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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 12: Slavery •


Woman carrying a child, Trinidad, c.1830s

Woman carrying a child, Trinidad, c.1830s

Richard Bridgens, West India Scenery...from sketches taken during a voyage to, and residence of seven years in ... Trinidad (London, 1836), plate 13. (Copy in Virginia Historical Society, Richmond)

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr.

Enslaved women and slavery before and after 1807

Diana Paton, Newcastle University

This year's commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the passage of the British Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade have tended to focus on those exceptional individuals who led movements against the trade and against slavery itself. (1) For some, those individuals have been located primarily in Britain: people like Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and – finally being given his due in recent years – Olaudah Equiano. Others have countered that it is more appropriate to examine the frequently revolutionary actions of enslaved people themselves, whose '200 Years' War' against slavery, as Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles describes it, ultimately increased the economic and political costs of that system to the point where it could no longer be sustained. (2) On both sides, the emphasis has largely been on men, despite some efforts to include a token woman or two: a Hannah More here, a Nanny or a Mary Prince there. This concentration on men is almost inevitable when historical narrative becomes a search for heroic leaders, for the social conventions of most societies have tended to limit women's capacity to become prominent leaders.

Yet this attention to the exceptional threatens to obscure the quotidian. What about the men and women who lived through slavery without taking up arms against it? Their experience was the norm for slave societies and, I would argue, is as important, as interesting and as full of political struggle as the lives of those who became rebels. This essay focuses on the everyday lives of enslaved people, especially enslaved women, in the British colonies in the Caribbean, and asks what difference the abolition of the slave trade meant to them. It focuses in particular on two issues: labour and reproduction. Drawing on secondary work as well as my own research in Jamaican archives, it shows the complex results of the end of importation of enslaved Africans. One outcome of the end of the slave trade was increased pressure on enslaved women, and thus increased conflict between them and those who sought to exploit them.

In order to understand the impact of abolition, we need to appreciate something of the context of enslaved women's lives in the Caribbean colonies before the end of the slave trade.

For most women who endured it, the experience of the Atlantic slave trade was one of being outnumbered by men. Roughly one African woman was carried across the Atlantic for every two men. European slave traders preferred to buy men. The captains of slave ships were usually instructed to buy as high a proportion of men as they could, because men could be sold for more in the Americas. (3)

Women thus arrived in the American colonies as a minority. For reasons we do not fully understand, they did not stay a minority. Trevor Burnard's study of eighteenth-century Jamaican probate records found that on most plantations, even during the period of the slave trade, there were relatively equal numbers of men and women. From the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century in Jamaica, fifty-two to fifty-three per cent of enslaved people listed at probate were men.(4) All enslaved people suffered from very poor health and high levels of death, but it seems that men were even more vulnerable to death and disease than women.

Before abolitionism, slaveholders showed little interest in women as mothers. Their willingness to pay more for men than for women, despite the fact that any children born to enslaved women would also be the slaveowners' property and would thus increase their wealth, suggests that they preferred to buy new enslaved people from Africa rather than bear the costs of raising children. Women who did have children, therefore, always struggled with the impossible conflict between, on the own hand, their own physical needs and their children's need for care and, on the other, the requirements forced on them by plantation work regimes. Women's inability to maintain the pace of work required by plantation managers during pregnancy, their need for recovery time after childbirth, and the needs of their young children to be fed, cleaned, loved, and integrated spiritually and socially into the human community, all brought them into conflict with the demands of the owners and managers of the plantations on which they worked.

In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that enslaved women in the Caribbean had, on average, an unusually small number of children and that of those children they did have, a very high proportion died young. The diaries of the Jamaican planter Thomas Thistlewood, to take one example, record 153 pregnancies over thirty-seven years, resulting in 121 live births. (The thirty-two miscarriages and abortions must be an underestimate, since Thistlewood would not have known about all pregnancies.) At least fifty-one of these children – more than one in three – died before the age of seven. Only fifteen definitely reached the age of seven. (5) Enslaved women's experience of pregnancy, birth and motherhood was marked by ill-health and death, pain and grief; 'rooted in loss' as Jennifer Morgan writes. (6) The everyday loss of children was one of the hidden traumas of slavery.

The reasons for these high rates of miscarriage and infant death are much debated, but it is clear that the work regime that women encountered, requiring very strenuous physical exertion in conditions of inadequate nutrition, played a major role. (7) This work was, for the very large majority, agricultural. Overwhelmingly, enslaved women worked doing hard manual labour growing sugar and other commercial crops. Sugar was not the only crop grown in the Caribbean, but it was the reason for the existence of the colonies, and the main source of their profitability. About sixty per cent of all enslaved people in the Caribbean lived on sugar estates. (8)

Given this context, what difference did the abolition of the slave trade make? The rest of this essay argues that despite the hopes of abolitionists, in practice it meant an increase in labour demands and in intervention in their reproductive lives for enslaved women.

Caribbean slavery had always been a deadly system. Enslaved people died young and had few children to replace them. Although more than two million people were brought to the British Caribbean colonies through the period of the slave trade, only around 700,000 became free in 1834. (9)

As the abolition of the slave trade loomed, this demographic disaster became apparent to planters, abolitionists and government officials. In anticipation of abolition, the 1790s saw very high rates of slave imports: British ships brought more than 400,000 Africans across the Atlantic in that single decade, mostly to the Caribbean. This was the peak period of British slave trading. (10)

Despite this frenzy of slave purchasing in advance of the abolition of the slave trade, population decline continued after 1807. Yet the labour demands made on enslaved people did not decrease. Indeed, as the future of slavery looked uncertain, slaveowners became increasingly concerned to extract as much labour from the enslaved people over whom they claimed ownership, while that ownership was still legally recognized. Many estates by this time were severely indebted, and the need to service debt produced an additional drive to maintain productivity from the owners' point of view. In Jamaica, total production of export crops decreased slightly between 1800 and 1834, but the numbers of enslaved people declined more significantly. (11) In other words, the average amount of sugar (or other export crop) produced by an individual plantation worker increased after 1807. Given that there were relatively few technical improvements, this means that enslaved people were subjected to increasingly intense and increasingly closely controlled work regimes after 1807, and especially after 1820. (12)

This was precisely the opposite of what the abolitionists had forseen. They had hoped and expected that abolition of the trade would lead to a more balanced sex ratio, and to planters improving the conditions under which enslaved people lived; both of these were expected to lead to increasing populations. (13) But in fact, what seems to have happened is that the immediate need to produce sugar for that season's market always outweighed the longer-term self-interest of preserving the health of enslaved people. It was the logic of the system of slavery, and not simply the cruelty of individual slaveowners, that produced the extremes of exploitation and oppression in the Caribbean. Some of the biggest rebellions in the region's history took place in this period – in Barbados in 1816, in Demerara (today's Guiana) in 1823 and in Jamaica in 1831 – and this may be partially explained by the ever-increasing intensity of work demands as the population dwindled. As Emilia Viotti da Costa notes, the post-slave-trade period 'led simultaneously to increasing oppression and growing hopes for emancipation'. (14)

The growing pressure to work affected all enslaved people, men and women. But there were also issues affecting enslaved women specifically, and reproduction was at the heart of these. Planters and colonial governments were aware from around the 1770s of the demographic problems of slave societies, which they largely attributed to low birth rates and high infant mortality, rather than to death rates. (15) Some of them adopted a range of pronatalist policies from the late eighteenth century on, with the intention of transforming this situation. (16) Such policies had contradictory implications for enslaved women. In some ways, they provided for improved levels of health care and rights in relation to family life, but they also led to increasing surveillance and intervention.

On some estates in Barbados, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands, and perhaps elsewhere as well, cash payments were made to women after their children survived for one month, along with additional 'bonuses' to mothers at Christmas time. It is unlikely, however, that these actually made much difference either to women's motivation to have children or to the likelihood of the survival of these children. Indeed, the very idea that these payments might produce such benefits tells us a lot about the mentality of slaveholders, who assumed both that low fertility and high infant mortality were under women's control, and that a relatively small material payment would be enough to alter women's reasons for refusing to have children.

Probably more significant in terms of increasing fertility were the reductions in labour demands for pregnant women and women with children which several colonies legislated for from the 1790s onwards. The Leeward Islands Slave Code of 1798, for instance, said that women five months pregnant or more could only be asked to do 'light work', although this kind of regulation was not always respected. In Jamaica, the small minority of women who had six living children were by law exempted from 'hard labour' after 1792.

Probably all women to whom it applied appreciated exemption from the exhausting physical labour of sugar cane cultivation. But other planter and state efforts at increasing the birth rate were more intrusive. White observers almost universally believed that African-derived ways of organising sexual and romantic relationships contributed to the low birth rate. In particular, they objected to what they called 'promiscuity'. Thus, on plantations in Barbados and the Leeward Islands only those women with large numbers of children born through 'wedlock' or 'faithful cohabitation' respectively were entitled to release from labour. The Leeward Islands Act of 1798, which was explicitly framed as a response to population decline, required planters to gather together their slaves and get those who were in relationships to 'elect' one individual as their husband or wife, thus outlawing the polygynous relationships that were accepted in many of the African societies from which enslaved people originated.

Planters and colonial states tried to use these policies to shape women's – but not men's – sexual behaviour and to impose European ideas of domestic monogamy on them. Some planters also attempted to get enslaved women to change childbirth practices. One Jamaican doctor, for instance, recommended that plantations should build 'lying-in houses' where women should give birth, attended by 'the manager and the medical practitioner', while the Leeward Islands 1798 slave code likewise recommended that women 'lie in' at a dedicated plantation hospital. (17)

Planters also believed that enslaved women's practice of relatively extended breast-feeding (up to around two years, which drew on African norms) was suppressing their fertility and therefore population growth. As a result, they attempted to persuade and coerce women into weaning earlier, at about a year. Thomas Roughley, a planter who wrote an advice manual for other plantation managers to follow, wrote that 'I would never (except sickness intervenes) leave a child more than fourteen months sucking, but generally no more than twelve months'. (18) Most evidence suggests, however, that planters were unsuccessful in trying to reduce lactation periods, which enslaved women defended vigorously.

These new pronatalist policies produced an important zone of conflict between planters and enslaved women. Enslaved women responded to them by fighting to transform those aspects of pronatalism from which they benefited into rights, while resisting those they disliked. Little evidence about these struggles is available from the period of slavery itself, but when slavery was abolished in 1834 and was replaced by a system known as apprenticeship they came into the open. (19) Many planters reacted to the apprenticeship system by trying to force women who had previously been entitled to work at 'light' duties into the cane fields. The response was a wave of protest from these women. In May 1836, for instance, four women named Diana Hall, Eliza Hall, Elenor Hall and Frances Thomas were brought up before William Carnaby, a Jamaican stipendiary magistrate, for absence from work for two weeks. (20) In their defence the women stated that they had many children: Elenor, with the fewest, had six, while Eliza, with the most, had ten. As enslaved people, none of these women had been required to undertake heavy agricultural work. When a new overseer arrived in 1836, however, he sent them to the fields. Apprenticeship was supposedly a step towards freedom: the strong sense of entitlement to exemption from field work that had already existed during slavery was strengthened just at the moment when managers tried to attack it.

This sense pervaded the four Worcester women's response when Carnaby ordered them to do a variety of relatively light tasks. Elenor acceded to his proposal that she go to work in the third gang, but the other three 'positively refused to do any labour', for which act of 'insolence' they were sent to the house of correction for seven days' solitary confinement. On 12 May they were released, but all three once again refused to work. Meanwhile Frances Thomas was also not working as the overseer, Mr. Reid, wanted. All four women appeared before Carnaby again on 17 June. Eliza 'decidedly refused again to do any work'; she and Elenor were both sentenced to 14 days' hard labour in the house of correction, with two daily spells on the treadmill. Carnaby sentenced Diana Hall to ten days' solitary confinement. (21)

For younger women, the crucial issue was not exemption from field labour but relaxation of the work-pace for pregnant women, and sufficient time to breast-feed or take care of children. On 12 February 1835, stipendiary magistrate Ralph Cocking reported that he had 'lectured' the pregnant women and those with young children on Bellfield estate. It appears his lecture did no good: four days later he was back at the estate, where he ordered four women with six children each and three pregnant women to work as they had previously been instructed. (22) On Friendship estate, Ann Smith asserted that she was 'entitled to sit down' because she was pregnant, and then refused to work. Her use of the term 'entitled' is interesting, showing her clear sense of the rightness and justice of her demand. In similar cases, Nancy Cowan was charged with 'insolence, general bad conduct and refusing to wean her child when ordered, it being 29 months old', while Jessy Ann Tharp was punished for taking time off to breast-feed her 19-month-old child, and refusing to wean the infant. Both were punished by being locked in the plantation's cell every night for 14 days. (23) Carnaby ordered the punishment of five women in 10 days on Fairfield estate, all of whom said in their defence that they had taken time off to look after sick children. (24)

These conflicts, touching on questions such as when a child should be weaned and how a sick child should be treated, show that struggles about labour time were tightly intertwined with questions about the organisation of family life. Apprenticed women's experience as workers, and thus their activity in labour struggles, were constructed through their gender-based responsibilities. Similarly, planters' and magistrates' shared desire to maintain control of the labour of apprentices meant that the state attempted to regulate many other aspects of their lives.

The abolition of the slave trade, then, had some paradoxical consequences. While we commemorate it, and honour those who struggled for the end of the slave trade – especially those enslaved people whose continued resistance provided the abolitionists in Britain with examples of why abolition was needed – we should also pay attention to its implications for people already enslaved in the Caribbean colonies. For many, the period between the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the final abolition of the apprenticeship system in 1838 was a time of intensified exploitation and greater intrusion into personal life.

  1. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Women's Library, London Metropolitan University and the Literary Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in March and Apr. 2007. I thank the audiences at those events for comments. Thanks also to the scholars, cited in the footnotes, on whose important research I have relied for much of what follows. Back to (1)
  2. Hilary Beckles, 'The 200 Years' War: slave resistance in the British West Indies, an overview of the historiography', Jamaican Historical Review, 13 (1982), 1–10. Back to (2)
  3. David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, 2000), 100-4. While many historians argue that the sex ratio in the slave trade resulted from the coincidence of African traders' desire to retain women and European purchasers' desire to buy men, Eltis argues that Europeans were forced to buy more women than they would ideally have chosen. See also the work of Jennifer Morgan, who points out that proportions of women in the trade varied considerably by region. In some regions, such as the Bight of Biafra during the late seventeenth century, considerably more than one-third of Africans on slave ships were women (Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia, Pa., 2004), 56–61). Back to (3)
  4. Trevor Burnard, 'Valuing gender: Jamaican slavery, 1674–1784', The History of the Family: an International Quarterly (forthcoming, 2007). Back to (4)
  5. Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004), 220. We do not know what happened to the remaining 65. For comparative purposes it is worth noting that in England the death rate for the period 1750–99 was 268 deaths per 1,000 children under the age of five, although in London death rates were higher (see John Landers, Death and the Metropolis: Studies in the Demographic History of London (Cambridge, 1993), 138). Thanks to Jeremy Boulton for this reference. Back to (5)
  6. Morgan, Laboring Women, 108. Back to (6)
  7. Michael Tadman, 'The demographic costs of sugar: debates on slave societies and natural increase in the Americas', American Historical Review, 105.5 (2000); B.W. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean 1807–1834 (1984; Mona, Jamaica, 1995), 217–18. The debate on the causes of population decline (which includes discussion of high mortality as well as low fertility) is too extensive to cite fully here, but see also Marietta Morrissey, Slave Women in the New World: Gender Stratification in the Caribbean (Lawrence, Ks., 1989), 100–43; Barbara Bush, Slave Women in Caribbean Society 1650–1838 (London, 1990), 40–5, 120–43; J.R. Ward, British West Indian Slavery, 1750–1834: the Process of Amelioration (Oxford, 1988), 121–89. Back to (7)
  8. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 61. Back to (8)
  9. Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440–1870 (London, 1997), 805, Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 72. The enslaved population in 1834 was smaller than the total numbers imported not because large numbers had become free earlier (as did, in contrast, take place in Brazil and parts of Spanish America) but because the population did not reproduce successfully. Back to (9)
  10. David Richardson, 'Slave exports from west and west-central Africa, 1700–1810: new estimates of volume and distribution', Journal of African History, 30.1 (1989), 10. Back to (10)
  11. Barry Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807–1834 (1976; Kingston, Jamaica, 1995), 213–15. Back to (11)
  12. Emilia Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: the Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (New York, 1994); Mary Turner, Slaves and Missionaries: the Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787–1834 (Urbana, Ill., 1982). For the contrasting argument that increasing productivity was a result of improvements in material conditions and 'incentives', see Ward, British West Indian Slavery. Back to (12)
  13. Seymour Drescher, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor Versus Slavery in British Emancipation (Oxford, 2002), 44–7. Back to (13)
  14. Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, 39; Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 231–2. Back to (14)
  15. Drescher, The Mighty Experiment; Bush, Slave Women, 122. This was true not just in the British colonies but throughout the slave societies of the Americas. For comparative discussion, focusing especially on Cuba, see Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Social Control in Slave Plantation Societies: a Comparison of St. Domingue and Cuba (1971; Baton Rouge, La., 1996), 25–38. Back to (15)
  16. The evidence about these pronatalist policies presented in this and the next four paragraphs is from Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 349–54; Morrissey, Slave Women, 126–30; Bush, Slave Women, 29–30; Ward, British West Indian Slavery, 166–70. Back to (16)
  17. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 352. Back to (17)
  18. Quoted in ibid, 354. Back to (18)
  19. For an explanation and analysis of the apprenticeship system, see Diana Paton, No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780–1870 (Durham, N.C., 2004), 53–82. Back to (19)
  20. Jamaica Archives, Spanish Town, 1B/11/23/9, William Carnaby, 'Record of Visitations, Adjudications, and Valuations &c, by Special Justice Carnaby ... 1 January to 30th June 1836' (hereafter 'Carnaby journal'), 5 May, 17 June 1836; National Library of Jamaica, Kingston, Sligo letter book, MS. 228, no. 4016, p. 102, 24 June 1836. For examples of similar protests, see Mimi Sheller, 'Quasheba, mother, queen: black women's public leadership and political protest in post-emancipation Jamaica, 1834–65', Slavery and Abolition, 19.3 (1998). Back to (20)
  21. Carnaby Journal, 17 June 1836. Back to (21)
  22. Sligo to Glenelg, no. 169, 28 Sept. 1835; PP 1836 (166) XLVIII, cases of 2, 12 and 16 Feb. 1835 (hereafter 'Cocking journal'). Back to (22)
  23. 'Carnaby journal', 7 Jan 1836 (Smith); 'Cocking journal', 18 Feb. 1835 (Cowan and Tharp). Other similar cases include Evelina Williams, punished with seven days' extra labour for taking time to breastfeed her 22-month-old child ('Carnaby journal', 21 Apr. 1836); and Cecilia Henry, for not weaning her 16-month-old child, 14 days' hard labour in the house of correction (Rhodes House MSS. W. Ind. r. 1, Frederick White, 'Diary of a magistrate in Jamaica', Aug. 1834–Feb. 1835, 7 Aug. 1834). Back to (23)
  24. 'Carnaby journal', 21, 30 March 1836. Back to (24)

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