The Métis of Senegal: Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa

By Hilary Jones | Go to book overview

1
Signares, Habitants, and Grumets
in the Making of Saint Louis

Signare Cathy Miller rose to prominence as a woman of wealth and high social standing in the town of Saint Louis. She was born in 1760 to Jean Miller, a trader who arrived in Senegal during the British occupation (1758– 1783), and an unknown African woman. She married Charles Jean-Baptiste d’Erneville, the son of a Norman naval captain who participated in wars of conquest along the Mississippi.1 Born in New Orleans, d’Erneville left Louisiana to join his father in France and train as an artillery captain. He served two years in debtors’ prison before rejoining the military. In February 1780, at the age of twenty-seven, he arrived in Senegal with a regiment organized to reestablish French control of Saint Louis after Britain lost the territory during the American Revolution. D’Erneville advanced quickly by leading successful military expeditions to upper Senegal. His countrystyle marriage to Cathy Miller produced four children who achieved notable status as property owners and Senegal River traders. Nicholas (1786– 1866) founded a trade house and became the mayor of Saint Louis in 1851. He married Adelaide Crespin, the daughter of Signare Kati Wilcok and Benjamin Crespin, a merchant from Nantes. His brothers, Jean-Baptiste Crespin (1781–1838) and Pierre Crespin (1783–1848) married two daughters of the mayor of Saint Louis, Charles Thevenot.

In 1789, d’Erneville left Saint Louis to assume responsibility for the administration of Gorée, where he established a household with Helene Pateloux. He died there on 2 March 1792. Mariage à la mode du pays, the name given for these unions with African women, typically ended upon the death or permanent departure of the husband from Senegal, thereby allowing a signare the freedom to remarry. Following d’Erneville’s departure,

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