Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Chapter 9: Women Merchants and Slave Depots: Saint-Louis, Senegal, and St. Mary’s, Madagascar

A depiction of a Senegalese signare by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur

In the ninth chapter of Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images, Wendy Wilson-Fall examines eighteenth-century Afro-Creole women traders, a subject neglected by scholars. Known as in-betweens, collaborators, and sometimes symbols of Westernization, creolization, and amalgamation in West African and Indian slave ports, these women married Europeans and created a niche where they could achieve a degree of social and economic comfort; in doing so, they reshaped African and Malagasy identities and groups.

The hybrid spaces that these women helped construct in turn provided opportunities for their extensive construction of alternative identities as “powerful women”; one aspect of this alternative identity was wealth accumulation. Newly manumitted or freeborn women, they were cultural brokers, actors in both African and European situations. In today’s public renditions, they are not often cited as female slave traders or as strong and possibly dangerous individuals who straddled the European and African communities. But in light of documentation referring to their wealth, their ownership of many slaves, or their participation in slave trading (examples are discussed in what follows), these women merchants must have been dangerous to some people, including the women who became their domestic slaves or captives meant for sale. The image of the Senegalese signare or the Malagasy mothers of the zany malatta remains rather two dimensional in the current public imagination, possibly a reflection of the powerful women’s problematic historical roles in local memory. 

These female figures have (perhaps retrospectively) been assigned a limited social space between white and black, when in fact their emergence from complex African and Malagasy societies suggests that they accessed multiple and diverse networks extending from local kinship-based relations among locals to the inclusion of European foreigners who were residents or commercial visitors. The women had to be socially active in both communities in order to be successful. 

Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images edited by Ana Lucia Araujo is available in hardcover. It is also available in different ebook formats, which start at $19.99 to purchase and $9.99 to rent. Professors who wish to use this book along with others in the slavery studies collection for their classes should use the Cambria Book Cloud, which allows for the bundling of ebooks at only $9.99 per title for each student.