Portrait of an Island: The Architecture and Material Culture of Gorée, Sénégal, 1758-1837

Portrait of an Island: The Architecture and Material Culture of Gorée, Sénégal, 1758-1837

by Mark Hinchman
Portrait of an Island: The Architecture and Material Culture of Gorée, Sénégal, 1758-1837

Portrait of an Island: The Architecture and Material Culture of Gorée, Sénégal, 1758-1837

by Mark Hinchman


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The once famous trading center of Gorée, Sénégal today lies in the busy harbor of the modern city of Dakar. From its beginnings as a modest outpost, Gorée became one of the intersections which linked African trading routes to the European Atlantic trade. Then, as now, people of all nationalities poured into the island; Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese came to trade with the Mande, Moor, Tukor, and Wolf tribes. Trading parties brought gold, horses, firewood, mirrors, books, and more. They built houses of various forms, using American lumber, French roof tiles, freshly‑cut straw, and pulverized seashells, and furnished them in as cosmopolitan a fashion as the city itself.

Mark Hinchman's Portrait of an Island: The Architecture and Material Culture of Gorée, Sénégal, 1758‑1837 considers the houses, portraits, and furnishings of the island's early modern inhabitants. Multiple features of eighteenth‑century Gorée‑‑its demographic diversity, the prominence of women leaders, the phenomenon of identities in flux, and the importance of commerce, fashion, and international trade‑‑argue for its place in the construction of an early global modernity. In an examination of the built and natural landscape, Portrait of an Island deciphers the material culture involved in the ever‑changing relationships amongst male, female, rich, poor, and slave.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803280892
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Series: Early Modern Cultural Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 432
File size: 15 MB
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About the Author

Mark Hinchman is an associate professor in the Design School at Taylors University, Malaysia, and a professor in the Interior Design Program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the author of History of Furniture: A Global View and The Fairchild Dictionary of Interior Design.

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Portrait of an Island

The Architecture and Material Culture of Gorée, Sénégal, 1758â"1837

By Mark Hinchman


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8089-2


The Natural Landscape

The Island and Cartography

Adolphe d'Hastrel's (1805–70) landscape of Dakar, from the mid-nineteenth century, captures that city in its pastoral infancy and gives few hints of the metropolis that would develop in the twentieth century (fig. 4). An ethnographic landscape, it belongs to a series of landscapes d'Hastrel painted in which each painting focuses on a specific locale and its unique "identity." In this vignette of the Cap Vert landmass, trees, birds, and domesticated animals surround a hamlet. Groups of people mill about, dispersed throughout the painting, and none is engaged in a terribly strenuous activity. One striking aspect of this painting is that it firmly belongs to the tradition of European landscape painting, yet is composed of elements foreign to European agriculture. Looked at quickly, it could be a field in Provence. On closer inspection details start to emerge, such as the pointed houses, reed fences, baobab, neem, and palm trees. Most of the activities take place in the fore and middle grounds. The middle ground and the background run parallel to the picture plane, heightening a sense of flatness.

This view accurately exhibits several activities of a small village. A feeling of serenity predominates, although after looking at the image for a while, a variety of decentralized activities slowly reveal themselves. A viewer of the painting thus experiences the landscape in a way that echoes the experience of a visitor to a Wolof or Lebu home.

Some people stand, some sit, some walk. Women pound millet while chatting with others. Birds hover in the sky, and a few wispy clouds indicate little air movement. To the right, accompanied by a dog, a man goes off to hunt. Two French soldiers speak with an African woman in front of her house (background, left); one rests his gun on his shoulder. The soldiers are so casual that they could have stepped out of Georges Seurat's L'Après-Midi à l'île de la Grande Jatte. The nonplussed woman with whom they speak does not interrupt her work. They appear to be less a reference to the French military and more a straightforward recognition of the professional occupation of a portion of the European population. An alternate interpretation recognizes that the conventions of pastoral landscapes being what they are, even a subtle disruption of the pastoral harmony, two soldiers with guns, is ominous.

In d'Hastrel's painting, the village of Dakar comprises several family compounds. Each compound, in turn, has several structures. A reed fence, a tapade, encloses each yard. The muted colors of the composition convey the mild but still warm climatic conditions of the point where the African Sahel meets the Atlantic. The light is diffused and hazy, in contrast to the blinding light and cloudless blue skies that extend over the peninsula most of the year. With neither the searing heat of the desert nor the humid lushness of the forests to the south, the Cap Vert peninsula has a temperate climate that supports limited agriculture.

A timeless rather than a particular view, the only elements that overtly date the picture are the rifles, held by Africans and Europeans, and the people's clothing. The painting presents an ideal landscape with few exceptional elements. Although its title refers to Dakar, in the tradition of ethnographic landscapes, the lack of particularity suggests that it represents a typical West African village. It captures a fleeting moment, nothing of historical importance occurs, and no structure in this view is constructed of permanent materials.

As it shows the beginnings of the city that becomes one of Africa's most vibrant urban centers, it also suggests the West African landscape prior to its urbanization. Before the construction of rectilinear masonry houses on Gorée, as the early maps attest, most of what existed was a naturalistic landscape. D'Hastrel's painting gives a good idea of the appearance of Gorée's African villages prior to the island's urban growth.

This book is a history of the built environment and uses visual materials to help understand what things looked like in the past. Landscapes have a memory, and while they are a product of their time, judiciously and cautiously approached, they can give hints about the built environment of previous and subsequent periods. D'Hastrel's painting gives a reasonably accurate rendition of the appearance of precolonial African landscapes or landscapes in which the European influence was minimal. Returning to d'Hastrel's view and peeling away its nineteenth-century pictorial conventions can reveal centuries of village traditions.

The central purpose with this book is to examine Goréen architecture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and this chapter sets the stage for that exploration of privately owned African masonry houses. The overview of the essential historic and demographic information draws heavily upon the scholarship of others. The purpose is to see the regional African origins of Goréen architecture, for all the features for which Goréen buildings are known exist in other West African architectural traditions. This book's effective contribution starts with the second half of this chapter, which examines the changing landscape of Gorée. The island developed from several autonomous African villages set within a natural landscape to a unified urban entity. Materially the change was from straw to stone.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 examine how multiple identities emerged on the exceptionally diverse island of Gorée and how urban form, houses, and their contents were part of the process. Stuart Hall discusses two ways of thinking about identity, one characterized by its stability, the other by its dynamism. The first kind of identity indicates a "shared culture, a sort of collective one true self." This implies a stable frame of reference that Hall describes as a matter of being. Another way of thinking about identity, a dynamic way is, in contrast, a matter of becoming. This second scenario concerns an identity in flux, that Hall describes as "never finished or completed, but [that] keeps on moving to encompass other, additional or supplementary meanings." Art historian Peter Mark's work confirms Hall's theoretical position when he emphasizes that identity, as related to Senegambian material culture, particularly architecture, "is the product of a continuous process, or more precisely, a continuously dynamic process."

Looking at the maps of Gorée in chronological order as presented here gives the impression that the eighteenth century on the island started out as a mostly naturalistic landscape and that by century's end a cohesive urban and architectural fabric had replaced a scrubby plain. By 1821, almost all the island's nooks and crannies reveal humanity's touch. This was mostly the result of capitalism (although with significant political maneuvers, to be sure), a compilation of individual decisions to streamline trading operations and to invest profits in increasingly elaborate houses. The dominant features of the island were not the result of urban designs implemented from on high. To emphasize the uniformity of the architectural backdrop is not to suggest that everyone lived equally. On the contrary, an African male sleeping on a mat in a one-room straw dwelling materially lived differently than a mixed-race woman sleeping on a dressed bed on the second floor of a masonry house. The point is that there was no consistent segregation by race, ethnicity, religion, class, or sex. The two hypothetical sleeping figures could have been within earshot of each other. Blacks and whites, Africans and Europeans, masters and slaves, lived side by side and had ongoing exposure to the products and materials of global trade. The cross-currents of people and things on the island were set in motion by encounters that started some three hundred years previously.


The fifteenth century marks an important shift for the Senegambian region, a change from the dominance of Saharan trade and polities centered on the Niger River bend. This political recentering westward was prompted by two significant events: the decline of Malian (Mande) influence, and the arrival of the Portuguese on the West African coast. From this point on, Senegambia ceased to be the Saharan periphery, but acted as a gateway that connected the African interior to the Atlantic world.

In 1444 Portuguese explorer Denis Diaz sailed by without landing at the mouth of the Senegal River. Diaz missed an island in the middle of the river, slightly to the north where the river opens into the Atlantic Ocean. The Wolof from the neighboring state of Waalo called the island N'dar. It is understandable that Diaz's navigator would miss this significant hydrographic feature, as the island lies upriver a good distance from the mouth of the Senegal River and hence was undetectable from the Atlantic. Some two centuries after Diaz, the island of N'dar became the trading post which the French, in 1643, named Saint-Louis du Sénégal in honor of King Louis XIII. Further south, Diaz and his crew arrived at another island which the Africans on the mainland called Ber. Diaz called this island Palma; centuries later it would be called Gorée (figs. 1 and 12). Considering the first Europeans who arrived on the coast begs a basic question: Were Africans already there? Did Portuguese traders seize lands that Wolof or Lebu people felt belonged to them? Leaders of these groups did not claim N'dar or Ber. For West Africans, these islands were not valuable property: N'dar was sandy, Ber was rocky, and both lacked ample supplies of fresh water and resisted the cultivation of crops. Three centuries after Diaz, Isaaco, the African who accompanied Mungo Park on his final journey, tellingly describes Saint-Louis as "the white men's country." Park noted that the people of inland African states considered much of the coast unhealthy and hence the coast was underpopulated. Africans sought access to the economic opportunities of the ports, but that did not translate into territorial claims.

History, People, and Land

The regional identity that West African historian Boubacar Barry ascribes to this area did not formally exist in the early period. The name Senegal did not refer to the region but denoted the Senegal River. Once Saint-Louis was founded, Senegal indicated that city or people from it. People from elsewhere in the area, such as Gorée, would not describe themselves as Senegalese. Thus when inland Africans arrived at Saint-Louis or Gorée, they probably felt as though they were entering foreign territory or at least as though they had left their own region. From its mid-fifteenth-century inception as a permanently occupied site, the nascent community of Gorée was associated with Europeans, mixed-race Africans, and Atlantic trade.

The largest ethnic group on the mainland, then as now, were the Wolof who, at the time European traders arrived, inhabited the states of Waalo, Kajoor, Jolof, and Bawol. The Lebu inhabited the peninsula, Cap-Vert, which forms the westernmost part of Africa; the island of Gorée lies slightly to its south. (Cap-Vert is not to be confused with the Cape Verde Islands, which were also a destination of Portuguese explorers.)

During the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries several European countries were intermittently vying for control of the islands, with the Portuguese and the Dutch as the most significant players. In 1617, a contract between the Dutch East India Company and the Lebu King Biram of Cap-Vert confirmed that the Dutch controlled the island of Palma. Because of its natural harbor, the Dutch called the island Goede Reede, which literally meant "good port (or road)." The name of the island today is a French variation of its Dutch name.

The simplified version of events presented here stresses that Europeans arrived at a pivotal moment in West African history. Because of wars, revolutions, and restorations, the great age of consolidated Wolof power for the region had ended. As European resolve and power was strengthening, the Senegambian indigenous states were disintegrating and Islam was expanding.

Relations among the European powers present in Africa were equally contentious. Toward the end of the seventeenth century and during the eighteenth century, England and France were increasingly the dominant players in an early version of the scramble for Africa. The Portuguese recaptured Gorée from the Dutch in 1629.13 South of Gorée, in 1651, the English built Fort Saint James on the Gambia River. The French founded Saint-Louis in 1659 on the island of N'dar.

In 1667, the English seized Gorée from the Portuguese. A year later, it was taken by the French. For most of the eighteenth century, the French controlled Gorée and Saint-Louis, but there were several English occupations. In 1693, the English briefly occupied Saint-Louis. The more significant English occupations occurred in the middle of the eighteenth century; the English controlled Saint-Louis from 1758 to 1779 and Gorée from 1758 to 1763. They occupied both islands for the last time from 1809 to 1817. This history of occupations suggests a volatility that affected the African inhabitants less and, in fact, was one of the mechanisms that put power and property into African hands. When European leadership changed, Africans were the operational source of continuity. English and French men who had formed relationships with African women often gave title of their properties to their African wives and children rather than see members of the new occupying power seize them.

With the French on Gorée, and the Gambia River under English control, by the mid-seventeenth century the Portuguese held only the smaller trading centers of Arguin and Portendick. The Portuguese presence lived on, however, through the considerable influence of the Afro-Portuguese on the mainland. As the French and British consolidated their power in a few highly fortified trading centers, the Afro-Portuguese were widespread in many smaller trading villages extending southwards, from Gorée to Guinea.

An early example of the privatization of government operations, England, France, and Holland controlled their overseas operations through chartered trading companies. These private companies enjoyed varying degrees of governmental authority and were granted allegedly lucrative trading monopolies. Three companies were initially established: the Royal African Company (1625), the French West India Company (1664), and the Dutch West India Company (1625).

The rapid succession of trading companies complicated the continuity of European dominance. These companies wavered between serving as arms of the government and operating as privately owned companies. European rulers preferred this offhand system of government because it required little investment on their part. For much of the eighteenth century, European continental conflicts demanded the monarchs' attention. During the period covered by this study, France had three revolutions, two constitutional monarchies, two republics, and two empires. Contrary to the notion that overseas expansion was Europe's highest priority, during the early colonial period, overseas operations were frequently ignored and woefully underfunded, and the chartered trading companies regularly went bankrupt. When one company went bankrupt, another received official status.

Dakar-based historian Joseph Roger de Benoist lists some of the many companies that were granted monopolies for the Senegal region: La Compagnie Normande, 1624; la Compagnie des Indes occidentales, 1672; la Compagnie du Sénégal/Compagnie de Guinée, 1685; la Compagnie royale du Sénégal, 1696; le groupe d'Appougny, 1709; le groupe Mustellier; Compagnie d'Occident, 1717; le marché du Sénégal, 1718; royal Compagnie perpétuelle des Indes, 1719; Société de Guinée/Société d'Angola ... This partial list strongly indicates a lack of operational consistency on the part of French authorities.

The population of Gorée was more diverse than even this simplified history suggests. In addition to Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese (if not as residents but as visitors), there were Americans, Danes, Germans, Russians, Swedes, and Swiss. On the African side, in addition to Lebu, Sereer, Peul, and Wolof, there were Bambara, Jola, Manding, and Moors. Most of the Africans were Muslim, while a number of mixed-race Africans were Catholic. A small number of black Africans were Catholic. Catholic and Muslim commentators alike noticed that religious worship often incorporated elements from African traditional religious practices.

Trade: Ivory, Leather, Gold, and Blacks

Gorée was a trading post, one of the nodes that connected inter-African trade, both coastal and inland, to European Atlantic trade. Within the African continent, trade goods were moved according to a relay system. In this system, individual traders transported goods over a specific short trade route, and then traded them to another trader who transported them over the next specific route (rather than a single trader accompanying the goods along the entire route, from their point of production to their ultimate sale to a European ship). For Saint-Louis, the trade originated in the West African Sudan and came by way of the Senegal River. Gorée, far from any river, was the destination of overland (caravan) and coastal trading routes. Thus inter-African trade, river, caravan, and coastal, was largely in African hands, and ocean trade was in European hands. Gorée was a point where the two trading spheres connected.


Excerpted from Portrait of an Island by Mark Hinchman. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction: An Interdisciplinary Stroll in Early Modern West Africa,
1. The Natural Landscape: The Island and Cartography,
2. The Built Landscape: Architecture and Urbanism,
3. The Elite: Patrons, Critics, and Fans,
4. The Middle: Occupational Groups,
5. The Bottom Rung: Servants and Slaves,
6. Things: Houses and Their Contents,
Conclusion: Building Memories,
Appendix of Tables,

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