NOT TO BE MISSED
"Signare Anna", a novel by Tita MANDELEAU
Dakar: Les Nouvelles Editions du Sénégal, 1991, (234p.).
ISBN: ISBN: 2-7236-0437-3.
Ce compte rendu en français
Signare Anna is an absorbing historical novel unfolding on the small island of Saint-Louis du Senegal in the mid 18th century. It tells the story of the Gerbigny family who had risen to prominence as a result of advantageous "mariages à la mode du pays": that is temporary matrimonial alliances between African women and European officials, army officers and merchants sent to these distant shores. Anna is the matriarch of the Gerbigny's compound. She belongs to a select group of women of influence who have been given the title of "Signares" and not only hold sway over the economic, social, cultural and political life on the island, but also play a pivotal role in all the many trades that take place along the Senegal River: slaves, gold, gum, ivory ...
The story begins in 1758. A small squadron of English boats moored outside the shoals restricting access to the small island of Ndar are about to end a century-long occupation of the place by France and various French trading companies. The Governor, Pierre Estoupan la Brüe, is ill-equipped to protect this prime asset of the "Compagnie des Indes"; and the local elite, the Children of Ndar, as they called themselves, are wary of Major Mason and his English troops. The latter are about to descend on the little town and the local inhabitants have indeed good reason to be alarmed as the army rabble soon sets the place ablaze, pillaging and raping with impunity. "Drunk from dawn to dusk, English soldiers spread over the island like dirty water, the narrators says, and decent women have to hide behind the walls of their homesteads, protected by an army of male slaves. As their daughters are being assaulted, their houses burned, their poultry enclosures plundered, the population of Ndar slowly begins to organise resistance ... and punitive expeditions". (p.86) The scene seems to be set for drawn-out civil unrest.
Mason's contempt for both the French papalists and their black African converts and his decision to deprive the locals of the comfort of a Catholic priest are like throwing oil on the fire. However, what could have easily degenerated into bloody anarchy, did not: like the French governors stationed on the island before him, Mason soon realises that a smooth and profitable trade was contingent on the cooperation of fluctuating and warring chiefdoms controlling the banks of the Senegal river; that, no one can achieve without the help of the Children of Ndar. He needs them in order to know who to trust; to determine who are the customary owners of the lands he has to cross; to deal with Brak Naatago Aram and Damel Maysa Bigé who both lay claim over the same rights. Clearly, it is not easy to handle the various demands of the Maures Darmankour, Brakna and Traza as well as those of the Black Wolof, Foul and Sarkollé. Thus Mason's reluctant, but unavoidable, acknowledgment that he is dependent on local people's skills, knowledge and goodwill if he is to succeed.
Conversely, Pierre Gerbigny and his peers hate the boozed riffraff offloaded on their shores. The Children of Ndar are convinced that despite the new governor's firepower, England will fail at securing the best possible outcome during the arduous journey: one that sees big convoys of boats leaving Ndar for the faraway Kingdom of Gadiaga at the time of the first rain. "Stiff as the sword he wears at his side, Major Mason is most unsuited to the hard bargaining that is required throughout the expedition and, Gerbigny thinks, he will never be able to grind down the determination of his shrewd opponents". (p.114) Yet the prosperity and future of the Gerbigny's family depends on its members' ability to make do with the hand of destiny and to forge new alliances with Britain rather than nourish old enmities.
When he joins the annual up-stream expedition, Gerbigny is thus primarily concerned with British inexperience and lack of understanding of local customs, the safety of his party in treacherous waters, the safeguarding of his investment and hard bargaining that will take place with old sparring partners spread along the banks of the river. Dealing with the English presence on the home-front befalls his wife, Signare Anna, who has to hold the fort during her husband's long absence. That means taking care of a large number of slaves and emancipated workers of both sexes crowding the compound, safe-keeping the warehouse and the docks, overseeing ongoing business and, keeping her children on the straight and narrow the latter duty being easier said than done as the heirs to the family name are vivacious but spoiled children who loathe discipline. However, there is nothing a Signare cannot handle to her own advantage because, as Tita Mandeleau said in an interview, "Saint-Louisian women have always been political at heart". Signare Anna's life illustrates this point perfectly. She allies intelligence and charm with a ferocious determination to ensure the long term social and financial success of her family. The death of her only daughter and the threat of being superseded by her husband's mistresses leads her, for example, to eliminate her rivals, but to adopt their children as her own and to provide them with the best opportunities. A very pragmatic approach guides all her decisions. Her attitude towards the English invasion of Ndar is no different. She soon realises that the English are there to stay and that London can offer the same opportunities as Paris if she manages to build strong ties with the English Gentlemen sojourning on the island. Thus her positive answer to the new Governor's request to host officers with local families.
For Signare Anna, "French or British, what's the difference apart, from the language they speak? Whites always came to this country for the same reason: Trade ! she says. ... and the only way to relieve their fear of the unknown and to get them under control is women... Today's British officers are fathering tomorrow's children's of Ndar. And, like the French before them, they will need them in the years ahead to trade with the remote interior". (p.166)
Her unmarried daughter Eliza is perfectly poised to conquer the heart of the Commodore of the Royal Navy, William MacPherson, who is sent to live with the Gerbignys and falls for the young lady, promising to marry her, "à la mode du pays". Signare Anna manages also to hire his services to teach English to her 15 year old son and the pair rapidly become good friends. Eliza's charm and the cosy family atmosphere offered to MacPherson who is soon called "Wally" by everyone" rapidly soothe the young man's painful memory of the not so "adorable Lisbeth MacGregor", who dumped him just before he was due to leave for Africa.
Indeed, Signare Anna provides first class entertainment. The well rounded characters who populate the novel are people one loves to follow in the routine of their daily existence and occasional trepidations. Furthermore, a judicious use of Wolof words, a well-researched description of 18th century garments, and a clever inclusion of old-fashioned terminology, help in creating the right ambiance for the action. The novel is also interesting as it proposes a useful and well integrated overview of Senegalese history that stretches way back and reminds readers that, in the scheme of things, the 1758 occupation of Ndar by British troops is nothing but a bit of historical trivia. However, this seemingly minor episode is also one that has been cleverly exploited by the author to illustrate the emergence and strengthening of Saint-Louis' local bourgeoisie which gave a prominent role to women.
Contrary to the colonial literature of the 19th and 20th centuries that often portrayed signares as vain and promiscuous, Tita Mandeleau has been able take her readers beyond appearances and to highlight the success of past Senegalese women in changing the attitudes of the society around them, seeking conflict resolution through negotiation rather than direct confrontation and in attempting to develop a model of human interactions based upon everyone's needs. It is indeed refreshing to find a novel that breaks resolutely from old stereotypes and proposes a different exploration of the past: a past common to all of us, and one dominated by the mingling of cultures, people and races.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities