women, slavery, and resistance in the African Diaspora

Posted on August 18, 2008


Rachel Rustad

BST 450U: Female Resistance Personalities in the African Diaspora

Professor Clare Washington

Final Exam Essay

16 August 2008

Essay 4: The experiences of Caribbean women are of growing interest to scholars as well as writers, and are often compared with the experiences of North American women. The various political, economic, racial, and gender inequalities that have plagued societies in both regions provide common ground for such comparisons. However, there are aspects of the Caribbean experience that are unique. Compare and contrast the experiences of Caribbean women to women in the United States with regard to race and other situations that brought on different forms of resistance movements and rebellions.

Historically and today, where there is oppression there is also resistance. Beginning in the 15th century during the age of exploration and conquest and continuing in its brutality until the late 20th century (and due to globalization, it is still not even close to being over) people of African descent were forcibly removed from their African homelands by Europeans, as well as with the economic and political coercion of some African rulers, who “”aware of the negative effects on their people and /or the stability of their nations, were often caught between the desire to end the [slave] trade and the ramifications of such a decision”, according to the article “Resistance to Slavery, the Anti-Slavery Movement, and Abolition”. Imposed for over four centuries in what is known as the Atlantic Slave Trade, a complex history of colonialism and human enslavement collided, as Peter N Stearns, Michael Adas, and Stuart B. Schwartz describe in their article, “Africa and the Africans in the Age of the Atlantic Slave Trade”:

The slave trade was the means by which the history of the Americas and African became linked and a principal way in which African societies were drawn into the world economy. [Even before the infamous Middle Passage, or the long voyage across the Atlantic to slave plantations in the Caribbean as well as the Americas] conditions during the process were deadly and perhaps as many as one-third died along the way or in slave pens [during the forced marches to interior trading towns or slave pens at the towns or forts of the western African coast]…The so-called Middle Passage, or slave voyage to the Americas, was a traumatic experience for the slaves. However traumatic, the Middle Passage certainly did not strip Africans of their culture, and they arrived in the Americas with their languages, beliefs, artistic traditions and strong memories of their past. (Stearns, Adas, and Schwartz 1992).

Further, passive as well as active resistance on the slave ships by African men and women as well as active, organized resistance to colonial powers in Africa by such African women warriors as Nyabinghi the “hidden queen” in Jamaica and Nanny of the Maroons of Ghana reveals the many ways in which Africans fought for dignity and equality, always resisting the shackles they were forced into.

Slave societies in the Americas and the Caribbean differed in many ways which required creative and adaptive ways of resistance by the enslaved. As the plantation system utilized on the Atlantic islands of Spain and Portugal was transferred to the new World, “the plantation system of farming with a dependent enslaved work force characterized by the production of many tropical and semitropical crops in demand in Europe…became the locus of African and Afro-American life” (Stearns, Adas, and Schwartz 1992). Yet plantations weren’t the only place in which slave labor was in demand, for in places such as Brazil and Mexico as well as colonized Latin American cities where urban slavery was more characteristic, “there was virtually no occupation that slaves did not perform, although the vast majority lived their lives as agricultural laborers” (Stearns, Adas, and Schwartz 1992). Varying by colonial power and location, the lives of Africans, and later with interracial mixing, the lives of people of African descent in the Caribbean and African Americans in the Americas were shaped by oppression as well as resistance. Large slave and free Afro-American populations developed in locations in the Americas such as Charleston and New Orleans also played a key role in the formation of a distinctly African American culture in the U.S. where the legacy of slavery and the unending struggle for racial and social justice and equality continues to shape the lives of African Americans as descendents of Africans today.

Whether on sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean or on cotton plantations in the southern United States, Black women as women of African descent have resisted slavery and oppression as individuals as well as in leadership roles in resistance movements. Because different geographic locations shaped the realities of women of African descent in varying ways, the ways in which they resisted the violent and forced exploitation of their labor and reproduction also were incredibly varied. In particular, slavery in North America was less directly influenced by Africa because by the mid-18th century, the slave population was mostly reproducing itself. By 1850, less than one percent of the slaves in North America were African-born. Free people of color were also less common in the southern colonies of British North America than in the Caribbean or Brazil. Hence, “the combination of natural growth and the relatively small direct trade from Africa reduced the degree of African cultural reinforcement in comparison with Cuba or Brazil” (Stearns, Adas, and Schwartz 1992). In this way, a distinct Afro-American culture developed, hence many of the differences between the experiences of Black women in the Americas and in the Caribbean can be found here. Despite the variations by time and place, the experience of enslavement by women of African descent intersects race as well as gender, for although all women are oppressed as women, the history of colonialism and slavery created a hierararchy of human rights where women of African descent have been relegated to the bottom because of the intersection of race, class, and gender. Thus, it is imperative to study the ways that women of African descent have resisted slavery and oppression in order to understand that Black women in the Caribbean as well as in the Americas were anything but submissive and docile, and that they were often on the frontlines in the struggle for racial equality and justice.

Since Caribbean women played such a central role in religious ceremonies and resistance from religious practices, one of the primary ways in which Caribbean women resisted slavery was by the preservation of African culture through the use of oral traditions in passing on knowledge to their children, families, and communities. According to the article “Women and Resistance to Slavery in the British Caribbean: “outward expressions of culture were not permitted and as a result women would use oral tradition to keep past traditions and histories alive”. In Alexander Giraldo’s article “Obeah: The Ultimate Resistance”, he discusses the origins of the African religious practice known as Obeah, as “the practice of harnessing supernatural forces and spirits for one’s own personal use”, originating in the Ashanti and Koromantin tribes of Africa on the Gold Coast, detailing that imported slaves introduced it to the Caribbean as early as the mid 17th century: “The Obeah man and women played a prominent role in the Caribbean slave societies from the beginning of the slave trade. The functioned as community leaders and teachers of the African folk’s cultural heritage” (Giraldo). Further, Obeah women were key figures in the resistance of their colonial oppressors working as community leaders as well as teachers of cultural heritage, preserving their history and culture. In Barbara Bush’s detailed book-length study of female slave resistance, Slave Women in Caribbean Society: 1650-1838, she documents the ways in which slave songs such as “Steal Away”, “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”, “Git on Board, Little Chillen”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, and many others were utilized to convey hidden messages by slaves relaying important information about routes and times and dates for planned escapes, meetings, and directions to freedom (“Women, Religion, and Resistance”).

Black religion in the Americas as well as African religious traditions in the Caribbean made a major contribution to resistance to slavery. As well as taking on leadership roles such as in the case of Henriette Delille and Old Elizabeth, Black women in the Americas continue their work as cultural and historical preservationists, educators and activists, further revealed through the revolutionary work of women like Ella Baker in the Black Freedom Movement of the early 20th century, a foundation upon which the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and ‘60’s was built. In a book review of Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Cheryl Clarke states that “Baker exemplified ‘the revolutionary in action, transcending more attendant concerns and reaching for something larger, greater, more inspirational.’ For Baker, the black freedom struggle was always the crucible of that ‘larger freedom that encompasses all of mankind’” (Clark 2006).

The racialized context in which Black women are located historically as well as today is due to the four centuries long colonial project of enslavement and the subsequent formation of global capitalism, connects the histories of the Americas to African history, and also reveals the ways in which the forced and induced as well as voluntary disbursement of Africans from their native lands, also called the African diaspora, connects all of our histories. Hence, the influences of African histories and cultures are important to all locations in which Africans and people of African descent have lived and continue to migrate and settle. For example, in the article “Women, Religion, and Resistance”, in colonial Louisiana, the Roman Catholic religion greatly influenced the lives of Native Americans, white settlers, and free and enslaved Black Americans alike. Since 18th century French missionaries baptized indiscriminate of religion or race and sanctioned interracial Catholic unions in the hopes of building a Catholic colony of settlers and natives, “particularly in the rural parishes of southeast Louisiana, Roman Catholicism provided a venue for religious, as well as social, and economic, opportunities for enslaved and free African Americans” (“Women, Religion, and Resistance”).

Religious influence was a multi-directional process as well for not only did Roman Catholicism influence African American culture but African culture also played a central role in the formation of African American culture. Although slavers tried to mix up slaves by culture on their plantations “so that strong African identities would be lost”, Africans maintained their cultural identities and preserved their histories, despite the complexities of having to adapt and change and to incorporate other African peoples and their ideas and customs, as well as “the ways and customs of the master that were both imposed and adopted” (Stearns, Adas, and Schwartz, 1992). Thus, what developed was a dynamic and creative Afro-American culture the has greatly shaped the course of American life, revealing the ways in which the history of the Americas and Africa is still interconnected today. In her article “Invisible Southern Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: The Triple Constraints of Gender, Race, and Class”, Bernice McNair Barnett discusses the often secondary, marginalized role that Black women in the United States have been relegated in religious institutions such as the Black church, which differ from the more central role that African women played in their religious traditions. Yet, the significant Black women’s role in the Black church reveal the religious influences of their African ancestry as they are often deemed the backbone of the Black church:

Even in pre-civil war days, black [sic] women stood in the vanguard for equal rights [sic]; for freedom from slavery, for recognition of women as citizens and co-partners with men in all of life’s endeavors…However, because of the nature of American history, and particularly because of the institutions of slavery and segregation, the names and lives of black women leaders are all but unknown in American society- black as well as white. (Margaret Walker (in Sterling 1979, xvi) McNair Barnett, 1993)

Religion is a prime example of both continuity and adaptation for the cohesion of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular and African religions was both a strategy of survival as well as resistance. The Obeah religion was greatly feared by slave owners in the Caribbean for Obeah leaders served as inspirational leaders in slave rebellions, and particularly in Jamaica for the knowledge of herbs, plants, and poisons rooted in Obeah became a powerful tool of active resistance to slavery in the Caribbean as well as in the Americas. This powerful knowledge of poisons was also an invaluable tool of resistance utilized by the enslaved as the most common and one of the most feared forms of resistance particularly by women, for the poisoning of one’s master became a possibility due to the close proximity of female domestic slaves to the master and his family via “the big house”. Obeah was so feared by plantation owners that beginning in 1684, various laws were enacted which connected slave rebellions to Obeah, forbidding the possession of articles which were used in the practice of Obeah or “witchcraft”, due to the connection of one with the other (Giraldo). In addition, maroon societies existed throughout the Caribbean and South America and were a constant source of concern for slave owners and profiteers for they were inspiration for resistance and freedom. African women warriors such as Nanny of the Maroons iconic in Jamaica, a women warrior originally from Ghana, led the eastern Maroons based in Moreton, and forged an alliance with another group led by Cudjoe. According to an article titled “African Queens and Warrior Women”, the Jamaican Maroons were the first people to force the English to sign a treaty with their subjects on March 1, 1738, decades before the formal end to the Atlantic Slave Trade. One of the communities gained by this treaty in which lands conceded formed a base for the maroon’s independent survival was named Nannytown after this famed female leader.

In addition, resistance and rebellion was also characteristic of the African American experience during slavery and carried through the Civil Rights Movement and still strong today. Women resisted through various means but since both their labor and their reproductive capacities were exploited, unique forms of resistance by women were utilized, from the refusal to work productively to infanticide as a desperate means by which to alleviate the suffering of their future offspring. In her comprehensive two-volume documentary history of Black women in America titled Black Women in American: An Historical Encyclopedia, Darlene Clark Hine documents the ways that Black women both individually and collectively, resisted slavery and oppression in the American South:

Deeply painful and contradictory choices, such as infanticide, often were thrust upon women in their need to negotiate the brutality of forced breeding, the separation of families, sexual coercion, and material conditions adverse to the health and sustenance of human life… certainly their methods included forms of contraception and abortion as a means to create sites of resistance and self/family protection within a system that routinely exploited their womanhood. (Clark Hine 1993)

Clark Hine goes further to document the well-known case of Margaret Garner whose story is revisited in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, who in order to escape bondage fled from Kentucky to Cincinnati, Ohio with her three children and while pregnant with her fourth. However, under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress, her owner had the federal right to track her in the free state of Ohio, claim and capture her, and take her back under his rights of ownership. Rather than subjecting her children to a life of bondage, she slit the throat of her infant daughter and then attempted to kill her two sons. Her captors defeated her attempts and she was eventually sold to a planter in the Deep South and separated from her family. According to Clark Hine, Garner’s case is perhaps the most thoroughly documented case of infanticide but many other women chose this option as a attempt to subvert the power of their masters in determining the fates of Black families and their futures. Additionally, the example of a woman named Lucy reveals that Black communities protected women when their cases went to trial, for in Lucy’s case the collective defensive of her captive communities protected her, “express[ing] a communal recognition that infanticide was bred by a system that unjustly exploited Black women by trying to control their sexuality and their capacity to be mothers”. Clark Hine deems infanticide “collaborative acts” of resistance in which entire enslaved Black communities in the Americas came together to protect each other.

The importance of studying the African diaspora and the connections between the histories of the enslavement of peoples of African descent, the central role people of African descent, particularly women, have played in resistance, as well as the formation of societies and cultures within the African diaspora, is imperative to understanding the modern social world as well as the ways in which contemporary social problems are inextricably linked to the history of colonialism and conquest. In addition, learning about African cultures and histories illuminates the central role that Africa has played around the world wherever the presence of Africans and peoples of African descent are located. In particular, African Americans in the United States carry on traditions and histories of Africa in a place of dispersion which is now home in all the conflicting ways in which America as home is still plagued by severe and institutionally-sanctioned inequalities based upon race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, and ability. African American women as women of African descent play a central role in preserving and passing on traditions, history, and culture and in connection to the African continent both historically and today. In Bridget Brereton’s article “Searching for the Invisible Woman”, she contends that it isn’t that Caribbean women didn’t play a central role in resistance to slavery but that Caribbean history like most patriarchal, colonialist world history is gender blind. Additionally, history is most often written by the conqueror, so it is racist and imperialist as well. Thus, it is imperative to study the resistance of women of the African diaspora to slavery and oppression in the Caribbean and the Americas, for it connects their legacy of struggle to the strategies they utilize today in the ongoing fight against racial and social inequality.

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