The diverse roles played by entrepreneurial women in trade and agriculture in pre-colonial Africa have been the subject of a number of studies in the last four decades. This scholarship has focused particularly on elite merchant women – donas (wealthy African and Eurafrican women), signares and nharas (both words, ‘from the Portuguese senhora … signified women of wealth and influence’) – although the experiences of poor and enslaved women have recently been traced through parish records in Angola. The planting of a new port town at Freetown on the Sierra Leone peninsula in the closing decade of the eighteenth century opened up opportunities for neighbouring Temne women, as well as newly arrived migrant women of African origin and descent, to generate income through food cultivation, trade, commerce and service provision.
This chapter explores how uprooted and displaced women, who had already experienced multiple forms of migration, drew on skills from their earlier lives to exploit economic opportunities in West Africa. The settlers’ migrant origins placed constraints on their capacity to conduct long-distance trade and to profit from the accumulation of slave labour. Freetown was not an indigenous African settlement, and its distinctive abolitionist agenda meant that the experiences of women in this new town were markedly different to those of coastal merchant women in other settings. In contrast to trading women in Benguela, Luanda and Saint Louis, women in Freetown were prohibited, in theory if not always in practice, from slave trading or owning enslaved Africans. The arrival of ‘recaptive’ Africans after 1808 altered the situation, and settler women were able to capitalise on a new supply of labour to support their economic enterprises (see Map 2). As these female settlers were also outsiders and ‘strangers’ with no contacts to inland societies, their opportunities for wealth accumulation were more limited than those of entrepreneurial women in other coastal settings.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, the convergence of various streams of Atlantic migration on Sierra Leone resulted in an intermixing of women from diverse cultures with different life experiences of freedom and enslavement in America, Africa, the West Indies and Europe. As the chapters by Hilary Jones and Kristin Mann in this volume demonstrate, inward migration shaped the cosmopolitan character of other coastal towns in West Africa.