Assimilation in Eighteenth-Century Senegal

Posted in Africa, Articles, History, Media Archive on 2012-01-02 05:28Z by Steven

Assimilation in Eighteenth-Century Senegal

John D. Hargreaves, Burnett-Fletcher Professor Emeritus of History
University of Aberdeen, Scotland

The Journal of African History
Volume 6, Number 2 (1965)
pages 177-184

Although historians are becoming more aware of the importance of communities of West Africans with experience of European education, institutions and culture, they have so far paid little attention to the earliest of these—the African and Afro-European inhabitants of French settlements in Senegal. Even the semantics are obscure; the term habitants has been used in various ways. In 1853 Abbe Boilat, a careful observer of Woloff ancestry, wrote that at St Louis it was applied to mulattoes; gourmets, that is noirs baptisés qui sont instruits et honorables par leur bonne conduite et leur rang dans la societe: and a few Muslim Negroes of high social standing. Eighteenth-century usage was equally confusing. A count of the population of St Louis in 1779 distinguished habitans et blancs from mulâtres et nègres libres; it may be that the term habitants originally meant free persons on the establishment of the French companies’ headquarters, which Barbot calls the habitation. (Echoes of the way the term was used in French Canada may also complicate the position.) In this paper habitants will be used in a wide sense, similar to Boilat’s, to include free persons of African or part-African descent, residing in the French settlements of St Louis (with its dependent trading posts in the Senegal Valley) and Gorée (with its dependent trading posts on the coasts south of Cape Verde) who had been influenced by contemporary French culture. The nature of this influence, and of the community thus in process of formation, will form the main subject of this paper. Its treatment is purely exploratory, and no attempt has yet been made to use French manuscript material. Further research might well suggest, among other modifications, a need to make clearer distinctions between St Louis and Gorée.

The habitant community seems to have been recruited in four main ways. In the first place successive French companies, and later the Royal administration, increasingly found it expedient to employ Africans. There were usually somewhere between 100 and 250 Frenchmen in the Senegalese ‘concession’, serving as traders, accountants, and officials: surgeons and chaplains: artisans, labourers, seamen and soldiers. But conditions of service were rarely attractive to men of talent or good character; Senegal was regarded as another Siberia, fit only for malefactors and libertines, and standards of competence and morality were usually low, except sometimes in the higher appointments. Moreover, Europeans were particularly liable to be put out of action by intestinal disorders, malaria or…

Purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , ,