The Atlantic World produced a dynamic of sustained encounter among Europeans, Native Americans and Africans and African-descended people. One of the most visible products of this phenomenon was interracial procreation, a topic that has long fascinated scholars and the general public alike. “Miscegenation” is the term most Americans are familiar with, but in this unit we promote the use of a different term that carries different connotations: métissage.
“Miscegenation” is a word that was coined by a racist pamphleteer in New York in 1863: Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. The author intended it to be pejorative and its use is widely rejected by scholars of African American history and culture on that basis. There is another problem with using this term to describe what happened in the Atlantic world: since it didn’t exist before 1863 it is anacharonistic to use it to describe what happened in the 1700s. The term that French speakers used before 1863 was métissage, which means mixing. This is the term that scholars today prefer.
New Orleans, Gorée, and Saint-Louis du Senegal all had mixed race populations produced by métissage. A large population of free people of color emerged in late colonial New Orleans as a result of liberalized Spanish colonial manumission policies. While not all were the products of métissage, a mixed racial origin has been assumed for many of them. Although stigmatized by an increasingly racist culture, many free people of color achieved economic success and social prominence. Some were slave owners. Men served in a free black militia and fought on the side of the 13 colonies in the American Revolution. New Orleans free women of color were mythologized in the 19th century as “quadroons,” exotic sex virtuosos whose object was to seduce white men. Recent scholarship, however, reveals them to have been faithful wives to free men of color who met the same standards of respectability and piety that defined the ideal of true womanhood for antebellum white women.
In Senegal, the population produced by métissage, as well as their descendants, are known collectively as the métis. Unlike the free people of color in New Orleans, whose origins lie in manumission from slavery, the métis were descended from unions between free African women and French merchants and officials who came to Senegal in connection with the slave trade. This commerce depended on forging relationships with coastal African traders and leaders who controlled access to the commodities shipped from their coastal ports. One of the most common forms these relationships took was a partnership — of both a sexual and a business nature — between French men and well-connected African women in the port cities of Gorée and Saint-Louis. These women were known as signares, an honorific title for a woman of means and high social standing derived from the Portuguese who first established trade on the West African coast. Like the mythic quadroons of antebellum New Orleans, the signares were imagined to be principally engaged in satisfying the sexual desires of white men. In fact, they were powerful businesswomen who controlled European access to the source of captives who supplied the transatlantic slave trade. More than a few of them were slave traders themselves who kept their human merchandise in the basements of their elaborate two-story mansions until they were sold into the Middle Passage. The famous “House of Slaves” in Gorée was the home of one such signare.
The descendants of the signares and their French partners formed an influential métis population in Gorée and Saint-Louis. They spoke French and practiced Catholicism. Many became fabulously wealthy in the 19th century when the trade in gum arabic replaced the slave trade as Senegambia’s most profitable export. When France abolished slavery in 1848 and initiated a new, more intrusive colonial project in West Africa, the métis played a critical role in negotiating political and cultural space for Africans under the new regime.