We Wants the Redhead!
The Signares of Senegal and Constructions of Gender in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World
By Ryan Minor
For over fifty-years, one of the most memorable scenes on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was the “take a wench for a bride” auction. For decades, a tall, thin, well-dressed woman, unofficially known as Redd, stood out in front of the other women, striking a seductive pose as she waited for her turn on the auction block. In response to mounting criticism over this depiction of violence against women, Disney removed the bridal auction in 2018. While there is still an auction taking place in Puerto Dorado, the items now up for bid are non-human spoils from the looted town. Redd is also still playing an important role, as the ride’s first-ever female pirate. As you pass by in your boat, you can hear Redd demanding that the town’s rum supply be tapped for the very same pirates who not long ago had attempted to buy her. Redd’s transformation reflects a cultural desire to move away from outdated depictions of weak, docile women and embrace images of strong feminine figures controlling their own destinies, instead. Now, the millions of children who board Pirates of the Caribbean each year see Redd as a powerful woman rather than an object of male desire and violence.
Redd the pirate can lead us to ask important historical question about the reality of gender roles in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Are there any real historical examples of women who held strong leadership roles within social and economic systems traditionally dominated by men? The answer to this question is…absolutely! Let me tell you about the Signares of Goreé.
Goreé is a small island off of the coast of Senegal in West Africa (the entire island is about half the size of Disneyland—only 45 acres in total!). As European merchants began to settle there and conduct trade with Africans on the mainland during the eighteenth century, the island became a regional center for the slave trade and commercial exchange. As mostly male Europeans sought access to local trade networks, they entered into marriage-agreements with powerful African women. These marriages were called mariage a la monde du pays (in French, that means “marriage according to local customs”). African societies and local French authorities legally recognized these unions, and women stood to make significant economic and social gains from them. Some historians argue that women actually held the majority of the power in these relationships, because of their ability to negotiate both European and African trading networks and act as linguistic and cultural interpreters for their foreign husbands.
Female children of these marriages came to be known as Signares. They became a distinct and privileged class on Goreé. They took on the last name of their European fathers and could inherit both of their parents’ property and possessions. As Goreé continued to grow in wealth and status, these “mixed-race” Euro-African Signares entered into their own marriage-alliances and became powerful traders, originally in slaves and later in commodities like Gum Arabic. Signares owned many slaves themselves, as well as large tracts of land, boats for river commerce, and large homes filled with European luxuries. In some cases, they leased land or buildings to European trading companies for considerable sums of money.
European men typically only stayed on Goreé for a short time, at most a few years, while conducting their business. Some never returned. This pattern of male migration increased Signares’ power in the region. Once her husband left, a Signare could legally terminate the marriage without losing social and economic status. Signares were also free to remarry, without giving up claims of ownership on their former husband’s land, buildings, or slaves. For example, Anna Pépin, who was married to the French Governor of Senegal for a short time, lived on Goreé for forty-seven years after last seeing her former husband. During this period, she was one of the island’s most formidable and well-respected leaders and maintained one of Goreé’s most beautiful and powerful households. When she died, a list of her possessions included: Pillows, Mattresses, Porcelain, Sliver, Gold, Jewels, mosquito netting, Fine dresses, and many other imported goods from Europe.
Their unique Afro-European position not only allowed Signares to reach an elite status in Atlantic commerce, but also to defy traditional gender expectations of eighteenth-century European society. In fact, Signares participated in several actions that would have been considered taboo for “respectable” European women at the time. They ran businesses and participated directly in commodity and slave trading networks. They freely interacted with men at parties, drank alcohol, and smoked tobacco pipes. Signares did not entirely forego their own notions of femininity, however. In fact, Signares were often described by Europeans as extremely beautiful women, stunning in appearance, impeccable in hygiene, and known for their love of parties and fashion. In particular, their distinct clothing—conical hats formed from bright scarves and long, flowing, and colorful gowns made from imported fabrics—earned them praise. Thus, despite regularly participating in worlds typically associated with European masculinity, Signares maintained their own versions of feminine display.
Signares became both positive and negative figures in the imaginations of European writers who visited Goreé. At times, authors revered these women for their beauty and intelligence. In other cases, they were demonized as dangerous women who threatened the natural order of the sexes. Signares were called everything from manipulators who took advantage of “weak” men to “savages” who lacked feminine restraints, to money-grubbers obsessed with their status and appearance. Such accounts, while often untrue, should not be surprising, given the racialized worldview of most eighteenth-century Europeans. At the time, they viewed any deviance from Western cultural norms as a sign of inferiority or moral corruption. Thankfully, in recent years, historians have worked to debunk many of these accounts.
The Signares of Goreé were not pirates, but just like our re-imagined Redd, they do offer a fascinating example of powerful women who challenge stereotypical understandings of gender binaries. Signares shatter simplistic notions of gender in two important ways. First, Signares show us that women have held strong positions, typically associated with men, without having to act like men themselves. And second, they teach us that not all societies have understood gender in the same way. For example, in several pre-colonial African cultures, there are examples of children not being assigned male or female gender roles or titles until after puberty, of older men and women losing gender distinctions as they moved into positions of authority in their community as elders, and even men and women taking on opposite gender roles within a household if the need presented itself. Ironically, the oppressive conditions and narrow understandings of gender that many African women experience today are largely the result of ideas that accompanied late nineteenth-century European colonialism. As colonizers worked to duplicate European values abroad, they often refused to work with or even acknowledge powerful women, which led to the consolidation of social, political, and economic power in the hands of African men and the erasure of these women from history. Highlighting these African examples can teach us about the ways that different cultures throughout history have understood notions of gender, which are often much more complex and fluid than Western perceptions of “appropriate” masculinity and femininity.
Redd’s new role as a pirate has not come without its own set of controversies. Disney purists were upset because they think everything from Walt’s era should be preserved as-is. Others claimed that the move was a public relations stunt to whitewash Disneyland’s history, while still others have questioned the historical accuracy of her character altogether (and yes, there were women pirates by the way…). While these are all fascinating debates on their own, it's important to remember that Redd remains, regardless of her representation, a fictional character at a theme park designed to entertain guests. As such, her transformation is more a reflection of our own changing cultural values than an attempt to re-create accurate history. Yet, as this post has shown, we can also use fictional characters as a starting point to ask important historical questions. Redd the pirate is “from” the same time and place that the real Signares of Goree negotiated the male-dominated world of international trade. And they did it in style.
I grew up in Southern California about an hour away from Anaheim, and have been to Disneyland more times than I can remember! As a grownup, I study and teach African History. I currently live in Goleta, California with my wife, Brittney, who is a first-grade school teacher, and our two kids, Ben (age 9) and Chloe (age 8).
George E. Brooks Junior, “The Signares of Saint-Louis and Goree: Women Entrepreneurs in Eighteenth-Century Senegal,” in Nanacy Hafkin and Edna Bay, eds. Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change (Stanford: Stanford Press, 1976), pg. 19-44.
Hilary Jones, “Women, Family & Daily Life in Senegal’s Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Towns” in Mariana P. Candido, Adam Jones eds. African Women in the Atlantic World: Property, Vulnerability & Mobility, 1660-1880 (Rochester, New York: James Currey, 2019), pg. 233-247.
Mark Hinchman, “House and Household on Gorée, Senegal, 1758-1837” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Vol. 65, No. 2 (June, 2006), pp. 166-187.
Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (London: Zed Books, 1987).