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The Métis of Senegal
Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa
By Hilary Jones
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Hilary Jones
All rights reserved.
Signares, Habitants, and Grumets in the Making of Saint Louis
Signare Cathy Miller rose to prominence as a woman of wealth and high social standing in the town of Saint Louis. She was born in 1760 to Jean Miller, a trader who arrived in Senegal during the British occupation (1758–1783), and an unknown African woman. She married Charles Jean-Baptiste d'Erneville, the son of a Norman naval captain who participated in wars of conquest along the Mississippi. Born in New Orleans, d'Erneville left Louisiana to join his father in France and train as an artillery captain. He served two years in debtors' prison before rejoining the military. In February 1780, at the age of twenty-seven, he arrived in Senegal with a regiment organized to reestablish French control of Saint Louis after Britain lost the territory during the American Revolution. D'Erneville advanced quickly by leading successful military expeditions to upper Senegal. His country-style marriage to Cathy Miller produced four children who achieved notable status as property owners and Senegal River traders. Nicholas (1786–1866) founded a trade house and became the mayor of Saint Louis in 1851. He married Adelaide Crespin, the daughter of Signare Kati Wilcok and Benjamin Crespin, a merchant from Nantes. His brothers, Jean-Baptiste Crespin (1781–1838) and Pierre Crespin (1783–1848) married two daughters of the mayor of Saint Louis, Charles Thevenot.
In 1789, d'Erneville left Saint Louis to assume responsibility for the administration of Gorée, where he established a household with Helene Pateloux. He died there on 2 March 1792. Mariage à la mode du pays, the name given for these unions with African women, typically ended upon the death or permanent departure of the husband from Senegal, thereby allowing a signare the freedom to remarry. Following d'Erneville's departure, Cathy Miller wed Jean- Baptiste Dubrux, an employee of the mercantile company. Their union produced one son, named after his father. On 28 September 1825, he married Desirée Alain, the daughter of Signare Marie Paul Bénis and notable habitant Jean-Jacques Alain, called L'Antillais after his birthplace in Martinique. Signare Cathy Miller witnessed the golden age of métis society in Saint Louis. She lived to see the expansion of new lineages and the growth of a self-conscious métis population during the height of the gum trade. On 10 September 1834, she died in Saint Louis in her seventy-fourth year.
Signares and their métis children gave rise to the development of Creole society in Saint Louis. Signares gave birth to an intermediary class who had the cultural dexterity to move between British, French, or African authorities. Habitants and grumets who developed close ties to European powers used their knowledge of European and African languages, their skill in navigating the Senegal River, and their ability to negotiate with people in the upriver trade depots to play a part in the flow of capital to Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Africans and Europeans participated in the major political events that shaped Western Europe and their colonies in the Americas. French and British soldiers and merchants experienced the Indian wars in North America and geopolitical conflict in Europe as well as the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and a slave revolt in Haiti that transformed colonial society in the French Caribbean. Inhabitants of Saint Louis, like others who lived and worked in port towns across the Atlantic world, absorbed information and developed their responses to the realities they confronted accordingly.
Although Saint Louis emerged as a vibrant port during the transatlantic slave trade and shared commonalities with ports in the Atlantic world, Creole societies did not all operate in the same way. Urban life in Saint Louis developed in relation to the presence of Islam in the Senegal River valley and the migration and settlement of slaves and freepersons from the interior. In addition, the development of Saint Louis as a mercantile port depended on the role that free propertied women played in establishing household life. Signares, their daughters, and the slave women who lived in their households not only provided for the domestic needs of European men but also established the systems needed to organize and facilitate commerce. As the "country wives" of European soldiers and traders, signares produced a group of men and women familiar with the region's social and cultural environment who remained loyal to British and French authorities. The métis, in particular, had the advantage of blood ties to European men that could be evoked in order to claim political power. Colonial ideologies of race, class, and gender afforded métis men the ability to assume positions of leadership within the Saint Louis community.
European travelers who visited the region viewed signares as exotic, seductive beauties. Novelists and filmmakers have perpetuated this tradition, and historians have not done much better as they tend to consider these women either successful entrepreneurs who capitalized on their sexuality or conspirators who facilitated and profited from the slave trade that drew European men to Senegal's island towns. While women's history has made great advances, the gendered aspects of imperialism remain underappreciated. Histories of commercial relations between Europe and Africa and the formation of colonial towns are too often told through the lens of male power and privilege. In the late eighteenth-century, imperialism operated as much through the private, intimate spheres of marriage, household, and sexuality as it did through French policies and practices enacted in its overseas possessions. Saint Louis would not have existed as a viable port town if not for the role that African women played in facilitating commerce, providing domestic services for European men, and producing a class of individuals with the cultural dexterity required to serve as intermediaries and cultural brokers.
Eighteenth-century soldiers and traders left little record of the African women who gave birth to the first métis generation. Genealogical records emphasize patrilineal descent, leaving African women anonymous. Women such as Cathy Miller emerge in the historical record as the overseas companions of European men. Notations in the civil registry, church records, court cases, and family genealogies as well as population statistics provide clues about their names, their professions, their spouses, and the métis lineages that emerged from these interactions, yet they also conceal crucial information. Who was Signare Cathy's mother? Could she have been a grumet (black Catholic)? What kind of household did she grow up in? How did women negotiate their interactions with European soldiers and officials who resided in the island town temporarily? What was their relationship to the increasing numbers of free African migrants who settled in the towns and the slaves who were brought involuntarily to the coast to labor in signare and habitant households? The gendered nature of documentation both conceals and reveals the role that women played in the emergence of the urban community.
Saint Louis society developed as a result of European imperialism and Atlantic commerce, but signares, habitants, grumets, free Muslim Africans, and slaves shaped urban life. Despite the absence of strict racial segregation, social and economic mobility depended on one's proximity to European authority, and biological kinship to European men conferred access to political power. In this fashion, signares, habitants, and grumets constituted the propertied and privileged class of the late eighteenth century. At the same time, autonomy from metropolitan control facilitated the growth of an independent-minded urban community that looked outward to the Atlantic world while remaining firmly connected to African societies of the Senegal River valley. The people of Saint Louis observed the Wolof traditions of the lower Senegal while adopting an outward-looking approach that embraced participation in Atlantic commerce. An urban Wolof town, Saint Louis neither replicated European society nor directly corresponded to the societies of Senegal's mainland.
European Authority in a West African Town (1758–1809)
Saint Louis was founded in the seventeenth century to secure French trade interests on the Senegal River. Located where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean, Saint Louis was uniquely situated between a natural harbor, called the langue de barbarie on the Atlantic Ocean, and the petit bras or little branch of the Senegal River to the east (map 1). The source of the 1,020- mile-long river is located in the highlands of eastern Guinea, where the river meanders north and west through the grassy plains of the savannah and arid expanses of the Sahara's southwestern edge. The river empties at the mouth of the Senegal in the delta region at Saint Louis. The rich floodplains of the river form a natural semiarid boundary known as the sahel. Foreigners understood the river as the frontier between pastoral Bidan (white Moors) who claimed Arab-Berber descent and (black) Wolof, Fulbe, and Soninke people of the pastoral and agricultural settlements on the south bank. For the people of the Senegal River valley, trade, intermarriage, political alliances, and religious affiliation brought Moor, Wolof, Fulbe, and Soninke into regular contact for centuries.
By the mid-sixteenth century, the region of the lower Senegal included three Wolof kingdoms: Walo, Cayor, and Baol. The Denyanke kingdom ruled over the semipastoral Pulaar-speaking population of Fouta Toro in the middle Senegal valley (also known as Toukolor). A multilayered population of Soninke, Mandinka, and Khassonke inhabited the upper Senegal, which was controlled by the Soninke Gajaaga kingdom. Gajaaga's close proximity to the Bambuk gold fields along the Niger River bend as well as all the major trade routes of this region bolstered the kingdom's power as an exporter of slaves, gold, and other commodities.
In 1659, France erected a fort on the island, making Saint Louis the first European fortified trade post on the Senegal. Called Ndar by the Wolof of Walo, Saint Louis offered European ship captains strategic access to human and material commodities controlled by African rulers in the interior. It also offered a suitable climate for European soldiers and the mercantile company employees who were seeking slaves, ivory, gold, and hides. In the seventeenth century, the delta region of the lower Senegal remained sparsely populated. The Wolof kingdoms of Walo and Cayor considered the area a prime location for collecting salt and fishing. The Wolof village of Gandiole, located on the mainland, exercised some autonomy but paid tribute to the Damel of Cayor. Gandiole also supplied salt and provisional goods to foreigners conducting ship-to-shore trade. Inhabitants of Gandiole were probably among the first free African people to establish relations with Europeans and settle in Saint Louis.
One story of the island's origins holds that it was uninhabited before Europeans arrived, except for a few cotton fields that belonged to the Brak of Walo. Other explanations suggest that the territory belonged to Dyambar Diop, the son and successor of the Brak, who ruled over the adjacent island called Sor. A third tale of origin posits that Saint Louis belonged to the head of a semi-independent state attached to Walo that was required to supply soldiers to the king when called upon. One final explanation suggests that the town got its name from a farming village named N'da that once existed as an important market on the salt flats of Leybar before it was displaced by the Saint Louis market. The French named the town after King Louis XIV, but African town residents continued to call it Ndar.
Portuguese navigators located the mouth of the Senegal in 1445. During the sixteenth century, European sailors used this location for an annual ship-to-shore trade. In 1633, when Richelieu decided to embark on a new era of French colonization, he offered a charter to a Norman company. In 1658, the Compagnie du Cap Vert replaced the Normans and received acharter that allowed merchant-investors from Rouen exclusive rights to trade along the Senegal. The company established a base on the nearby island of Bocos, but the settlement suffered from floods that inundated the makeshift fort. In 1659, Dyambar Diop (known to French writers as Jeanne Barre) ceded Ndar to the French. The company built a permanent fort on the island to house employees and supply ships with goods. The French Crown initially administered the settlement through soldiers sent to provide security and oversee the operation. In 1677, Paris granted the Compagnie du Sénégal the exclusive right to export slaves from the Senegal River for sale to plantations in the Caribbean. In exchange, the company agreed to manage the settlement and provide their own security. Appointed by the Crown, the company's director had the authority to negotiate treaties, declare war against European rivals, and administer local justice.
From 1659 to 1758, eight different mercantile companies administered the settlement at Saint Louis. They maintained and staffed the fort, policed the waters, and organized trade. Company policy prohibited cohabitation with African women and did not allow company employees to bring families with them to the colonies. Although not widespread, some company employees looked to African women for domestic needs. In 1716, the Compagnie du Sénégal became part of the operating division of the Compagnie des Indes. The new company opened trade in the region to all French ships that paid a tax. These reforms allowed the company to focus its attention on the river trade rather than the ocean trade. The company's director concentrated on securing and transporting goods from the river posts, called escales, to independent shippers on the coast.
Two years earlier, André Bruë, the company director, established Fort Saint Joseph at Galam, where the Senegal River meets one of its tributaries, the Falémé. The fort served as a strategic base for French trade with the Soninke of Gajaaga, who held a monopoly on slave trading in the region. After 1850, Gajaaga became an increasingly important source of gum arabic from acacia trees along the Senegal. The French position at Gajaaga became even more valuable when gum overtook the slave trade in the volume of French exports. Establishing a fort at Galam, moreover, allowed the small staff of French soldiers to intercept English caravans headed toward the Gambia River.
Company rule dissolved when Britain's victory in the Seven Years' War ousted France from Senegal. British occupation marked a turning point in the growth and development of the coastal towns. French officials armed the free African residents who lived in close proximity to the fort and who fought to defend the settlement from British attack. In 1758, Britain seized Gorée, and Saint Louis fell shortly thereafter. During the period of British occupation, Saint Louis residents sought protection under British law, perhaps opting for security under European rule rather than recognizing the sovereignty of the Wolof kingdoms over the territory of Ndar. Although European rule remained inherently unstable and unpredictable, residents expressed loyalty to France but considered British officials the new authority of the port town.
Excerpted from The Métis of Senegal by Hilary Jones. Copyright © 2013 Hilary Jones. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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