Recovering women’s lives and voices in African history is difficult as so much of the history of pre-colonial Africa in particular is documented by the traveler’s account, missionary report, or captain’s comments. These sources are male authored and frequently deal with women in very vague and general ways. As a result, most of the authors in this excellent collection of essays use sources generated by the colonial presence in coastal enclaves and Angola. Of all the authors in this book, only Adam Jones explores the position of the peculiar institution of general prostitution (if that is what the institution really can be called) using the more frequent travelers’ reports.
The use of “mundane records” generated by the colonial state or by European communities based in Africa, is a common thread in the social history of colonial America, especially in Latin America where scholarship using these sources is commonplace. Typically, they include property records, wills and inventories, legal investigations and court cases, among other documents, and can provide often interesting vignettes. Such an approach is especially welcome for Africa where normally these sorts of sources were not generated by the African societies outside of the Islamic regions.
Since women are rare even in these sources, the studies here frequently apply a methodology of case studies, taking a few well documented mini-biographies and elaborating them into stories, or alternatively, relying on statistical analysis of landholding and census data. Assan Saar, for example takes three case studies to illustrate land holding patterns and access to particular types of fields as a way of interpreting statistical data in Gambia; Ademide Adelusi-Adeluyi studies the varying life stories of two slave girls as they seek to transit to freedom as a way of showing the malleability of status in the Lagos region in the period of Abolition. Kristin Mann takes a single biography of a slave girl in her complex trans-Atlantic life, complete with several name changes between Lagos and Brazil, while also negotiating issues of race, status and gender.
The signares of Senegal have a long history in women’s studies thanks to their role as temporary wives of powerful merchants, and stories complicating the received understanding of them has been enriched here. Lorelle Semley follows a single signare of Senegal to Saint Domingue and ultimately to South Carolina in a tale of trans-Atlantic mobility; Hilary Jones relies on a remarkable family diary to illustrate relations among signares and to challenge the notions of signares as romantic, exotic or manipulative figures and put them more fully in history as complex people with affective relationships and meaningful business interests. While Hope Esperança, the object of Colleen Kriger’s study of her life from a slave girl in the Gambia to a prominent woman in London and the businesswoman back in the Gambia, was not a signare, her story is in many ways like those of the signares.
Many of the studies involve areas in which European or locally adopted European law counted, such as land ownership and marriage rules (along with keeping written documentation). African law has proven more difficult to assess, and this particularly true when the subjects of the studies are in situations between the two. Natalie Everts uses case studies to show how the play between European and African legal systems (lawsuits, or “long palavers”) in the Gold Coast could affect even powerful women.
Much of the book is devoted to coastal enclaves in West Africa, but the Angolan dimension allows a more complicated approach. Mariana Candido is able to look at landholding records to note the varied experiences of African women as land and slave owners, she is able to show that even those women living far from the coast were fully integrated into the Atlantic through their consumption patterns. Esteban Salas also notes the significance of female landownership and the role of slavery in accounts of residents in Catumbela an area with a complex interaction of African and Portuguese proprietors. Vanessa Oliveira uses marriage petitions to study the marriage patterns between immigrant (usually European men) and local (usually prominent) women in Luanda. Sierra Leone also offers the documentation of a colony that allows Suzanne Schwartz to look at access to appropriate and land and slaves to judge the success of the more prominent women in Freetown.
Because so many of the authors used mini-biographies or unusual cases, it is difficult to extrapolate these studies into some sort of general statement. The best evidence counts more or less as an extended anecdote whose larger significance is more difficult to assess. Lorelle Semley pauses in her chapter to think about the historian’s experience on “meeting” an interesting subject in the archives, to which might be the additional joy on finding the same person elsewhere or under different circumstances, or even just another time. These cases, which do have emotive qualities not just for the historians who discover them, but for readers as well, serve to provide something of a human face to the women they illustrate, and so many are also counter narrative, in that the narrative on women is so often of powerlessness, exploitation and domination, that they serve as reminders that even if largely undocumented, women’s lives in the Atlantic world were far more complex than any single narrative can encompass.
Having noted this, however, it will be harder to discern how the bulk of African women fared in this period, the anecdotes reflect the reality of a fairly small segment of Africa, and one that could hardly be considered typical. This is not to criticize the work that has been done here, as we can clearly see that when better or fuller documentation is available, the picture that emerges is nuanced and complex, and is likely to be true for those women who only appear once in a record, or those whose lives never quite reached recording for posterity to analyze.