but this aspect was not explored in books about signares.
Regardless of their personal reasons to aid Europeans, there is much evidence showing that signares were adept traders who had great entrepreneurial prowess. There are accounts from Europeans of their abilities to profit from the trade economy.
The Abbé Demanet, who accompanied the French expedition dispatched to reoccupy Gorée in 1763, criticized the lack of initiative European traders there and at other trading communities displayed while the women associated with them were becoming wealthy in commerce: ‘Each and every one had become absorbed in his own diversions and was debilitated by indolence. Simple clerks, ordinary employees with low-level appointments, reached expenses of 10,000 francs a year. One sees today on Gorée, at Senegal, and in the Gambia some of their concubines who have fortunes of 100,000 livres, even though prior to this business, so pernicious in different respects, they owned nothing whatever.
Demanet’s critical assessment demonstrates that while the European men dallied away their money (often ironically to court signares with expensive presents), the women have earned fortunes through their determination and adaptability to the new French culture. His use of the term concubine shows his lack of recognition of these women as much more than sexual partners. Even though Demanet acknowledges the wealth these women have garnered he fails to understand their essential importance to the success of the trade networks.
Sieur De La Courbe served as the Company’s director during the late seventeenth century “testified to the important role of women traders at Saint Louis at the end of the seventeenth century. ‘Returning to the fort, I entered into the store where we carried on our trade. There I found several women from Bieurt and other neighboring villages, who had brought hides, millet, pagnes or cotton cloths, because they are the ones who control almost all the trade of Senegal [Saint Louis].” These women utilized their privileged access to African and European networks to exploit the trade system to their advantage. Signares were indispensable to Europeans as interpreters of African language and culture. Aside from acting as very important translators, signares also created business opportunities that favored their own advancement. Searing notes that the signares:
had the advantage of monopolizing certain economic functions that were essential to the economy of the islands. Europeans could buy the millet required to feed their slaves and African hired laborers, but only women’s labor could transform the millet into food, pounding it into various flours used in the preparation of couscous and porridge, and only women were able and willing to provide the domestic services of washing clothes and keeping house for European men and their employees. Women merchants [signares] provided the female slave labor that filled these essential roles and they eventually transformed this domestic economy into a beachhead that allowed them [signares] to become merchant-entrepreneurs who played an essential role in Atlantic commerce.
Signares had the power and ability to influence terms of trading into advantageous deals for themselves. Engels would state that in the past it was the men who decided prices of items and controlled the distribution of them. Here however, signares often bartered directly with the African merchants and determined the value of raw materials that the Europeans would purchase. Also with the case of millet, women were in control of its production into food, making men dependent on their services in order to survive. Mullins would say this is one of the few instances not just of equality but also of “symmetry” where the women’s opinion and control was balanced to that of men. Signares “who had long confronted the vicissitudes of trade, enjoyed a certain autonomy. This was manifest above all in their solidarity and even complicity with the world of men, from which they generally lived apart.” Traders needed the signares to communicate with the African merchants, therefore they respected and valued the signares and worked with them as a partners, rather than a master/slave relationship or man “superior” to woman. Through their economic power the signares were able to change the social game by manipulating the Europeans.
There is much evidence about the success of these women: “signares received double and triple rations and whatever else they desired, and their domestic slaves were fed with meat and millet at the company’s expense.” The company referenced in this quote is the Compagnie des Indes which was commanded by the French and their primary business concerned with African trade. The privileged status of the signares is illustrated through the fact that they “obtained the choicest merchandise, including commodities not available to lower-level French employees.” Another aspect indicating the high status of the signares was that the women often achieved ownership of property through their privileged economic wealth. Engels would be impressed by the statistic that: “by 1749, ten of thirteen private properties on Gorée belonged to Eurafricans, nine of whom were women.” Also Antoine Edmé Pruneau de Pommegorge, a French man noted that the majority of the signares, “live in considerable affluence, and many African women own thirty or forty slaves which they hire to the Compagnie.” The signares were not only owners of homes, they also possessed skilled slaves which they then appointed to work in the Compagnie. These slaves were in high demand by Europeans to be used as sailors of ships going up and down the Senegal River because they were natives of the land, and also these slaves were more likely to be obedient towards the French because of their loyalty to their signare. This became common practice as the signares “used their contacts with Company officials to secure training and employment for their own slaves, thus creating the system of hiring out skilled slaves that dominated the labor market of the islands in the second half of the eighteenth century.” This continued the pattern set up by the signares of Europeans depending on Africans for their trade network to work properly. Another unusual aspect of the signare’s life was that “at Gorée, a signare’s children inherited her wealth, following Lebou practice, which was for the children to inherit from their mother without interference from their father.” This practice ensured that all the wealth the signare accumulated would be translated directly to her children, which can be seen as a motivating factor for the signare to be a successful entrepreneur.
Besides using their cunning and being very resourceful, signares were also so successful because of their irresistibility. European men were strongly attracted to these women. “‘Signareship’ evolved during the French occupation of Gorée and Saint-Louis, despite the regulations promulgated by the directors of the Compagnie des Indes forbidding employees to engage in private trade or traffic with African women. The company’s directives were flouted by employees of every rank and by soldiers and sailors as well.” These women held such allure that French men could not resist interacting with them. Signares were desirable for their proficiency and knowledge: “it was the older and more experienced signares, possessing large households of skilled domestic slaves and established commercial networks, who were sought as partners by the highest-ranking company employees.” These Frenchmen fully grasped the advantages of uniting with a signare. Besides being valuable for business purposes, the French were also physically attracted to these elegant women. Michel Adanson a French botanist who spent 1749 to 1753 in Senegal to study its flora and fauna, describes his reaction to the women of Saint-Louis “‘Their skin is surprisingly delicate and soft; their mouth and lips are small; and their features are regular. There are some of them perfect beauties.’” Also Reverend John Lindsay a British chaplain praised and appreciated Senegalese women:
As to their women, and in particular the ladies (for so I must call many of those in Senegal) they are in a surprising degree handsome, have very fine features, are wonderfully tractable, remarkably polite both in conversation and manners; and in the point of keeping themselves neat and clean (of which we have generally strange ideas, formed to us by the beastly laziness of slaves), they far surpass the Europeans in every respect. They bathe twice a day… You may, perhaps, smile at all this; but I assure you ‘tis a truth. Negroes to me are no novelty; but the accounts I received of them, and in particular the appearance of the females on this occasion, were to me a novelty most pleasing.”
This quote demonstrates that although Lindsay is surely racist, he still admires these lovely ladies, a testament to their grace and presence. Because of the many benefits of partnering up with a signare, many Europeans informally married them. Antoine Edmé Pruneau de Pommegorge from his book published in 1789 states: “Some of these women are married in church, others a la mode du pays, which in general consists of the consent of both parties and the relatives. It is remarked that the latter marriages are always more successful than the former; the women are more faithful to their husbands than otherwise the case.” A la mode du pays roughly means “in the way of the countryside” and suggests the relative informality of this union. Although the ceremony was not officially carried out in a church, these marriages advantaged both people. Geoffery de Villeneuve, who lived for two years in Gorée summarizes the prevailing practices: “They freely contract a type of limited marriage with Europeans, regarding themselves as legitimate wives, remaining faithful, and giving the father’s name to the children who result from the union. The departure of the white for Europe, with no expectation of returning, breaks the ties of matrimony, and she soon after enters a new contract. The ceremonies observed at the time of this union are the same as those of the Africans’ marriages.’” Therefore the signares used these limited marriages to ensure their children’s future by guaranteeing that they would have a European last name, securing the children from ever being confused for a slave. It also shows the flexability of the signares to adapt to whatever European they decide to form a union with. The man of a signare’s second marriage was liable to welcoming her children from her first marriage.
The signares created their own society on Gorée and Saint-Louis. They forged ahead into new territory for women in the public sphere. But by the end of the eighteenth century “the founding era of the signares was in some sense over, even though French merchants would continue to form temporary marriages with local women, sometimes forming new mulatto families.” Searing’s statement refers to the fact that by the end of the eighteenth century signare’s status as a key player in trade no longer existed. Only for the short period of time between late seventeenth century to mid eighteenth century did these women hold substantive power. By the end of the eighteenth century the French simply used the term signare “ as essentially a description of light-skinned mulatto women, the preferred choice of European men.” This change in the meaning of the world reflects how the roles of signare changed. No longer seen as invaluable translators, signare became a term standing for a pretty mulatto woman, and described the daughters of the first generation of revolutionary sigare. By the end of the eighteenth century “the overall trend was for the consolidation of existing mulatto families, which included the gradual accumulation of property and political power in the hands of men, who acted as political spokesmen and heads of households. The signares of the late eighteenth century lived in a different social context than their predecessors.” Engels would note that the transition of property from the women into the hands of men, made the later signares no longer retain the same status that their mothers or grandmothers had before. Searing demotes the significant impact of signares by arguing that “the key historic role of the signares was to set in motion a process of local accumulation which eventually created a distinct class of slave-owning merchants who were tied to the islands.” The distinct class of slave-owning merchants Searing refers to were called habitants. The habitants were in fact the descendents of signares and European men (primarily the French). Their background in business was founded through their mother’s experience in the commercial realm: “From this early role in the provision trade the habitants acquired the skills and capital that permitted them to gain a role in the more lucrative export trade in slaves and gum. In the course of the eighteenth century European merchants delegated considerable authority to the habitants, who gradually became indispensable middlemen in the trade with the coast and the middle and upper Senegal regions.” This transition from signares in power to their sons becoming the “indispensable middlemen in trade” can fit under the approach that women have constantly been oppressed by patriarchy. It corresponds to the institutionalization of colonization, where women’s status became demoted as the society became more and more stratified with time and as a result made men’s trading skills become more favored. However, although the golden age of signares was relatively short, it is still a shining period for feminists to look back upon and have pride in a time when strong women had authority in the matters of business, and also held their own and excelled in a economic world previously dominated by men.
Leith Mullins, “Women and Economic Change in Africa” in Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change (Standford University Press 1976) 240.
Amy Richlin, “Pliny’s Brassiere” in Roman Sexualities, 200.
George E. Brooks, Landlords & Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630 (Westview Press 1993), 137
James F. Searing, West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce: The Senegal River valley, 1700-1860 (Cambridge University Press: 1993), 100.
Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, African Women: A Modern History (Éditions Desjonqueres 1994) translated by Beth Gillian Raps English (Westview Press 1997), 53.
George E. Brooks “The Signares of Saint-Louis and Gorée: Women Entrepreneurs in Eighteenth-Century Senegal” in Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, 30.
Searing, West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce, 99.
Coquery-Vidrovitch, African Women, 55.
George E. Brooks, Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, And Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Ohio University Press 2003), 211.
Searing, West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce, 105.
Brooks, “The Signares of Saint-Louis and Gorée: Women Entrepreneurs in Eighteenth-Century Senegal” Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, 36
Brooks, Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, And Religious Observance, 210.
Searing, West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce, 93.
Brooks, “The Signares of Saint-Louis and Gorée: Women Entrepreneurs in Eighteenth-Century Senegal” Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, 26.
Brooks, Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, And Religious Observance, 216.
Brooks, “The Signares of Saint-Louis and Gorée: Women Entrepreneurs in Eighteenth-Century Senegal” Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, 34.
Searing, West African Slavery and Atlantic Commerce, 113.