Mixing Across the Atlantic: The d’Ernevilles

Pictured is the island of Gorée. The same island that Charles Jean-Baptiste d’Erneville was stationed at in 1789.

Gorée Island, 1728, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, based on Jean Baptiste Labat, Nouvelle Relation de l'Afrique Occidentale, A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels

Pictured is a free woman of color from 1844. Many of these women of color had life long relationships with men of European decent.

Free Woman of Color, New Orleans, 1844, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, Published in E.D.C. Campbell and K.S. Rice, eds., Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the Antebellum South (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1991)

This image shows a signare. These women held a lot of power in Senegal as they controlled many aspects of the slave trade. Many European men married these women to create a partnership in the slave trading business

Free Woman of Color, Senegal, 1780's, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Rene Claude Geoffroy de Villenueve and sponsored by the Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

Pictured is the cover of Annette Mbaye d’Erneville’s work “Le Noel Du Vieux Chasseur.” A childrens book published in 1983.

Illustrated by Josué Daïkou and published by New Editions Africaines.

The d’Erneville’s had their feet in two worlds during the eighteenth century. Their story is one that was both common and extremely unique. Interracial mixing happened regularly both in Africa and the New World during this time but interracial families that existed both in New Orleans and Senegal is something very rare. The d’Ernevilles were so impactful that today, in Senegal, they are still a very well known and respected family.


Creolization generally is a word used to describe cultural mixing. Many scholars have different interpretation for the definition of the word. For example, in Paul Lovejoy’s work Identities in the Shadow of Slavery he describes that the process of cultural mixing must have an African aspect or entity to be considered Creolization (1). There are also other scholars who argue that Creolization is a process that can only happen in the Caribbean, becoming even more specified.

I agree more with Robert Baron and Ana Cara’s explanation that Creolization is a process that is not restricted by race and boundaries (2). I feel that Creolization can occur in any region with any different groups of people as long as there is some form of cultural mixing occurring. This process of creolization is what happens in both Senegal and New Orleans when we see African and European culture mixing.

There is one specific case that sheds a great deal of light on the process of creolization in both New Orleans and Senegal. The d’Erneville family from the eighteenth century had ties on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

New Orleans and Pierre Henri d’Erneville

Pierre Henri d’Erneville was a French man born in Normandy on February 2nd 1711. d’Erneville was an officer in the French military which is what led him to New Orleans, Louisiana.

There he had a sexual relationship with an enslaved woman and together they conceived a daughter, Charlotte, who became d’Erneville’s slave. Charlotte worked as a slave until 1773, she had a son in 1754 and his grandfather did not grant his grandchild freedom. Charlotte’s son worked as a slave into his adult life (3).

About fifty years after the birth of Charlotte’s son, a free woman of color and descendant of the d’Ernevilles, Carlota d’Erneville, became a fairly successful tavern keeper. Many free women of color made a respectable living owning taverns and inns that catered to the military soldiers and travellers coming through New Orleans (4).

Pierre Henri d’Erneville experienced both the European and American facets of the Atlantic World encountering creolization first hand with his experience fathering a child with an enslaved woman.

Senegal and Charles Jean-Baptiste d’Erneville

Charles Jean-Baptiste d’Erneville was the legitimate son of Pierre Henri d’Erneville and was born in New Orleans on January 8th 1752. He then left Louisiana to follow his father to France and became an artillery captain in the military. There he was imprisoned for two years for his debt. His military life then led him to Senegal in 1780.

In Saint-Louis, Senegal he married a Signare, Cathy Miller. Together they had four children Jean Baptiste, Thomas Pierre, Nicolas, and Anne.

Later, in 1789, the military stationed Charles Jean-Baptiste on Gorée Island, an island of the coast off Dakar, where he was given the task of administration. On the island he married another woman of color Helene Pateloux. While on Gorée Island, Charles Jean-Baptiste had a child with Helene Pateloux, Louison.

Charles Jean-Baptiste d’Erneville is one of few people during the eighteenth century who travelled to three of the continents that make up the Atlantic World. His experience in Senegal is unique because of his background as a Louisianan. He experienced both racial mixing in New Orleans and Senegal, through his own and his father’s relationships. (5)

Racial Mixing in New Orleans

In American society today mixed racial families and mixed race children are widely accepted in society, but in colonial America this was not the case. New Orleans was a fairly inhospitable city in its early years. Diseases like cholera, small pox, yellow fever, and malaria were common. Although there was a lot of money to be made in New Orleans through the surrounding plantations, in colonial Louisiana the white men largely outnumbered the white women, in part because of this hostile climate.

This was a huge contributor to the large amount of sexual relationships white man had with women of color. Many men of European decent took enslaved women as sexual partners, but also developed intimate relationships with free women of color. Interracial marriage was illegal in New Orleans at the time so many of these European men took these free woman of color as partners and had life long meaningful relationships with these women. Although common these relationships were looked down upon by greater French society. (6)

This common phenomenon led to New Orleans gaining a reputation as the city of bachelors, because many men died without technically marrying. These relationships created mixed race children that, in many cases, the white fathers would claim as their own in birth records. In order for white society to try and understand racial mixing many racial labels were made.

Many terms were created in an attempt to give a person value based on how white they were perceived to be. These terms were very convoluted because it is fairly difficult to guess someone’s ethnicity based on a look.

For example, when a child was born the person creating the record would look at the child and determine their ethnic make up. If that person thought that the child looked like they had one black and one white parent the term mulatto was places on a child’s baptismal record. In many cases the same parents would have another child and when the second child was baptized that child would be assumed to have a completely different ethnic make up than their sibling.

These labels like mulatto and quadroon described many different racial make-ups, but became absurd after generations and generations of racial mixing. Although these racial terms existed people of color who had some white blood were considered of a higher social standing than other people of color. Many times generation of free women of color would continue marrying white men due to the status their European heritage gave them. (7)

Racial Mixing in Senegal

In Senegal racial mixing occurred but it manifested in an alternate way making different implications for society.

White men came from Europe to Senegal in hopes of getting involved in the lucrative slave trade market. These men originally tried to find a way into the market themselves but realized this was not applicable.

An organized system had already been made by locals to kidnap Senegalese from the interior of the continent or castrated by women called signares. Through this process men would travel through the Senegal River system to the interior of the land. There they would gather small groups of villagers that would be taken back to the river. The Senegal is a very shallow river so labor was necessary to pull boats full of captive slaves through the mud all the way back to the coast.

These laborers were called laptots and they themselves were enslaved, although sometimes they were given a wage for their work. After returning to the coast these captives would be stored until there were enough people to send out in a ship to the New World.

These signares controlled many of the aspects of the slave trade in Senegal. They were very much personally involved in this process. For example, in some situations slaves were kept on the bottom level of a signare’s house during the time they waited to be sent away on slave ships.

The European men made business partnerships with these women through marriage. These marriages were considered marriage á la mode du pays by the French, which means “marriage in the country’s fashion.” The arrangements were usually temporary and only lasted as long as the couple stayed in the same location. The ceremonies were typically done in traditional Wolof customs from the mainland of Senegal. (8)

Signares were upper class women who were usually educated on some level and many of them spoke multiple languages. One difference in cultural interpretation between New Orleans and Senegal when it came to mixed relationships is that many French people saw these partnerships as lucrative. These connections between European men and Senegalese women were believed to be a major reason why the French were able to flourish in the slave trade.

In addition to marriage partnerships these European men and Senegalese women had sexual relationships. The offspring of these European men and African women often grew to be prominent upper class citizens. The female children usually became signares themselves.

In Senegal these mixed race couples were in a type of contract that allowed for prosperous business. Without these relationships the function of the slave trade in the region may have been completely different. (9)

The d’Ernevilles Today

Charles Jean-Baptiste d’Erneville’s experience has made a lasting impact on the Senegalese community. Many of his children grew up to be very influential people. For example, his and Cathy Miller’s son, Nicholas, became the mayor of Saint-Louis in 1851 and also became a successful businessman, founding a trade house. His other two sons married very well off women whose fathers were both former mayors of Saint-Louis. (5)

Today the d’Erneville family name is still very prominent in Senegal. For example, Annette Mbaye d’Erneville is a prominent journalist. She was born in 1926 and studied in France. After her education, in 1963, she created the magazine Awa, the first magazine for African women in the French world.

Her son Ousmane William Mbaye is a filmmaker who created a documentary about his mother titled Mére-Bi . The film discusses her as a pioneer in the journalism field in Senegal and her involvement with activism for women’s rights. (10)

It fascinating how a family who was so prominent one hundred and fifty years ago is still making a lasting impact in that same community.

New Orleans and Senegal

New Orleans is one of the most iconic cities in the United States. Tennessee Williams even stated once that “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” Although that statement might be an exaggeration and a little overused by t-shirt makers, the sentiment reigns true.

People come from all over the world to experience the special culture that exists in New Orleans. When asking tourist about the city some of the subjects they may bring up include amazing food, beautiful architecture and scenic views of the Mississippi River. New Orleans is truly an unbelievably unique city but it does get a lot of its character from an unexpected relative. Senegal, the West African country today known for its beauty, has many similarities to New Orleans through the Atlantic World.

Specifically, the city of Saint-Louis is a sister in relation to New Orleans. Saint-Louis is located on the Senegal River in a marshy area. Similar to New Orleans, the city’s cuisine consists of a large amount of Seafood. Also, the French, similarly to Louisiana, colonized the city and French continues to be the countries official language. The architecture in the two cities mirrors each other with the extensive use of balconies. One large similarity between the two cities, that many people do not realize, is both cities history with jazz music. New Orleans is seen as the Jazz capital of the world but Senegal has a huge Jazz scene even having its own jazz festival every year.

These examples only scratch the surface of the cultural similarities these cities share. The reason New Orleans and Senegal share so much culture is due to the slave trade. As a port city New Orleans received slaves throughout the slave trade. Although thousands of people from places all over Africa came to Louisiana through slave ships the first enslaved people to arrive in New Orleans made a lasting impact. These people were Senegalese.

Through the d’Erneville family, we see how these two corners of the world connect and their similarities in regards to racial mixing.


1. Paul E. Lovejoy, Identity in the Shadow of Slavery, 2009

2. Robert Baron and Ana C. Cara, Creolization as Cultural Creativity, 2013

3. Emily Clark, Ibrahima Thioub and Cécile Vidal, Saint-Louis, Senegal and New Orleans: Two Mirror Cities, 17th-21st Centuries

4. Kimberly S. Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803, 1997

5. Hilary Jones, The Métis of Senegal: Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa, 2013

6. John C. Rodrigue, “Ethnicity in Louisiana: Cajuns and Free People of Color,” 1998

7. Emily Clark, The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World, 2013

8. Hilary Jones, “From Mariage à La Mode to Weddings at Town Hall: Marriage, Colonialism, and Mixed-Race Society in Nineteenth-Century Senegal,” 2005

9. Marylee S. Crofts, “Economic Power and Racial Irony: Portrayals of Women Entrepreneurs in French Colonial Senegal,” 1994

10. Beti Ellerson, “African Women in Cinema Blog: Annette Mbaye d’Erneville: Mère-Bi,” 2010


Baron, Robert, and Ana C. Cara, eds. 2013. Creolization as Cultural Creativity. Reprint edition. Place of publication not identified: University Press of Mississippi.

Clark, Emily. 2013. The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World. University of North Carolina Press.

Clark, Emily, Thioub, Ibrahima, and Vidal, Cécile. n.d. Saint-Louis, Senegal and New Orleans: Two Mirror Cities, 17th-21st Centuries.

Crofts, Marylee S. 1994. “Economic Power and Racial Irony: Portrayals of Women Entrepreneurs in French Colonial Senegal.” Proceedings of the Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society 19: 216–25.

Ellerson, Beti. 2010.“African Women in Cinema Blog: Annette Mbaye d’Erneville: Mère-Bi.” African Women in Cinema Blog. September 21.

Hanger, Kimberly S. 1997. Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803. Duke University Press.

Idowu, H. O. 1972. “CAFÉ AU LAIT: SENEGAL’S MULATTO COMMUNITY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 6 (3): 271–88.

Jones, Hilary. 2005. “From Mariage à La Mode to Weddings at Town Hall: Marriage, Colonialism, and Mixed-Race Society in Nineteenth-Century Senegal.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 38 (1): 27–48.

Jones, Hilary. 2013. The Métis of Senegal: Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa. Indiana University Press.

Lovejoy, Paul E., ed. 2009. Identity in the Shadow of Slavery. 2 edition. London ; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mbaye, Ousmane William. n.d. “Mére-Bi.”

Rodrigue, John C. 1998. “Ethnicity in Louisiana: Cajuns and Free People of Color.” Edited by Carl A. Brasseaux and Caryn Cossé Bell. Journal of American Ethnic History 17 (4): 95–97.