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African Women and Commerce in the Atlantic World  

Vanessa S. Oliveira

Women have been active players in the history of the Atlantic world from early times to the present. They have contributed to the economic and social fabric of Atlantic societies as food producers, mothers, healers, queens, and merchants, just to mention a few roles. Despite their importance, women were not part of the mainstream narrative neither in the early days of African history nor in the history of other geographic areas in the Atlantic world. The first wave of Africanist scholars in the 1960s were more interested in recovering the stories of great kingdoms and states and their leaders, who were, for the most part, men. It was not until the late 1970s that Africanist scholars incorporated women as a category of analysis with the publication of collections and monographs dedicated to their contribution to African societies. Women merchants commonly known as donas, signares, nharas, and senoras were among those who benefited from the new approach. Since then, scholars have explored the trajectories of women merchants and petty traders in places such as the Gold Coast, Luanda, Benguela, Saint-Louis, Gorée, Freetown, Lagos, Bissau, and Cacheu. This growing scholarship has shown that women participated actively in the trade in foodstuffs, manufactured goods, and captives, as well in tropical commodities. African women’s ability to trade crossed the Atlantic Ocean, where they and their descendants continued to control the retail trade in port cities in Brazil, the southern United States, and in the West Indies.