Miles Ogborn

 

On his book Global Lives: Britain and the World, 1550-1800

Cover Interview of May 08, 2009

A close-up

The nature of this book is that it is full of close-ups.  It is made of the details of people’s lives, and the ways that they shaped and were shaped by global processes.  One of the most surprising glimpses of a life is of a seventeenth-century woman known as La Belinguere.  She appears in a chapter entitled “Into the Atlantic: the triangular trade?”  La Belinguere, also known as Marie Mar or Maguimar, was the daughter of a former rule of Niumi, a small independent state on the northern bank of the River Gambia in West Africa.  She was a powerful woman whose name probably derived from ‘linger’ a Jolof title of respect denoting women with legal powers.  She possessed a large fortune in gold, slaves and cattle that she had made translating for and trading with the Europeans who had come to the coast to trade in enslaved Africans.  She was one of several women brokers (known as nharas) who opened the way for these European traders to enter Luso-African and African trading networks.  This was done though “country marriages,” familial and economic arrangements to which the women brought their family connections, linguistic skills and trading expertise, and to which the European men brought trade goods.

La Belinguere’s life was lived at the intersection of cultural and economic worlds.  There is a vivid description of her from the director of the French Compagnie de Sénégal, Michel Jajolet de La Courbe, who dined with her in 1686: “She was garbed in a very elegant man’s shirt and a small Portuguese-style corset which emphasised her figure, and for a skirt she wore a beautiful African cloth … from Sao Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands.  She had a very fine muslin coiled around her head in the shape of a turban raised a little in front.  She had a gracious manner and a gift for conversation, and spoke Portuguese, French, and English as well, indicative of the extensive commerce she carries on with all nations.”  They ate millet bread and rice from West Africa, chillies and pineapples originally from the Americas, bananas from South Asia, and the brandy La Courbe had brought from France as well as Portuguese wines.

Although La Courbe was quite clearly taken with La Belinguere, he recognised her power.  He described her as the “reef” on which many Europeans had been “shipwrecked,” and depicted her as Circe to his Ulysses.  She showed her power in the spring of 1687 when there was a fight at a party in the fort on James Island in the Gambia River from which the English Royal African Company had traded since the 1660s.  Another nhara was injured by a knife-wielding Englishman, Cornelius Hodges, and the ruler of Niumi took the chief English merchant hostage and halted their trade.  Taking advantage, La Belinguere formed an alliance with the French agent La Coste and recruited a network of Luso-African traders able to break the Royal African Company’s monopoly of the upper river trade.

La Belinguere’s story shows a number of things.  It demonstrates the intertwining of the personal and the global.  Trading networks whose implications span out across the Atlantic were forged from personal connections such as those between La Belinguere and the Frenchmen La Courbe and La Coste.  Her life also demonstrates the control of West Africans over the terms of trade on their coast, even the trade in enslaved people.  She is part of a larger story of why African merchants did not need to directly extend their own trading networks across the oceans as European and American merchants did, and thus why the patterns of Atlantic trade looked as they did.  Finally, and most simply, she demonstrates that there were powerful women merchants whose lives blended cultures and animated economic forces who were living and working in West Africa in the late seventeenth century.