Catholicism in Colonial St Louis

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Signares Ball of St Louis, Cote occidentale d'Afrique du Colonel Frey

Photo Credit: National Library of France


Early French assimilation

The French settlements in Senegal were one of the earliest instances of West Africans being introduced to European educations, institutions, and culture. D.H. Jones states that, beginning in the late seventeenth century, “the colony of “Senegal” came to comprise the largest concentration of white residents on the West African Coast, and Catholicism was of course honored as the established religion.” [1] The word “habitants” was used to refer to the population of Senegal at this time who participated in this process and developed subsequent assimilative characteristics, including a commitment to the Catholic faith. Although the majority of this took place in St Louis, where “habitants” formed the nucleus of the community, it also expanded to nearby towns such as Goree. The habitant community gained higher social status through this assimilation in many ways. For French businesses located in this new settlement, employment of Africans was often relied upon to fill lower skill level positions with less desirable working conditions. From this opportunity many were able to use their newly acquired salaries, skills, and connections to move into independent commerce. [2] For African women, the way to aquire status equal to the European was through marriage.

Mixed Race Marriage

Mixed race marriage in Senegal began with the marriages of European men and African women in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. At this time, European merchants were not making permanent residence in Senegal, but were there for stretches of time for business purposes. The unions formed by these men and women during this period were beneficial in numerous ways. European men were spending months at a time away from their home and unaccompanied by their wives, so the creation of this union with a native provided a foundation during his stay. Additionally, the relationship with a native put him in better communication with the community as well as with other Africans in the interior of the continent. The European man held an aristocratic place in Senegalese society, therefore the woman chosen to be his wife was usually of good lineage, such as the daughter of a chief. These women were known as Signares, and gained an elevated status through these unions.
However, the Catholic Church to which the men almost always belonged to would not recognize such unions, and instead the ceremonies were more faithful to African Wolof tradition. Not being ‘official’ marriages, they are referred to as “marriage a la mode du pays.”

Growth of Catholicism

As time went on, there emerged a new group within Senegalese society comprised of the mixed race children of these unions, who were at the time referred to as mulatto but are more commonly known now as metis. The congregation of Holy Ghost fathers sent a staff to the island to educate young boys and girls around this time. With Catholic priests newly stationed in coastal African communities in the early nineteenth century, Signares and their children began to adopt more and more European religious practices. In the mid nineteenth century as the political climate changed within colonial Senegal, metis began to change these traditional marriage practices in order to maintain their status within the community. Scholar Hilary Jones says, “It is impossible to determine exactly when the practice of marriage a la mode du pays ceased to exist. While the status of signare continued to exist after 1850, Christian families in St Louis increasingly opted for church weddings rather than the informal unions of their ancestors.” [3]

Works Cited
  • Jones, D. H. “The Catholic Mission and Some Aspects of Assimilation in Senegal, 1817–1852.” The Journal of African History 21, no. 03 (1980): 323.
  • Hargreaves, John D. “Assimilation in Eighteenth-Century Senegal.” The Journal of African History 6, no. 02 (1965): 177.
  • Jones, Hilary. “From Mariage à La Mode to Weddings at Town Hall: Marriage, Colonialism, and Mixed-Race Society in Nineteenth-Century Senegal.” Boston University African Studies Center 38, no. 1 (2005): 27-48. Accessed March 4, 2013.

This page was last modified on 04 April 2013, at 02:02