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

Posted in Africa, History, Live Events, Papers/Presentations, Slavery, Women on 2012-11-25 05:39Z by Steven

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

127th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association
New Orleans, Louisiana
2013-01-03 through 2013-01-06

AHA Session 153
Saturday, 2013-01-05: 09:00-11:00 CST (Local Time)
Chamber Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans)

Chair: Hilary Jones, University of Maryland, College Park


Comment: Lorelle D. Semley, College of the Holy Cross

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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“Portuguese” Style and Luso-African Identity: Precolonial Senegambia, Sixteenth-Nineteenth Centuries

Posted in Africa, Anthropology, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs on 2011-10-22 18:00Z by Steven

“Portuguese” Style and Luso-African Identity: Precolonial Senegambia, Sixteenth-Nineteenth Centuries

Indiana University Press
224 pages
32 b&w photos, 2 maps, 1 index
6.125 x 9.25
ISBN: 978-0-253-21552-9

Peter Mark, Professor of Art History
Wesleyan University

In this detailed history of domestic architecture in West Africa, Peter Mark shows how building styles are closely associated with social status and ethnic identity. Mark documents the ways in which local architecture was transformed by long-distance trade and complex social and cultural interactions between local Africans, African traders from the interior, and the Portuguese explorers and traders who settled in the Senegambia region. What came to be known as “Portuguese” style symbolized the wealth and power of Luso-Africans, who identified themselves as “Portuguese” so they could be distinguished from their African neighbors. They were traders, spoke Creole, and practiced Christianity. But what did this mean? Drawing from travelers’ accounts, maps, engravings, paintings, and photographs, Mark argues that both the style of “Portuguese” houses and the identity of those who lived in them were extremely fluid. “Portuguese” Style and Luso-African Identity sheds light on the dynamic relationship between identity formation, social change, and material culture in West Africa.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • ONE: The Evolution of “Portuguese” Identity: Luso-Africans on the Upper Guinea Coast from the 16th to the Early 19th-Century
  • TWO: Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Architecture in the Gambia-Geba Region and the Articulation of Luso-African Ethnicity
  • THREE: Reconstructing West African Architectural History: Images of Seventeenth-Century “Portuguese” Style Houses in Brazil
  • FOUR: “The People There Are Beginning to Take on English Manners”: Mixed Manners in Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth-Century Gambia
  • FIVE: Senegambia from the Mid-Eighteenth Century to the Mid-Nineteenth Century
  • SIX: Casamance Architecture from 1850 to the Establishment of Colonial Administration
  • Conclusions and Observations
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, and Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

Posted in Africa, Anthropology, Books, History, Monographs, Religion on 2010-12-17 05:54Z by Steven

Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, and Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

Ohio University Press / Swallow Press
392 pages
6¹⁄₈ x 9¼
Copublished with James Currey, Oxford OCBCEK
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-8214-1485-9
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8214-1486-6

George E. Brooks, Emeritus Professor of History
Indiana University, Bloomington

Eurafricans in Western Africa traces the rich social and commercial history of western Africa. The most comprehensive study to date, it begins prior to the sixteenth century when huge profits made by middlemen on trade in North African slaves, salt, gold, pepper, and numerous other commodities prompted Portuguese reconnaissance voyages along the coast of western Africa. From Senegal to Sierra Leone, Portuguese, including “New Christians” who reverted to Judaism while living in western Africa, thrived where riverine and caravan networks linked many African groups.

Portuguese and their Luso-African descendants contended with French, Dutch, and English rivals for trade in gold, ivory, slaves, cotton textiles, iron bars, cowhides, and other African products. As the Atlantic slave trade increased, French and Franco-Africans and English and Anglo-Africans supplanted Portuguese and Luso-Africans in many African places of trade.

Eurafricans in Western Africa follows the changes that took root in the eighteenth century when French and British colonial officials introduced European legal codes, and concludes with the onset of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, when suppression of the slave trade and expanding commerce in forest and agricultural commodities again transformed circumstances in western Africa.

Professor George E. Brooks’s outstanding history of these vital aspects of western Africa is enriched by his discussion of the roles of the women who married or cohabited with European traders. Through accounts of incidents and personal histories, which are integrated into the narrative, the lives of these women and their children are accorded a prominent place in Professor Brooks’s fascinating discussion of this dynamic region of Africa.

Table of Contents

  • List of Maps
  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Western Africa Ecological Zones and Human Geography
  • Chapter 2: Commercial Networks Biafada-Sapi, Banyun-Bak, and Cabo Verdean–Lançado
  • Chapter 3: Portuguese, Luso-Africans, and European Competitors
  • Chapter 4: Western Africa and the Onset of an Era of Droughts, Famines, and Global Economic Transformations
  • Chapter 5: The Evolution of “Nharaship” in Senegambia
  • Chapter 6: Trade with the Kaabu Empire and Serra Leoa
  • Chapter 7: Era of the Second Cacheu Company
  • Chapter 8: Expanding Slave-Trading Networks and the Corruption of African Social and Cultural Patterns
  • Chapter 9: Senegambia Luso-Africans Supplanted by Franco-Africans
  • Chapter 10: Geba-Grande and Serra Leoa Luso-Africans Challenged and Supplanted by Anglo-Africans
  • References
  • Index


The geographic scope of this book was essentially determined by Eurafricans and their African landlords, while many of the chronological chapter breaks derived from the disruptions to trade caused by European wars and commerce raiding. Western Africa, depicted on Map 1.1, extends some three thousand kilometers from the Senegal River in the north to the Bandama River in the south and fifteen hundred kilometers east from the Atlantic littoral to the bend of the Niger River, equivalent to the part of the United States that lies east of the Mississippi River. The great majority of the inhabitants of this vast and geographically diverse territory speak languages belonging to two principal families—West Atlantic and Mande, the former principally in coastal regions, the latter mainly in the interior.

The peoples of western Africa have been linked by commercial networks since ancient times. Mande-speaking traders and smiths pioneered caravan routes from the interior that connected the riverine networks of West Atlantic–speaking groups, promoting long-distance trade in salt, gold, iron, kola, malaguetta pepper, and numerous other commodities. By the third century a.d., western Africa’s trade networks connected trans-Saharan routes, and exchanges with North Africa multiplied over the centuries. The huge profit that Maghrebian middlemen exacted from Europeans for gold, ivory, malaguetta pepper, and other western African commodities was a principal factor promoting Portuguese reconnaissance voyages along the coast of western Africa during the fifteenth century.

When Portuguese mariners arrived in western Africa, they were constrained to accommodate to centuries-old landlord-stranger reciprocities concerning the host societies’ treatment of itinerant traders, hunters, migrants, and other travelers. Portuguese had to use African modes of barter commerce, pay tolls and taxes, visit only where they were invited by African hosts, and adhere to local customs and practices while ashore. Lançados—venturesome Portuguese and Luso-African inhabitants of the Cape Verde Islands, who were allowed to reside in African communities—were subject to numerous constraints. African landlords refused to rent lançados more land than needed for dwellings and stores, rendering them dependent on indigenous communities for food, water, and other necessities. Of inestimable consequence for the lançados, however, they, like African strangers, were permitted to cohabit with local women, usually relatives or dependents of infuential members of communities who sought the advantages that came with affiliation with foreign traders. Wives were invaluable to the lançados as interpreters of languages and cultures and as collaborators in commercial exchanges—roles subsequently undertaken by many of their Luso-African children.

Luso-Africans, the children of Portuguese traders and African women, represented a new and unprecedented element in western African societies. In social and cultural terms, these children, raised in African communities, acquired much more of the heritage of their mothers than of their Portuguese fathers, many of whom died or departed after a brief stay. This imbalance is conveyed in the word Luso-African itself, in which the short prefix Luso (derived from Lusitania, the Roman name for the area of Portugal) is combined with the longer African. The same can be said for the words Anglo-African and Franco-African, as well. Eurafrican serves as a generic term.

Raised in African societies, Eurafricans’ lifeways were chiefy determined by the social status of their mothers. But there were significant differences in this regard between stratified and acephalous societies. The stratified and patrilineal societies of SenegambiaWolof, Serer, and Mandinkaexcluded Portuguese and Luso-Africans from marrying free persons. Luso-African children were denied membership in the “power associations” that educated youths and conferred adult status in these societies. Social outcasts, Luso-Africans lacked the rights and privileges of other members of their age sets, including the right to cultivate land. Luso-African males in these societies sought employment as sailors, interpreters, and compradors working for Portuguese and fellow Luso-Africans, with the bleak prospect that whatever wealth and possessions they acquired would be expropriated by rulers and other elites. Female Luso-Africans shared the same disabilities and became interpreters and intermediaries for European traders and African elites. Luso-African men and women contested their pariah status. They wore European-style garments, displayed crucifixes and rosaries attesting their adherence to Catholicism, spoke Crioulo (which derived from Portuguese and West Atlantic languages), and asserted that they were “Portuguese,” “whites,” and “Christians”—claims derided by Portuguese and other Europeans…

Read the entire Introduction here.

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