Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World

Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World

by Pamela Scully, Diana Paton, Sue Peabody

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This groundbreaking collection provides the first comparative history of gender and emancipation in the Atlantic world. Bringing together essays on the United States, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, West Africa and South Africa, and the Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean, it shows that emancipation was a profoundly gendered process, produced through connections


This groundbreaking collection provides the first comparative history of gender and emancipation in the Atlantic world. Bringing together essays on the United States, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, West Africa and South Africa, and the Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean, it shows that emancipation was a profoundly gendered process, produced through connections between race, gender, sexuality, and class. Contributors from the United States, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil explore how the processes of emancipation involved the re-creation of gender identities—the production of freedmen and freedwomen with different rights, responsibilities, and access to citizenship.

Offering detailed analyses of slave emancipation in specific societies, the contributors discuss all of the diverse actors in emancipation: slaves, abolitionists, free people of color, state officials, and slave owners. Whether considering the construction of a postslavery masculine subjectivity in Jamaica, the work of two white U.S. abolitionist women with the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War, freedwomen’s negotiations of labor rights in Puerto Rico, slave women’s contributions to the slow unraveling of slavery in French West Africa, or the ways that Brazilian abolitionists deployed representations of femininity as virtuous and moral, these essays demonstrate the gains that a gendered approach offers to understanding the complex processes of emancipation. Some chapters also explore theories and methodologies that enable a gendered reading of postslavery archives. The editors’ substantial introduction traces the reasons for and patterns of women’s and men’s different experiences of emancipation throughout the Atlantic world.

Contributors. Martha Abreu, Sheena Boa, Bridget Brereton, Carol Faulkner, Roger Kittleson, Martin Klein, Melanie Newton, Diana Paton, Sue Peabody, Richard Roberts, Ileana M. Rodriguez-Silva, Hannah Rosen, Pamela Scully, Mimi Sheller, Marek Steedman, Michael Zeuske

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This anthology links Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States in its analysis of the role of gender in creating new social orders after the end of slavery. Taken together, the essays are clear, compelling, complex, and ultimately unsettling in their evocation of a past filled with hope for great change and largely effective struggles for its containment.”—Eileen Findlay, author of Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870–1920

“This innovative volume highlights the quite different ways in which men and women achieved freedom and faced the possibility of citizenship in postemancipation societies. By examining ideologies of gender as well as differences in experiences, the contributing authors broaden our understanding of emancipation as a transformative process. By placing women of color at the center of the analysis, moreover, many of these authors develop a new picture of the dynamics of emancipation.”—Rebecca Scott, author of Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery

Kerry Ward

“[A] must-read for scholars of the Atlantic world, gender history, colonial studies, and comparative slavery and emancipation. The clearly written introduction and tightly edited chapters are suitable for both undergraduate and graduate students, while the bibilographic essay is a good starting point to the historiography of some of the major debates.”
Kathleen Higgins

“[A] thought-provoking collection of essays . . . valuable for its discussions of divergent gender ideals among men and women slaves, elites and non-elites, planters, abolitionists, and missionaries. It is most important for its descriptions of the efforts of former slaves to contest and define what it meant to be free and male, versus free and female, in the aftermath of emancipation.”

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Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3594-8

Chapter One

PAMELA SCULLY Masculinity, Citizenship, and the Production of Knowledge in the Postemancipation Cape Colony, 1834-1844

In December 1834 the British government ended slavery in their Cape Colony and replaced it with a four-year period of apprenticeship. In February 1835, the widow Meers, a settler living in straitened circumstances, came to the office of the local justice of the peace in Caledon village. The widow complained about what she perceived as the outrageous behavior of an apprentice, Cobus. The widow lived in the rural district of Swellendam, some sixty miles from Cape Town, a district which had a long history of slaveholding dating back well over a hundred years. Meers lived on the farm of John Phil. Marais, the former owner of Cobus. The justice of the peace recorded that Meers said the following: "Cobus has used great liberties such as saying that he is now no more Slave [sic]-is as good as She is, and will have her daughter a Girl of about 14 years also for his wife-nay he even insisted on it, that he would have a white wife." Marais also laid a complaint about both Cobus and another of his former slaves, saying he was "in bodily fear." He stated that Cobus and the other apprentice, a woman called Sena, "would not perform their work, were veryinsolent and have made use of many unbecoming words." The justice noted that he would report the issues to the special magistrate on the weekend. On 12 March, the justice recorded that Cobus and Sena had been sentenced to four days in prison for insolence and neglect of their duties.

The story of Cobus is located at the interstices of multiple histories and struggles in the postemancipation era. In this case we have a combination of two apparently transgressive acts by apprentices: the one a refusal to labor, the other a personal affront to a white woman by a freedman. In fact the case forces us, I argue, to reconsider how we conceptualize "the political." Slave emancipation flagged such a conflation of the personal and the political by making the private sphere of slaveholding a sphere of public interest. Most clearly, the case is part of a larger history of slaves' and settlers' reactions to the ending of slavery in 1834.

Cobus and Sena saw the beginning of apprenticeship as the ending of unconditional subservience. Cobus also asserted his equality with the widow. Understanding precisely that the personal is perhaps the most political, Cobus pressed for the most explicit manifestation of such equality: his ability to marry the daughter of a white woman whom he knew. Meers found such claims so outrageous and hostile as to be actionable. Marais, the former owner, also reacted with alarm to the apprentices' slowdown at work and to what he perceived as insolence.

The two settlers' efforts to lay a complaint some distance from their abode, is evidence of their outrage at the actions of Cobus and Sena. The fact that the justice sent the case to the special justice also suggests that he felt some sympathy with the widow Meers and her landlord Marais. These whites seem to have shared a sense that the ending of slavery was unraveling historic patterns of deference and that freedpeople already threatened the social fabric of settler life.

The case also is an important site for examining the local making and remaking of ideas and practices of masculinity and citizenship in different communities in the aftermath of emancipation. Men living in Khoikhoi mission communities articulated most clearly a discourse of citizenship that corresponded with the emergent political discourse of rights and civic entitlement newly legitimated by the ending of Khoi bondage in 1828 and the abolition of slavery in 1834. The Khoi, Africans indigenous to the Cape, had labored for whites often in conditions very akin to slavery. After a long campaign led by John Philip of the London Missionary Society, the Cape government passed Ordinance 50 in 1828. The Ordinance emancipated the Khoi from having to carry a pass to show employment status and it severed their obligation to work in indentured labor. A number of missionary societies encouraged Khoi to move to missions where they were given access to plots of land in return for living in accordance with Christian values. As we shall see, freedmen, of both indigenous Khoi and slave descent, at the Kat River Settlement in the Eastern Cape Colony, for example, conceptualized being a fully free person as opposed to a slave in the language of selfhood and citizenship. They made little use of the language of masculine entitlement to rights.

In other settings, some Khoi men armed their rights as citizens in a language of masculinity that stressed men's responsibilities as fathers and husbands. They represented themselves and familial relationships in ways that effectively reproduced the gender ideologies promoted by abolitionists. In requests to the government for land, Khoi men echoed what Mimi Sheller suggests in this volume for Jamaica. They "resorted to a Christian discourse of 'manhood' in order to insert themselves into British political discourses that emphasized a kind of active masculine citizenship."

Men freed from legal slavery shared with Khoi men the sense that emancipation created them as new masculine individuals entitled to new rights and expectations of both the state and of settlers. But, for many freedmen, as in the case of Cobus, the world of politics was the world of daily life emanating from the farms, rather than the discourse of liberalism that missionaries inculcated on the stations. Freedmen made political statements in the more prosaic language of daily social interaction. Across the Cape, freedmen also shared the association made by Cobus between freedom and marriage. Cobus's insistence that he could marry a white woman, however, is by all accounts unique. This case is the only record I found in the archives of three rural Cape slave-holding districts where a freedman explicitly states that he sees marriage to a white woman as a feature of his emancipation. Cobus is possibly the only freedman in Worcester, Swellendam, and Stellenbosch districts to state explicitly to a settler a connection between freedom and marrying a white woman. We can imagine that other freedmen might have made similar statements to their peers, or thought this to themselves, but the archives do not easily reveal such histories outside the purview of settlers.

An investigation into freedmen's understanding and representations of citizenship necessarily involves us in a consideration of the production of knowledge in the postemancipation era. Freedmen's discussions of the significance of freedom constitute a central site for our understanding of political discourse in the postemancipation period. Taking seriously such political discussions means that we sometimes need to look beyond the formal claims and debates about citizenship if we are to adequately engage with and identify subaltern political discourses. The language of liberal political economy and the civil society that seemingly underwrote claims to citizenship were not always available to men freed from rural slavery. Part of the challenge is to map political discourse across different arenas: both those that emulated British colonial politics and those in which men articulated a political ideology not rendered in the language of high liberal political discourse. This is the challenge posed both by the statements of Cobus about the meanings of freedom and by the world that freedpeople participated in shaping after the ending of slavery in 1834. How do we write of masculine citizenship in a nonbourgeois world in which individuals spoke out in highly unequal and cross-cultural contexts? How do we chart the languages of citizenship and the formation of political identity among colonized people?

The central case of Cobus with which this chapter is concerned is representative of the kinds of cases on which the historian relies when writing about Cape emancipation. It mirrors many in other British colonial archives in which the ideas of slaves and freedpeople are refracted through the words and languages of missionaries, officials, and settlers. Cobus was not present when the widow Meers and Marais laid complaints against him before the justice of the peace. The justice relied solely on Meers's and Marais's testimony when he decided to take their case to the special magistrate in Swellendam. As far as one can tell, the justice did not interview either Cobus or Sena to ascertain the truth of the settlers' testimony. Our only access to the case and indeed to the thoughts of the apprentices is therefore through the words of their employer, Marais, and of a white woman, the widow Meers. The case is, in fact, at least triply mediated: what we have in the archives is the justice's report in English on the settlers' allegations, which were probably initially made in Dutch, or a combination of Dutch and English. We do not know if the report is accurate, nor can we verify the settlers' complaints.

The justice's official verdict was that Cobus was guilty of refusing to work. Yet other perspectives also seem to have shaped the official interpretation of the case. The widow's complaint that Cobus had been insolent and his former owner's statement that he was in fear of his life seem to have moved the justice of the peace to direct the case to the attention of the special magistrate. Perhaps Cobus had engaged in rhetoric designed to irritate and possibly strike fear into the whites on the farm. Cobus perhaps also genuinely desired Meers's daughter, or desired to marry a white woman as a sign of independence. The chapter explores the implications of these multiple possibilities for understanding the case.

For the historian of the Cape Colony, the problems posed by the paucity of many kinds of information, and the necessity to rely on certain forms of archival material, are particularly vexing. The historian trying to uncover or analyze slaves' perspectives on slavery, emancipation, and gender and racial ideologies has to press the limits of the evidence. In comparison to historians of emancipation in the United States, for example, who can consult a relatively ample archive of oral history and literature, Cape historians can draw on very few interviews with former slaves, and no diaries of slaves. People at the center of bureaucratic, political, and economic power created the vast majority of the records available to the historian. Methodologically it will always be difficult to tell, at least in the public sphere of the Cape, when a freedman articulated his own opinion and when he strategically invoked dominant discourses to secure other rights or advances.

The postemancipation reconstruction of the political economy of the slave-holding districts of the Cape Colony made the speech acts of freedmen highly charged political and cultural endeavors. Freedmen appear in the archives already to some extent bound and constructed by power relations of colonial knowledge. The colonial officers and settlers who adjudicated freedmen's statements "knew" that the men had been slaves, that they were from the margins of Cape colonial society. And freedmen knew this was how they were perceived, and their place in the socioeconomic order.

Embracing the ambiguity of the archives means acknowledging our limitations as historians. It also means acknowledging the political agency of freedpeople. Seeing freedmen as political actors helps reshape our understanding of the colonial encounter. Some of the more influential writings on colonialism in nineteenth-century South Africa have stressed the hegemony of colonial ideologies. Authors have concentrated on examining the ways that Africans adopted the cultural values of British mission culture in the nineteenth century. If we accept the political and cultural agency of the subaltern, then this hegemony of British culture seems a lot less secure, at least in the case of the Western Cape.

Historians of colonial societies in Africa and the Indian subcontinent have long recognized the bias of the archival record toward the activities and perspectives of the colonizer. They have uncovered different perspectives of the colonized through attention to practices, through the use of oral history, and through skillful reading between the lines to find evidence of subaltern views. This reading across the grain has resulted in some fine studies that take seriously indigenous perspectives and which refuse to resolve ambiguity.

This refusal to resolve the tensions in the evidence still needs to be more fully explored in studies of slavery and emancipation. Historians need to wrestle more explicitly with the problems posed by the apparent transparency of archival sources, rendering more problematic the claim implicit in "primary evidence" that it neutrally documents reality. We also have to engage with the increasing recognition that historical actors (that is, both historians and the people they study) engage in various forms of rhetoric and self-representation in different spheres. We cannot confidently proclaim a truth, for example, in postemancipation settings where freedmen became free in a political economy still dominated by their former owners. Rather we might ask, how did the colonized, and in this case, ex-slave men, employ a variety of discourses to gain a measure of security in the colonial order? How did freedmen engage politically in the postemancipation world? And, how do we as historians negotiate the ambiguity of the archival information?

Attention to the messiness of history, and to freedmen as agents rather than as subjects of history, forces us to recast the sites of political economy. Struggles over land, over who will own land and who will farm it on the share, become arenas for the elaboration and articulation of cultural and gendered identities. The speech acts of ex-slaves become crucial sites for examining both the social and political agency of freedmen and for investigating the limits of what we may say with any certainty. The speech act that primarily occupies us here is Cobus's statement to the widow Meers. Cobus had told the widow that he was no longer a slave, that he was "as good as she" and that he wanted to marry her daughter; he allegedly insisted "that he would have a white wife." This statement contains various features emblematic of emancipation relating to the meaning of liberty and new identities that it engendered. These include freedpeople's stress on the importance of marriage; abolition's creation of a new public sphere; and the significance of race in the emerging discourse of rights in the postemancipation setting.

One might interpret the statement as demonstrating Cobus's understanding of the ending of slavery in 1834 as a tremendous and significant event. While Cobus was legally now an apprentice, bound to work for his former owner for a period of four years, he knew that his status had forever changed with the ending of slavery. Full emancipation only came to the Cape on 1 December 1838. In saying that he was no longer a slave, for example, Cobus commented explicitly on his previous slave status and marked the transition between slavery and apprenticeship. He invoked his earlier status as a person without legal and social rights. In telling Meers that he was now "no more Slave ... as good as She is," Cobus contrasted his former status of being socially dead, in Orlando Patterson's phrase, with his new status as a free man.

Lineages of Masculinity

Multiple sources of historical experience and social understanding informed freedmen's understanding of masculinity in the rural Western Cape in the nineteenth century. These contexts included the African societies on the west and east coasts of Africa; the experiences of bondage; as well as the quasi-European slaveholding culture of the Dutch-speaking settlers, with its strong ideologies of patriarchal control. While up to the late eighteenth century, the Dutch East India Company had predominantly sought slaves in the Dutch East Indies, increasingly the Dutch turned also to East and West Africa. From 1808, the British also introduced Africans "rescued" o other countries' slave ships. The British brought some 2,100 Africans, known as "Prize Negroes," to the Cape between 1808 and 1816, most of them from Madagascar and Mozambique.


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Meet the Author

Pamela Scully has a joint appointment in the Department of Women’s Studies and the Institute of African Studies at Emory University. She is the author of Liberating the Family? Gender and British Slave Emancipation in the Rural Western Cape, South Africa, 1823–1853.

Diana Paton is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Newcastle. She is the author of No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780–1870 and the editor of A Narrative of Events, since the First of August, 1834, by James Williams, an Apprenticed Labourer in Jamaica, both also published by Duke University Press.

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