Free Woman of Color, Senegal, 1780s

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This record was last updated on 25 Aug 2010

Image Reference

René Claude Geoffroy de Villeneuve, L'Afrique, ou histoire, moeurs, usages et coutumes des africains: le Sénégal (Paris, 1814), vol. 1, facing p. 69. (Copy in Special Collections, University of Virginia Library)

Caption, "Signar ou femme de coleur du Sénégal"; woman shown in elaborate dress, house in background. Villeneuve writes that women of color and free black women assume the Portuguese title of "signare" or "niara"; they live voluntarily with European men in a sort of marriage and view themselves as the legitimate spouses of these men, remaining faithful, and giving the father's name to the children who result from this union. He provides a detailed description of their clothing, adding that gold earrings, necklaces, and bracelets form part of their ensemble (vol. 1, pp. 68-69). Villeneuve lived in the Senegal region for about two years in the mid-to-late 1780s. The engravings in his book, he writes, were made from drawings that were mostly done on the spot during his African residence (vol. 1, pp. v-vi). The same illustration appears in color in the English translation of Villeneuve; see Frederic Shoberl (ed.), Africa; containing a description of the manners and customs, with some historical particulars of the Moors of the Zahara . . . (London, 1821), vol. 2, facing p. 31.