The Role of Women in Slavery and Resistance

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Discussing the particular roles women played in the struggle of African-American slaves is almost impossible without considering gender roles as specified by slaves. Such roles include gender relations that remain as a debatable topic. Not so much study has been carried out to that effect. Gradually, scholars have begun to acknowledge the relevance of notions held by many people regarding the roles men or women play and the notions that they could play together. However, up to now, much attention has been paid towards gender roles and relations among Afro-Americans, during the period of slavery and the periods thereafter focusing on the whole family. This paper attempts to identify the role that black enslaved women played in rebellions, revolts and major uprising against the slavery in the USA and the Caribbean. The paper identifies the particular female individuals that played a key role not only in plantation fields but in coordinating the resistance movement among the enslaved communities.

Many captive women were constantly active in participating in some anti slavery resistances. For instance, it is recorded that a revolt in the period of the middle passage occurred aboard the ships under the command of an English slaver and captain Newton John. This pilgrimage survived more than five revolts. The famous revolt happened under the ship Thomas in the early 19th century. The female captives wrecked havoc on the ship by unlocking the armory and stealing the weapon, which they used in overpowering the crew aboard and eventually capturing the ship. They were later recaptured due to their inexperience in navigation. This incidence is an example of the early warning of the female slaves’ unwillingness to take up their enslaved positions or just to sit back and accept the slaves’ lives as they had been before. The United States of America has constantly celebrated the black women’s involvement in the “underground railroad”. Little is known of trade activities in Charleston’s market place. This is the market where every kind of commodity was available including slaves. The enslaved black women strategically took control over the market. They tried to control the price of goods and thereby gained the good grounds in their resistance efforts. However, very little is being said regarding the black women’s resistance to abuses of slavery and institutional constraints. Many citizens of the US have heard about Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. They were the two most prominent and renowned black women and resistant abolitionist leaders. This paper addresses the life of the less renowned and celebrated ones (i.e. the more obscure black women). The part of this paper focuses on the leadership roles, burdens, relationships and common tasks of the bravest enslaved black women.

The history of resistance in America and the Caribbean has always magnified and emphasized the male role of the resistance leaders or heroes. However, the studies from the last three decades have enormously begun to address the significant contribution of black women into the success and progress of many resistance movements and events. Furthermore, the research discoveries have been made to make a negative image and the impressions of enslaved black women better as depicted in most colonial writings. Black women are portrayed as quite actively involved in the resistance at the forefront. However, they were not neglecting their main roles of the bearers of their peculiar original cultures and customs.

Their main goal was to achieve freedom from their enslavement and for their people as well. Freedom is always assumed as some magic word that propagandists, psychologists, priests and politicians used to throw around. However, to other people, freedom is viewed with a different meaning. It varies according to the persons’ sense of the associated values. Without any qualifications, freedom is a noun that means “liberty” or simply it “not restricted, unimpeded”. However, when concretized in a certain individual situation, its meaning becomes narrowed. It becomes crystal clear that no individual can be completely free. However, the desire for freedom is one of our truly cries, deepest feelings, wide open spaces; the liberty to enjoy the real taste of joys of nature in a non-restricted fashion. This is important to live freely without internal fears or external anxieties and this is the freedom to have our true self. Every creature including animals values its freedom above everything else. Enslaved black people were never submissive to their masters or oppressors. They made every attempt whether violently, subtly or overtly to resist the so called “slave masters” and the enslavement conditions. Violent as well as non-violent resistance had been undertaken by the enslaved black people throughout the colonial era on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The most recent historical literature indicates that females often displayed even more resistance than males were doing. As soon as the transatlantic slaves’ trade began, the resistance started from enslaved Africans. Their struggle and resistance had been multifaceted covering four continents for over four centuries. Despite all that, very often, they had been underestimated, forgotten or overlooked. The Africans’ resistance against slavery was only reported when it had involved brutal attacks on slave ships, barracoons and company. However, the acts of resistance were also observed far away from the coast and, thus, often escaped the attention of slavers. To discover and emphasize these struggles, archaeology, oral history, biographies and autobiographies of African slave trade victims had to be probed. When compiled together, these different sources gave a detailed image of various strategies employed by Africans to resist the slave trade and enslavement.

In America, the African resistance continued without any stop as the slaves ran away from slave masters, and in conspiracy, established maroon communities, sabotaged and openly rose against harsh masters that were holding them in slavery and captivity. The freed slaves led the petitions on authorities; they also provided the information and resistance campaigns that actively pursued to abolish the slavery and slave trade.

In Europe, on the other hand, black abolitionists organized the civic movements. They participated in them actively to end the African enslavement and deportation. They also provided the information for books and newspaper articles and delivered great speeches against slavery and slave trade. Employing both violent and nonviolent means, the Africans in Europe, America and Africa were continually involved in fights against slavery and slave trade. The women being the bigger part of human race are being the part of history as well. However, until recently, they have been offered a smaller portion in the history. Many studies have been conducted on the slavery system and the life of slaves in the US. Starting from elementary schools and all through to the colleges and universities in the USA, children are taught of the evils of slave trade and slavery, which was taking place more actively in the Land of Democracy and Freedom. However, little is known about other places, such as the Caribbean, which was a doorway to slave trade in the New World. This made it vital for studying the struggles and resistance of slaves in that region. Slaves have resisted their slave masters in any manner they were able to.

More importantly, female slaves have been reported to have quite a strong sense of freedom and independence. Thus, they constantly resisted slave trade and slavery using both non-violent and violent means. Caribbean enslaved women exhibited a strong urge, peculiar self-worth, independence and strength throughout their oppositions towards the activities they had been forced to in plantation fields. Their resistance was done in various rebellious ways, i.e. refusing to get married, reproduce children, as well as it included other forms of the open physical resistance.

The specific group of interest from the Caribbean was made up of female members of some “runway” communities, as in Suriname and Jamaica, where the prosperous culture of their contributions made by women is still significant up to date. Even though no attention is given to the status or roles played by women in the ancient communities, the research done on the most significant achievements of the time mentions a notable fighter, Nanny of the Maroons. When other women are mentioned, they are only referred to as housewives or children bearers. However, this one remains a fighter. It is rather obvious that Nanny was not only a female fighter in the struggles and resistance efforts made by enslaved people. However, due to stereotypes and other social evils, these women are little known or invisible. The roles they were playing during some slavery movements and in the resistance to slavery have been completely and intentionally ignored. Among the not very known women of the Caribbean heroines are Nanny of the Maroons and Nanny Grigg. They had done the very big contributions in the struggle. Actually, this would be unfair to ignore mentioning them in the history. They physically led their fellow enslaved people (as men and women) into some military rebellions. They led the violent confrontations against their white owners and troops from the imperial government.

As the history of slavery and the subsequent resistance is analysed, the debate continues over and over again. This argument hardly ever goes beyond the race. One thing is certain that yet there is often a bias of gender. The history is more often than not only the male history. Many books talking of the history of slaves and their struggles for freedom only show the involvement of men. Even in the movies and some filmed documentaries, men appear to be the only gender involved in the whole slavery process and struggles for freedom. In the efforts to explain the role of gender in slavery, it is important to highlight this biased point of view and to further note the fact that women were also involved into these fights. We should remember that they as well played a vital role in these struggles in order to bring an end to slavery. The male dominated perception of history has failed to recognize. It has belittled and devalued the role of female slaves and anti-slavery crusaders. It is important to recognize that this paper will not only look at the roles played by women during the slavery period and the resistance against this. The essay will also look at the female slave owners, enslaved women, slave traders, female rebels and other relevant details. Women in Caribbean History is a book written by Verene Shepherd. It describes that historical books undervalued the roles of women. The early historians focused on religion, government, trade, colonization as well as warfare. These were the activities in which the males dominated. It was felt that the female inclusion was unnecessary. Therefore, the female slave contributions to the rebellion and uprising were included. This was ignored by historians inadvertently. As a guerilla commander, Nanny of the Maroons was a chief anti-slavery rebel in Jamaica. Her contributions are legendary still up to date. On the other hand, Nanny Grigg is described as a sober literate and highly knowledgeable female activist that was propagating the view to get freedom. This was considered by the report of Barbados Assembly that had  analyzed 1816 rebellious movements. In the report, it is reported that the political authority she had held even among her male peers enabled her to sway them into the option of armed solution to slavery and the captivity problem. As seen above, women were a phenomenon of the roles they were playing in their respective countries. They had the huge impacts on the current status of the people there. However, the history and historians have deliberately ignored their contributions. They are only credited as the true heroines in such cases if this is difficult to ignore them. In her review of this book, she puts forward that the authors attempted to put together a wide scope of the African Diaspora history. It eventually had caused some of crucial areas in the history to be completely left out. The author’s point of view is rather interesting yet. This is due to the attempt to offer a more synthetic perspective on the Caribbean and African-American history. Due to this process, many of regional differences were obscure. In the same manner, the role that women were playing and the contributions they had made as well as their rebellions or revolts was similarly glossed over and left out. To the enslaved Africans, the life was really difficult. Thus, to the women having additional duties, the life was also very hard. Male slaves in Antigua, for instance, held less tedious positions, mostly of them being non-agricultural. On the other hand, women took up the full brunt of labor needs in agricultural fields. From tender age, young women had been expected to meet the stipulated deadlines and quarters the same way as male slaves. Strength and gender stereotypes were not an issue in the region. Slave owners employed any methods they had supposed to be profitable to them. Female slaves amazingly bore the full force of field jobs as they had been excluded from the specialized jobs in the factories and other sectors that required the skilled labor. It is unfair that their efforts had been also excluded in the history books and historical researches as well. They additionally had to compete with the poor white females in the huckstering business.

There are different ways of analyzing the resistance. One thing is certain though. Itdoes not only refer to the physical fight that people or even groups of people raise at any particular time against oppressors. It additionally refers to the historical conclusion of efforts to free the people or anyone. Gender played a vital role in the period of slavery and particularly in the resistance. Although initially, many slave owners had preferred male slaves, it soon became evident just how much they needed female slaves too. They not only came for the work in fields but also were doing other jobs and favors. Slave owners soon started relying heavily on women; and the slavery was not profitable anymore without the presence of female slaves. Women were used for the variety of purposes, unlike male slaves being only efficient in fields. This trend caused the overdependence on female slaves and would later work against them during the resistance. In the book Natural Rebels: a Social History of Enslaved Black Women in Barbados, Hilary McD Beckles shows the detailed history of activities in the Caribbean islands during the slavery period and resistance. The author emphasizes a theme of the pivotal role played by the organized rebellion and resistance running throughout the slavery era. He presents the unbroken plurality in the demography of female slaves from the 17th century to the period of emancipation. In the book, Beckles portrays women as the beasts of burden. They worked alongside men in the fields; did the house work and also served as mistresses and prostitutes for their slave owners.  They were expected to have the same productivity levels as men. It is only natural when slave owners became more afraid of the female resistance than the male rebels.

In the book More than Chattel, David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine emphasize the value of women during the slavery era. The price of a new female slave was almost equal to that of a new male slave. Despite the stereotype that male slaves were stronger, the economic value of the enslaved woman was clearly beneficial. No wonder that there was a close range in the purchase price. Women slaves controlled almost every aspect of life from being used to working in the farms and also as the white slave owners’ mistresses. This made their resistance even fiercer compared to the male resistance, which would only halt the field work and activities.

In the article Women and Slavery by Bernard Moitt, it can be seen that from the earliest colonial days, slave owners all through the Atlantic world had depended on the African women for labor and other favors. The enslaved women worked in sugarcane plantations and boiling-rooms in high numbers than those serving at slave owners’ houses as well as sacrificed their physical and reproductive health to meet the inhuman demands of the torturous labor from their owners. They went ahead to resist the slavery alongside their fellow enslaved men. They took part in rebellions too. They were also subjected to sexual abuses by their owners that started to do this being encouraged by the French colonial policy. They were brutally punished, sometimes even sadistically due to the natural stereotype of weakness in their efforts to refuse. Thus, they led various forms of rebellions.

This paper has made a contribution in the efforts to redress the historical imbalance established by historians in the acknowledgement of female roles in the struggle against captivity through its focus on the prominent heroines. Such information is usually missing in the historical chronicles of the Caribbean and America. Such significant contributions and efforts made by female slaves and rebels should not be bracketed off into invisibility and the forgotten history to preserve the meaningless stereotypes by individuals considering themselves as the mainstream historians of freedom and slavery. The paper presents that it is quite functional to consider wider consequences of such unprofessionalism in the history preservation and presentation. It is important for people and generations to come to know how women of color had been acting as social agents and shaping the historical processes in the emancipation, abolition and development of ideas of freedom and life principles. It is important to record their contributions and compare them with those of other social groups, for example, their fellow male slaves. It is vital to recognize how the roles of women had varied over the time and across different societies. As seen above, both men and women were the phenomenon with their roles played in their respective countries. They had the huge impacts on the current status of people there. However, the history and historians alike have deliberately ignored the contributions of females. They are only credited as the true heroines only where it is difficult to ignore them. Many studies have been conducted on the slavery system and lives of slaves in the United States. From the elementary schools and up to colleges and universities of the USA, they are taught on the evils of slavery and slave trade taking place more actively in the Land of Democracy and Freedom. However, little is known about other places, such as the Caribbean, being the doorway to slave trade in the New World making it vital to study the struggles and resistance of slaves in that region. Moreover, the contributions made by women to end slavery are neglected. So this needs to be corrected.


 

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