Signares: The Powerful West African Women of the Atlantic Slave Trade

The Signares were a group of powerful African women in the Atlantic slave trade who controlled the export of enslaved Africans from West Africa to the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries..

Signares: The Powerful West African Women of the Atlantic Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade, which lasted from the 16th to the 19th century, was a brutal period in human history that saw millions of Africans forcibly taken from their homes and transported across the ocean to work on plantations in the Americas. It was a trade that was fueled by the greed of European slave traders and enabled by the cooperation of African chiefs, as well as by influential female merchants known as Signares.

Who were the Signares?

The term “Signare” comes from the Portuguese word “senhora” which means “lady.” It was used to refer to the African women who were married to European traders or were in a relationship with them. Signares were usually of mixed race, and their children were referred to as “mulattos.” These women were highly respected in their communities, and they used their power and influence to benefit their families and their businesses. Possessing knowledge of African and European cultures and the ability to speak multiple languages, they played a critical role as intermediaries in the trade of goods, including slaves, gold, and textiles in the region.

Signares in Senegal
A signare with her slaves ©Gallica

The rise of the Signares can be traced back to the 18th century when European traders began to establish trading posts along the West African coast. As the trade in enslaved Africans grew, European traders began forming relationships with local women, resulting in the birth of mixed-race children. As these mixed-race children matured, those who married European traders came to be known as Signares.

Signares were involved in various aspects of the slave trade, including the buying, transportation, and sale of slaves. They often acted as intermediaries between European traders and African slave traders.

Over time, some of these women became wealthy and powerful in their own right, and they used their resources and connections to build successful businesses.

Signares were found in several West African countries, including Senegal, the Gambia, and Sierra Leone. They were particularly prominent in the island-settlements of Gorée and Saint Louis. Here, they were considered a title that referred to African and Afro-European women who owned property and achieved high social standing.

Anna Colas Pépin, born in 1787 to a French father and an African mother, was one of the most famous Signares in Gorée, Senegal. She married a French naval officer named Nicolas Pépin and together, they built a prosperous trading network that spanned the region. Anna was highly regarded for her astute business acumen and ability to navigate the intricate trade relationships between West Africa and Europe.

Another influential Signare was Anne Rossignol, a renowned businesswoman and slave trader who hailed from Gorée island. She migrated to Saint-Domingue in 1775, where she became one of the wealthiest free colored businesswomen in the colony. During the Haitian Revolution, she emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina, and is considered the first free African to have migrated voluntarily and freely to the United States.

Dame Portugaise, the daughter of a Portuguese man and an African woman, was also a noteworthy Signare. Based in Rufisque, she established herself as a slave trader and merchant, serving as a vital conduit between the Portuguese and the African rulers of the area. Through her connections with both parties, she effectively controlled the entire business between the Europeans and Africans in the region.

Signares: The Powerful West African Women of the Atlantic Slave Trade
A Signare woman from the Island of Saint Louis in Senegal, accompanied by her slave, Illustration from Costumes civils de tous les peuples connus, Paris, 1788, by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur 

The practice of European traders marrying locals for for commercial alliances gradually declined in the mid-19th century for several reasons. The abolition of slavery in Senegal in 1848 was a major contributing factor. Moreover, colonial officials became less tolerant of signare marriages and relationships as they believed it disrupted the established racial hierarchy and social structure. Additionally, with the increasing dominance of European powers in Africa, the economic and political landscape changed. As a result, European merchants and officials had less need for signare partnerships, which led to the gradual decline of the practice.

Mr Madu
Mr Madu
Mr Madu is a freelance writer, a lover of Africa and a frequent hiker who loves long, vigorous walks, usually on hills or mountains.

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