Slave stealing has not attracted scholarly attention; the women branded as kidnappers and “Negro thieves” are almost completely absent from the historiography of American slavery. Free women, across the spectra of race and class, played central roles in these dangerous, illegal, “unfeminine” ventures. On the other side of the law, slave-owning women were also embroiled in slave stealing cases. They frequently filed suits attempting to retrieve their stolen enslaved people. Both slave stealing and slave-owning women, despite their differing motivations exposed the fragility of the gendered identity that underpinned social and political authority in the South. Their behaviour complicates traditional definitions of female resistance under slavery. These women protested their treatment by their communities, governors, and family, proving willing to break, or manipulate, the law to advance their interests. Testing the pillars on which a patriarchal slave society rested, placed them at the centre of local and national dramas, which revolved around trafficking and owning human property. Their actions were destabilizing and underlined the ambivalent nature of Southern law and custom, and they contributed to a sense of insecurity over the future of slavery and the growth of sectionalism, which led to the outbreak of the American Civil War.
Dr Laura Sandy is Senior Lecturer in the History of Slavery and Director of the Centre for the Study of International Slavery (CSIS) at the University of Liverpool. She is the author of The Overseers of Early American Slavery: Supervisors, Enslaved Labourers, and the Plantation Enterprise (2020).
To be chaired by Jon Chandler (UCL)
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